The egg, once rubbed into my skin, has formed into a soapy texture. Hardening within seconds in my hair, I remember the times as a teenager when my Mexican-American mamá used egg on her face as a facial treatment.
Inside the bathroom of Botanica del Sagrado Corazon, a Mexican shaman supply store located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Eastern Los Angeles, I am going through the steps of warding off mal de ojo, or "evil eye" as it is called by the extremely superstitious. It's the term given to the belief that someone can literally curse you. But little did I know walking into this that the ritual will involve stripping naked, rubbing myself with raw eggs, and rinsing with water scooped up from a coconut cut in half.
But it's too late. The grayish water is caught in a plastic storage container underneath me. I wonder: What have I gotten myself into? With my head still covered in egg, I show the curandera Hortencia Suarez the broken eggshell, and her eyes widen. I have messed up the ritual.
"You didn't know what to do, so it's OK. Don't worry about it," Suarez reassures me in Spanish, explaining that I need to rub the egg, unbroken, on my body from head to toe. "You have to use logic sometimes," Suarez adds, smiling. Curanderos and curanderas are the shamans, or alternative medicine men and women of Latin America who practice curanderismo, a form of spiritual and medicinal healing that has been used for centuries to cure the maladies of many. And at the core of almost all rituals, herbs, spices, and various foods like the egg play critical roles.
Yet above all, the egg is the undoubtedly quintessential item used in curanderismo according to Anthony Zavaleta, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Zavaleta has been studying curanderismo in Mexico and the US for more than 50 years and has cataloged over 600 medicinal plants in his book, Medicinal Plants of the Borderlands: A Bilingual Resource Guide. In the practice of curanderismo, when a person is considered to be well, they are in balance, and when they are ill, they are out of balance. A curandero is the person to help you find your equilibrium again.
Ideally, eggs used by a curandero are normally fertile and contain a chicken fetus that has matured on the inside. "The egg transmits the evil or witchcraft from you body into the egg," Zavaleta explains. The egg is then disposed of in different ways, but the most prevalent method involves cracking it into a glass of water in order to interpret the cause of the evil eye.
The egg's popularity in holistic healing dates back thousands of years and can be found in old texts from Greek and Roman times. The term "curandero" comes from the Spanish word curar, meaning "to heal" and was first used in 1519 by Spanish priests.
Curando Suarez developed her own shamanistic abilities as a six-year-old, when she met with her local priest in her hometown in Agostitlan, Michoacán and explained that she had the devil inside her. Visions, she said, flooded her mind, including a scene of her grandfather getting trampled by horses and her brother dying in a car accident. The priest helped her come to terms with her gift and began practicing curanderismo immediately.
"We are all a little witchy and insane on the inside," Suarez says.
There's an underlying foundation in the types of food items used in curanderismo: garlic, onion, and spearmint are the most popular, but they are extremely varied based on geographic location and the conditions at hand.
Suarez never learned how to do curanderismo from anyone, but says she had feelings about things. "I use lemons and potatoes to clean people because they come from the land. Their aromatic juices can help people balance their energy, too."
Curanderos are often found by word of mouth within their communities or by the local classifieds. They don't ask for money. Zavaleta explains that because, "they received a gift from god," their work is like a civil service.
Suarez has owned Botanica del Sagrado Corazon for 18 years of her 46 years. As we talk, she takes bites from a plate of chicken mole someone brought to her. When she's not eating or talking, she's smoking a cigarette, lighting up the next one no less than a minute after finishing the last.
In a green painted room out of sight from the front entrance, Suarez sits behind a desk that is stacked with candles, bottles of alcohol, and papers. "You have been suffering because of love. Relations have not remained as strong as you wish," Suarez says as she gazes into a wine cup filled with water and a cracked egg. Her tongue claps against her top lip as she speaks. I eventually grab another egg and try again, this time without cracking it. I rub it all over my body.
Suarez points out areas of the yolk and strands of egg white floating suspended in the water. Here, she points out, "I can see that you have an older female family member who's health goes up and down, and that the work you currently do won't be the one you stick with, but you will learn soon enough."
Leaving the botanica after our hour-long conversation, a line of people has formed. Mothers with their children and men in work jeans are looking for answers and guidance to their lives from Suarez.
I wasn't looking for career advice when I walked in here, but I guess I can start looking for a new job now.