My Ancestors Were Curanderas in the Texas of New Spain

From the 1500’s to the early 1800’s in Northern Mexico and what is now the American Southwest strong industrious optimistic Jews thrived in Colonial Mexico as merchants peddlers salesmen soldiers farmers and even as slave agents Like their ancestors in Spain Jewish women were merchants or moneylenders but very often they were midwives

In New Spain Jews shaped their neighborhoods as sanctuaries or extended families against outside hostility To help ease pain some Jewish women became midwives When opportunities were available they became practitioners revealing resourceful and courageous qualities described as masculine The zealous Isabel Rodriguez probably Jewish was the wife of a soldier She arrived in Mexico shortly before 1521 and attended wounded soldiers during the Conquest of Mexico 15191521 Impressed with her medical talents the crown licensed Rodriguez to practice medicine in Mexico She probably was the first doctor in the Americas

In 1525 Mexico received another Spanish physician Diego Pedraza who also was probably Jewish Then the barbersurgeon Francisco de Soto followed in Pedraza’s footsteps and taught blood bleeding and cutting limbs without painkillers that shocked the Aztecs Regardless of discrimination these Indians added to the regional knowledge of medicine when it came to gastrointestinal ailments respiratory diseases fevers dermatology healing ointments heart troubles anesthetics and so on

In most Jewish communities children born in wedlock in remote areas were considered a blessing by their parents They fulfilled the biological need of women to reproduce and the yearning of all humans to see mirrors of themselves They also provided companions and the desire for objects to love and care for Children also aided a family during sickness or in harvest season and in old age’

Nearly every woman gave birth at least once during her lifetime; the heiress the great lady the prostitute and the actress were all equal in this respect If a woman failed to give birth she experienced other forms of obstetrics It endured for the ageold curandera (midwife) to facilitate childbirth a skill passed on from mother to daughter and a tradition cherished among Jewish women Midwives were called upon to prove whether virginity had been lost or whether adultery had taken place Witches were consulted by local curanderas to discover “devil’s marks” on their chests and on their lower stomachs The Mexican Inquisition investigated women accused of witchcraft (Women might escape punishment if they were pregnant) Ironically some curanderas suffered from witchcraft charges

Most medical practitioners in Colonial Mexico were Jews Curanderas were sometimes seen as unprofessional and ignorant Some conservative Jews even frowned on Jewish midwives as witches with their herbs With their ability to read Latin males gained more knowledge of medicine and anatomy than the average woman Yet conventional medicine knew little about germs while curanderas believed in washing their hands and emphasized sanitary procedures when cutting the umbilical cord washing and salting the babe and wrapping the newborn child in clothes The Jewish midwives actually gained their knowledge of sanitation from the Law of Moses2

Unlike respectable midwives in Germany Mexican curanderas were never licensed by the state Professional conflicts between midwives and doctors were resolved by education Although formal learning was forbidden to women these healers knew about herbs as sedatives painkillers or even as cures for infectious diseases healing broken bones and suturing Their wisdom came from experience from trial and error with potent plant remedies from methods passed down from generation to generation Their advice often meant the difference between life and death
Some herbs corrected hypertension while in stronger dosages they became poison Unlike other healers in other lands these curanderos had at their disposal an assortment of narcotic plants and fungi which had been used since remote times Even garlic was used as antibiotic and had antifungal effects that combated hypertension

Like the Aztecs and the Mayans these curanderas utilized chocolate as a remedy for fevers and an ailing stomach for the nerves and to soothe the heart Jews loved it with vanilla honey cinnamon and other spices They sipped it while fasting and drank it with both meat and dairy products Women drank chocolate to regain their spirits after childbirth Lavish cake and chocolate were popular at a traditional Jewish wedding On the other hand some authorities like a bishop of Chiapas detested chocolate as a vice

In studying my family’s genealogy I discovered a Jewish ancestor a midwife Petronila Gertrudis Galan was born on May 7 1748 This restless lady was married on June 5 1768 to Jose Antonio Cervantes y Vela a prosperous merchant He appreciated her intelligence Like other women the secretive Petronila led a quiet domestic life and her family was the center of her world She stayed close to her younger sister Mará­a Encarnación
To master medicine and avoid the drudgery of their households together the diligent Petronila and the studious Mará­a Encarnación continued to cultivate an extensive apothecary They studied herbs and used plants to treat ailments ranging from respiratory ailments to insomnia and colds They also applied potent herbs as painkillers when suturing wounds These Jewish women also were beekeepers Bee stings combated arthritis Cough medicines stomach problems and laxatives contained honey Curanderas applied a paste of salt and honey to wounds because honey prevented infections
Popular among Jews in New Spain since the 1600’s amin a broth was used for the sick and by women during pregnancy A regional alfajor consisted of bread honey and nuts to uplift patients The narcotizing Datura with its white flowers provided a healing ointment to serve as an antiseptic and a mild irritant

