Medicine Men and Plant Power in Baja Sur
by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures
This article was originally published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico
Only a limited number of reasons come to mind when considering why someone would willingly allow themselves to be bitten by a venomous snake. There is, of course, suicide by snake, popularized by Cleopatra who reputedly smuggled an asp (cobra) into her chambers to kill herself and her hand maidens as Egypt fell to the Romans. Closely related is spirituality by snake, in which believers handle venomous snakes as a testament to their faith. The snakes snuff out the posers. And then there is science by snake, in which investigators inject themselves with venom to build up immunity, then test that immunity with actual snake bites (see suicide by snake).
So when Catarino Rosas Espinosa, widely known as Don Cata, said that his father deliberately provoked a rattlesnake to bite him, it’s initially difficult to make sense of the story. Don Cata’s father, Hipólito Rosas, was a renowned curandero, or healer, in the Sierra La Laguna mountains of Baja California Sur (BCS). Born in 1890, Hipólito was growing up at the height of the mining frenzy in BCS, a time when many Europeans were moving to Baja and bringing more “advanced” notions of medicine and civilized society. It was a time that saw a huge influx of grand pianos into the state as a reflection of increasing wealth, and a rapid decline in the number of people experienced in the traditional healing arts. People wanted to purchase their cures over the counter.
Although he worked for the mines for a time, Hipólito did not embrace all the modernizations brought by the Europeans. In fact, the Europeanization of local culture prompted him to seek out those who had been practicing traditional medicine in Baja long before the arrival of even the first wave of Europeans almost 500 years ago – he sought out families in the Sierras who still have the blood of the now largely extinct native peoples of BCS – the Guaycura and the Pericu – running through their veins. Under their tutelage he became a great healer renowned throughout BCS, working with 81 plants in the area that have healing properties, and using them to treat everything from allergies and bug bites, to cancer and diabetes. But the most important lesson he learned, and the one he felt most critical to impart to his son Catarino, is the power of mind over matter.
By the time he was a teenager Don Cata was already an accomplished healer himself, having worked alongside his father since he was a small child. He saw that with every single patient Hipólito would end the consultation with a pep talk, telling the patient that everything was going to be fine. Don Cata says his father was cueing his patients’ minds to help heal their bodies. When Don Cata turned 16, Hipólito decided it was time to make flesh this lesson of mind over matter, and so set the rattlesnake upon his son.
Today Don Cata is a very healthy and youthful 65 years old, but he can still remember vividly the painful, lethal venom coursing through his veins, and the intense struggle to dominate it with his mind, keeping it from reaching his heart. He says that power of positive thinking, of the mind dominating the body, is critical to good health, and one of the best ways we can help ourselves prevent and/or recover from illness and injury. But how does one get a mind that is so powerful it can stop rattlesnake venom from reaching the heart? Plants. Says Don Cata, “I like to look for plants that have very long lives, lives that are longer than ours, old plants that are full of sustainable, renewable energy. When I see a really large, obviously old tree, I hug that tree with my whole body and with lots of love, and that tree shares its energy with me. When I go up in the mountains, I prepare tea from the root of a long-lived fern that grows there, and every day I drink 3 cups of this tea just before bed. I consider problems I need to resolve or areas in which I need help, and after drinking this tea at night solutions and knowledge come to me. After 15 days in the mountains of drinking this tea every day and walking in a different altitude, I have great clarity of mind and feel like a young man when I return to my ranch.”
Omar Piña is a 39 year-old traditional Mexican medicine expert who has studied with native peoples, shamans, curanderos and rancheros throughout Mexico. Omar, who holds several certifications in holistic health, says that traditional medicine is “based on a harmonious relationship with all the elements of the earth with whom human beings coexist, but do not master. (Emphasis is the author’s.) Many diseases and natural phenomena that affect people’s health are associated with a poor relationship with the beings of nature.” Omar, whose father is an MD, notes that in Western medicine, if a process cannot be readily understood it is generally dismissed. But Omar, Don Cata and other practitioners believe that people can connect with the spirit of the plant, and that plants can both heal you and prevent disease, whether this is an explicable phenomenon or not. All these healers have their go-to plants for particular ailments and issues (see The Power of Plants in Your Baja Garden) but they all believe that how you deal with the plant has as big an impact on the results that you may get as any chemical properties inherent to the plant itself. Explains Don Cata, “You must transmit love to the plant and give thanks to the plant, as well as the land and the earth. Otherwise it will die. We never take the whole plant for a medicine, we just take what we need.” Omar agrees. “To reap the full benefits of the healing or restorative properties of the plant, you must ask the plant for help. When people have a physical symptom, they must ask for the help so that they can start looking deeper for the root of the problem in their souls.”
Omar says that the rancheros of BCS like Don Cata are fully responsible for their emotional and physical well-being in ways that many of us in the west are not. “In modern times we have such large egos we think we can solve everything but we cannot. We just want to take a pill for the problem, without digging deeper into its origins. The Baja Rancheros and the native peoples of Mexico have so much respect for the earth, the things we cannot see, and for being connected to everything around us.”
Omar is living testimony to the power of plants to heal one’s soul and maintain balance in life. In 2010 Omar’s brother was kidnapped in Monterrey N.L. and has never been seen or heard from again. The shock of such an almost unimaginable event caused Omar’s mother to suffer a stroke, and plunged Omar into a profound emotional crisis. But, says Omar, “In this most difficult moment of my life, traditional medicine and plants taught me so much about life and spirituality, and brought me back to emotional health. It is this inner process of healing myself, of healing my soul, of finding balance with the help of the plants that I want to share with others.” The kidnapping of your brother – that’s a lot of venom for your mind to keep away from your heart.
Carlos Casteneda, the famed author who wrote several books about the teachings of a Mexican shaman concluded, “The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.” Omar has succeeded in doing just that, and sharing this knowledge is now his life’s work. “Traditional medicine is sacred, it comes from god, it’s related to god” says Omar. “It is of and for the community – it belongs to everyone.” Don Cata agrees. People throughout the Sierras seek him out for healing, but he feels that his main purpose is to teach them how to use the plants themselves. “When friends visit, or when I’m working on projects on ranches with others, I always try to give them the knowledge for themselves and their families, and encourage them to pass it on to others.”
The great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote, “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.” Man just needs to open himself to hear that voice. Mind over matter.
© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2017