INDIGENOUS MEDICINES + HERBS of the Latinx Diaspora From Mexico to Brazil

INDIGENOUS MEDICINES + HERBS of the Latinx Diaspora From Mexico to Brazil

Art by Mariano Gonzalez Chavajay


“There is a world beyond ours, a world that is far away, nearby and invisible.”

- María Sabina 

The root word of curanderismo is “curar”, which means “to heal”. Ismo is “the tradition/teaching or science of”. Combined, they offer us a linguistic bridge to the hundreds, if not thousands, of different tribal peoples throughout Central and South America who have each maintained their own ways of accessing spirit energies. 

In several cosmologies—including those of the Aztecs, the Andeans, and the Mayas—it was believed that there existed three general realms, planes, or states of consciousness. These three main layers are akin to the templates often observed in shamanic journeys. During these journeys, the practitioner was said to travel to one of these three worlds, often accompanied by a power animal or spirit helper. Usually, this spiritual voyage was also accompanied by the monotonous trance rhythms of drumming or a rattle instrument of sorts.

In many traditions, shamans also described the access point to all worlds as originating in the heart, also known as the Axis Mundi or the World Tree. This mystical tree is said to connect the three worlds. Along its trunk, the shaman would be able to travel to both the upper and the underworld. The three realms are as follows: (1) The Underworld; (2) The Middle World; and (3) The Upper World. Looking more closely at each of these realms offers insight into what each phase of the shamanic journey may have entailed (and continues to today in some traditions throughout the Latinx diasporas).

The Underworld represents primal existence, the shadow self, intuitions, fears, and experiences of past lives.

The Middle World represents our primal existence, where we generally reside in this 3D consciousness.

The Upper World represents our superego and the realm of total information.

In many cases, the original medicine cultures found some synergy with colonial European medicine. This mezcla (mix) of seemingly opposing traditions and healing systems gave rise to new ways of balancing the ancestral and scientific wisdom of each approach, which continues to be integrated into today’s curanderismo and herbal medicine practices throughout Central and South America, and in the global Latinx diasporas.


In curanderismo, a disease is not just caused by physical processes, but rather by social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual factors. Curandero/as believe that by manipulating the energetic and supernatural world, they can get to the root of dis-ease before it is physically manifested. Curandero/as also believe that all imbalances can be recovered and seen on a spiritual level; therefore, all illness can be caused, diagnosed, and cured by spiritual forces called corrientes espirituales (spiritual currents). Although several of these are casted “poisons” from others, they all offer potentials for evolution and transmutation. 

MAL AIRE (“bad air”) can be when “wind” enters the body through bad intent or a “bad atmosphere” surrounding an individual or family. Children are particularly susceptible, as they are more sensitive to moods and environments. This can result in colds, shaking, and earaches, all of which may have a symbolic meaning as well as a physical presence (earache for example might result from a desire not to hear what is being said to, or around, the child).

BILIS (“bile” / “rage”) is caused by the excess secretion of bile, often triggered by chronic frustration, chronic rage, built up anger, rage-aholics, etc. It is believed this can also be transferred over ancestrally. Symptoms include gastritis, ulcers, and sharp stomach pain. A curandero/a, particularly a sobadero/a, cures bilis by relaxing the patient through touch, and prescribing soothing herbal teas and baths. Further, if a parent is rageful to their children or partner, the family can become sick with susto, or soul loss, collectively. 

EMPACHO (“indigestion”) translates to the feeling of having too much sweetness in the mouth, or empachado. These are similar conditions that result from emotional causes, and are associated with a blockage of the stomach or the digestive tract. It can come from overeating, food allergies, food intolerance, eating when not hungry, or eating hard to digest foods. Metaphorically, curandero/as also use this term to describe any kind of blockage of the emotional or energy body. Empacho can cause gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation, loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. Ultimately, this is said to distract the mind and lead to brain fog and confusion. It may be related to hormonal imbalances, but men can experience this, too. Additional symptoms include restlessness, anxiety, and irritability.

 ENVIDIA (“envy” / “jealousy”) and MAL DE OJO (“evil eye”). Neighbors, close friends, or anyone desiring what is yours or resenting you for your success may stare intently with an “evil eye” and the desire to harm you. Alternatively, this could indicate a spirit intrusion of another or related kind, which works away at your soul. 

SUSTO (“fright” / “shock”). The practice of soul retrieval also falls under this category—the soul as a secret essence in the body can momentarily leave as a way of coping with a challenging situation or a cluster of them. The loss of a part or parts of our soul typically manifest in negative ways, such as physical ailments, depression, ptsd, insomnia, misfortune, and random ailments. These kinds of symptoms continue to occur throughout our lives until the acknowledgment of the loss of soul has taken place. Soul pieces that have not returned or have left once again due to recurring damaging patterns allow for the manifestation of analogous circumstances that causes the soul loss in the first place. A curandero/a may incorporate sobadas into the treatment of susto, particularly when an individual has been physically abused. A powerful sobada or strong limpia can help dislodge the trauma and curb dissociation.

