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Mexican American, or Latino, traditional views on health and healing practices are influenced by several other cultures that they have historically had some kind of contact with, such as the Spanish colonizers, indigenous Indian populations, and Western medical practitioners. This varied background accounts for their holistic healing methods and their belief that good health stems from internal balance, a clear conscience, and a strong spiritual relationship with God. The underlying theme in traditional Mexican American health is that there needs to be a balance between the body and Earth’s elements.
Equilibrium of each element–fire, water, air, and land–leads to an overall healthy state. (Molina, 1994) Traditionalists tie this balance concept in with the idea that all health states are associated with either hot or cold, and one may be used to heal the other. A state of health is characterized by a warm, wet body, and any exposure to extreme conditions on either side of this scale leads to illness. It is important to point out that the generalizations assumed in this paper are based on very traditional Mexican American individuals and do not span the entire population within the US.
In regards to healthcare, traditional Mexican Americans hold the belief that their healing methods are either superior to or the same as those practiced by Western providers, so they tend to rely primarily on home remedies and cultural healers before seeking out other forms of medicine. Furthermore, their healing approach is firmly rooted in their specific values. It is important to be aware of Latino cultural values in order to understand their views on healthcare, as the latter is based on the other.
In general, there are three basic values that crucially exists within most Mexican American relationships—personalismo, respeto, and dignidad. (Molina, 1994) Personalismo is the trust and rapport that is established with others. Latin Americans respond better to warm, friendly interactions, and prefer personal relationships to professional ones. Therefore, the best ways to earn trust is for a provider to show interest in the patient’s personal life, exercise empathy, and avoid formal interactions.
It is also important for a provider to show respeto (respect) by dressing according to their profession and addressing the patient with the formal greeting “usted”. This makes the patient feel as through they are taken seriously and cared for at the same time. A Latino patient tends to want a provider to embrace and exemplify their role as a professional; they simply prefer more intimate interactions. And although they appreciate empathy, they expect a blatant regard for their digidad (dignity); as with many individuals, Latinos place an emphasis on being treated as equals and human beings.
Furthermore, Mexican Americans value family and thrive off their interdependent relationships with them. (Molina, 1994) In fact, most traditional Latinos rely more on their relatives for health advice than healthcare providers; as a result, it is common for a family member to accompany a patient to their visit with a provider. Mexican Americans’ cultural definition of health is outlined by the three major states that they believe are the causes for all illness and disease. Additionally, poor health is culturally associated with imbalances within the body’s natural states that lead to problems.
According to traditional beliefs, poor health can be attributed to one or more of the following: (1) Psychological State, (2) Environment and Natural Causes, or (3) Supernatural beings. (Molina, 1994) The psychological state includes any mental state that may be disrupting one’s peace of mind, including worry, anger, envy, or stress, all of which can lead to the dangerous state of susto (“fright”), or soul loss. Natural causes fall under environmental elements, such as dust, pollution, or germs–all of the things that Western medicine believes to be the only causes of illness.
Finally, supernatural beings include malevolent spirits, witchcraft, or “mal de ojo”, the bad eye, any of which can cause disease or illness. Because Mexican American views on health differ from those of mainstream US medicine, there are several “folk illnesses” that exist within the culture that have no diagnosis within Western medicine, and are, therefore, remedied by traditional methods. Many of these illnesses fall under the idea of their imbalance theory. For example, an imbalance or conflict within social relationships opens one’s spirit up to “mal de ojo”; symptoms include fever, headache, and sleeplessness.
The traditional treatment for this is rubbing the entire body with egg yolk. Empacho is an illness characterized by stomach pains, and results from feeling psychological stress while eating. Ataque de nervios literally translates to “attack of the nerves” and is caused by extreme emotional stress brought on by a traumatic event. Those suffering from this illness often engage in fits of swearing and convulsions. The treatments are praying over the affected individual and rubbing alcohol over their face.
Caida is an infant disease that occurs when the fontanelle is dislodged from the child’s skull, and can result in death. (Molina, 1994) In Western medicine, providers may equate this with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), which even in the most skilled American facilities has no biological explanation. Since many of the illnesses recognized in the Mexican American culture are undiagnosed and not understood in Western medicine, a majority of this group employs home remedies or purchases medicines in a botanica, or a store that sells folk medicine and herbal treatments.
(“Profiles of Health”, 1994) Although some recent studies have shown that many Latinos view cost as the number one barrier to healthcare in America, most traditionalists prefer to seek out the assistance of their cultural healers through a healing practice known as Curanderismo. (“Profiles of Health”, 1994) This practice is one of the most prominent healing practices in the Mexican American culture. It approaches health from a holistic point of view and encompasses physical, social, psychological, and spiritual healing.
(Johnston, 2006) A Curandero is a revered, spiritual being that treats those suffering from biologically inexplicable illnesses and can have gifts in several areas, including massage, midwife, counselor, spinal adjustment (similar to a Chiropractor), or espiritualista–someone who channels help from spirits. (Molina, 1994) They specialize in a number of areas of medicine, such as naturopaths, herbalists, palm readers, or psychotherapists. Some research suggests that Curanderos arose out of a need for health care from poverty stricken communities that could not afford it.
Traditionally, many sought out the help of Curanderos; however, according to recent studies, very few Mexican Americans utilize the services of a Curandero, and those who do use it as supplemental treatment to Western medicine. The main differences between Mexican American cultural healing methods and Western medicine are the varied definitions of similar illnesses, as well as the explanations for the causes of diseases. However, since most illnesses that are recognized in Latino culture also exist within the framework of American healthcare, then treatment can be applied uniformly.
Therefore, the emphasis needs to be placed on cultural competence, which would incorporate a system for understanding other point of views of health. It is imperative for providers to develop both trust with and respect for their patients in order to treat them and to increase adherence to medical plans. Western medical providers must learn to listen to and understand the traditions of the Mexican American patient population so that they will be better equipped to serve them. Once this is accomplished within the American healthcare system, society will see health disparities begin to diminish.