Sometimes you read a book that just gets your head buzzing. Brett Hendrickson’s Border Medicine: A Transcultural History of Mexican American Curanderismo is one such book. It brings together so many areas of fascination: healing based on different belief structures than scientific medicine, the role of community in avoiding cultural appropriation, and the cultural blending that takes place at all borders. The myth of the “pure” has long created problems, particularly in the realm of religion. Things blend. They always have. And this includes belief structures, faiths, religions. This is most obvious at borders, which makes them very interesting places. Officially we police them, wanting to keep what is “ours” and keep “them” out. In reality we are blending with each other and that’s not a bad thing.
In much of educated society, it’s assumed that scientific medicine is the only valid kind. There are those even among the schooled, however, who pray for the ill. Curanderismo is a form of folk healing that involves cures that would be rejected out of hand by science. In a materialist, chemical world, only this can heal that. Curanderismo looks at things quite differently. Its practitioners don’t charge an arm and a leg for their work. They are extremely popular. And they heal people. This is part of what makes Hendrickson so wonderful to read—he doesn’t assume up front that this doesn’t work. Some analysts treat this kind of thing from a perspective of cultural superiority, as if scientific medicine is the only real way to treat illness. Cultures, however, can heal.
Culture is something we value because it makes us feel secure and comfortable. We know what to expect. We speak the language, know the conventions. (It would help Democrats, I think, to realize that although we’re trying to dismantle xenophobia, it is still very much intact in most of the world. People follow autocrats because they’re afraid.) We all live near borders. Our personal border may be the wall of our apartment or the front door to our house. It may be the Protestant/Catholic next door (or Buddhist/Atheist/Muslim/Hindu/Agnostic). It may be the middle class/working class person who lives across the street. In one town in which I lived it was literally those on the other side of the railroad tracks. We draw borders for protection, but what Hendrickson shows so clearly is that they can also be places of healing.