FLECHA VENENOSA (“poison arrow”) or a psychic poison dart. In the Amazon, this is usually called daño (harm), and is believed to be a “magical illness” often sent by a sorcerer working on behalf of a client,  therefore causing the receiver to undergo a psychic attack. Common symptoms of this, specifically when it’s first sent, are random body pains, fatigue, and difficulty breathing. In the long-term, the recipient may notice the appearance of tumors, cysts, or other diseases that take physical forms in the body. Daño must be treated magically by a specialized curandero/a to remove the spiritual poison, or virote (evil thorn) or flecha venosa (poisoned arrow), and then return it to its source. 


The relationship between humans and plants may have developed from a diet whereby a hierbero/a (plant medicine worker) ingests the plant, gives praise, and invokes forward its essence repeatedly for a certain number of specified days. When the soul essence appears to the teacher or curandero/a, our ancestors received information on how to find the plant, when and how to pick it, how to prepare it, and some rites of how to respect and produce the best medicine from a harvest. Curandero/as emphasize the importance of communicating and connecting with the individual plant, and learning them deeply, one at a time. 

SOBADERAS are known for using massage and pressure points. These kinds of treatments are not intended to just relax or to heal aches and pains. They are intended to release many kinds of hurt, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, and even ancestrally. Sobaderas know that there might be energy that is stuck on a cellular level due to what has been inherited. Through intuitive touch, they facilitate the retrieval of the energy that has been damaged. So, this is fundamentally an energetic release that operates beyond space and time. It unblocks energy that is even blocking us on an emotional level and carried on a physical level as well. There are many kinds of different oils, crystals, stones, intentions, and prayers that are said in the moment of facilitating that energetic expression. And that changes based on the sobadora or sobador themself.

PARTERAS. Parterismo is a distinct specialty in that most curanderas are not necessarily trained to work as midwives. But, they act as a therapist to offer prenatal and postnatal support for the mother, and oftentimes for the entire family. They also act as dietitians, counselors, healers, doctors, and nurses to ensure the most optimal adaptation on a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being for both the mother and her baby. Parteras also prescribe particular medicinal herbs during pregnancy, during labor, and afterwards for integration. Depending on the energetics of what they witness of the baby and labor or pregnancy itself, they may prescribe medicine for the entire family. Curanderas believe it is extremely important to protect the baby and the mother from unwanted energies, like envy or negativity arising from the baby’s existence. In fact, there are many herbs used to cleanse and protect against those particular moments. There is a classic tradition, for example, that the expecting mother goes out on the full moon and places a red yarn that has been tied three times in her bra if she believes she will be around negativity. The tradition dates back to ancient Mesoamerica. 

HIERBERO/AS. Hierbero/as are curandero/as, but they work specifically with plant medicines. The name comes from the root word hierba, which means herb. Manny hierbero/as know how to heal and work with flowers, fruit, weeds, tree barks, vines, leaves, mushrooms, vegetables, fungi, cacti, and succulents. These kinds of curandero/as have a very deep connection with the magical healing powers of plants, dating back possibly thousands of years. The information they tend to have about these plants is ancient and passed down from generation to generation. Some curandero/as work strictly with the plants that grow in their area because they have a very established relationship with the plants that contribute to their immediate environment.  

Hierbero/as have a very deep belief that the plants that grow around you are contributing to your perceptive field much more than meets the eye. They have a very deep connection to the soul essence of the plant and understand them like they would a best friend. It is not just about the plant’s medicinal qualities or spiritual healing abilities, it’s about working with a whole being and administering that personality onto someone else, which might be meeting that complement on a multi-level experience of coexistence. 


