Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health

Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health


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"An autobiographical account of how a psychiatric nurse specialist became a folk medicine healer; this also explains the origins and practice of one of the oldest forms of medicine in the New World."—Kirkus.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585420223
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/22/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 76,274
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elena Avila (1944-2011) is the author of the national bestseller Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. Before becoming a spiritual counselor, Avila studied nursing and psychiatric nursing. In addition to her book, Avila also wrote poetry, plays, and gave lectures throughout the United States. 

Joy Parker is the coauthor of several books including Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path, and The Sound of the Earth: A Man’s Mid-Life Passage and Spiritual Awakening.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a poet, trauma specialist, and Jungian psychoanalyst most recognized as the author of Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. She is also a spoken word performer and has performed with Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison.

Read an Excerpt

Woman Who Glows in the Dark

I woke up to my illusions,
And now I can't sleep.

I have no desires,
and now I can't eat ...
what you dish out to me.

I'll stay awake forever if
I have to.

I live in the crack of an egg—
in the space between galaxies
and earth mud.
Along the thin borders
of enlightenment and

I saw through the smoky mirror,
and my third eye winked at me!

Time is an illusion,
and eternity lives
in the cracks of everything
that is dualized.

I like living
in the middle of
and gray is my color
in black/white.
I'm cozy in the nucleus
of past/future and ...

I am the ember seed in
I am
Woman who glows in the dark.

I'll stay awake forever
if I have to.

— Elena Avila

Chapter One


Health Care for the Body and Soul

Curanderismo treats problems that are recognized as illnesses in Western medicine, as well as many that aren't. I have treated people with eating disorders, diabetes, heart problems, cancer, chronic back problems, hypertension, and just about anything that a medical doctor treats. I have also worked with people who were struggling with shyness, self-consciousness, a broken heart, bad luck, a wish for greater prosperity, nightmares, envy, loneliness, rage, anxiety, family problems, marriage problems, sexual problems, infertility, how to find a partner, or how to leave a partner.

    Someclients come to me saying that they have no ambition and don't know how to find the energy to get ahead in their careers. Others come because they are collapsing under the stress of too much ambition. Patients have sat in my treatment room and told me that they have lost faith in life and need a cure for hopelessness. Others come with health problems that they feel are not being adequately treated by their medical doctors. By coming to a curandera, they are acknowledging that medical science can take them only so far, and that some diseases will only heal when the wounds of the heart and soul have been healed as well.

    More and more people today are using the services of both a medical doctor and a curandera. I see people in my treatment room diagnosed with gastrointestinal disorders, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and migraine headaches, among other illnesses. Some of them come to see me because they would like to try a more holistic approach in their treatment. Some feel uncomfortable with the side-effects of the medication they are taking and want to know if there are alternative therapies, such as herbs. Many do not really understand their illness and complain that their doctor does not take enough time to educate them. As a trained nurse and curandera, I explain the nature of their problem and how it is manifesting in their individual physiology. I refer them to articles, books, and Internet Web pages that talk about their disease, and tell them what their alternatives are for treatment.

    I occasionally see clients who are in denial about their illness, and hope that a curandera will give them a more acceptable diagnosis. Some clients want to believe that the strange behaviors and thoughts that they or their loved ones are producing are the result of a curse. I have seen many people diagnosed with the chemical imbalance of schizophrenia who are frankly psychotic but want to believe that they are sick because someone has put a hex on them. I have assisted many of these individuals by helping them accept their illness and find creative ways to live their lives.

    It is always a challenge and a source of great satisfaction for me to search for ways to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of all of these people. Not everyone is willing to dedicate himself to the time, education, and hard work that it takes to become a whole, healthy person, but I have witnessed the transformation of hundreds of clients who came to me with very serious emotional and physical diseases. Curanderos love to see miracles happen—but we and our clients have to work hard for our miracles, cocreating wellness together.

"Folk" Diseases

To really understand curanderismo, it is necessary to look at the way that curanderos categorize disease. Any book or academic study of curanderismo always lists certain "classic" illnesses, so we will take a look at all of them here. In the last few decades, however, curanderismo has gone through some changes. Like any form of health care, it has not stood still in the modern world. Some conditions, such as susto (soul loss), envy, and bilis (rage) are still treated often by curanderos. Other disciplines, such as the work of the partera (the midwife) are seldom used in the U.S. since the advent of the widespread use of modern hospitals and birthing centers. Parteras still catch babies and attend to the pre- and postnatal care of women in rural Mexico and Guatemala, but no longer in the U.S. border towns. What we can learn from the few vanishing specialties of curanderismo, however, is their holistic wisdom about the care of the whole person, body and soul.

    Curanderos treat physical diseases, such as bilis, empacho, and mal aire; mental diseases such as envidia, mal puesto, mal ojo, and real suerte; and spiritual diseases such as susto and espanto. Let's take a look at each of these categories.

