"YOU HAVE A GHOST ATTACHED TO YOU," Marisa Santos tells me matter-of-factly. We’re standing in what she calls her “healing casita,” nestled into a quiet neighborhood in Albuquerque’s South Valley, examining an egg she’s cracked into a glass of water. She traces the unusual contours of what looks like a jellyfish taking a nosedive, whitish tendrils streaming upward from a golden yolk.

The egg cleanse, or limpia, is a curandera ritual to remove negative energy and reveal blockages. For the past 20 minutes, Santos has rolled the intact egg all over my body, working it from the top of my head into my armpits and down to the soles of my feet before gently brushing me with carnation blooms and parsley sprigs for purification.

Although this is my first limpia, I’m somehow not surprised to see the egg-white spirit she’s describing. I’ve been emotionally wrestling with the death of someone close to me. The person—a man I knew—died suddenly and violently, Santos tells me. “He’s hanging around because he wants to be sure you’re okay,” she says. It’s not a regular occurrence to have a ghost attached to a person, she adds gently, and if I want to be free of it, she can guide me.

Michelle Rios Rice burns copal in her healing room off NM 14.

“IT SEEMED THE MORE I KNEW ABOUT PEOPLE THE more I knew about the strange magic hidden in their hearts,” Rudolfo Anaya writes in his 1972 novel Bless Me, Ultima, fiction’s most famous depiction of a New Mexico curandera. Driving away from Santos’s house, I reflect that the deeper I dive into the idea of what contemporary curanderismo looks like, the more significant this line becomes.

“It resonates from the plains of Texas to the deserts and mountains of New Mexico,” Eliseo “Cheo” Torres writes of curanderismo in his book Curandero, “from the Yucatán Peninsula to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado—and beyond.” In 2000, Torres began teaching the traditions of the Mexican folk healers he grew up with in South Texas to students at the University of New Mexico, where he served as vice president of student affairs for 25 years. A two-week summer course, Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine Without Borders, has been offered at UNM ever since—the first of its kind at a U.S. university.

Eliseo “Cheo” Torres and Mario Del Ángel Guevara teach curanderismo at the University of New Mexico.

“In New Mexico, a lot of people are reclaiming what they heard from their grandparents or their great-grandparents,” Torres says of the course. He teaches what he describes as a culturally diverse practice stemming from the Southwest, Mexico, and Latin America that includes several aspects rolled into one: plant medicine, faith-based healing rites, intuitive consultation, doula work, and supernatural exorcism. The curanderismo class, which regularly enrolls around 200 students, brings local and international healers who visit the class and lead guest workshops. Besides limpias, the curriculum includes aspects such as intestinal blockage (empacho), laugh therapy (terapia de la risa), shawl alignment (manteada), and the use of medicinal teas, tinctures, and other herbal remedies.

“We see it from a global perspective of traditional theory,” says Mario Del Ángel Guevara, co-director of UNM’s curanderismo program and assistant professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies. “New Mexico has roots in curanderismo just like many other countries and many other places. With the curanderos we work with, all of them have traveled here to reclaim what has been lost here and revive it.”

At the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden, El Jardin de la Curandera greets visitors with a purposely gendered sign. “From historic to more recent times, nearly every New Mexican village supported a resident curandera, a traditional healer, more often a woman than a man,” the stone placard at the entrance to the garden reads. “Her remedies were a synthesis of Old and New World cultural beliefs and herbal remedies.” Built around Reynaldo “Sonny” Rivera’s bronze sculptural homage to Bless Me, Ultima, the abundant Curandera Garden showcases native medicinal plants such as butterfly weed, yerba mansa, and echinacea, as well as everyday culinary herbs like lavender, rosemary, and oregano.

“We have the modern medical system, which is doing its thing in a real specific way. But what if you have an emotional or spiritual crisis going on, something that modern medicine can’t deal with?”

—Ethnobotanist Tomas Enos

“People should have this understanding that plant medicine can be very simple and easy to access,” says Maria Thomas, curator of plants at the Botanic Garden. “Like holy basil tea for headache—that’s just an elegant solution, and maybe you’ve got it all over your backyard. It leaves your stomach feeling better than ibuprofen.”

“These plants actually work,” adds Antonia Montoya, a curandera who leads the UNM curanderismo students on educational walks through the garden. Montoya, who studied with well-known Albuquerque healer Tonita Gonzales, says absorbing the wisdom of plants involves as much of a careful education as it does a curious mind. “Tonita always says to pay attention to what naturally volunteers, just plants itself near you. That has helped me to learn a lot about different plants,” Montoya says, recalling a year when her yard inexplicably filled with wild lettuce. What do I need from this, she remembers asking herself, and how do I share it with people?

Marisa Santos's collection of herb-filled jars.

