COVER STORY : Faith in Folk Remedies : Many Immigrants Trust Their Well-Being to Spiritual Healers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Sophal Kong's children burn with fever, he visits the Buddhist temple near his Long Beach apartment. There, he offers a meal to his Cambodian ancestors, whose spirits, he believes, can shield his family from sickness and misfortune.

A few miles to the north, in Huntington Park, a distraught woman named Maria has just returned from the curandera-- or faith healer--where she hoped to learn why her husband cheats on her. The answer: An evil mistress who dabbles in black magic has cast spells on the couple.

Like Sophal Kong and Maria, thousands of Asian and Latino immigrants across Southeast Los Angeles County seek folk remedies for their maladies--from indigestion to lost love to AIDS. The faithful flock to botanicas and temples where air is sweet with incense and candles flicker atop altars devoted to Jesus or Buddha.

Although they arrived here from different parts of the globe, the newcomers share an unshakable faith in mystical worlds inhabited by spirits who, they believe, can wreak calamity, cause illness or bestow good fortune.

Those accustomed to Western medicine might frown on fortunetelling, herbal elixirs and blessings to cleanse the soul. Health officials, meanwhile, warn that some traditional medicines can even kill. But to people reared in other cultures, the cure-alls are often more trusted than any X-ray or antibiotic.

"I have complete trust that the curandera is telling the truth," said Maria, 38, who did not want her last name used. Her $10 visit to the faith healer revealed that a back injury, frequent headaches and fainting episodes have all been caused by the mistress' spell.

Many like Maria, who cannot speak English or afford frequent visits to the doctor, find an alternative source of care in trusted elders known for their home-grown herbs and celestial ties. People unaccustomed to fortress-like hospitals find comfort among these word-of-mouth shamans who can speak their language and fathom their demons.

"Some disease cannot be treated by Western medicine," said Chhor Sok Lorn, 55, of Long Beach, who nurses her arthritis with a sour potion of white wine, ground porcupine jawbones and dried roots--a mixture prepared by her uncle, a Kru Khmer or traditional Cambodian healer.

"When you go to the Kru Khmer , you get well forever," Lorn said. "You will be cured."

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Such homespun sentiments--and practices--reach into the lives of illiterate and educated alike.

Counselors at the Southeast Asian Health Project in Long Beach, who teach prenatal care to expectant mothers in the city's poorest neighborhoods, still "coin" themselves in the privacy of their offices--rubbing balms and coins on their bodies in a ritual that bruises the skin but is said to relieve minor irritations such as muscle aches.

A member of the Lynwood school district's PTA ties raw potato slices to her children's necks overnight to reduce swelling from sore throats, a remedy she learned from her mother in a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico.

The vice president of the Long Beach Recreation Commission boils ginger root in a tea said to relieve headaches--a simple remedy handed down through four generations of her family in Puerto Rico.

"My mother was a registered nurse, and yet every time I got sick, she pulled out the herbs," Gladys Gutierrez, the commissioner, recalled. "I don't know if it was the magic of her hands or the brew she was fixing, but I always felt better. Now I would rather take a tea than a pill."

Health educators predict that the traditional medical practices will continue to play an important role throughout Southeast Los Angeles because of the area's large immigrant population.

Cities such as Compton and Lynwood, once predominantly African American, are now home to thousands of Spanish speakers from Mexico and Central America.

Long Beach, which is nearly a quarter Latino, also has several thousand Laotian and Vietnamese residents, and a Cambodian community that has grown from a few hundred people two decades ago to an estimated 45,000 today, the largest concentration outside Cambodia.

Most of the newcomers once lived in rural villages where doctors were scarce. In America, many of the first-generation residents live in tightly knit enclaves, often isolated culturally from the English-speaking world around them.

They shop at corner groceries that carry familiar spices and ointments. They pray at churches or temples just steps from their front doors. And they cling to Old World beliefs, among them the view that hospitals are places where the sick go to die, according to doctors and health educators in both communities.

"Hospitals are very cold, very impersonal--a foreign establishment to individuals who didn't grow up with this kind of system," said Abel Martinez, health education coordinator for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "They carry a negative connotation--a lot of pain, grief and torment."

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Cambodians, in particular, are reluctant to seek conventional care for fear they will die or lose part of their soul during surgery. And they are frightened of having blood drawn, believing the fluid is an irreplaceable life force, say Cambodian health counselors and doctors.

Many also object to routine examinations of the head, a sacred part of the body thought to contain an individual's primary soul and an area not to be disturbed, the health counselors say.

Many older residents in Long Beach who survived the bloody purges of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s continue to suffer from war trauma and suspect they will be poisoned by doctors, said a respected Buddhist monk who asked not to be named.

"Some people refuse to see a doctor or go to the hospital, (and) they come to see me for a blessing," the monk said. "The patient is paranoid. They suspect that someone spies on them and has poisoned their food. Some people still think the Khmer Rouge are sending soldiers over to Long Beach to kill them."

Song Tan, a Cambodian pediatrician at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, frequently encounters reluctant patients.

Earlier this year, Tan said he pleaded with the father of a 5-year-old boy who needed surgery to correct a congenital eye problem. But the doctor failed to persuade the father, who instead said he would take his son to a Kru Khmer for treatment.

