Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz has been steeped in the curanderismo tradition since her childhood. Now, her work as a Kitchen Curandera and author of upcoming book Earth Medicines carries on the tradition of her elders and ancestors.
Ruiz defines curanderas as traditional healers who carry knowledge of foods, herbs, and cultural remedies for working with the body, mind, and spirit.
Growing up in Arizona and frequently visiting family in Northern New Mexico, she watched her great-grandmother making healing preparations for the family and the wider community.
“My great-grandmother was my first teacher in that she was the one who took me out to first wildcraft as a little girl, helping me to understand that the plants in our landscape were healing plants for our skin, our hair, our respiratory system,” she says.
This wasn’t knowledge from books or formal schooling, but the wisdom passed down through generations in her blended family of Spanish, Mexican, and Pueblo heritage.
“My curiosity for plants has been my entire life, for plants and food and natural healing ways. I’ve always been just enamored by plants in general,” she says.
Ruiz started her own journey of healing work in her early 20s. For her, this was as much the beginning of her education as it was a journey backward into her lineage, ancestry, and roots. Before any formal training took place, Ruiz began by talking with elders in her community.
With the death of her brother, Ruiz took the leap into following the healing path.
“He was the one who really nudged me, because I would massage his feet and his legs when he was in the hospital. He said ‘You should really think about becoming a massage therapist. You’re just naturally good at it, you know, you have good energy,’ and that honestly was one of the last conversations we had,” she says.
After that, Ruiz left college where she had been studying art. Already curious about natural healing ways, she was spurred on by the words of her brother.
“In some ways it was a way of honoring his wish to see me try this, and so I did,” she says.
In massage school, Ruiz was surprised to discover similarities between the curriculum and what she had been taught by her grandmother.
Ruiz witnessed a guest lecturer demonstrating Reiki, or energy healing, and remembers recognizing the technique as something she had seen her grandmother do many times.
“I was like ‘Whoa, we’re learning things that my grandma did but it just has a different language to it,’” she says. “That’s what my grandmother did, and that’s what I’ve seen other people do, but we didn’t call it Reiki.”
That was the beginning of Ruiz’ understanding that many of the healing modalities available were actually based in Indigenous ways.
Some of them, she says, were simply being repackaged and resold.
Curanderismo itself is the culmination of a number of different Indigenous practices. Many of these traditions blend together and inform one another, both because of proximity and the legacy of colonization.
“A lot of the traditions are actually very, very similar,” says Ruiz. “I found teachers… specifically that worked in the same tradition so they could help me on my path of learning.”
Ruiz emphasizes that she doesn’t consider her tradition a blend of Mexican and Native American heritage.
“It’s kind of like we’re putting an arbitrary border saying if you live on this side you’re Mexican and if you live on this side you’re Native American, and we don’t see it that way. I think white culture sees it that way,” she says.
According to Ruiz, the Mexican-United States border was placed in the middle of a Tohono Oʼodham village when it was drawn.
“On one side are Mexican nationals who speak Spanish and their Oʼodham language, and literally on the other side of the fence they’re considered American nationals and they speak English and Oʼodham,” she says. “So many of us, we just identify as being Indigenous but not necessarily Native American or Mexican.”
Growing up in the Indigenous community, Ruiz remembers an ever-present understanding of home wisdom, or knowledge of kitchen medicine. It was something that was simply a part of life.
“I remember being around 13 or so, and I had a really bad stomach flu. My neighbor who lived across the street, I think she was originally from Michoacán, she came to my mother and brought her charred corn tortillas,” says Ruiz. “She made a kind of drink with the charcoal from the corn tortilla and had me drink that.”
Today, charcoal tablets are easy to find on store shelves as a remedy for stomach upset.
“There was always somebody in the neighborhood or in your own home who just had these little pieces and they don’t know how they got it, everything was just passed down,” Ruiz says.
In curanderismo, the practitioner might be called a traditional healer. Still, they aren’t believed to actually be healing anyone.
“We are working as an instrument of spirit, of the community, we’re helping people to heal themselves,” she says. “You’re a conduit.”
This lack of identification with the role of healer sets curanderismo apart from many popular healing paths.
“There was always somebody in the neighborhood or in your own home who just had these little pieces and they don’t know how they got it, everything was just passed down.”
For Ruiz, community medicine is the logical extension of the shared wisdom she experienced in her upbringing.
“If we are to heal collectively we need to work together as a community. In my own journey of healing, I’ve had to erase the idea that there’s some sort of competition, which I think is a very American thing,” she says. “I really recognize that if I don’t listen as well as uplift the other people in my community that are on this same path as me that we’re never going to grow, evolve, and heal.”
She also took students out to learn mindful foraging practices in the raw Sonoran desert she calls home, teaching them how to make offerings, to respect the land, and to leave enough for the wildlife to subsist on.
Back in the workshop, students would learn simple techniques to make kitchen remedies and first aid kits with what they had on hand, without having to purchase expensive supplies.
For Ruiz, preserving the curanderismo tradition through community medicine is her calling.
“It’s a big reason why I think I’m here on this earth. A lot of [Indigenous] power was taken out of the home and out of our ways to heal ourselves,” she says. “It’s very empowering when you know how to make simple remedies, whether it’s just healing bone broths or simple remedies for cough and flu.”
Ruiz calls this “abuelita medicine.”
“We all have grandma wisdom. It’s just that many of us have not used it in a long time,” she says.
“A lot of [Indigenous] power was taken out of the home and out of our ways to heal ourselves. It’s very empowering when you know how to make simple remedies.”
For Ruiz, you can decolonize almost everything.