  1. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) - Organic, grown in Peru. Energizer, libido booster and Andean adaptogen, maca’s medicinal use goes back over 2,000 years. People of the high altitude Andes regions of Peru and Bolivia have long used it as both a staple food source and a ceremonial offering. Nutrient dense and naturally rich in vitamins and minerals, its potent aphrodisiac qualities also support overall wellbeing and healthy moods, as well as reducing menopausal symptoms and blood pressure.
  2. Kalea Zacatechichi (Calea ternifolia) - Wildcrafted in Oaxaca, Mexico. Ancient lucid dreaming ally and visionary sleep “oneirogen” (dream herb), its historic use includes boosting dream vitality and recall. The Chontal Indians of Mexico have employed this plant to obtain divinatory messages during dreamtime, and it is also revered as a digestive tonic, parasite blocker, and pain reliever.
  3. Chanca Piedra (Phyllanthus niruri) - Organic, grown in Mexico or Peru (depending on the season). Stone breaker, Amazonian cleanser and antiviral, this powerful medicinal herb is endemic to the Amazon rainforest. For generations, it’s been used to treat kidney stones, viral and bacterial infections, malaria and other tropical parasitic diseases, as well as diabetes. It provides strong anti-inflammatory, liver- and heart-protective properties, and helps modulate the immune system. 
  4. Jergón Sacha (Dracontium loretense) - Wildcrafted in Peru. Antidote of the rainforest, signature plant remedy, and resembling a poisonous snake, the large tuber or rhizome of the jergón sacha is an antidote for snake bites, in addition to being an asthma, menstrual disorder, chlorosis, and whooping cough ally in Brazilian herbal medicine. Many believe it can enhance immune function and protect against the symptoms of HIV/AIDS, cancerous tumors, gastrointestinal and heart issues, and more.
  5. Guaraná (Paullinia cupana) - Sustainably grown in Brazil. A rainforest energizer providing stamina and endurance, guaraná has been used by the indigenous tribes of South America for millennia. Today, its libido-boosting properties are celebrated alongside its evidence-based adaptogenic and protective qualities, helping shield the body from the damaging effects of stress and premature aging.
  6. Damiana (Turnera diffusa) - Organic, grown in Mexico. Native to Mexico and other parts of Central America, this herb has traditionally been used as an aphrodisiac that is said to help with depressive moods, fertility, and hormonal imbalances. This beautiful aromatic shrub also has documented use as a tonic, diuretic, and cough suppressant with additional purported powers to enhance lovemaking.
  7. Suma (Pfaffia paniculata) - Biodynamically harvested by small-scale farmers in the Brazilian Amazon. Also known as Brazilian Ginseng, this “para toda” (for all things) brings energy and strength. Widely used as an adaptogen by indigenous peoples of the Amazon for centuries, its wide variety of applications include: as a general tonic, as an energizing, rejuvenating and sexual tonic, and as a general cure-all for numerous different types of illnesses. In addition to being anti-inflammatory in nature, it may also act as a hormone regulator while boosting energy and libido levels.
  8. Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens) - Ethically wild harvested—from naturally fallen trees that have aged at least 3-5 years on the ground—by a native family in Northern Peru. Offering protection magic, the mystical tree that grows near the coast of South America is closely related to Frankincense, Myrrh, and Copal. In Spanish, the name translates to “Holy Wood” or “The Tree of Life”. Traditionally used to purify bacteria from the air and to clear bad energy and spirits stagnating within spaces, its medicinal uses also extend to relieving common colds, flu symptoms, stress, asthma, headaches, anxiety, depression, inflammation, emotional pain, and more. Please be mindful that much of the palo santo commercially available today is not ethically harvested from naturally fallen and dead trees. It also does not support indigenous families receiving livable wages.

In order to support the preservation of the native lands and cultures connected to the ceremonial harvests of these sacred trees, our palo santo incense and essential oils are sourced directly from local families who uphold these centuries-old traditions. Together, we are committed to the long-term sustainability of sharing this precious ethnobotanical treasure with the rest of the world.


As a company owned and founded by the Costa Rican herbalist and medicine maker Adriana Ayales, our mission is to bridge ancient remedies to the modern world. Did you know that we’re a proudly woman- and Latina-owned plant medicine company with apothecaries in New York, California, and online? In both our online shop and IRL, we offer a wide spectrum of remedies and plants from around the world, many of which come from the rainforest tribal styles of the Amazon, Central and South America that Adriana has studied, in addition to her immersions in Ayurveda, Chinese-Daoist Medicine, and European-style alchemy. At Anima Mundi, we believe that through preserving these ancient forms of indigenous botany, we keep alive a very sacred link to our source. In the spirit of providing grassroots healthcare for today’s world, we also care to help preserve indigenous lands and their local economies through organic agriculture and wildcrafted goods.

 In the true spirit of honoring Latinx Heritage Month, it should be noted that in a 1918 issue of Hispania, Aurelio M. Espinosa described the term “Latin America” as “vague, meaningless, unjust, and unscientific.” The author also noted that the problematic name for this land mass had only come into existence in the preceding decade, that is to say in the early 20th century. As a result of colonialism, the continuous usage of the term Latin America to describe what is geographically Central and South America has led us astray from the true essence of the uniquely distinct people and places that make up the Latinx diaspora. Unfortunately, without a more favorable term—Latine and Latinx have come into recent popularity since Espinosa’s well articulated discord, but neither is fully or universally embraced at present—we’re using the term “Latinx Heritage Month” in an attempt to best honor the idea of a diverse diaspora … We think these plants from Mexico and Brazil to Peru remain some of the most fascinating and powerful natural medicines on the planet, even if there still aren’t truly adequate terms to describe their collective geographic origins. We hope you’ll join us in staying curious about and connected to the plant medicines of the Latinx diaspora. Here’s a little bonus for you on the blog: sigue leyendo (keep reading) → Herbs + Healers of the Latinx Diaspora + 10 Latin American Herbs Used to Combat Coronavirus Symptoms.

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