Roots of traditional healing run deep in Southwest

By Cindy Brown
For The Taos News
Posted 3/14/18

The tradition of healing with plants and medicinal food has deep roots in the Southwest and Mexico. Today healers continue to practice these techniques using locally available plants and knowledge of …

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Roots of traditional healing run deep in Southwest


The tradition of healing with plants and medicinal food has deep roots in the Southwest and Mexico.

Today healers continue to practice these techniques using locally available plants and knowledge of the human soul. "On every road in Northern New Mexico, you are likely to find a curandero although they may not call themselves by that name," says Tonita Gonzales, a traditional healer.

Gonzales was born on Gonzales Ranch, south of Las Vegas, New Mexico and her heritage includes Mescalero Apache and Spanish ancestors. Her mother and grandmothers on both sides used local native plants to cure illness.

Although Gonzales had an interest in traditional healing, she did not pursue that path right away. She attended American University in Washington, D.C. where she received degrees in mathematics and graphic design. While pursuing her doctorate in mathematics, she began to experience a series of chronic illnesses.

Western medicine approaches failed to cure her. She didn't find relief until she met healer Rita Navarrete Perez from Mexico, who was teaching at a summer program offered by the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Perez helped cure a condition that had paralyzed part of Gonzales' face through a technique known as fire cupping. "A light bulb went off for me when working with this curandera. My soul just lit up and I knew 'this is it,'" says Gonzales.

She apprenticed with Perez and studied traditional medicine at the University of Mexico earning diplomas in acupuncture, medicinal plants, massage, and temazcal, the Mexican sweat lodge. She now teaches in the UNM main campus in Albuquerque using herbs to make tinctures and teas to cure fevers and skin irritations. She collaborates with Perez to teach juice therapy as well as a shawl alignment healing called manteadas and Mexican sweat lodge.

Gonzales says, "Plants like osha are ancestral gifts. In the past, people understood the sacredness of plants and food as medicine, using food such as using atole (corn meal mush) made with juniper ash to absorb toxins in the body. We can remember the gifts of our ancestor. We are all descended from agricultural people."

Curanderismo workshops in Taos

Native Roots Healing, based in Arroyo Seco, has invited Gonzales to lead a series of workshops. The series, called "Understanding Curanderismo in the Depths of the Heart," began in January and continues through April. Gonzales says, "In Taos this spring, we are helping people learn to be their own doctors."

Classes focused on traditional medicine and healing intergenerational trauma were among the first sessions. In February, the first part of the workshop focused on tinctures, syrups and ointments used to address emotional and physical imbalances. A second session was called "A Day of Love" and was about self-love and love in relationships.

During the session, a group of 15 people gathered in an old farmhouse on a cold and snowy morning. Sitting around an altar of food and flowers, they listened as Gonzales told them "the healing power of curanderismo is not a religion. It is compatible with other beliefs whether you are a Catholic or a druid. When I was in England, some people told me that they believe in fairies. All these beliefs are all compatible."

Going around the circle, people said their names and where they were from. They each offered a way in which love had surprised them.

A period of meditation followed. "This is an opportunity for each one to enter a holy space for meditation, to look into their hearts and discover what they are feeling," said Gonzales.

Cocoa is offered to the participants with little bits to be tasted and savored. "We are building a community with this circle of trust and sharing," Gonzales told the group.

Participants echoed this thought. Herbalist and acupuncturist Muna said, "Tonita creates space for trust and sharing deep feelings that lead to healing. She is transforming my consciousness. Her knowledge of herbs is exactly correct, and the ways she uses them is revelatory,"

Brigid Meier, who hosts the workshops at her home, said, "Tonita is a true healer with a calling to help others. Her training has been extensive, and her knowledge base is vast: she knows the botany and she knows the Meso-American and local New Mexico traditions, folklore, herbs and foods that can help the body and the mind stay healthy."

Native Roots Healing

Native Roots Healing founder Morgaine Witriol and the teachers of her workshops collaborate to discover topics that the teachers are passionate about and excited to teach, always keeping in mind topics that might benefit the community. "I asked Tonita if she would address grief and addiction because the Taos community has had a lot of loss this year," says Witriol.

Self-healing and coping techniques that promote well-being are often the focus of the classes.

"I hope that people will have support and guidance in navigating their own healing journey, that we can provide tools for a healthier stronger community," Witriol says. "We share basic knowledge of medicinal foods and plants that are right in our backyards. Our intention is not to train or certify people to become practitioners. Becoming a healer is not something you can learn in a couple of weeks or even a couple of years, but we are all capable of learning to heal ourselves."

An interest in herbs since childhood took Witriol on a journey that included working at an orphanage in Guatemala and apprenticing with a Mayan medicine man in Belize. She returned to the United States to study at the California School of Herbalism and the Northwest School for Botanical Studies.

She focuses on hands-on experiential learning that creates a "knowing" that can be understood by more than only the mind. In addition, she works as an herbalist and with techniques that release energetic trauma.

Upcoming workshops

An upcoming session in March is titled "Traditional Medicine: Creating a Home and Traveling First Aid Kit" and will be offered March 17-18. Gonzales' teacher Rita Navarette Perez will be teaching as well, with an emphasis on herbal first aid with compresses and poultices and manteadas healing. In April, the focus will be on energetic cleansings and limpia de rosas (cleansing with roses) for spiritual healing.

This summer, Native Roots Healing will be sponsoring a series of weekend workshops with some of the teachers that come to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America for the UNM curanderismo class along with local Taos teachers Margaret Garcia and Ana Chavez. Gonzales and Perez will be teaching a four-day intensive class in August.

Also this summer, a youth program will be offered at Sol Felize Farm based on permaculture, food as medicine and medicinal plants, in collaboration with Margaret Garcia and Miguel Santistevan of the non-profit AIRE (Agriculture Implementation Research and Education). "We hope to get the two-week program fully or partially funded so that low-income families will have access to the same opportunities. Anyone that would like to get more involved, sponsor a scholarship for a youth to attend or make a donation can contact us at Classes will be open to youth ages 12-17," Witriol says.

Learning more

Another way to learn from Tonita Gonzales is to attend "Traditional Medicine without Borders: Curanderismo in the Southwest and Mexico," which will be offered in Albuquerque from July 16-27. For more information, visit her page on Facebook or

The course can also be taken online as a continuing education class and is offered for credit to UNM students. It is offered for free periodically at

The goal of these classes and the work of Gonzales is to provide tools to be healthy as individuals and as a community. "Our ancestral gifts help us build resilience and establish our own relationship with the Creator. We can heal ourselves with plants and food," says Gonzales. "No one else should be an authority over us; our own lives give us authority. We are all from the earth and go back to it."


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