In Indigenous communities, she speaks about re-indigenizing the diet for both the health of the people and the land.
Decolonizing healthcare, she says, can be for everyone. For starters, Ruiz advises rethinking health labels, like the designation “alternative” wellness. For Indigenous people, this label is a misnomer.
“We don’t call it that, because it’s our first wellness,” she says.
Another major aspect of decolonization involves representation.
“If you are practicing something and the very practice that you’re using, if those people aren’t even represented in your space, you have to kind of question who is this medicine for?” she says.
In addition, the subtle way Indigenous people are referenced can make the difference between elevating and erasing.
“As an Indigenous person taking classes from herbalists who are white, I cannot tell you how many times they would reference a plant and say, ‘Well this plant was used by the Navajo, Apache, Hopi…’ and they would talk about the plant and the people in past tense and the usage of it in past tense,” says Ruiz. “That always made me feel like I was extinct or erased. Sometimes I would speak up and say, ‘You know actually my auntie still uses that and we’re still here, we’re alive.’”
Her own process of decolonization involved choosing not to learn practices, like Reiki, that originated in Japan but were largely appropriated by the white wellness space.
When large trends pop up and certification programs follow, she says, that can often delegitimize the lived traditions, like that of curanderismo, where official titles or certifications aren’t offered or are even antithetical to the tradition.
“I’m still working with energy, I just don’t have the paperwork for it,” says Ruiz. “That’s why I say decolonization of that type of work is not just for people of color. It can also be for other people to say ‘Hey, I’m Irish, do we have energy healing in Ireland? Why am I doing Reiki?’”
Ruiz hopes this will encourage people to dig into their own lineages, whatever they may be.
“Herbalists who are white… would say, ‘Well this plant was used by the Navajo, Apache, Hopi’… Sometimes I would speak up and say, ‘You know actually my auntie still uses that and we’re still here, we’re alive.’”
When it comes to cultural appropriation, Ruiz’ says it isn’t black and white.
“One of my aunties who is Hopi-Tewa, she told me that the medicine that we share is for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that you can be a carrier of the medicine, and I feel very strongly about that,” she says.
Ruiz says that spiritual bypassing in wellness work is common.
“People say things all the time to me like ‘Well, we’re all one’ and ‘I don’t see color,’” she says.
Ruiz finds this perspective harmful, because it erases cultural understanding and the hardships that have been endured. For instance, Indigenous people were not even allowed to practice their own medicine until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978.
As practices like smudging become increasingly popular, there’s little to no acknowledgement of the hardship Indigenous people had to endure to have the right to their own practices. There’s also little to no effort made to understand the appropriate context for those practices to take place.
“There’s a lot of privilege that comes along with people being carriers of the medicine without understanding how painful it is for some people when we had to do this all in secret,” says Ruiz. “You can admire the culture just like you might admire a beautiful garment, but that doesn’t suddenly mean you’re of that lineage.”
Still, there can be exceptions.
“I do know people who are practicing not within their own [tradition] because they feel called to it, and I feel like it’s always up to the teacher to decide,” she says.
We’re all from somewhere, says Ruiz. She encourages everyone to understand their own tradition and lineage as deeply as possible.
She also emphasizes humility.
“When you practice, say who your teachers are. That’s such a big part of our learning, and that’s something that I notice [is absent] in the community of alternative wellness. We have to say who our teachers were, how did we learn this, this came from this person,” says Ruiz.
When asked what steps she recommends to empower people on the road to healing, Ruiz shared simple, practical tips:
Drink more water
As simple as it may be, Ruiz emphasizes focusing on hydration.
“It sounds like such a cliche to say, but I’m always still surprised how many people don’t drink water. They drink iced tea, coffee, but they don’t actually drink just water,” she says. “It’s a wonderful way to cleanse your body, keep your cells hydrated. It’s so great for your immune system.”
This advice is especially powerful because it’s accessible for everyone.
“There’s so many benefits of drinking just water. And I don’t mean fancy alkaline water, just whatever you can afford, as much as you can of what you can afford,” she says.
Eat more bitter things
Ruiz says that, due to the prevalence of processed and prepared food, many of us have trained our palates to favor sweet and salty foods.
“We’ve forgotten what bitter does,” she says. “It’s so amazing for our liver.”
She suggests incorporating bitter foods into the diet to act as a liver tonic and to balance out the overemphasis on sweet and salty. Bitters can also support digestion, gut health, immune function, and appetite control.
Bitter foods include:
Include fermented foods
Fermented foods can be found in nearly all cultures and traditions, says Ruiz.
“Pretty much every culture, whether it was fermented whale meat or fish to fermented cabbage or chilies, has fermented food,” she says. “It’s alive and it’s so good for our gut. It’s something that many people didn’t grow up with and they don’t know how easy it is to make it, too.”
Fermented food options include:
For Ruiz, decolonizing doesn’t have to be an aggressive process.
“Sometimes the word decolonization can feel like you’re just stripping away everything and you’re just left with this blank slate,” she says. “[It] can be very triggering for people, they can think of it as very radical, but depending how you decide to unlearn it can be very gentle.”
Ruiz emphasizes that efforts to shift the legacy of colonization should focus on self-love, going slowly, and being practical. Essential to this process is discernment, she says.
“To me it’s about unlearning what we’ve been taught, but also being mindful of keeping what feels important to us,” she says.
Decolonization doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch.
“We had no choice during colonization. Everything was stripped away. We were told what you could eat, what you had to believe in, what languages to speak,” says Ruiz. “Here we are in a space where part of decolonization is recognizing that we get to make those choices now.”
Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses. You can find her on Instagram.