“Cuchita is the fourth generation of herb pickers in our family,” says Juana Bravo, 45, holding up a photo of her niece. “Look here: she was gathering medicinal plants in the mountains when she was only one and a half years old.” Maria de Jesus, called Cuchita, now 9 years old, still shares this same passion with her aunt. Today, after school, she joins Juana in preparing an antiseptic ointment with medicinal herbs harvested from the patio garden right outside their door.
Angahuan, a town of 6,000 people in the Mexican state of Michoacán, has several generations of indigenous P’urhépecha women practicing traditional medicine. Juana and Cuchita are part of this group of a dozen curanderashealers known for their use of herbal medicine and commonly called tsinajperi (“those who make life grow”) in the P’urhépecha language. They are also highly sought after for their midwifery skills and the traditional Mesoamerican massage technique called sobada.
Medicinal plants like gobernadora (also called creosote, Larrea tridentata), harsh (Ruta graveolens), prodigious (Brickellia cavanillesii), and nurite (Satureja macrostema) are at the heart of their cosmology and are cultivated on a small scale in their various patio-gardens called ekuarho. It is a traditional agroforestry system that combines timber trees, fruit trees, medicinal plants, vegetables and flowers into a group that grows well together, with each plant benefiting from the shade and moisture provided to it. offered in the dry climate. It’s like a small pharmacy always at hand, located just outside the kitchen, with herbs used in remedies for digestive problems, insomnia or pain.
The P’urhépecha are one of the 68 indigenous groups of Mexico, and traditional medicine is one of the main pillars of their culture, in which agroforestry plays a big role. But that heritage is now under threat from water shortages caused by climate change-induced drought and agribusiness: avocados are a lucrative export – 80% of Michoacan’s harvest is shipped to U.S. grocery stores – and their plantations dominate the landscape for much of the 40 kilometres. (25 miles) between Angahuan and the neighboring town of Uruapan.
“P’urhépecha women have a fundamental role in the richness of the preservation of indigenous territories: they are the guardians of the wisdom of plants used for medicine, rituals and food”, explains Rosendo Caro, director of the Forestry Commission of the State of Michoacán (COFOM). “Their heritage is threatened by the development of the avocado in the region. This activity consumes water previously used for ekuarho, degrades soils with agrochemicals and has long-term consequences on water resources.
Where is the water?
Juana’s patio garden contains several important P’urhépecha medicinal herbs such as the governora, epazote (Ambrosioid dysphania), Vicks Factory (Plectranthus hadiensis), poleo (Pulegium mint) and white horehound (Marrubium vulgaris). These are interspersed with edible plants like opuntia cactus and cabbage, which are used to prepare meals like atapakua mole and pozole.
“The ekuarho is a typical pre-Hispanic agroforestry system of the P’urhépecha population,” explains biologist Maria del Carmen Godínez. “At first it grew in the woods: people sowed maize with pumpkins, chili peppers and beans, taking advantage of forest products such as wood, medicinal plants or mushrooms. Then, after the conquest, they brought it to the population centers. Now it’s easier to find in backyards than in the woods. However, as the P’urhépecha communities grew in population, the ekuarho became fewer and smaller due to the fragmentation of properties.
In Angahuan, the ekuarho is still the center of daily life for the curanderas. Here they grow medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables, pine trees for building materials and flowers for everyday enjoyment. The women also take advantage of the shade of the patio gardens, share family moments or work on embroidery under the scorching sun.
But before the rainy season, the ground here is as dry as sand. “It is difficult to continue working as traditional healers with the water shortage which has worsened over the past five years,” says Juana. She wears the traditional P’urhépecha dress with a long pleated skirt, an apron and an embroidered shirt covered with blue and black striped shawls.
“During the dry season, we don’t have many plants, and sometimes they dry out. You have to wait for the first rains for everything to germinate,” she says. A peach tree recently died of thirst on the terrace, so her husband Nacho turned it into a table. But every morning, as soon as the first rays of the sun enter the garden, she waters her plants with a basin.
“I only use a little because we have to avoid waste,” she explains. “We only have running water every three days for one hour only, normally 8am to 9am, I use recycled water [and still] we have to buy gallons from stores to prepare ointments and essential oils.
A fourth generation legacy
Learning about traditional medicine from her grandmother, Victoria, is one of Juana’s treasured childhood memories. “We used to pick black cherries and herbs in the woods. But now fewer trees surround us due to the development of orchards and the sawmill trade,” she says. After growing up, Juana received professional training in Uruapan to help her community as a curandera.
“When I was young, all the women were weed pickers,” says Juana’s mother, Maria Teresa, 67. “At that time, we didn’t have a medical center in the village, it was the only option for us.”
Currently, there are fewer curanderas in Angahuan, but they are joined in their efforts by women like “Nana” Gracia Bravo, 57, a third-generation midwife and mother of five. Her house is a short walk from Juana’s, among street food stalls and shops selling everything from ice cream to jewelry. From early morning until evening, vendors advertise quick meals like pozole.
Walking the dusty streets, almost everyone knows Gracia. “Do you want a soft drink?” a couple of men tell him as they pass the shops. “It’s always like that,” Gracia said with a smile. “I have been doing this job for 40 years. When I walk down the street, sometimes people stop me and offer me a soft drink because I was supporting their mothers during childbirth.