Conversation with a Curandera: Maria Elena Martinez

I was incredibly lucky to meet Maria Elena Martinez at a time when I was far from my own family in Arizona, during an almost-seven-year stint that I spent living in Austin, Texas. At the time I was devouring any and all information I could get my hands on about Mexican healing traditions. I read books, watched youtube videos of limpias, and stalked the insides of botanicas that were scattered about the city.

I was also actively pursuing my own journey into herbalism by attending school for botanical medicine when our paths first crossed at Alma de Mujer, the Indigenous Women’s Center for Social Change, on the banks of Cypress Creek in Austin.

After that meeting I somewhat presumptuously "adopted" Maria Elena as my surrogate Texas grandmother and began visiting her for limpias, journey sessions, and moon-circles as a student and as a fellow seeker on the path. I began to facilitate workshops at the Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine where Maria Elena could share her spiritual healing philosophies and methods with those students who were interested to sit at her feet and listen.

In our modern western society it can prove difficult to find great mentors.

...especially when we are seeking those who can help us learn the old ways of ceremony and traditional healing. We generally don’t have one assigned to us based on the innate gifts we display as a child the way many cultures have done in the past, or grow up in multi-generational households. Or else, the desire for their children to assimilate (in order to protect them in an era of intolerance and prejudice) deterred our grandparents from passing down practices, knowledge and even language particular to our cultural heritage.

And although today we find ourselves living in a golden age of information, much of the information we find at our fingertips cannot be trusted or may not actually be coming from those who protect and practice those traditions, but outsider academics who study it, often without the proper context.

Too often, many of us miss out on the chance to ENGAGE with our own histories and traditions face to face - and therefore neglect to experience it as the living dynamic birthright that it is.

..and that, my friends, is why it is truly my honor to share some of Maria Elena's words on these subjects.


CVF: Maria Elena, thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me and your willingness to give your perspective. I think that many young people feel lost at this time without the mentorship of their grandparents or other elders in their communities. Many of us are missing out on valuable traditions and lessons that they have to teach us

MEM: I have powerful and loving memories of my paternal grandmother and my maternal grandfather who did curaciones and [I] had the privilege to witness these events as a young girl. But these teachings were not transmitted verbally nor taught to the next generation.

My paternal gradmother, Josefina Alanis Martinez always had an alter with the Virgen de Guadalupe and a special place for a framed picture of Santo Niño de Atoche. On one occasion as a 4 year old girl, I have a vivid memory of my grandmother Josefina Martinez standing facing a thunder storm coming from the north as she prays to honor the storm, but also asks for protection of her home and blessings for the land. She uses a kitchen knife and makes the sign of the cross as she prays and symbolically cuts the clouds with the sign of the cross. My aunts and mother cover the mirros and gather to pray with my abuelita Josefina Martinez by the altar.


On another occasion my maternal grandfather, Pedro Cuellar, did a healing ceremony for my brother, Alejandro Martinez, when he was several months old. One night during a thunder storm, Alejandro gets a very high fever and the family becomes concerned when he has a convulsion. My grandfather Pedro picks up Alejandro and begins to pray with him. As he walks in the house praying and holds Alejandra towards the sky...he prays for a while and my brother becomes calm again. Papa Grande Pedro places my brother Alejandro back in the crib. The women break a fertilized egg in a small dish and makes the sign of the cross with a broom straw. The dish is placed under the crib. The teaching is that a fertilized egg is a living organism which absorbs the negative energies. I do not know how long the egg stayed under the crib. My brother did recover.

CVF: Did you have any significant mentors in your life, either in your childhood or as an adult, that particularly stand out to you today as having a hand in shaping your journey?

MEM: For sure the memories of Mama Pepa and Papa Grande Pedro are my bedrock and tap root as I started my own Journey in the Shamanic Tradition. My practice is diverse and inclusive as I meet different teachers who share generously their teaching and healing practice.

My shamanic teachers include: Dana Kilgore, Sandra Ingerman and Hank Wesselman. Both Sandra Ingerman and Hank Wesselman have published books and continue to teach. I have also worked with two curanderas from Oaxaca, Doña Modesta Lavana and Doña Enriqueta Contreras.


CVF: Maria Elena, I admire how you give yourself so freely to your community - serving on the board of Alma de Mujer, leading full moon gatherings, welcoming individuals into your home for limpias (spiritual cleansing), and drummings. You even lead workshops on shamanic healing practices occasionally for the Wildflower School in Austin...and all free of charge.
How did you arrive to this position of sacred service to the earth and her living things? Have you always felt called to this, and if not, how were you drawn to this path?

MEM: I definitely feel that my seed and tap root is Mama Pepa Josefina Alnis Martinez and Papa Grande Pedro Cuellar. I feel that they planted the seeds in my heart and soul and I found the other teachers in my path. I did not have to search very long because Dana Kilgore lived and taught in Austin. Later I became a member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and attended gatherings and other events sponsored by the Foundation [for Shamanic Studies]. I became a member of Society for Shamanic Practitioners that sponsors an annual meeting each year. Doña Modesta Lavana and Doña Enriqueta Contreras came to Austin to teach and do healing work and later I went to Oaxaca to visit and work with them in their communities.

I was a classroom teacher for many years and later worked as an instructional coordinator for bilingual and multi-cultural instruction in Austin ISD. I have been teaching all my life, so teaching shamanism and offering healing sessions was a natural path for me. I am grateful to the community of teachers and healers who are now walking this path.

