Some aspects of folk medicine are favorable, others detrimental. One might think that in time the harmful elements would be weeded out through trial and error. But not so; for folk science is grounded less on empiricism than on faith, dogma and fear of the uncertain. Traditional cures, even when blatantly injurious, are simply not to be questioned . . . and woe to the outsider who would question them. I speak from experience.

Since I first came to the Sierra Madre, in talking with patients I have tried in vain to counter some of the folk myths and home remedies which are most clearly pernicious . . . for example:

  • The use of human feces, euphemistically called “yerba sin raíz” (herb without roots), for all sorts of tonics and poultices.

  • The 40 day “dieta” (diet) of the post-partum mother, during which most nutritional foods, as well as bathing, are strictly taboo.

  • The treatment of “caída de la mollera” (fallen fontanel), whereby the curandera tries to lift the brains of the dehydrated baby back to normal position by sucking on the child’s crown, pushing upward on its palate and slapping the soles of its feet while hanging the infant upside down over a dish of boiling oil.

  • The flogging or killing of “witches” as treatment for a wide variety of bizarre and frightening ailments such as cirrhosis of the liver and testicular cancer—thought to be caused by hexing. (In the period I have been in the barrancas, four women have been killed as “brujas” and several others injured.)

For eight years, I have talked myself blue in opposition to these damaging, but time honored traditions. Always the villagers have listened politely, but a little amused, as if to say, “Poor Gringo, he means well, but he is so naive:” And of course they are right.

This was brought home to me by the incident of Micaela and the orange. Old Micaela is the matriarch of the household where I set up our first dispensary in Ajoya years ago. She, like other villagers, believes that to eat citrus fruit when one has a cold will cause a deadly attack of “congestion”. Micaela has heard me explain to dozens of patients the merits of orange juice for colds (admittedly, a bit of American folk mythology). Yet, one day when her son offered her small granddaughter a section of orange, old Micaela snatched it away and snapped, “Do you want to kill her, eh?” Turning to the old woman, I said, as gently as I could, “Micaela, how many times do I have to tell you that oranges do good, not harm, when one has a cold?” The old woman smiled and replied, just as gently, “I don’t know. How many?”

So much for the value of oral repetition.

The written word, on the other hand, is Law . . . especially for those who can barely read: For me this has been a recent and—for my own purposes—happy discovery. The following incident helped me to realize this. A few days ago a young man arrived at El Zopilote asking for a hunk of copper to use, he said, in finding buried treasures. He explained that by heating the copper red hot and pouring “vino” over it, the “vino” would flare up and this, in turn, would cause a burst of flame to appear directly over the spot where gold coins lay buried. Like a fool, I told him I thought it wouldn’t work and he laughed, good naturedly, at my simplicity. After giving him a piece of copper tube, I asked him about his chronically ailing mother. He replied that she was doing poorly, that for years if one part of her didn’t hurt, another did; that she couldn’t sleep, etc. Knowing the family’s weakness for blaming everything and anything on witchcraft, I asked him with tongue in cheek if he didn’t think his mother had been hexed. To my amazement, the young man not only refuted this, but earnestly explained to me that the power of the hex is simply the power of suggestion, that a person who doesn’t believe in witchcraft can’t be hexed, etc. His lecture was such a reversal of roles that my jaw fell open. I asked him where he had heard such stories. He assured me that this was no story, for he had read it in a book.

The book was, of course, my own. The first chapter of my new medical handbook for villagers, Donde No Hay Doctor, (Where There Is No Doctor) is devoted to folk remedies, helpful and harmful, and includes almost word for word the comments on witchcraft which the young man had just recited back to me. I was delighted.

The reception of Donde No Hay Doctor has been far better than I had dared to hope

In general, the reception of Donde No Hay Doctor has been far better than I had dared to hope. As only about half of the villagers can read, and most of these so poorly that they never do, I had imagined that at best one or two persons in each small village might take interest in the book and, perhaps, mediate its information to others. However, to my joy, the book is not only selling like hotcakes, it is being read and used and gossiped: Visitors at El Zopilote pour through it in small groups, pointing to the drawings and reading aloud and haltingly the adjacent information. What is more, some have begun to follow the book’s advice. Several times now, when I have begun to tell mothers whose babies have diarrhea to give them “suero para tomar” (boiled water with sugar and salts), they tell me they are already doing so. And once, when a young mother remarked that her baby’s diarrhea was due to “caída de la mollera”, another mother volunteered, “The book says that “fallen fontanel” doesn’t cause diarrhea, but that when a baby has real bad diarrhea, he loses more liquid than he drinks and that makes the fontanel sag.”

Oh, how fine to hear her say that! After eight years of having repeated the same message in vain, all it took was putting it in print. . . There is no greater thrill than being heard!

Beyond doubt, the hundreds of pictures are what make the book “readable” for they make it fun. Even in the line drawings, the villagers recognize each other. “Look! Here is Jacinta’s little boy, Matías, when he was covered with scabies. Poor creature:” . . “No, that’s not Matías, it’s Maruca’s son Loli; look how his nose is pointed."' . . . “Well, let’s see what it says . . . "

And so, in bits and drabs, the book gets read . . . and heeded.

The new medical handbook is a step toward our goal of encouraging “self help” among the campesinos in questions of health and hygiene. A few months ago, several small villages and rancherías on the upper reaches of the Rio Verde—an area out of range for most of our medical services—petitioned us to set up a clinic in their area. While this is more than we feel we can take on at present, Mike Carstens, one of our young American volunteers, has gone to the area and is now giving classes to adults and children, using Donde No Hay Doctor as a text. Following the recommendations in the book, he is helping the community to set up a comprehensive medical kit and understand its use. After Mike spends several weeks at Rio Verde, he plans to go on to other communities which have, likewise, petitioned our help. We hope, in this way, to help improve health conditions in areas beyond those which we might otherwise reach.

Donde No Hay Doctor also promises to have some impact on other parts of México and Central and South America. We have been swamped with requests, many from projects and persons we have never heard of. For example, a Profesór de Mirjyn, of the Academía Hispano América in San Miguel de Allende, writes that for five years he has been training a group of ten paramedics on a nearby rancho and that he finds the handbook “just exactly what is needed to fill the void in the smaller rancherías of Bajío which do not rate high enough on the State scales to merit a Centro de Salud or a pasante.” Although the book is not designed as a text for paramedics, one backwoods health program in Guatemala is already using it as such and another group is considering doing so.


The handbook has been the fruit of hundreds of hours of volunteer work on the part of so many persons that I will not mention each by name. I would, however, especially like to thank Dr. Val Price, who went through the text with me word for word, both for content and for clarity. Also, I am enormously grateful to the American drug company which underwrote the cost of publication, thereby placing the book within financial reach of our villagers. (The drug company chooses to remain anonymous.) My deepest admiration and appreciation go to Myra Polinger, whose tireless effort on the book, as well as phenomenal patience with its author and his cohorts converted Donde No Hay Doctor from an ugly duckling into . . . well, at least, a duck.