Review-Borderlands Curanderos: The Worlds of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo by Jennifer Koshatka Seman

John A. Carranza //

In Borderlands Curanderos, Dr. Jennifer Koshatka Seman provides an extensive study of the healing careers of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedro Jaramillo. Both healers were born in Mexico before crossing the border to practice curanderismo, “an earth-based healing practice that blends elements of indigenous medicine with folk Catholicism” (1). Seman explains that these methods of healing brought together the body, mind, and spirit through God while also fulfilling believers’ psychological, spiritual, social, and health needs (5). Through the receipt of their don, or gift, both Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito (as he also came to be known) used their capacity to heal marginalized communities along the United States and Mexican border. Demonstrating the porous nature of the border, Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito amassed a following of devoted patrons that threatened the process of professionalization of medical doctors underway throughout the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.   

Seman’s portraits of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo are used to provide insight into the extent to which the US-Mexico borderlands region developed from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries as a result of three global developments: “the rise of scientific professional medicine; a spiritual movement heralding the progress of humanity through the ‘science of the spirits’; and nation-building projects that sought to expand and solidify borders…” and that brought citizens together as a singular national identity (11). These three developments created an environment that positioned Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito to rise to prominence as leading figures in faith healing and to face opposition from the physicians that were forming professional organizations to protect their practice and financial livelihoods.

Borderlands Curanderos is organized into two parts, each of which devotes two chapters to the lives of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedro Jaramillo. Treating each curandero on their own allows for a full analysis of the specific contexts in which they received their don and how they amassed their followings. Additionally, each part of the text allows for an important analysis of gender and memory in the ability to heal the faithful.

The first half of the book is devoted to Santa Teresa, whose notoriety was attained with her support of the Yaqui rebellion against Porfirio Díaz’s regime (1877-80, 1884-1911). The Díaz regime wanted Yaqui homelands for the purpose of Mexican state-building and economic development. Santa Teresa’s support of the Yaqui and other indigenous groups led to her christening as “Juana de Arco Mexicana,” or the Mexican Joan of Arc. Her ability to heal also contradicted Díaz and his cíentíficos who believed that Mexico’s direction should be influenced by observable science and reality. This extended to medicine and public health where they viewed any traditional practice as “backward” or “superstitious” (48). Santa Teresa and her father were exiled from Mexico into the United States where she continued to heal people on both sides of the border much to the consternation of the Mexican government. Santa Teresa eventually came to live and practice in San Francisco where her unique healing ability included laying her hands on her patients and manipulating magnetic currents or electric impulses while in a trance to cure them. Her practice was in the tradition of Spiritism and Spiritualism, which had found adherents in the United States, Mexico, and Europe and was about healing a person’s spirit and society rather than an individual’s ailments. Santa Teresa amassed a large following that reinforced her popularity among the faithful, which was then centered in Los Angeles when she went on strike with a number of Mexican workers for better wages.

In the second half of the book, Seman addresses the life of Don Pedrito Jaramillo, whose life was not as extensively documented as Santa Teresa’s, but who still left an indelible mark along the US (Texas)-Mexico border. Don Pedrito healed Mexicans and Tejanos (Texas-born Mexicans) along the border during a period in which Mexicans faced violence from Anglos and Texas Rangers and Tejanos were faced with forced removal from their land. Jaramillo crossed the border from Mexico and established his home at Rancho de Los Olmos, and before long adherents came from the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico to receive their healing. Don Pedrito wrote recetas, or prescriptions, on scraps of paper that had to be followed in the name of God and usually required water and local plant life. Don Pedrito did not charge for his cures, but followers gave him gifts that he distributed to the community. In 1901, Jaramillo faced allegations of fraud by the United States Post Office and the American Medical Association when the local postmaster maintained that he was receiving money for cures deemed to be fraudulent. Again, the medical community was protecting its financial livelihood and as a result sought to stamp out any practitioner deemed to be a charlatan. Jaramillo’s lawyer helped to evade the allegation since whatever money he received in the mail was not kept for his own gain, but distributed to the community. Jaramillo’s skills as a curandero were so great that when he died in 1907, the community came to mourn his loss. Since then, Don Pedrito has been revered as a saint along the border.

Borderlands Curanderos makes extensive use of archival documents to illuminate the lives of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo. Seman’s reading of these sources do not simply provide a biography of the curanderos, but instead examines the complicated political and medical contexts that each lived and practiced. Rather than depicting a singular curanderismo, the book demonstrates that its practice depended as much on the personal and community connections of the practitioners. Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito shared similar experiences in healing the marginalized members of society and contended with the increasing power of the medical community. The sources cannot tell us for certain whether these cures worked in the sense that readers expect biomedicine to work, and that should not be the focus of the book. Instead, readers ought to consider the extent to which social and cultural factors lifted practitioners of curanderismo to positions of prestige that focused on the community of marginalized people often caught in the process of state-building with little to no political power to wield on their own.

Borderlands Curanderos is a highly engaging read for anyone interested in the medical and health humanities, history of medicine, and US-Mexico borderlands history. Jennifer Koshatka Seman’s analysis is complex and multilayered, which leaves much for the reader to contemplate, especially if it were to be used for undergraduate and graduate courses. This book reminds readers of the power of folk medicine and the uses that communities make of it.

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