I. Physical Diseases

Bilis (rage) is caused by the excess secretion of bile that floods the system when a person is suffering from chronic rage. This is certainly an illness that many people in modern society suffer from, and Western culture is rife with terms that describe it, such as "rage-aholic." This condition causes digestive problems and toxicity to the body, especially the liver, stomach, and intestines. A curandero cures bilis by relaxing the patient with massage, and prescribing soothing herbal teas and baths. In curanderismo, it is especially important that the patient be educated about the dangers of repressing anger and fear, and how to express anger in a healthy manner. Rage is destructive not only to a patient but to the rest of his or her family. If a parent is rageful, the children and partner can become sick with susto, soul loss. Rage can also lead to domestic violence and child abuse.

    When I was a child, my mother suffered from terrible attacks of bilis. Terrified of her anger, I used to hide on the back porch until it subsided. When my father drank, my mother would go into rages and they would have violent fights. I remember how frightening it was for my sisters and me to be yanked from our beds at night by my mother during one of these fights. We would have to go to a neighbor's house until the battle subsided. I hated my father's drinking and my mother's rage, and I can personally attest to their destructive effects upon a family.

    Later, when I was myself a mother and found myself reacting in rage to my own children, I would remember that scared little child that I'd been who hid under the house until her mother's bilis subsided. This memory would motivate me to work on my own bilis. I remember going into the bathroom and counting to ten when my son, Adrian, who was born with brain damage and mental retardation, was especially hard to handle. He used rage to get his needs met, and when he was upset, he would cry for long periods of time. I could not calm him, and it was difficult to manage the rage within me, born out of my frustration and feelings of inadequacy. Finally I sought the help of a healer who utilized a method that he called rage reduction. He showed me a technique for holding my son that facilitated a positive bonding experience that reduced the bilis in both of us. My work with this healer not only improved my relationship with my son but with the rest of my children as well. I incorporated this method into my own practice and have been using it successfully ever since. Adrian is now twenty-seven and we have a close and loving relationship. A few months ago he left home and now holds a full-time job and lives independently with four other young men.

Empacho refers to a blockage of the stomach or the digestive tract. It can come from overeating, food allergies, lactose intolerance, eating when not hungry, or eating hard-to-digest foods. Metaphorically, curanderos also use this term to describe any kind of blocks to the emotional or energy body.

    When I was a child, I often suffered from empacho. My mother warned me about eating uncooked tortilla dough but, since kids are famous for testing, I sneaked some anyway. Sure enough, I got sick with empacho. I also hated being forced to eat Cream of Wheat every morning. I could not leave the table until I had finished it. This was torture for me and, on several occasions, I ended up with empacho and vomited the cereal all over the place, which enraged my mom. My little stomach knew that foods we are forced to eat never sit well with us.

    One time when an Anglo girlfriend was making a cake and licked the bowl clean with the spatula, I was shocked. "Aren't you afraid of getting empacho?" I asked her. She did not know what I was talking about, and I was surprised that she had been eating uncooked dough since she was a kid and had never gotten a stomachache.

    The power of suggestion may be what influences some individuals to contract empacho, but almost everybody has had this condition at one time or another. Empacho can cause gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, and vomiting. The sobadora (massage therapist) knows how to massage the stomach and the lower back to unblock the empacho, and will prescribe different herbal teas, such as yerba buena (peppermint) and manzanilla (chamomile) to soothe the digestive tract. Avoiding empacho involves paying attention to how our bodies react to the things we eat, especially sugar, white flour, fat, spicy foods, chocolate, and coffee. Sometimes the foods that our minds love are not very well tolerated by our bodies.

    Codependent people can develop empacho of the heart from "loving too much." Women are especially susceptible to this form of empacho. When we lose ourselves in another person, an energy block develops that prevents us from growing emotionally. We can also get empacho from being around someone else's toxic energy. A common saying is "Me tiene empachado" ("He has me empachado," meaning "blocked"). Or a person can have empacho of the soul. For example, I had been wanting to write a book on curanderismo for years, but had not had the time nor the opportunity. My mind was so filled with information that needed to come out that I was suffering from a spiritual and emotional empacho that was blocking the energy in my soul. When a person is filled with ideas that she needs to express, or something that she needs to create, she must find an outlet for this energy or empacho may result.

Mal Aire (bad air) is a disease that manifests with cold symptoms, earaches, or facial paralysis, and is often caused by prolonged exposure to the night air. Children are especially susceptible to mal aire, and one of the traditional ways to avoid this illness is to make sure that very young children are swaddled tightly in blankets before taking them out at night. The customs that protect children from mal aire go all the way back to before the time of the Spanish Conquest in Mexico and reflect the fact that the indigenous tribes, including the Aztecs, knew that chilling the body made it more vulnerable to disease. These tribes were also aware that diseases were caused by airborne bacteria, even though they called these tiny organisms by different names. My Aztec teacher, Ehekateotl, told me, "The Aztecs knew that tiny particles in the air could make people sick. They did not understand about microbes so they called these particles spirits. These particles would go through changes and enter the body, making people sick, paralyzing the face, or causing colds. They would fly around the person and penetrate the body. This was over four hundred seventy-five years ago." Ehe explained to me how, even today, scholars misunderstand what the Aztecs at the time of the Conquest were really talking about when they translate the terms they used, and still use, for their medicine. "We approached illness holistically, and we did have our words, our language, to explain illness. We used our language and it has been translated inaccurately. Modern people fail to comprehend this." For example, when Indian women sang lullabyes to the Spanish children they cared for, singing, "Coco, coco," the Spaniards completely misunderstood. "Coco" means "the boogie man" in Spanish, while in Nahuatl it simply means "go to sleep." So, while the Indian women were singing, "Sleep so that you can rest and not get sick," the Spaniards thought they were saying, "The boogie man is going to get you if you don't sleep." We have to be careful when we translate from one language to the next because much can be lost in the process. The Aztec language is much more right-brain than Spanish or English, much more metaphorical.

