Jennifer K. Seman, "Borderlands Curanderos: The Worlds of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo" (U Texas Press, 2021)


Recent global events have unmasked inequitable healthcare systems that disproportionately affect poor Latinx populations along the U.S-Mexico border. Professor Jennifer K. Seman’s recent publication offers a brief insight into these inequities by approaching borderlands modes of care from a historical perspective to reveal how two vital practitioners of curanderismo – “An earth-based healing practice that blends elements of Indigenous medicine with folk Catholicism” (1) – served their communities to heal physical and societal ills at the turn of the twentieth century. Borderlands Curanderos: The Worlds of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo (University of Texas Press, 2021) follows the biographies of these two Mexican folk healers as they traverse borders during a moment of increased nation-building, as they are implicated in the world of the spiritualist movement, and stand firm in their faith as they are wedged against professional modern medicine.

Seman grounds the history of curanderismo in the cross-cultural exchange between European, Native American, and African heritages and practices that depend largely on the belief that there is a connectedness between the mind, body, and spirit. By utilizing institutional and non-institutional archives, newspaper accounts, and built environments in which Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito traversed and are memorialized, Borderlands Curanderos offers a detailed look at their lives. One major thread linking the curanderos is how they negotiated the state and state power during the early 20th century in Mexico and the United States. “It was their extraordinary responses to the failure of institutions that made Santa Teresa and Don Pedro threats – and, in some cases, assets — to the states and institutional authority,” (4) writes Seman. In other words, their medicine did not come from the state, the church, or professional medicine, as argued in her book, but rather from a distinct cultural practice that revitalized the sick. These two healers took on the insurmountable task of tending to people and geographies who were experiencing the aftermath unleashed by settler colonialism and enslavement; or, as Seman would argue, the generational susto brought on by conquerors and settlers (9).

Santa Teresa's life as a child was defined by the Tehueco tribe around which she grew up while living with her mother and her time spent on her father’s ranch, Rancho de Cabora, both in Ocoroni, Sinaloa, Mexico. On Rancho de Cabora she healed indigenous Yaqui communities with her hands and she spoke out against the unjust anti-indigenous laws of Mexican President Porfirio Diaz, which got her expelled from Mexico in 1890. While in the United States, her hands became the focal point of her travels as newspapers published photos and wrote exposes describing in detail her powers. “Teresa’s hands…became conduits and signifiers of turn-of-the-century notions about gender, modernity, and race: they were lovely, slender, gentle, magnetic, electric, and white,” (65) writes Professor Seman. Placed into conversation with other technologies of the medical marketplace at the beginning of the 20th century, Santa Teresa’s electrifying hands were proof that electricity could exist inside, and heal, the body. She became frustrated with the little control she had over her life and eventually settled in California to raise kids in 1902. In 1904, after her house burned down, she moved her family to Clifton, Arizona where she would succumb to tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of thirty-three. Even when she traversed modern urban cities, Teresa maintained her subscription to espiritismo grounded in the rural environment of the U.S-Mexico borderlands. It was also the people of the borderlands that deemed her a santa.

Don Pedro Jaramillo is best understood as a node for the South Texas community, through which many traveled far and wide to reach the curandero at Rancho de los Olmos. Born in Jalisco, Mexico where he suffered an accident that resulted in his don (gift), he migrated to Los Olmos in 1881 as he was taken by the landscape. Seman writes that in Los Olmos, “Don Pedrito emerged as a source of spiritual healing and material support for a transnational community facing social change, illness, and an increasingly oppressive racial regime” (89). Don Pedro healed by offering recetas that consisted of a mixture of hot and cold showers, mud, and other remedies that could be extracted from the earth. But he also clothed, fed, and provided respite in times of need for South Texas communities. Similar to Santa Teresa, Don Pedro received backlash for his healing practices that deemed him a fraud in relation to the rising professional medical industry. Famed lawyer and Texas legislator José T. Canales came to Don Pedro’s defense claiming that Don Pedrito was “an honorable representative of the ‘race’ and a skilled healer superior” to the medical professionals (130). After twenty-six years of healing at Rancho de los Olmos, Don Pedro Jaramillo passed away in 1907. His legacy continues until this day despite the vandalization of his statue and shrine in Falfurrias, Texas. Community members are currently working to restore the shrine in honor of Don Pedro.

The healing capabilities of Don Pedrito and Santa Teresa, at their core, are important because they offered a culturally-accepted form of care at a time when ethnic Mexicans and indigenous peoples along the borderlands and in cities such as Los Angeles were deemed racially inferior and a menace to society. Curanderismo was trusted healthcare for the most vulnerable. As Dr. Seman writes, “Through their practice of Mexican faith healing, they provided culturally resonant healing and spiritual sustenance to ethnic Mexicans, Indigenous peoples, Tejanos, and others in the borderlands who faced increasingly oppressive, exclusionary, and sometimes violent forms of state power deployed by both nations” (3). By bringing forth Santa Teresa and Don Pedrito to the center of an academic historical monograph, Dr. Seman brings them from the footnotes of folklore and into their rightful place as vital historical and political actors. Borderlands Curanderos is important reading for anyone interested in borderlands history, Texas history, Mexican history, and the history of medicine.

Jonathan Cortez is currently the 2021-2023 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @joncortz

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Jonathan Cortez

Jonathan Cortez is currently the 2021-2023 César Chávez Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @joncortz

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