Healing Ritual
8:59 am
Mon March 31, 2014

The Last Curandera: A Generation Of Immigrants Says Goodbye To An Old Tradition

Esther Davilla's daughter, Maria Ortiz, receives a cleansing ritual from her mother where a collection of herbs and an uncooked egg are dipped in Orange Blossom fragrance and dragged across her forehead, arms and legs.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alisa Reznick

Skagit Valley is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants. Many make their livings working as farmhands. They've brought with them some of their traditions from their homeland. But as the years pass and younger generations move in, some of those traditions die off. One Mexican family in Burlington is trying to keep an old ritual alive.

A Traditional Mexican Healer

It’s about six in the evening on a Sunday at the Ortiz’s house. There’s the low murmur of a Spanish-language telenovela coming from the television in Esther Davilla’s bedroom. She’s resting, preparing to do something most people aren’t familiar with nowadays.

The smell of orange blossom spills from the kitchen. Davilla’s daughter Maria Ortiz rummages through cabinets, searching for the ingredients Davilla has requested.

In a few minutes, she’ll perform a cleansing ritual on Ortiz.

Esther Davilla gathers an egg, sprigs of mint and rosemary in preparation for a traditional Mexican cleansing ritual she's performing on her daughter.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alisa Reznick

Davilla is a curandera — a traditional Mexican healer who uses herbs and prayer to cure ailments. People travel miles for her services in Guadalajara, Mexico, where she lives during half the year. Back home, she performs the cleansing ritual three or four times a day.

But here in Burlington, people don’t come around too often.

She’s just under five feet tall and barely 90 pounds. She has weathered cheeks from the Guadalajara heat and hands knotted from years of massaging the backs of her patients — another part of her healing practice.

Now, Ortiz appears with the ingredients, and Davilla’s bed becomes a surgeon’s table: a puddle of orange blossom alcohol, a neat pile of mint and rosemary sprigs, and an uncooked egg.

They sweat a lot, they sweat all the bad stuff out.

She’s ready.

The room goes silent, and Esther takes a long inhale before beginning a quiet prayer in Spanish.

Her eyes drift closed and open as she drags the egg and the alcohol-dipped herbs from the top of Ortiz’s head to the bottom of her feet. She does this again and again, her movements careful and deliberate.

After only a few minutes, it’s over.

The ritual doesn’t really have a name, not that Davilla recalls. But she’s done it for as long as she can remember, like her mother, grandmother and everyone before.

Eighty-four-year-old Esther Davilla splits her time between Guadalajara, Mexico, and Burlington, Wash., where her daughter Maria Ortiz lives. She's been a traditional Mexican healer, or curandera, for most of her life and still has a large following back home in Guadalajara.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alisa Reznick

Ortiz says her mother’s ritual is a solution to what she calls “getting scared.”

“When [people] get scared, they get a fever, they vomit — you can tell,” Ortiz says. “They don’t want to eat, they don’t want to sleep, they’re just crying and crying.”

Ortiz says that sometimes, when someone is haunted by something like a car accident or a death, the spirit leaves the body. To make it return, Davilla performs the ritual.

As Ortiz explains, Davilla jumps in. Ortiz nods silently and translates her mother’s Spanish: “They sweat a lot, they sweat all the bad stuff out.”

And then, she says, they cure themselves.

Read: Alisa Reznick's report for The Seattle Times, "Wenatchee man keeps Mexican traditional healing alive, for now"

People That Remember The Curandera Are Dying Off

Back in Guadalajara, Davilla has a china cabinet full of trinkets and keepsakes given to her by satisfied customers from across Mexico. She’s made a name for herself there.

But no one’s knocking on the Ortiz’s door in search of her services here in Burlington. The dusty, farming town has a huge Mexican community, but some have spent years in America — even generations. When they’re sick, things are different.

In Skagit Valley, many families have access to community health centers and more affordable medical care. Davilla’s services just aren’t needed as much.

And the people that remember the curandera are dying off.

Jose Ortiz is a community leader at a local church in Burlington. Maria Ortiz is his sister-in-law. He says the practice is a thing only of legend for most Mexican families growing up in Washington.

“For my generation, it was lost because my grandma passed away and my grandpa passed away and it wasn’t passed down, which is really sad.”

If you cut yourself you’d just put dirt on it, we’d use spider webs for cuts too.

Jose Ortiz has an American mother and Mexican father. He’s lived in both countries, but  spent the most time here in Burlington. It puts him in a sort of middle ground. People up here recall the traditions, they just don’t practice them anymore.

Jose Ortiz still remembers a few from when we was a kid.

“If you cut yourself you’d just put dirt on it, we’d use spider webs for cuts too,” he says, then he smiles. “This one I’m embarrassed to tell you, but sometimes if we got a cut, we’d pee on it.”

Jose Ortiz laughs. “Some crazy stuff,” he says. “But it cured it.”

Esther Davilla and daughter Maria Ortiz stand outside the Ortiz's home in Burlington, Wash.
Credit KUOW Photo/Alisa Reznick

The Tradition Fills A Space That Doctors Can’t

Being a curandera has been passed down like an heirloom in Davilla’s family. But now Maria Ortiz and her daughters are doing something different from past generations: They’re living here in Burlington.

For the first time, it may not be carried down. But it doesn’t mean the family has abandoned Davilla’s work. Ortiz says the tradition fills a space that doctors can’t.

“We do need doctors, but not for these things,” she says. “This is all faith.”

Ortiz and her daughters haven’t decided whether they’ll carry on the curandera tradition to the next Skagit Valley generations. But one thing is certain — when Davilla returns to Guadalajara, she’ll be welcomed with a line out the door and a lot more gifts for her china cabinet.