CVF: What do you consider your own healing tradition? Where do the ceremonies and rituals that you practice come from, and how did you learn them?    

MEM: My healing tradition is Shamanic but includes healing practices from the Mexican Curandera tradition. The ceremonies and rituals include both traditional practices and spirit inspired celebrations.


CVF:  You have also traveled the world, participate in community politics - you seem to do it all with such genuine passion and a sincere heart. Do you see your work in the community, specifically your political activism as a part of your healing practice?

MEM: Yes, all nations of all the people have to heal in order to heal our planet. We have to return to the ancient contract that we made with the creator and live in harmony with nature and all of creation. We are fortunate that indigenous peoples all over the world have held and protected the ancient understandings and are now sharing their knowledge with the world. It is time to connect the circle that includes all of the creation and acknowledge that everything has a spirit and everything is sacred. It is a spiritual obligation to participate in the political process for that is our commitment with the community to give all members the right to be happy, healthy, educated and secure.

CVF: We have chatted many times before about the transition that the world is going through today; from environmental disasters and widespread droughts, to continued social injustice. What is your intuition about where we are headed as a world society - is there a lesson in all of this, are you still hopeful? And what can our young people do to help bring about positive changes?

MEM: Yes, I am hopeful and have learned to accept this dimension for what it is. We have the old knowledge that is still on the planet in many indigenous cultures and we must seek that knowledge and understanding and begin to transmute the negative energy that is on the planet. It is not going to be easy, but we all agreed, I believe, to come at this time on the planet. It is also time for us to go into dream time or altered state of mind and ask spirit to guide us and that is why special spiritual teachers that come to us in dreams or journey time are important. That is why you speak to the spirit of the plant and acknowledge its sacredness and gifts. We must change our way of engaging with the sacred mother earth and talking with her to see what she has to teach us. We must re-connect with the planet and spiritual teachers that are waiting for us to re-connect. We are mending and re-connecting the web of life. That is also why it is important to acknowledge and re-connect to wild animal spirits.



Photo courtesy of Diana Chaplin

Photo courtesy of Diana Chaplin

CVF:  In times past, the new generations of healers were identified and singled out by the elders of their communities, for most of us living in the US today, that is not the case. In your opinion, how might one know that their life path is to be one of healing, and how would you suggest that they begin to prepare themselves for that journey?

MEM: The first step [is] to go into nature and state your intention and desire to be of service to the planet and all living things. You set and intention and it will be fulfilled. after my first journey with the drum I knew that.

Shamanism was my path and my first teacher was living in Austin. Once the path and intention is open, everything falls into motion and you just walk and live it. You will find your community. Many blessings.

CVF: Maria Elena, you have been such an inspiration and a wonderful example for all of those who you help, teach, and serve. I truly do feel honored to have been able to learn from you and to call you a friend. Thank you for taking this time to share with us. Do you have any sentiments that you would like to impart before we go?  

MEM: Just walk your path with love and consciousness, find a loving community to share your gifts and begin to create ceremony that celebrates life and pray with the spirits of the land and the heavens. I do want to come visit you in the near future. Blessings to you and your community.


I am Chicana Herbalism

Nomadica Apothecary is Chicana Herbalism in both philosophy and practice.

The natural healing traditions of the land were an early presence in my childhood. My first memories of herbs consisted of my great grandmother, Lupe, simmering fresh Yerba Buena, from our back yard in Phoenix, for tea – and of her son, my grandpa Angel Antonio Vargas, offering my cousins and I the mucilaginous innards of a barrel cactus while hiking through the mountains of the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

My most magical memories consist of running through the fields of our family’s original homestead in Sycamore Canyon, Arizona,while our parents yelled after us to watch for the snakes that hid the high grass. There was a bucket on a pulley that scooped fresh water from the river far below, freely roaming peacocks, and the one hundred year old adobe house that now still stands more firmly than the newer construction which housed my tío Mingo and tía Leonor.

Those are the summers that I remember best; where brown half naked children littered the fields – posing for a photograph by the well, slipping colorful beads onto the razor sharp horns of a devils claw (Proboscidea sp.), or resting under the shade of a pomegranate tree.


For me, Chicanismo carries with it an aspect of the Mestizo/a; mixed blood, intertwined histories, displacement.I embody both the conqueror and the conquerored.

...and yet, I find a home within it and despite of it. It is a sense of historical identity and the mindful adaptation of tradition. I give my friends a limpia from time to time, when they have left an insensitive lover or moved into a heavy house. I greet the day with white sage and blue cornmeal.

I call down the moon with song and a rattle.

I prefer fresh preparations of herbs because I can feel their life and vitality buzzing within. I consider the creasote and the saguaro, who shared the same upbringing of galloping dust storms and electrifying monsoons, as family of my own.

And still, I incorporate aspects of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine into my practice because their ancient wisdom also resonates with me. I recognize Vata/Pitta/Kapha in others and cross reference by checking pulse and tongue for indications of imbalance.

My Chicana herbalism is an inclusive and dynamic practice, rooted in my own understanding of my raíces, and connecting with others’ to make the whole stronger.

Still, nothing can stir me quite like the cry of a hawk above a lonely high-desert canyon, or the sound of cumbia from a passing car.