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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Q&A;: Professor discusses growing practice of alternative medicine

    The Summer Wildcat’s Ben Korta sat down with Patrisia Gonzales, professor of Mexican American and Raza studies.

    Gonzales recently received a grant to interview indigenous elders to see how they view significant changes going on in traditional medicine. She is also a teacher and practitioner of traditional medicine, and will be teaching two courses on Mexican medicine and Native Indian cultures this coming school year.

    What is your current research examining, and what is this grant going toward?

    The grant, which was offered by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Arizona Foundation, is going to be used to see what indigenous elders think about the changes going on in traditional medicine in Mexico.

    In the past, this knowledge was transmitted in more traditional ways – such as through families or through dreams and induction into medical societies. In the last 25 years or so, things have altered. People are still learning the old ways, but now people are getting trained in different environments, where at times ceremonies are not present, and that incorporates other forms of medicine, such as acupuncture and other massage techniques that are not indigenous.

    You also teach a class on indigenous medicine at the UA. Could you describe what this course consists of?

    The course I teach is on Mexican traditional medicine, MAS 435/535, and I will teach it every other semester, now that I am set to teach a TRAD on Native Indian cultures.

    It’s a very complex topic, involving a whole other concept of life. It looks at a human relationship to nature in a way that is symbiotic. The class allows people to get a glimpse into a pre-Columbian form of knowledge that has survived colonization.

    We learn a whole different physiology from the Nahua and Mayan cultures that really help us understand how the human body is not considered to have only one soul or spirit, but can have many spirits, can be connected to other dreamers and elements in the landscape in ways that we don’t recognize in the Western understanding of physiology and biology.

    Are there any particular methods-other than lectures and papers-that you employ to help explore these ideas, given that most students will not have been previously familiar with them?

    This year I incorporated dreams. Part of students’ learning was to track their dreams. But these dreams are always situated within a culture, so I’m not teaching students how to interpret their dreams in the way indigenous peoples do, but to see how indigenous techniques can be useful to do that.

    They can learn how dreams relate to the natural environment, and how they reveal a world of reciprocity and of participation, a living world that creates us. I emphasize how dreams are related to concepts of body, mind and land and how these become captured together within them.

    Do you find that people are mostly receptive to this kind of knowledge? Have you encountered difficulties in trying to transmit these ideas to your students?

    A lot of people are curious and would like to know more. I think that students are pretty receptive but at the same time I think that at a certain level some have difficulty with this way of looking at the world.

    We try to teach indigenous medicine as a parallel system. We have to keep in mind that some indigenous peoples do not necessarily want this system to be integrated, but just respected.

    Also, I just joined the university two years ago and just finished a book. When I present at scholarly conferences there is a strong receptivity to this kind of knowledge.

    Now that I’m working as a professor teaching this in a university setting. I’m always asking myself: what is it that is appropriate to teach in this setting? Traditionally, learning indigenous medicine does not involve taking notes, but rather develops through continuous practice and by participating in sacred work in a ceremonial setting.

    What drew you to the study of indigenous medicine? How did you develop your knowledge of this form of treatment?

    I was born into family that practices traditional Mexican medicine. My family were American Indians who eventually married with indigenous peoples of Mexico.

    I’ve practice Nahua medicine for decades. The way I learned was through family. I had to seek out elders, and spent three years of nonstop training at one point. I grew up with prayers being given around family, and with people coming in for treatment.

    After my elders died, I learned from people outside of my family, and from elders who took me in as their apprentice. I did all this before I became a professor. I went to various places where indigenous medicine was being taught, and have practiced this form of healing for decades.

    What is your experience as a practitioner?

    I have had clinics that I’ve run with traditional medicine. I’ve helped woman deal with domestic violence and have helped create a community health worker program in Albuquerque, which was, we think, the first in the United States. I’ve also served as a midwife, and do workshops on healing trauma.

    I’ve worked with a lot of people. Rape and incest victims, and car accident victims, for example. But indigenous medicine a traumatic episode doesn’t have to be catastrophic.

    In Mexican culture – in Latin American culture in general – when you have a strongly experienced event, part of your spirit remains and has to be called back from the place it happened.

    What kind of techniques, specifically, have you used?

    One is called a Limpia, which is like a purification rite or ceremony. It sometimes can be very elaborate and can last several days. Purification, here, does not imply dirtiness, but is rather a means of attaining equilibrium. The term Limpia doesn’t quite translate into English, and covers many meanings.

    People do this rite when they have experienced a kind of trauma: hit by a car, experienced a violent act – there are different kinds of limpias, but these require a different kind of practice.

    Do you think that there is an inherent antagonism between this form of knowledge and our Western modes of conceiving of the body? Are you optimistic that these indigenous healing techniques can be integrated or respected by different cultures?

    Well, one of our plans for our department is to create an institute for indigenous medicine. If a community is strong then people will be able to respond to the pressures of other systems that are more dominant. It will allow this knowledge to survive in many communities.

    One of my long-term goals is to create an environment where everyday people can connect to this knowledge. About 10 years ago elders had gatherings from across the Americas to talk about their concern for the planet, and of the possibility of human life on the planet. One of the instructions that I was given by the elders was to promote indigenous medicine.

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