“The herbal part is so elucidating,” says Tomas Enos, owner of Milagro Herbs, in Santa Fe. “That’s what we used before modern medicine.” In a storeroom lined with herb-filled glass jars, he lays out his 30 years of experience as an ethnobotanist, which includes a doctoral dissertation on curanderismo and holistic healing, as well as botanical consulting work with NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Enos says curanderos have thrived in New Mexico thanks in part to the Unlicensed Health Care Practice Act, passed by the state legislature in 2009, which protects practitioners of traditional, cultural, complementary, and alternative health-care therapies.

Since the UNM course has invited healers from all over the world, including Africa, Enos says local curanderismo has become more dynamic and global in its nature. More healers are eager to share their medicine without concern about cultural appropriation. “I can practice curanderismo, and I’m not Hispanic,” he says. “But you can take that knowledge and make it your own. And that’s what happens with all the healing arts, right?” I flash back to Santos and her casita, where she also practices the Japanese form of energy healing known as Reiki.

“People are seeking out all possible forms of healing,” Enos adds. “We have the modern medical system, which is doing its thing in a real specific way. But what if you have an emotional or spiritual crisis going on, something that modern medicine can’t deal with?”

Michelle Rios Rice studied with a healer from Veracruz, Mexico, for eight years.

THE SKYLIGHT ABOVE MICHELLE RIOS RICE’S colorful healing room diffuses the late-afternoon sun into glittering dust particles and drifting sage smoke. In this haven off NM 14, near the village of Cerrillos, the curandera is not simply explaining the term susto—what UNM’s Cheo Torres defines as “magical fright”—to me. She is telling me about her dream in which she saw the susto occur to me, then showing me exactly where it lives in my body, and how she will remove it with an abdominal sobada, or prayerful massage. Soon, more pungent smoke wafts through the air as she prays over me, invoking the protection of the Archangel Michael and Our Lady of Guadalupe as well as my own personal spiritual guides.

Rios Rice was born and raised in Santa Fe, where she remembers the “very healing hands” of her Hispano-Apache grandmother performing ventosas, which share similarities with Chinese cupping therapy. “In those days, people used remedios, herbal remedies, for all kinds of things. People used to set bones, birth children at home, all kinds of stuff.”

Every curandera has a particular set of skills in their toolbox, and many choose a specialty. “My nana would do a particular massage in the gut area, the area of your organs,” she continues. “I was trained to do that.” Many healers perform pláticas, which involve a talk with the client about what’s troubling them. “It’s not counseling,” she explains. “It’s an alignment with the spirit, an alignment with the soul. That person reconnects to themselves and steps outside of the trauma or the issue. It’s a soul talk.”

Michelle Rios Rice practices curanderismo on a strict donation-only policy, eschewing the exchange of money for her services, just as her grandmother did.

Her elders knew early on that she, too, had the curandera gene. But like many contemporary healers, she pursued a formal education and holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in social work. “I don’t use it so much,” she says of her schooling. “When a person comes in, I’m looking at their very best. I’m looking at their essence, and I’m saying, This is who you are. I’m going to align you to your best.

Her cures can be rooted in very practical solutions. Rios Rice will sometimes diagnose a client with something as ordinary as a vitamin B deficiency. On my first visit to her healing room, she places a cup of oshá root tea in my hands to help with the respiratory virus I’m fighting. Her frank discussion of the traumatic event that she says has lodged in my gut reminds me of a particularly effective therapist, though Rice’s explanation is also imbued with a pure kindness that radiates from her eyes and inexplicably infuses me with joy. And unlike a therapist, Rios Rice practices curanderismo on a strict donation-only policy, eschewing the exchange of money for her services, just as her grandmother did.

Erica Vigil-Flores first studied nursing at the University of New Mexico.

Twenty-seven-year-old Erica Vigil-Flores began her healing practice via the modern route of UNM nursing school, focusing on hospice care. When she returned to her hometown of Chimayó, she also began studying curanderismo with Rios Rice. “Once they feel you’re ready, you ask for permission to carry the medicine out into the world,” she says of her mentors. “It’s a very beautiful ceremony.”

“My specialty is helping souls cross over,” she explains. “Whether someone’s spiritual or not, death always ends up being such a spiritual experience for the patient and for the family. There’s a lot of things that go on that are unexplained, and sometimes with Western medicine, the family and the patient are left curious and lost.” 

She sees her role as one of providing both comfort and education. “Any hospice nurse can tell you that when a patient dies, afterward you experience some supernatural things,” she says. “Almost every time.”

The curanderas’ intuitive candor—both Rios Rice and Santos tell me of events in my personal life I did not divulge to them—is disarming to me. But that’s not always the case. Rios Rice recounts one late-night phone call when a desperate man got in touch to seek immediate treatment, but only on the condition that five other men accompany him. “I’m like, ‘Dude! I’m a woman alone, and you’re bringing five men with you to come inside my healing room?’ But I knew it was harmless. They were norteños who had grown up with certain ideas about what a curandera is.”

Deanna Anaya began learning curanderismo as she healed her own trauma.

