Balms Away

Sage leaves cure migraines and jasmine soothes frayed nerves. A poultice full of traditional Cuban home remedies that endure in Miami.

A little more than 50 years ago, in the Sevillano neighborhood of Havana, Mirta Valdes was living a parent's worst nightmare. Her one-year-old daughter Lazara was dying of pneumonia and there was nothing Mirta or her husband Ulises could do to save her. A doctor had come and gone; his only suggestion was to call a priest to administer last rites.

One of Mirta and Ulises's neighbors suggested a folk remedy that struck Mirta as so ridiculous that she would have laughed out loud had she not been so desperate: boil cockroaches in oil, allow the mixture to cool, and then make the baby drink it. The frazzled young parents rejected the suggestion out of hand. But as Lazara's condition worsened, the "why not?" argument became more and more compelling. Their baby was dying. What did they have to lose?

Finding the raw materials was easy enough. Cucarachas were anything but rare; the crowded habitaci centsn where the Valdeses lived teemed with them. Cooking oil was almost as abundant. In short order Mirta had a potful of boiling insects. The roaches were strained out and the oil given time to cool. It wasn't easy for Mirta to put the revolting elixir to her daughter's lips, but she did it.

Mirta noticed a drastic change in her daughter's health almost immediately. Within two hours the frequency of her coughing had slowed dramatically and her breathing had gotten easier. That night Mirta and Ulises, who had always been skeptical of the efficacy of traditional home remedies, became believers.

Traigo yerba santa para la garganta/El caisim centsn para la hinchaz centsn/Traigo la ruda para el que estornuda/Tambien traigo albaca para la gente flaca/El apasote para los brotes/El vetiver para el que no ve/Y con esa yerba se casa usted

I bring the sacred herb for the throat/The monkey's hand for the swelling/I Bring rue for the sneezing/I Bring basil for the skinny people/Stinkweed for rashes/Vetiver for the man who doesn't see/And with that herb you'll be married

"El yerberito," an ode to the venerable healer who gathers medicinal herbs and dispenses remedios caseros (home remedies), was a big hit for Celia Cruz, the Cuban songstress long recognized as the grand dame of salsa music. Every culture has its folk medicine, but the preponderance of Calle Ocho boticas that dispense popular traditional curatives like tilo (linden flowers) and salvia (sage) is testimony to the high esteem with which many in the local Cuban community regard remedios caseros.

While invoking the name of Fidel Castro is still the best way to start an argument around these parts, inquiring after the favorite home remedy of just about any acquaintance with Cuban heritage runs a close second. Recently, New Times did exactly that, and we learned a lot. For instance: change the subject if the illness is a tapeworm and the cure involves warm milk and a bidet.

Ana Rosa Nunez, a professor of Cuban literature, history, and art, a fixture at the reference desk of the University of Miami's Otto G. Richter Library, and a poet with twenty books to her credit, swears by many of the traditional treatments.

"For headaches you put a salvia leaf on each temple and lie down. It's true! Put the leaves on and stay home quietly. Te de manzanilla (chamomile tea) is good for almost everything, especially stomach problems. Vinagre con agua (vinegar and water) on your forehead stops bloody noses. Believe it or not, it works. I had a lot of bloody noses and it stopped the bleeding. A cocimiento de vicaria blanca (periwinkle) can make a very refreshing eyewash after being cooled."

Cocimientos, medicinal herb brews with the solids strained out, are the foundation of Nunez's (and most Cuban-do-it-yourselfers') cookbooks. According to Nunez, cocimientos de yerbabuena (a type of mint) are good for the stomach (the yerbabuena leaf is also an important ingredient in that legendary Cuban painkiller, the mojito). Kidney ailments are no match for cocimientos de mastuerzo (cress), which should be allowed to cool for at least five minutes before drinking. Cold-sufferers should try a cocimiento de lim centsn (lemon). And both measles and severe sneezing bouts should be treated with cocimientos de ruda (rue). Traigo la ruda para el que estornuda.

Esperanza Varona, a colleague of Nunez's at the library, is also a firm believer in the power of remedios caseros. She recommended a tea made of jazmin de cuatro hojas (four-leaf jasmine) for insomnia and nervousness. The recipe seemed innocent enough when she first suggested it, but quickly ignited a raging controversy. In a brief telephone interview with New Times, Dr. Augustin Castellano, a Cuban pediatrician promoted by Varona herself as an expert on folk medicine, claimed it was five-leaf jasmine, not four, to calm the nerves. Castellano's insistence on five leaves was seconded by several anonymous sources contacted by this paper.

"It's been 34 years since I left Cuba. Dr. Castellano has a very good memory. Let me call my cousin," Varona backpedaled when confronted with this testimony. Eventually, she admitted that it was indeed five-leaf jasmine tea, but proffered no explanation for her attempted subterfuge.

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