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I Was a Mexican Folk Healer's Assistant

Everything I learned from my curandera.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by healers. No matter where I travel, my first question is always: "Where are the native healers?" I’ve had sessions with shamans and folk healers who rubbed a guinea pig over my body and read its entrails, spit alcohol and blew cigar smoke in my face, or made me sleep for days wrapped in newspapers or cabbage leaves. What all the healers have in common is that they consider unwellness — physical, emotional, spiritual — to be stuck or blocked energy, and they use various techniques to get it flowing again to restore balance and wellness.

Once, on assignment in Mexico, I heard about Juventino Rosas, a traditional town known for its healers. I bounced for three hours on a chicken bus to get there, and when I arrived was told that the best healer was Ana Maria del Villar.

Arriving at a healer’s home often involves ritualized frustration. This time, I stood outside an iron gate, alternately knocking and cowering from the ferocious barking of an unseen dog. Finally, I was ushered into the house.

No matter where I travel, my first question is always: "Where are the native healers?"

Ana, a plump, middle-aged Mexican woman appeared. Wearing a floral housedress and oversized glasses, she had a warm, gentle, earth-mother kind of face.

"I’d like a limpia," I said, referring to a Mexican tradition that was supposed to cleanse the energy field and eliminate negative influences.

"Come back in three days," Ana instructed me.

Three days?! I thought. Another ride on a chicken bus? That night, back at my hotel, I had a strange dream that included a Spanish word — "serpiente."

Three days later, I arrived back at Ana’s house. This time, Ana immediately led me into her private chapel or capilla — a rectangular-shaped room lined with beautiful, old, wooden Mexican string instruments, images of Jesus, and many candles. Ana beckoned me to stand on a large, inlaid stone cross. She burned copal (an aromatic tree resin) over smoldering coals in a ceramic incensario and smoke filled the capilla. I closed my eyes as Ana circled me, performing a limpia, waving herbs in the air and intoning a heartfelt prayer.

Afterwards, I told her about my "serpiente" dream. She burst into tears. Somehow, through gestures, words, and an old dictionary, I understood that her husband, Pedro, a famous healer, had died a year before. She was waiting for a sign from him, and that sign was the serpiente — the snake. Still crying, Ana retrieved a large, carved, wooden rain stick in the form of a snake from the capilla. She insisted I take it and said it was used during healings.

"We are connected forever," she said. "One day you’ll work with me as my assistant."

Six years later, after Ana’s daughter called to say her mother was waiting for me, I returned to Mexico to begin working as Ana’s assistant.

I told her about my "serpiente" dream. She burst into tears.

Every morning, Ana received clients. They explained their problems, which involved a complex combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual symptoms ranging from drug addiction to a swollen arm that didn’t respond to medical treatment; from depression to headaches to stomach pain to rage at a spouse’s infidelity.

Often, Ana prescribed herbal drinks, baths, and footbaths with ingredients like sarsaparilla, dandelion, and horsetail. Sometimes she recommended a medical doctor. For many clients, Ana performed a limpia, as she’d done for me, but this time she revealed the main herbs she used: sweet basil and pepper tree. She ran raw eggs over the bodies of a few, and showed me how to "read" the egg as she cracked it and plopped its contents into a glass of water. The way the yoke fell and the degree of cloudiness of the egg white indicated a person’s state of health. Sometimes Ana burned "velas," or little candles; each one represented different aspects of God, saints, portals to the spiritual world, the clients, and others who were causing them problems. Often the diagnosis was "envidia" — someone was envious or sending toxic energy; a limpia would remove that bad juju.

One day, Ana pulled out a shoebox with black, red, and green candles, explaining that they were used for black magic. When I cringed, she calmly explained although she only practiced healing and white witchcraft, there were many practitioners of the black arts, and these were some of their tools. They cast spells, hurt people physically and psychically, and dealt with the devil. "The dark forces are very powerful," Ana said, "and you must learn to recognize black magic and protect yourself." She showed me old peso notes that were singed and burned.

"Recently, a witch came for a consultation and gave me some money. After she left, the money spontaneously burst into flames."

Often, Ana prescribed herbal drinks, baths, and footbaths with ingredients like sarsaparilla, dandelion, and horsetail.

Then Ana showed me envelopes stuffed with hundreds of photos sent by people from around the world so she could practice long-distance healing.

"This is my way," she said. "I pray for them."

In the capilla each day, Ana instructed me about the candles, the eggs, the incense, the herbs, and prayers. I asked Ana why she didn’t use a snake rain stick for healing. She confessed that since she had given hers to me six years before, she had none. The next day, I took a bus to a nearby town and trekked from shop to shop, until I found a replacement rain stick. When I gave it to Ana, I expressed my desire to learn how to use it. She said nothing.