“And we are that,” she insists. “Most curanderas are going to have the gift of sight, or they can read your mind, or read your body, or they’re going to sense or dream something.” Years ago, when a wealthy woman gathered her friends for a spiritual retreat, she hired Rice to perform healing ceremonies. During the group session, the woman asked Rios Rice if she saw anything in her body. Although Rios Rice demurred, telling the client that she preferred to speak about the matter privately, the woman demanded she tell everyone, adding that she was paying the curandera for her insights. Rice told the client she had ovarian cancer, which was manifested by her despair that her husband was cheating on her. The woman persisted in pumping her for information, so Rios Rice reluctantly divulged that the husband had transgressed with the woman’s best friend, who was sitting beside her.

“She turned to her best friend, in front of her group of 30 women friends at this retreat, and said, ‘Are you sleeping with my husband?’ ” Rios Rice recalls. “And her best friend said, ‘Well, yes. How can I lie?’ I had to contain that mess,” she adds ruefully, underscoring her earlier pronouncement that healing gets muddied when money is involved.

Rios Rice, Santos, and Vigil-Flores all say that curanderas must first deal with their own susto—or “dark night of the soul,” as it is known in the Catholic mystic tradition—before they can heal others. When Santa Fe curandera Deanna Anaya sought out a local herbalist to help deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder, “I immediately felt a sense of protection and relief: This is my path. This is the first step.

Cheo Torres teaches the traditions of the Mexican folk healers he grew up with.

It took healing herself, acknowledging her trauma, and stepping into her ancestral roots, she says, before she could treat others. “A lot of people would not trust me if they didn’t realize I’ve been where they are,” she says.

The harrowing experience of a life-changing susto helps a person hone the power and focus that curanderismo requires. “I give them the motherly calm, the protection,” Anaya adds. A police officer who shot and killed someone came to her. “I need you to help get this off me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on.” Because the man suffered from PTSD, he refused to be blindfolded during the white-fire limpia she performed to rid him of his burden. She wisely cracked open a window in the room as she began.

“He saw something come out of him, go around the room, and go out the window,” she recalls. “He watched, and he asked me, ‘Are you afraid?’ ”

“I am not afraid of this,” she told the officer. “I have faith. That’s why I’m helping you.”

“And that is what Ultima tried to teach me,” writes Rudolfo Anaya in Bless Me, Ultima, “that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.”

Rios Rice, Santos, and Vigil-Flores all say that curanderas must first deal with their own susto before they can heal others.

SUSTO, A 2023 COLLECTION BY CURRENT SANTA FE poet laureate Tommy Archuleta, details the dark night of the soul he experienced while grieving his mother. As he and his father sorted her things after her death, they found a small homemade book of remedios.

Archuleta, who remembers childhood visits with his grandfather in the 1970s to a mystical-seeming herb shop in downtown Santa Fe, decided to incorporate the language of curanderismo into his poems. His reinterpreted remedios form the backbone of Susto. “Magical realism is a big part of my culture,” he tells me simply.

In “Remedio: Ocotillo (Candlewood),” Archuleta writes,

To forgive one’s life love for dying, pick the long, feather-
like, crimson flowers in early spring, when the desert is in
bloom. Boil in river water only. Let cool. Drink at once.
Drink when waking, at noon, and at bedtime each day for
three full weeks thereafter. If resentment persists, go to
your beloved’s grave daily and pray for forgiveness until
sound sleep and appetite return.

“There is no remedy for grief except to feel it,” he says. “But people were using herbs to cure themselves and each other way before there was travel. We start to see that some of these cures are all over the world, being used and prepared in the same ways.” People have told him his book itself is a remedio. And as a mental health and addiction counselor for the New Mexico Corrections Department, he has come to see himself as a healer of sorts, too.

“I see curanderismo as an act,” he explains, gearing up for a metaphorical scenario. “Let’s say you and I are strangers and we’re at a bus stop. You drop your pencil, and I pick it up and give it to you. And that might be the kindest thing that anybody’s done for you for a long time. And your heart moves. Or maybe your stomach and heart switch places, and they haven’t done that since you were a kid.”

“I think that’s curanderismo,” he continues. “Anytime we step out of ourselves and become selfless enough to help someone else.”

Read more: On the 50th anniversary of "Bless Me, Ultima," the first poet laureate of New Mexico reflects on Rudolfo Anaya’s novel and the oral tradition it sprang from.


Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine Without Borders is a course offered every summer for credit and noncredit UNM students as well as community members. The two-week in-person class runs June 10 to 21; a three-week online class is held July 9 to 26.

El Jardin de la Curandera, or the Curandera or Healer’s Garden, is located at ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden. Visitors are prohibited from collecting plant samples, but helpful information abounds at the Botanic Garden, and guided walks with docents are offered throughout the year.

Herbalists and curanderas recommend services and education offered by experts at Red Root Acupuncture & Herbs, in Albuquerque.

In addition to summer classes held in conjunction with the UNM curanderismo course, Santa Fe’s Milagro Herbs offers an Early Spring Medicinal Plant Walk on April 20 at 10 a.m., $65. A class on Wild Spring Edibles for Food and Medicine takes place April 24 at 5 p.m., $65.