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Faith healer blends Catholicism, folk medicine (Video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
July 13, 2012 at 2:13 a.m.
Updated July 14, 2012 at 2:14 a.m.

Catholic figurines share floor space with tarot cards and spiritual candles at Velas y Mas, reflecting a synthesis of Central American folklore and Christian practices.

WHO ARE CURANDEROS?

• A person who practices curanderismo.

• They are spiritual guides or leaders within a community.

• They are sought when someone is sick or experiencing unusual circumstances.

• Types of similar roles in different Latino communities: Shamans, Curas, Yerberos, Parteras, Sobadores, Pharmacists.

• Shaman: Peruvian "curanderismo" (known as ayahuasca).

• Cura/Curandero: A cura is most typically found in Mexican American and or Mexican folk healing. They are the spiritual and healing leaders in their communities.

• Yerbero: A yerbero is a specialist in herbs and plants. They are highly knowledgeable of the uses and remedies that different herbs and plants offer to patients in need of treatment.

• Partera: A midwife. She deals with pregnant women and is their primary source of guidance, caretaking, advice, and delivery of the child.

Sobador: A massage therapist. These people are trained in healing methods that use rub and massage techniques.

• Pharmacist: Western pharmacists plays a very similar as yerberos, only they deal with more Western medicine and treatments. They are knowledgeable of alternative medicines, but not as extensive as a yerbero.

SOURCE: Arizona State University Chicano and Chicana Studies.

When Jesus Castillo was a boy, he knew he wasn't like other children.

At an early age, he discovered he possessed a keen ability to "read" people.

But it wasn't until his mid-20s that his gift made sense. That's when he learned he was blessed with divine supernatural abilities - a heightened sensory package that allowed him to read thoughts and predict futures, he said.

"I just knew things that no ordinary person knew ... I had a hard time adjusting to it. When I was young, it made me feel uneasy. I wanted to be a normal child," said the 48-year-old professional spiritualist of Velas y Mas herbaria in Victoria. "I felt out of place because I could sense what a person was thinking and where they were going in the future."

The gifts he struggled to understand as a child eventually resulted in a vocation of spiritual healing as a curandero, or spiritualist.

"Life pushes you into who you are and who you're going to be," Castillo said. "This is my full-time job, this is what I do. I love and enjoy helping people."

Curanderismo, a shamanic blending of magico-religious rituals with Catholicism, is popular among Hispanics as an alternative form of medicine.

"I see so many people who are fatigued all the time. They are near people all the time who are stressed out" and when you couple that with "your own problems, it draws you down. It weighs you down," Castillo said. "When you come to me, who knows how to cleanse you, it draws out negativity and you feel light and ready to take on the world."

Treatments and remedies for common ailments such as headache, body pain and fatigue, and sometimes the removal of curses and negative spiritual blockages, often include herbs, prayers, candle lighting, spiritual cleanses and other nontraditional forms of healing to balance spiritual energies.

"People who know about this don't think twice about it," Castillo said, mentioning the steady stream of clients who visit the store for healing. "You go to a doctor to cure your body, but you have to cure your spirit, as well."

Velas y Mas store owner, Debra Woods, a lifelong practitioner of curanderismo, said the traditions of faith healing through spiritualists, herbs and candles, is passed down through the generations in Latino cultures. But the services available at her store are meant to help people of all cultures and religious backgrounds.

"This kind of stuff is known in Hispanic culture, but in reality it affects all cultures," Woods said. "People come in the store and say they don't believe, and that's OK. But it does exist and it's real."

Woods said she opened Velas y Mas (Candles and More) last October because she saw a need for an herbaria in Victoria that provided the items she needed for her own faith practices.

"There was only one in town, in Gonzales, and she didn't always have the items I needed. When you go to a shop and they don't have what you need, you end up going to a bigger city," she said. "It had become an issue with the gas prices going up to travel to a larger city. It was easier to open up a store."

Curaderismo traditions of faith healing are so common in the area, Woods said, that her customers are now traveling from all over the Crossroads to purchase items at her store.

"Usually when people come in here they know exactly what they want," she said. "And I'm glad I got (Castillo) because he's been able to help so many people."

Some of the items available for purchase are herbs, oils, magnets, incense, soaps, room sprays, holy water and other materials specifically designed with a "job" to heal or perform spiritual rituals. On either side of the store, Woods sells shelves of prayer-wrapped candles - some scented, some unscented - with Catholic saints and healers printed on the front to indicate how they should be used. Some candles can burn alone, while others are meant to burn with a corresponding candle, but each must be burned specifically for what it is designed to do, Woods said. Some of the candles, for example, invite romantic love and improve health, while others increase wealth, offer protection and peace.

"It's not a regular candle shop like you get at the mall. It's not like that," Woods said. "We don't do this for entertainment. And (Castillo) wouldn't do this for entertainment either."

Part of Castillo's job as a spiritualist includes reading tarot cards, which often precedes any cleansing ritual.

"The reason you come for a reading is to find out which direction to take, that's serious business," Castillo said. "I have to have the utmost honesty in what I say, and they usually come back and say everything happened like I said ... I've asked God, if he could make it stronger for me."

In some ways, Castillo also serves as a counselor, often unveiling his clients' past hurts and emotional scars during card readings.

"People cry when they find out the truth - that they're carrying a cross that wasn't theirs," he said.

Yet even though Castillo and Woods are both practicing Catholics, and store was blessed by a priest, the traditional church doesn't incorporate the practices of curanderismo into their teachings.

The Rev. Dan Morales, of St. Mary's Catholic Church, said he's encountered many Catholics who are familiar with the practice of curanderos, but he said the mainline Catholic church doesn't follow the practice.

"It is a common practice by many people in Hispanic culture and much of it is associated with praying for healing," he said. "It's not necessarily condemned by the church, but it's not encouraged either."

But Castillo and Woods believe they are doing God's work, and providing a needed service to the community.

"My prayer for my Lord is that he sends the people who need the help, so they can find the help they are seeking. That's my prayer every morning," Castillo said. "Everybody deserves to live and be happy, to prosper and to have a shot at life, and sometimes it takes someone like me show them how to do that."

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