One morning, Ana ushered me into a taxi. For an hour we rode towards San Miguel de Allende, finally stopping at Santa Cruz de Puerto Calderon. We entered a small chapel where a curandera with sad, sad eyes greeted us. Four years before, the holy cross in the chapel, which had been there since 1531, was stolen. The woman said she hadn’t been able to sleep, drink, or eat normally since. After a deadly battle between natives and the Spanish conquerors in 1531, the natives saw the apparition of a holy cross in the sky, and understood the power of the religion to which the Spanish had tried to forcibly convert them. They set up the cross as a shrine and eventually a capilla was built there. "This place is a sacred portal," Ana whispered.

At our next stop, Ana instructed me to climb down a steep, rocky path that led under a bridge, where I saw the candles and paraphernalia of black witchcraft. The rocks had been charred black from smoke and candle-burning. And there were remnants of food on paper plates.

I took a bus to a nearby town and trekked from shop to shop, until I found a replacement rain stick.

"Is the food an offering to the devil?" I asked Ana as I climbed back into the cab.

She looked at me like I was stupid. "It’s food. To eat. Witches who work their spells get hungry too."

As we drove on, Ana explained that at every site where black witchcraft was performed, white witchcraft was also practiced. "The energy in these places is very intense, and can be used for healing or for harm. Pedro and I did limpias and brought flowers to cleanse the bad energy from these power spots."

Suddenly Ana grew intense. "We’re going to the village of Llanito now, and you must pay attention. There will be an all-night vigil andfiesta there on New Year’s Eve, and you must attend, without me. Indians come, pilgrims come, and many witches. You must stay up all night, and I will show you what to look for."

It was extremely windy and cold in the tiny, dusty, run-down village of Llanito. I became panicky, imagining being there all night on December 31st without Ana, without a car or a place to rest, and with limited Spanish.

Ana instructed the cab driver to stop at three different calvarios — stone altars or shrines with niches inside. Inside each were white candles that had been used by curanderos for healing, and black candles, black wax skulls, and miniature votives for harming children.

She looked at me like I was stupid. "It’s food. To eat. Witches who work their spells get hungry too."

"If they can’t get to the parents, they go after their children," she said solemnly.

The cab driver ran away, spooked.

"You must recognize these things and deflect their energy so they don’t harm you," Ana said.

The next day, Ana stood in an open courtyard behind her house, and held up the rain stick I had bought her.

"The time has come," she said. "First I had to prepare the rain stick, and I couldn’t teach you before that. Now you’ll learn to call down the power of the moon for healing."

She showed me once, and asked me to try. I fumbled, feeling like a fool. She showed me again and nodded that my gestures were correct. Then she whispered to me, "You’re on your own. You can do it. You’ve been ready for a long time. You’re now a curandera, with my blessings." I burst out crying.

On December 31st, in the early afternoon, I was dropped off in Llanito. Pilgrims — some of them crawling on their knees — had come to pray for healing at the church. It seemed odd that in the middle of such devotion and piety, there were also rides and food booths and an air of merriment.

"You’re on your own. You can do it. You’ve been ready for a long time. You’re now a curandera, with my blessings."

After several hours, I talked to a young taxi driver who invited me to his grandparents’ house and introduced me to his wife and young daughter. When he left the room for a moment, his wife grabbed my arm.

"Our marriage is so difficult," she said. "My husband had a terrible childhood. He turned to drugs and alcohol. We have a child now. We have so little money. My husband’s grandparents don’t want us living with them. If he’d stop using, I know we could make it on our own."

The driver entered the room, and dropped his head to his chest in shame.

I felt terrible for them — they were so young and so dear — and I invited them be my guests for New Year’s Eve: rides, food, whatever they wanted.

Late at night, all the revelers gathered in front of the church to watch Indian dancers in gorgeous feathered attire perform the Danza Azteca, a centuries-old ceremonial tradition. The wife, who was standing next to me, started crying, "We’re so lost. We need help." I knew what I had to do. I had no choice. It was almost midnight. "Would you like a healing?" I asked them. They both said, yes, they really needed a limpia, a healing and cleansing for the New Year.

And so it happened. At 11:45 P.M., I walked to the most powerful of the calvarios, carefully avoiding the evidence of black witchcraft, lit a white candle I’d purchased in the chapel, and began to pray over the couple. I prayed from my heart, using gestures and words Ana had taught me. I prayed and prayed and prayed.

The next day, I ran up to Ana. "I did it!" I said. "Just like you told me. I was a curandera on New Years Eve in Llanito. I did my best. I tried my hardest."

"I knew you would," she said, grinning. "That’s why I made you my assistant."

Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist, author, speaker, and workshop leader. She sometimes takes people on exotic trips with her. Her website is:

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