    One of the most important things that Ehekateotl told me about the practice of swaddling a child with blankets to protect it from mal aire was that this was originally more of a metaphor for protection than a health rule that could not be broken. Wrapping the child in blankets was seen as a way of swaddling it with love and protection. I wish someone had told me this when I was a young woman, always trying to do the right thing for my children according to the traditions I had been raised with. When I was seventeen, I gave birth to my first child, Jamie. Nine months later, we moved to West Berlin to join my husband who was stationed there in the air force. My husband had to work long shifts, so I was on my own quite a bit.

    One day I noticed that Jamie had a high fever. I gave him baby aspirin, but it didn't seem to have any effect. He didn't want to wake up from his nap, and every time I touched him, he felt hotter and hotter. I felt so young, alone, and powerless. We lived off base and I did not speak German. I kept trying to reach my husband to ask for help, but when Jamie woke up and started having a convulsion, I couldn't wait any longer. I frantically phoned the army hospital and was told to bring my son to the emergency room. I called a taxi, wrapped my baby up with a blanket, covering his face as my mother had taught me to do to prevent mal aire.

    When I arrived at the hospital, the doctor took one look at my swaddled son, and began to yell at me, "Your son is burning up with fever. He just had a fever convulsion and needs to cool down. Are you trying to kill him? What is the matter with you people?" (meaning Mexican Americans). Completely humiliated, I felt as if I were a horrible mother. I hated my culture for almost killing my son, and I felt shame for believing in mal aire, in bad spirits that could harm a child when he was taken outside and exposed to the air. It was not the old belief about swaddling the child that was wrong, however. It was my misunderstanding of its real purpose.

    Later, when I was Director of Maternal/Child Nursing at R. E. Thomason General Hospital in El Paso, Texas, I started a teaching program for mothers and the nursing personnel. I explained to them the real meaning of mal aire, and the importance of cooling a child down with tepid water when he has a fever. I let them know that it is better to dress a child lightly until the fever goes down. I never want a mother to suffer the shame and guilt I felt when that doctor insulted me, or to make her child's illness worse by practicing incorrect beliefs about mal aire. I told my classes, just as I tell my clients who are mothers now, "We swaddle our children with love and protective intent."

II. Mental Diseases

The term "mental illness" means something different to a curandero than it does to a modern medical doctor, because curanderismo never treats the mind in isolation from a person's body, emotions, soul, and spirit. As a psychiatric nurse who has worked with the mentally ill for many years, I know from experience that this is exactly the kind of treatment that is missing in our mental institutions. Curanderos do treat medically diagnosed mental illnesses, but they always look at the patient's entire being. As a curandera, I often work with the mentally ill, helping them find a way to cope with their medications and become more stable emotionally. I educate their families on what to expect from these illnesses, and how to act and respond in ways that make life easier on everyone.

    Mental illnesses can be the result of either deep traumas or a chemical imbalance due to genetic factors. But a person does not have to succumb to his illness. He does not have to fall into despair and feel that his life is over. If a diabetic did not take his medication and follow his diet and exercise regime, he would get worse. The same is true of the mentally ill. Unfortunately many patients do not like the side effects of their psychotropic drugs and instead choose to suffer the hallucinations and paranoia that can occur when they do not take the drugs.

    My Aztec teacher, Ehekateotl, believes that if we can learn to generate enough energy by keeping our bodies healthy, we will also have the energy to keep our emotions and our minds as healthy as possible. If we can retain a strong spirit and soul, we can learn to live in greater harmony and balance with our afflictions, whatever they may be. I have learned much from the schizophrenics, manic, and depressed individuals with whom I work. Many of them have big hearts, strong bodies, and a strong spirit and soul. They respond well to the spiritual cleansings and soul retrievals I do with them, and to the education I give them. But most of all, they respond to compassion.

Table of Contents

Woman Who Glows in the Dark Introduction
In the Beginning
Chapter 1. Curanderismo: Health Care for the Body and Soul
Chapter 2. Doctora Corazón: The Training of a Curandera
Chapter 3. Tools and Ceremonies of a Curandera
Chapter 4. The Weeping Soul
Chapter 5. The Twisted Heart
Chapter 6. Apprenticeship: Student Teacher, Teacher Student
7. The Gods That Refused to Die: The Future of the Medicine of the People

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