Thursday, June 7, 2012

Medidas de confort

A stomach bug made its way through our house a few months back. It was likely something we picked up during our rushed trip to Knoxville for a great-aunt's funeral. Coming over to lend his ever helpful hand, my father in law diagnosed our illness as "old people germs". I have to admit that I discounted his observation at first; in my haze of dizzying nausea I thought it much more like that I was simply exhausted, dehydrated, and feeling the after-affects of bad hotel food. Later that night, however, as I began to regain a clear view of the world and prepare a lesson plan on traditional Mexican medical beliefs, I began to see some truth in his diagnosis.

I have always been fascinated by traditional healing and medicine. In my travels throughout Mexico and El Salvador I availed myself of traditional healers and readily accepted advice steeped in ancient beliefs quite different from the ones passed down to me by my parents. The sobador who massaged my twisted ankle (and ego) back to health after I slipped into a craggy San Salvadoran gutter two days into my first trip abroad...the KIIS program director who scolded me for wanting to buy an ice-cold paleta to sooth my raspy, catarro-ridden throat, offering me instead a bottle of lukewarm water...the Oaxacan curandera who after 20 minutes of ritual cleansing pronounced that I was affected by the aches and pains of having traveled quite far from home...these people have influenced my understanding of illness and healing over the years.

So, what can traditional folk medicine teach me about my family's post-travel stomach crud? Well, I'm pretty sure that any abuela worth her salt would diagnose our illness as empacho, a stomach ailment thought to be caused by soft foods sticking the lining of the stomach or intestines. Common symptoms include indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting or lack of appetite, just what everyone in my house has been complaining of for the last few days. Since empacho is considered to be a cold illness, appropriate treatments are those which warm the body: chamomile tea and massaging the abdomen to dislodge the stuck food, for example. In our case, extra sleep and home cooked meals proved to be the best cure, but I have to admit that heat was an important component to both of those.

More than anything, folk medicine can teach us to step back from life, take a break, and listen to our bodies. One of the most important part of a curandero's work is the platica, the chat. Part healer and part psychologist, curanderos think about illness as more than a compendium of physical ailments. To them, and many of the Hispanic folks I've known over the years, illness includes an important social dimension. From envidia to mal de ojo, the symptoms of physical ailments are often a clue to an emotional unbalance of some sort, best remedied by confronting that which is ailing you. In the end, sleep, rest, and being home cured our empacho; but I can't help but to wonder if didn't also help to clean the "old people germs" off of our great-Aunt's knickknacks and give them a place withing our home.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

From the headlines to home

The headline 35 bodies dumped on street in Mexico grabbed my attention yesterday. I tend to automatically read any article about the increasingly frequent mass murders that are happening in Mexico these days. I do this to be informed, maybe the victims were migrants and the story will inform my research in some way. I do this out of curiosity, where did this one occur, maybe I've been there. But mostly I do this because these articles give me a peculiar feeling of sad resignation that somehow reminds me of the Mexico that I haven't visited in awhile and miss terribly.

This particular article, however, hit home in a new way. These 35 bodies, tortured and found in the back of two trucks under and overpass on a Veracruz highway, were left in a place that I have been. In fact, I think it's pretty likely that I crossed that same highway on foot not far from the site where the bodies were left. Boca del Río, a coastal suburb of Veracruz, home to fancy gringo hotels and a swanky US-style shopping mall. It seemed to me an unlikely site when I ended up staying in the Crowne Plaza there for a few nights while visiting Veracruz for work in 2007, and it seems like an unlikely place for 35 bodies to be left today.

Mexico, to me, has always been a place of contrasts. A country composed of smells, sights, temperatures, and attitudes that hit up against one another and swirl around you in a funky cacophony that is at once shocking and comforting. I've always loved this aspect of Mexico, the way it forces me to question my personal comfort level and see beauty in seemingly appalling things. These killings that I can't stop myself from reading about embody many of these elements; even from 3,151 kilometers away, I  recognize the incongruity of tortured bodies piled next to a glittering shopping mall. The difference, of course, is that with these murders there is no beauty to see, no comfort to find.

My first instinct is to say that these stories are a sad reminder of why I haven't been to Mexico in over 3 years. I'm a mom now, I have too much to lose to travel to a place gripped by such violence, I tell myself over and over again. But really, what these stories tell me is that the Mexico I remember is fading, and quickly. I can only speak for myself of course, but my guess is that this is true for many Mexicans as well. The country is in an era of of transition, and I am sure that many Mexicans right here in Lexington are also reading these stories and wondering, with a sense of sad resignation, what happened to the place they thought they knew (and maybe haven't visited in awhile).