Peteronila disliked needlework and devoted herself to her clinic where she worked by candle light amidst a lingering perfume of incense She refused to accept money for her skills and her family persuaded her to devote her time to her medical services On May 20 1790 one of her daughters was married With gifts and baskets of food the community attended the wedding since Petronila was as their closest confidant and labored tirelessly on their behalf Family tradition affirmed that Petronila worked as a dedicated midwife along the Lower Rio Grande far from the critical eye of authorities who loathed her and other midwives as witches In case they came to see this cautious Petronila on one table she had the Old Testament for her Friday candles and on the wall the image of Mary In her later years this zealous lady suffered a slight stroke Seeing a shooting star she told her family “That is an omen of my death” Petronila died on August 7 1 8095

Her sister Mará­a Encarnación Galan was born on September 15 1755 She became a midwife after she lost a baby two months after his birth Her stubborn faith comforted those who suffered agonies of doubt over their spiritual fitness Unofficially she was a rabbi since rabbis were scarce As for Mará­a Encarnación she died in the early 1800’s6

The task of these midwifes like Petronila and Mará­a Encarnación was complicated because they lived far from the centers of civilization When they had no horses they walked and their shoes were worn to shred Facing the Indian menace they traveled by boat up and down the Rio Grande to see patients and friends Since Petronila and Mará­a Encarnación were from the influential Jewish family of Tomas Sanchez who established Laredo church authorities never questioned them Because adequate medical help was scarce rural curanderas were left alone They relied increasingly on their own observations and on herbs and less on archaic medical wisdom of the era Still Mexican midwives faced hardships much like those described in the English pamphlet The Midwives Just Complaint echoing a similar complaint on September 22 1646 “Whereas many miseries do attend upon civil wars nothing was worse than the gross interruption to their trade: For many men hopeful to have begot a race of soldiers were there killed on a sudden before they had performed anything to the benefit of midwives” This development was lamented: “We were formally well paid and highly respected in our parishes for our great skill and midnight industry; but now our art doth fail us and little getting have we in this age barren of all natural joys and only fruitful of bloody calamities”’
A gynecological invention of the seventeenth century the forceps was used for difficult and prolonged childbirth labor The infant could be skillfully delivered without damage to either mother or child Before the advent of forceps crude instruments were employed At times pothooks packneedles silver spoons thatcher’s hooks and knives were used to help deliver the baby

Most curanderas became midwives after a difficult delivery with one of their own children They helped laboring mothers understand birth They avoided many of the crude old European childbirth practices and sometimes used Aztec traditions like washing and massaging the mother in a steam bath and later turning the fetus by external manipulation when necessary Curanderas provided physical emotional and informational support for women before during and after childbirth Giving birth alone was dangerous to the young mother The curanderas applied massage and relaxation techniques and other methods to soothe mothers Later the mother assumed the common squatting position for delivery The custom of lying down during childbirth sometimes caused a slower birth and required more pushing This could deprive the baby of oxygen To hasten birth Jewish curanderas repeated biblical verses and offered herbal drinks The scholar Gordon Schendel noted that these medical practices “were far advanced over their counterparts in Europe in that they made some attempt to achieve an aseptic field during childbirth”8
After birth if the woman was ritually unclean due to blood her husband could not physically touch her until she stopped bleeding Those of Jewish background in these remote areas believed the Bible’s rules that blood from sexual organs rendered a person ritually unclean
Extracts of various healing ointments and mercury were applied as medicine for syphilis Swollen and painful parts were lanced cleaned and anointed with strong narcotic herbs Jewish curanderas such as Mará­a Encarnación Galan treated broken bones and Indian arrow wounds Measles mumps smallpox typhus and tuberculosis were a menace in Northern Mexico “Those who suffered most were the elderly and more so women and young people who had not yet reached juvenile age”9

