Balms Away

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.

Leonor Marrero, a great-grandmother six times over who has had plenty of first-hand experience with Cuban home remedies, aligned herself with the five-leaf camp on the jasmine tea issue from the start. But she concurs with Nu*ez and Varona on the advisability of tilo tea to relax nerves and calm stomachs, as well as with the application of salvia leaves to the temples to vanquish migraines. Sra. Marrero also suggests a salvia tea for hoarseness and sore throats.

Those are just the common cures, asserts Marrero's friend Leonor Zenteno. To that list she adds:

Cocimientos de babosa (slug) for loss of hearing
Cocimientos de berenjena (eggplant -- note: do not boil the water; immerse the eggplant in it and allow the mixture to sit overnight) to lower blood cholesterol

Cocimientos de albahaca (sweet basil) for diabetes
A poultice made of coffee grounds wrapped in a thin paper bag and tied to the soles of the feet with string to reduce fevers

Marilope (sage rose) tea for colic
Cundiamor (wild balsam apple) tea for ulcers and liver problems
Romerillo (rosemary) tea, agua de coco (coconut milk), or cocimientos made from pelusas de maiz (corn silk), mastuerzo, or chalote (shallot) for kidney infections

Late getting your period or suffering from really bad cramps? To induce menstruation (or, in stronger doses, abortion) drink cinnamon tea or cocimientos de raiz de perejil (parsley root). The latter is the most effective, but the root must be either the male or the female, neither Sra. Marrero nor Sra. Zenteno could remember which. Sra. Marrero does recall, however, dropping azufre (sulfur) rocks into clay cisterns full of drinking water to purify it, and using cenizas de carb centsn (coal or charcoal ashes) as a substitute for toothpaste.

The mamey seed can be a powerful ally when one needs to pass a kidney stone, but its potency makes it very dangerous. Split the seed and chop three thin slices into a pot of water. Boil and drink. Sra. Marrero swears that her brother Miguel used this potion with great success.

Tuberculosis was a bit more resistant to treatment, but not incurable. Both Marrero's uncle and her neighbor were diagnosed with TB and beat the disease with the help of a simple home remedy: banana tree sap. Cut the stalk of a banana or plantain tree in half. Drill a hole into the center of the stalk. Drink the liquido del coraz centsn that collects there. Sra. Marrero adds that not only did the juice cure her neighbor's TB, but two years later she got married and gave birth to twins.

Banana sap isn't the only option for healing the lungs from TB or other afflictions. Grinding berro (watercress) into juice and drinking it every morning, either straight up or cut with orange juice, also does the trick. It probably won't find you a husband or result in your giving birth to twins, however.

Surprisingly, the severity of an illness has little to do with the sophistication of the cure. Getting rid of a nagging cough, for example, entails slicing a remolacha (beet) on a tray. Sprinkle with sugar. Cover with a screen thin enough to allow morning dew to penetrate. Place the tray outside several nights in a row, exposing it to plenty of moonlight (a full moon is not a requirement). Bring the tray inside during daylight hours. Drink the accumulated dew and water. Of course, by the time you have enough water to drink, your cough will probably be history.

Occasionally, remedios caseros have been known to backfire. Sra. Marrero recalls her brother attempting to extract a burning stick from a fire being used to boil water for a pot of beans. He upset the pot and spilled the boiling water all over his chest and stomach. Miguel's father, applying a remedy he had overheard his elders discussing several years earlier, poured indigo ink on the boy's stomach before taking him to a casa de socarra (burn center). The physician who examined Miguel was furious; the ink just made the task of treating the burn that much more difficult.

"Who was the jackass who did this to the boy?" the doctor scolded.
"His mother," Sr. Marrero responded without hesitation.
Carlos Benite, 86, who arrived in Miami in 1970, has experienced his share of remedios caseros. His cousin suffered from severe diabetes. She drank a cocimiento drawn from the leaves of the Tuatua (physic nut) plant every morning and every night for four years and it cured her. He recommends verbena baths and cocimientos for babies with jaundice, and, should the coffee-grounds poultice tied to the feet fail to break an infant's fever, a stronger mixture of orange leaves and sebo de carnero (sheep tallow) should work. The latter ingredient, blended with llanten (plantain weed), makes a plaster that relieves mumps, hernias, and inflamed testicles. Benite cannot vouch for the plaster's effectiveness based on first-hand knowledge.

