I have always been fascinated with folk remedies, beginning with the days when my grandmother put poultices on my chest when I was a small child in Oklahoma. During my teaching days, I learned of many such remedies from my students who were of Hispanic background, so it was almost inevitable that one day I would plan a miniature scene with a curandera.
Several retired teachers from my old high school get together the First Wednesday of each month for lunch. We meet at a different restaurant each time, talk a lot and sample different cuisines. I wanted my curandera's remedies to be and look authentic, and mentioned my plans at the monthly lunch in September, 2004. Almost all of my friends and former colleagues are Hispanic, so they gave me quite animated stories of the various remedies their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc., had used over the years.
So then I got the idea of going to the old market to see the real things. My husband, however, has no desire whatsoever to go to Juarez since 9/11. Of course, he always thought of driving across, not walking. Anyway, our old friend Raul, who over the years taught at the same high schools as both my husband and I, offered to be my escort to the old Cuauhtemoc Market, which dates back at least to the 1880's. His 81-year old mother still lives in Juarez, and he walks over the bridge to visit with her and often goes to the mercado. He said I could see all the herbs and other remedies I could imagine there. So, we planned our visit for late November when it would be less likely that I would have a problem with my sun sensitivity.
It was a beautiful fall day to begin with. But from the time Raul arrived in his pickup and we walked out the front door to leave, a very brisk wind had begun blowing. Since we would be doing a lot of walking I decided it would be prudent to exchange my light jacket for a heavier coat, and was I glad later that I did! By the time we parked on a downtown side street and started walking to the international bridge, dark clouds were gathering over the mountains and it was spitting rain. I was so glad I had tucked a scarf in my coat pocket earlier, too, and as we walked I tied it around my head.
At first we were doubtful. "Maybe we better go home and try another day," I said, but we decided to walk a block or two and see how things went. The light rain was merely intermittent, and the sun kept peeking out, and since it was unlikely we could plan something like this again any time soon with the holidays coming, I threw caution to the winds. "Let's go!"
"Be warned," Raul said. "The wind is much worse at the very top of the bridge, but it slacks off again as we start down on the other side."
The cold wind was ferocious as we climbed, and I swathed my scarf over my nose and mouth. As we neared the top of the bridge, he clutched my elbow and said, "Hold on to the railing." I have no idea how the view looked at that point, as my head was down, shoulders hunkered, the scarf whipping around my face as my feet were almost blown from under me. Fortunately, however, the wind eased as we started down the other side, just as he had said it would, and it never was quite that bad for the rest of the day.
When we first moved to El Paso, the streets of downtown Juarez were lined with booths and shouting people selling everything one could imagine, but some years ago the city government moved everyone to a side street, across from the old Mercado, the city's main market. Now the main streets are clear and the brick sidewalks and streets are much cleaner and more orderly.
There were Exchange places everywhere and we watched for the best deal on our money. I had no idea how much I would need, and Raul said, "Oh, five dollars should be enough," so I got 11.27 in pesos for each dollar. We walked almost to the Cathedral and then to the Mercado, which is mostly a daily market for ordinary people, although I heard music blasting from booths selling cd's, including John Fogarty warning of a Bad Moon Rising, and Fats Domino singing about finding his thrills on Blueberry Hill! I hoped it was Fats rather than Fogarty who was forecasting our excursion!
The old market building had burned a couple years before and a new building, quite impressive, was almost finished. Until then, however, the Mercado was a warren of stalls lining a cobbled street whose stones looked as old as mud. We had intermittent light rain the whole time, but the booths were partially covered by canopies so we hopscotched from one to the other. If we walked close to the buildings we were out of the rain, but in danger of having a gust of wind flap the awning and pour collected cold rainwater down our collars.