Although some Indians like the Toltecs and Aztecs were circumcised with a sharp mussel shell curanderas refused to circumcise as a precaution to avoid infection Decisions against circumcision were made to prevent serious complications which could be fatal and to avoid detection from the Inquisition This distaste was based on a Hebrew law that denounced pagan practices such as tattooing and cutting the flesh In time a symbolic circumcision remained a ceremony for children This ritual was revived in the late twentieth century among liberal Jews of the Reform Movement
Death sometimes occurred regardless of careful practices When the child or mother died at birth midwives flushed and washed the bodies Jewish or Gentile curanderas during a birth wore amulets or relicarios (lockets used for the safekeeping of relics) believing they would bring about a safe delivery Special prayers were used for a stillbirth to comfort the distressed mother Always facing hardship and heartbreak Mará­a Encarnación carried a relicario to comfort herself Her sorrow deepened when one of herown children died at birth

The Mexican Inquisition remained suspicious of unusual midwives and their patients Jewish women who gave birth wore relicarios containing Torah scrolls or other religious items disguised as Catholic devotional miniature pendants They were decorated with motherofpearl silver gold or brocade circular Sometimes a plain amulet was pulverized and ingested in an herbal drink They might use scapulars (small squares of cloth containing religious imagery) to honor the Virgin or other saints Jews also hid Old Testament verses or family prayers in these amulets or scapulars”

Since at this time it was not the custom for men to be midwives women like the Galan sisters dominated the medical field along the Lower Rio Grande and in remote parts of Northern Mexico Even in Europe it was not acceptable for men to be midwives A Dr Wertt in Hamburg German was burned at the stake for his having dressed as a woman so that he might attend a labor in order to experience it firsthand Even in 1793 one SW Fores a publisher and author denounced men who were midwives as evil and perverts’12

Always living in uncertainty in a world where prejudice had the upper hand Jewish curanderas like the Galan sisters nevertheless remained devoted to their communities With a profound commitment to stern traditional values these frontier women taught their children Jewish rites and prayers In the face of such bitterness their descendants took inspiration from their distant forebears who sometimes perished in the prisons of the Inquisition with greater fortitude than most men

Regardless of prejudice and persecution this curandera heritage survived “It was” declared Seymour Liebman “the will of God” The fate of these curanderas ebbed and flowed with the turbulent politics of the times They created a legacy that flourished and their descendants have cherished their solemn traditions into the twentyfirst century

End Notes
1 Gordon Schendel Medicine In Mexico: From Aztec Herbs to Betatrons (University of Texas: Austin 1968) 86 87; Seymour B Liebman The Jews in New Spain: Faith Flame And Inquisition (Coral Gables Florida: University of Miami Press 1970) 57 59 60 83 85 135 294 Some of Schendel’s medical analyses today are archaic
2 MCE Chambers The Life of Mary Ward 15851645 (London: Privately Published 1885) II 33
3 Schendel 5455
a Schendel 116119 130133 Liebman 79
s Francisca Reyes Esparza papers Box 1 File 10 Author’s Library On Esparza see the Handbook of Texas (Texas State Historical Association 1997) Esparza was related to the Galan sisters and did extensive research on them during the 1930’s and 1940’s On culinary traditions see Liebman 80 81
6 Francisca Reyes Esparza papers Box 1 File 11Midwives Just Petition: Midwives Just Complaint A Complaint of Divers good Gentlewomen of that Faculty; Showing to the Whole Christian world the just cause of their sufferings in these distracted Times for the want of Trading (London: JM Printed) January 25 1643 September 22 1646; also quoted in Antonia Fraser The Weaker Vessel (New York: Alfred A Knopf 1984) 440441
8 Schendel 53; Bernard R Ortiz de Montellano Aztec Medicine Health and Nutrition (New Brunswick New Jersey: Rutgers University 1990) 185
9 Daniel T Reff Disease Depopulation and Cultural Change in Northwestern New Spain 15181767 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah 1991) 142
10 Schendel 58; Lisa Braver Moss “The Jewish Roots of AntiCircumcision Arguments” Presented at the Second International Symposium on Circumcision” San Francisco CA April 30May 3 1991 Liebman 243
” Most of these religious pedants’ known as relicarios were attractive See Martha J Egan Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the Americas (Santa Fe New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico 1993) The Museo Nacional de Historia in Mexico City has one of the largest known collections of New Spain relicarios Also the Museo Franz Mayer Mexico City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Robert H Lamborn Collection have relicario collections See also Mary E Giles ed Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University 1999) 260 295
’2 Sherwin B Nuland Medicine: The Art of Healing (New York: Beaux Arts Editions 1992) 68

CARLOS LARRALDE received his PhD from UCLA in 1978 His dissertation was the controversial Chicano Jews in South Texas Since then he has taught in several state universities and published several monographs and articles on Hispanics in the American southwest He is a frequent contributor to HaLapid

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