Offering a profound understanding of the origins of curanderismo practices, Cleansing Rites of Curanderismo explores the ancient cultures of the Mexica (Aztec) of southern Mexico and the Maya of the Yucatan and Guatemala. These ancient cultures were knowledgeable about astronomy, kept time with their own very accurate calendars, and practiced elaborate rituals requiring professional priests. After the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the complex religious rites fell to the wayside with Christianity coming to the fore. However some aspects of the older cultures continued on including the ancient practices of limpias espirituales (spiritual cleansing) by curandero/as.  This book focuses on platicas, fire and water limpias, sweeping and sacred spaces.

Erika Buenaflor, the author, studied some of the oldest available manuscripts, known as the Codices. These are the writings of the Mexica and Mayans themselves in the precontact era.  She also studied the books written by indigenous authors and European conquerors who described this culture in the early postcontact era. Ms. Buenaflor is interested in determining what aspects of curanderismo come specifically from Mesoamerican origins. The practice has international influences from Europe and Africa as well. I suspect that this book is probably the direct result of work done for graduate classes. The bibliography is extensive and the books cited are written in both Spanish and English. Care is taken to use the correct terminology that would be accepted in academic circles.
Just as important to the narrative as the research is the personal story of how Buenaflor became interested in curanderismo and the path she took to become a full-time curandera.  What distinguishes this book from many others is that she is not just an academic, she is a practitioner. Buenaflor came to this form of healing as a Xicana seeking her roots and grounding in the world.
The reader can expect to read a lot of names in Mayan and Nahuatl. If you’ve spent time in southern Mexico, this won’t be off putting but the unfamiliar may have some trouble pronouncing and remembering who’s who with god names like Ometeotl; Omecihuatl, and Ometectli. The good news is the writing is coherent. If you have the patience to work through some foreign words, you will learn a lot.  There are useful illustrations but a few proved too small and difficult to fully appreciate.

Following the chapters on historical origins, Buenaflor describes today’s limpia rites. She gives how-to explanations so the reader can try them on their own. Some case studies of healings done for her clients offer a modern context. Despite the images from the codices and the research into the Mesoamerican traditions, several practices described struck me as common amongst shamanic practitioners generally. For example, while egg limpias are common among curanderos, they are also essential to hoodoo and African diaspora traditons. The velaciones she describes also are similar to other traditions like those of santeros. Smudging and sweat lodges are again found throughout so many cultures that its origin is probably so ancient as to predate the Mexica and Maya.  When rites such as fire limpia and sweeping appear in the ancient codices, it is safe to earmark the practices as one of those passed down from Mesoamerica. Other rites seem to be included because they are what curanderos do today without much explanation as to other influences in curanderismo.

Buenaflor explains that gaining an understanding of Mesocamerican history and the ancient context of rites used today improved her own practice as a curandera. Not all curanderos are going to go the scholastic route but I think anyone with a strong interest in the topic will benefit from knowing where these practices come from, why they were done originally and how that translates to modern usage. Reading with a careful eye to what is documented in the codices, readers stand to gain valuable insight into the history.


~review by Larissa Carlson
Author: Erika Buenaflor, M.A., J.D.
Bear & Company, 2018
pp. 202, $18.00