When we first entered the market area, stalls were filled with items of clothing, music cd's, etc., but the further we went in, the more interesting things became. This market is used daily by ordinary people who buy fresh vegetables, fruits and other foods, etc. We did not enter the food market; I just glimpsed colorful towers of stacked fruits and vegetables and large bins of beans, nuts, rice, etc. I mainly wanted to look at herbs and natural remedies so we did not detour.
Soon we encountered stall after stall selling remedios for every imaginable ailment, as well as creams for removing age spots and potions for revitalizing one's love life. Apparently, the old ways are still quite common. The last time I had been to the Mercado in the late 80's when I was looking for miniature pottery and copper items I had not even noticed all those things, or maybe we just didn't go to the right area.
I bought a few interesting items to duplicate in miniature:
- for diabetes, a tied bundle of long strands of fine roots of some tree that only grows way down in Mexico;
- for insomnia, reddish-brown tiny seed hulls;
- for constipation, a flat translucent greenish bean pod (you could see the dark bean inside)
- for rheumatism, a yellowish bean pod,
- for nervousness, small oddly shaped roundish pods
and a packet of incense intended to keep away bad things, even the devil!
My favorite was a crystal-like stone called piedra de mal. You throw it in the fire and it takes the shape of whatever has frightened you.
In some stalls things were neatly sealed in small packets about the size of a sandwich bag, as well as jars and bottles and boxes; others had items in bulk in baskets, boxes and buckets, that one purchased by the kilo or whatever.
There were bundles of long sticks of very fragrant cinnamon, lots of fresh herbs which I recognized, including rosemary (good to keep your hair from falling out, one man said), parsleys, mints, and lemon grass. There were bunches of flower heads, seeds, sticks, pods, chunks and slices of wood, weird bits of this and that. There were no written instructions for all these things; I guess they assume people already know how to use them. Most of them, I gathered, are made into infusions or teas.
Down the center of the cobblestone street were buckets filled with little mounds of bright green live mosses (very unusual to see something like that in this dry part of the world; I wonder where they came from) and rough little open wooden structures for sale as nativity scenes for the coming holiday. Raul explained that the mosses were to spread across the top of the mangers as roofs. The emphasis was entirely on the spiritual nature of Christmas, with lots of Natividad figures everywhere - and not one Santa Claus.
It was when I saw those dark wood structures that I figured out what the old box was that I picked up at a garage sale many years ago, intending to use it for a miniature Santa's reindeer stable. I didn't know that it had originally been intended as a stable for a far different purpose! Hmmm. Now I may place the setting of the curandera's kitchen at Christmas-time, and make one of those miniature Natividad manger scenes with the bright green moss on top.
With Raul translating and whispering suggestions in my ear as to the best deals, we traversed the market and I made the last of my purchases. As we made our way back to the bridge, he went inside the various music shops looking for a particular CD, and I waited outside to observe the town and the passers-by. The wind had lessened, and it was just cold and misty enough to be invigorating.
We stopped just before we reached the bridge at a restaurant for coffee with cream, served very hot in a glass and quite delicious. We also ate pan dulce, or sweet bread, that was about the best I ever tasted. At the top of the bridge on the way home we rested a moment and this time I kept my head up for a great view looking toward El Paso and the Franklin Mountains to the north.
It is not likely that I will have another opportunity to go back again to find out more about all those remedies, but if I did I would take my notebook to write down the Spanish names and how they are to be used. As an inveterate note-taker I cannot believe I left without a single thing to write on; and neither of us had a pen!
It was a memorable day, probably my most interesting shopping trip ever, and I wanted to express my appreciation to our friend Raul for making it possible. So, I came up with my old standby solution, a dome scene, as my thank you gift.
Raul was so proud of it that he started moving items on his big circular revolving coffee table so that it could occupy center stage.
This is the back of the scene.
For this scene I used a Raine cowhorn chair, to reflect the decor of his home which is very Southwest.
I made the book to go with the boots to reflect his fondness for teaching the Cotton-Eyed Joe and other line dances.
And no Southwest scene would be complete without chips and queso.