By Patricia Rivera & Mike Billington
By late afternoon, in a darkened second-floor room filled with religious icons, candles and cloth dolls, Wanda Morales has counseled an impotent man, a compulsive gambler, a heartbroken woman and someone complaining of stomach pains.
Morales, a woman in her 50’s with dark eyes, prays with her clients in this Hilltop row house in Wilmington. Sometimes she prescribes remedies from her first-floor spiritual pharmacy, crammed with candles, herbs, charms, oils and statues of saints.
“I help cure the ills that doctors can’t see,” she said.
Morales is one of many faith healers in Delaware. As the state's Latino population has swelled, so have the number of people who combine herbs, mysticism and religion to heal physical, emotional or spiritual woes of recent immigrants. While Latinos are far from the only ethnic group whose members sometimes turn to such healers, the tradition is particularly strong among those with Latin American roots.
Known as curanderas or espiritistas, such practitioners are common in parts of Mexico, Central America and other Latin American countries. Now their numbers are growing in Delaware, especially in Sussex County, where census figures show the Latino population grew by more than 1,300 percent in the 1990s.
Usually found by word of mouth, the healers form a sort of shadow health care network for people who are poor and uninsured, have entered the country illegally and fear having their status checked at mainstream clinics, or simply want to retain the Old World customs they brought from their homeland. And for many people, the curanderas serve as a supplement to mainstream medical care.
Gift said to run in family
Griselda Vasquez recently visited a curandera in Georgetown who came from her homeland of Guatemala. Vasquez’s husband, Juan Gabriel, who works in a Sussex poultry processing plant, suffers from a painful gall bladder and she hoped to find him relief. Doctors have been unable to help much, she said, and she has more faith in the familiar curandera.
“Her mother cured people in our town,” Vasquez said. “This is her daughter; she has the same gift.”
Vasquez has sought help from healers all her life. Back in Guatemala, when she couldn’t get pregnant for a second time, she visited the mother of the curandera she sees in Georgetown. She did the same when she suspected her children suffered the dreaded mal de ojo. The "evil eye" has no place in mainstream medicine, but curanderismo practitioners and their patients say it is caused by a person staring intently at someone else, usually with envy or desire.
Vasquez, a mother of three, is so knowledgeable about treatments that she, too, is turning into a practitioner.
“People know that I know about all this, so sometimes they bring me their children so I can treat them,” she said. "I don’t have a gift. I’ve just done it enough times."
Most curanderas, those who are the most respected healers, believe that they have received a gift from God and, as a result, they don’t charge set fees, said Richard Warms, an anthropology professor at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
“Rules for curing demand that you respond to all requests, avoid display of fear, solve your own problems, live a religious life, accept appropriate payment but do not fix prices,” he said.
Cost is a factor
Experts say the high cost of health care has helped foster a market for curanderas.
According to the latest Census Bureau figures, Hispanics are far more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be uninsured. About 33.2 percent of Hispanics nationwide carried no health insurance in 2001, compared with 19 percent of black Americans and 10 percent of non-Hispanic whites. About 18.2 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders lacked health insurance that year.
But a lack of insurance is only one reason people might seek out a curandera. For many immigrants, curanderas fill psychological and physiological needs that, because of language and cultural barriers, often go unmet in conventional clinics and hospitals.
“I know many people who avoid doctors at all cost, but do not think twice about consulting a wise person for a remedy or santiguo [a poultice, ointment or tea],” said Dr. Anabis Vera-Gonzalez, a former physician at St. Francis Hospital.
Others use a combination of mainstream health care and curanderas - seeing doctors for their physical ailments and curanderas for ailments you might not find in a medical dictionary.
Like most curanderas, Morales sees illness as something affecting a person’s mind, body and spirit.
Dozens of people each day enter Obatala’s Gift Shop, the tiny storefront Morales opened in 1992 amid row houses on Fourth Street. Marta Ramirez, 29, sought help recently because she’s having problems conceiving. She said her gynecologist can’t find anything wrong with her. The Wilmington house cleaner suspects her husband’s ex-girlfriend jinxed her.
“I don’t know who else I can turn to for this type of help,” Ramirez said.
Other immigrants, who may seek help for physical ailments, simply don’t believe in conventional medicine.
“Many of the people here come from areas where that is the only system they knew. They still have a strong distrust of modern medicine,” said Suzanne Austin Alchon, a University of Delaware historian who has studied disease in Latin America.
Many Latino-owned stores carry rows of oils, herbs and candles that are part of the folk remedies.
“People come in here asking for stuff that they used back home,” said Victor Rodriguez, who owns a market in Wilmington. His top sellers include manteca ubre de vaca (fat from a cow’s udder), aceite de ballena (whale oil), and yodo (iodide). Candles with images of saints also are very popular, he said.
Sister Maria, a Catholic nun who works at La Esperanza Community Center in Georgetown, said many Guatemalan immigrants she knows prefer herbs over prescription drugs simply because they’re more accustomed to them.
“We haven’t heard of any problems; if anything, people have been cured with the natural medicine they receive,” she said.
That’s not always the case, however. Curanderismo gained national attention recently after the death of a Salvadoran immigrant in Southern California. He allegedly received a lethal injection of steroids from a so-called faith healer.
State officials said they had not received any complaints about curanderas in Delaware. Valerie Watson, director of the Division of Professional Regulation, which licenses professionals in the state, said curanderas are not required to have a state health license to practice.
Most healers know limits
Vera-Gonzalez said neighborhood healers, who typically believe their powers are granted by God, usually are aware of their limitations - and the limitations of their patients. If the healer doesn’t get results, he or she will often refer the patients to doctors, saying either that their own faith, or the patient’s, may not be strong enough to bring about a cure.
Dr. Carlos Duran, director of the Special Care Nursery at St. Francis Hospital, agreed that curanderas can in some cases be helpful to physicians. But if the curandera is not working in concert with a physician, Duran said, some health conditions can needlessly become dangerous, especially when relatively minor symptoms are masking something serious.
“The average person is not going to be able to know that and so the curandera could treat the patient for something mild that is actually serious,” Duran said.
Morales said the first question she asks clients is whether they have seen a doctor. "If they say ‘no,’ then I tell them to make an appointment with a doctor, then we’ll talk,” she said.
Curanderas often offer comfort and time that conventional physicians cannot provide, and they often become friends with clients, said Vera-Gonzalez.
Ernesto "Tito" Boyrie, for instance, has epilepsy. At one point, his seizures were so frequent and strong that he said he couldn’t work or live a normal life. Two years ago, shortly after arriving in Wilmington, a friend took him to Morales.
“I needed help, and as soon as I saw Wanda I felt as if she was my friend and I’d known her for years,” said Boyrie, 45.
Morales prepared a cleansing bath with herbs and oils. She also instructed Boyrie to wear five beaded chains, each representing a different saint. They talk regularly about his progress.
“I’ve never felt better or stronger,” he said.