The llanten leaf, when heated with a candle and placed on top of the head, is an alternative to the salvia-on-the-temples cure, as is an application of potato slices across the forehead. And Benite has two methods for stopping external bleeding or internal hemorrhaging. The first one, which is backed up by Sra. Zenteno, is a simple trick to close cuts. Delicately spread a spider web over the gash. The second option is to make a poultice out of almacigo (mastic tree) bark and apply it directly to the wound.

"Most of the remedios caseros come from the guajiros, the people from rural areas," explains Ana Rosa Nunez, who cites Lydia Cabrera, the Cuban ethnologist and author who died in 1991. Nunez touts Cabrera, regarded by many as the pre-eminent archivist of Afro-Cuban culture, as the final authority on Cuban home remedies. "If it weren't for Lydia, it might have all been lost."

Indeed, two of Cabrera's books, El monte and La medicina popular de Cuba, enumerate hundreds of traditional remedies, from anamu (guinea hen weed) and cocimientos de violeta, which cure cancer, to zarzaparrilla (sarsaparilla) for rheumatism. Chronic drunkenness can be terminated by inserting either a rat or a frog (Cabrera doesn't specify whether the animal should be living or dead) into a bottle of water and serving it to the tippler. Part of the reason this cure is effective, no doubt, is that the alternative is for el borracho to drink the sweat of a black horse, and if that doesn't squelch the craving for demon alcohol, the last resort is a delightful beverage derived from grass -- after it's been regurgitated by a dog.

Cabrera cites the guira (calabash) tree as a particularly potent palliative: the calabash pulp makes a great poultice for colds or whatever ails; the oil from the seed dissolves tumors and the leaves work wonders on ulcers. The yamao tree, which can grow to a height of over 60 feet, has hemostatic properties, which led to its being used by Cuban soldiers in the Guerra de independencia to stop bleeding. The bark of the tree is both an emetic and a purgative. And jiba (centaury) root cures fevers, while its leaves, when taken in a cocimiento, dissolve tumors, expel bile, fight VD, and induce abortion.

Mirta and Ulises Valdes would be relieved to know that Cabrera affirms the medicinal value of cockroach cocimientos; her text suggests the bugs are good for provoking menstruation and passing kidney stones, as well. Cabrera's first choice for treating bronchial pneumonia is to apply to the chest a plaster made of fresh horse manure fried in oil. Ulises admits to having been on the receiving end of this therapy as a child.

Much of Cabrera's writing encompassed Santeria and black magic; it was her ability to gain the trust of the santeros that, more than any other single factor, distinguished her work. Because of that heavy reliance on the influence of black magic, it is often hard to separate the cures that stand on their own from the ones that are part of some larger religious ritual. But fried horse dung and the mighty cucaracha don't need any deity to improve their potency.

Nor does the Valdes clan need Cabrera's sanction to convince them of the legitimacy of remedios caseros. Fifty years after Lazara's brush with death, her husband Rene is skeptical. "In the old days the cures were almost worthless. You had to be doubly lucky -- lucky enough to survive the disease and then lucky enough to survive the cure," he reasons.

But Lazara and her parents are, understandably, converts. When Ulises stepped on a rusty nail, he quickly covered it with a chunk of tocino (bacon) to prevent tetanus. Headaches are regularly treated with salvia. And when Rene and Lazara's son Luis came down with a high fever, the boy's grandparents prepared a poultice of coffee grounds and tallow, warmed it up in a pan to melt the lard, and wrapped his feet in the mixture. Of course, they were living in Chicago at the time, a quarter of a century and more than a thousand miles away from Lazara's bout with pneumonia. Their doctor A a man of Cuban heritage, no less -- was furious that they had bothered to waste time on such a useless folk remedy.

"You guys are crazy," he upbraided them.
Crazy as a cucaracha, thought Lazara.


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