"It's like throwing water on a duck. Nothing got into him," Tan said of his conversations with the father. "He distrusts the system so much. I explained that the mortality rate is virtually nothing for this operation, but he doesn't believe anything we say. He's afraid his son won't make it through. Time is running out. In one or two years, the boy will lose his sight in one eye."

Not all newcomers are so resistant. Some see the benefits of modern medicine and rely on a mixture of medications and Old World elixirs for their ailments.

Maria Guadalupe of Compton treats her diabetes with a combination of Glyburide, a drug prescribed by her doctor to maintain blood sugar levels, and herbs grown outside her home, including cactus paddles picked from a plant in her back yard.

Sliced and fried, the cactus has the consistency of green beans and is said to help combat diabetes because of its high water content. Guadalupe eats the slices in salads and with tacos and eggs.

Three times a day, Guadalupe also drinks a tea made from avocado and eucalyptus leaves picked from potted plants outside her front door. The mixture helps cleanse her kidneys, which she said swell and ache from the Glyburide.

"I use these herbs and teas because this is what my family used and what was taught to me," said Guadalupe, 54, a masagista, or therapeutic masseuse who treats family and friends for mild problems such as indigestion. "It's pure, and it works for me."

Guadalupe also prays for good health. Like her, many residents from rural settings often believe that physical illness can be caused by spiritual imbalances. The solution often lies in heavenly devotion.

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When Chhor Sok Lorn's arthritis or backaches return, she prays to her ancestors beneath a makeshift altar in her living room that includes thin sticks of incense, fruit and a black-and-white photograph of her father.

On holidays, such as the Cambodian new year in April, she prepares a favorite meal of her parents--usually roast duck, stuffed chicken and rice--and offers the food to their spirits. Lorn believes that her ancestors, if honored sufficiently, will protect her.

When Martha, a resident of South Gate, is troubled, she seeks a limpia, or spiritual cleansing, from a spiritualist at a nearby botanica. On one recent evening inside the shop, Martha, who did not want to be further identified, held a crucifix close to her heart. The spiritualist held Martha by the arm and chanted blessings in Spanish while holding a leafy twig over her head. White smoke from a silver bowl of incense billowed over them.

Martha has repeated the limpia several times in recent years and says the ritual has helped drive evil from her life. She believes the spiritualist has succeeded in breaking a spell that someone had cast on her.

"I solved my problems," said Martha, 45, who sought help originally because she was fighting with her husband. "I was always angry, crying, depressed. I couldn't go out of the house. Now I have a better relationship with my husband. I feel very good."

The shop Martha visits, Botanica Andio de Oro in Bell, offers a variety of religious articles to help the sick and the lovelorn.

An entire wall is filled with brightly colored candles that feature pictures of saints said to protect against enemies and death. Oils to attract love or bring success in business are displayed in a cabinet across from a tiered altar with icons of saints, the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

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Spiritualist Cleofe Montesino, like many Latino folk healers, employs a mixture of Christian rites and ancient Indian folklore. On Fridays, Latino men and women crowd into the shop's white pews and sit silently in sweltering heat, waiting for Montesino to bless them or remove evil spells from their lives.

"Doctors can cure (what) happens to the body, but they can't cure anything that happens to the soul," said Montesino, 52. "Prayer is the only thing that will soothe the soul."

Health educators say that such folk remedies probably offer relief for minor problems, if only because people believe so strongly in their curative powers. But the experts criticize some practices as dangerous and even deadly.

Potentially lethal black-market drugs smuggled from Mexico and countries in Asia are readily available at swap meets, markets and other stores in Southeast L.A. communities, officials say.

These "tailgate" or "swap meet" medications, as the authorities refer to them, expose people to unregulated contents and dosages, said Martinez of the health services department.

The problem is prominent in Latino neighborhoods because of the accessibility of antibiotics, penicillin and other medications produced across the Mexican border, Martinez said.

One popular item is Azarcon, a bright orange powder that contains large amounts of lead and is given to Latino children for empacho , or indigestion. Another dangerous medicine is Polvo de Vibora Cascabel--capsules of dried rattlesnake meat used to treat arthritis, infections, cancer and AIDS, but also known to cause salmonella poisoning.

"People don't know what they are taking," said Dorothy Matthews, a supervising investigator with the state Department of Health Services' food and drug branch. "There are no warnings, no adequate directions for use. Children might be allergic to a drug like penicillin without even knowing it."

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Health experts contend that some of the healers step over the legal line and practice medicine--diagnosing ailments, giving injections, prescribing medication. Occasionally, their misdeeds surface when a patient is rushed to the hospital or dies.

Earlier this year, a San Fernando Valley man died after a curandera gave him an injection of penicillin to treat flu-like symptoms. Although the county coroner listed the official cause of death as a severe throat infection, authorities believe the curandera may have played a role by failing to correctly diagnose the man's grave condition. Authorities said the curandera fled to Mexico after the April incident.

Experts also say rip-off artists are ready to con the unwary with remedies that offer little real value.

Mariana Villalta, 24, agrees. The Downey woman speaks from experience.

Six years ago, Villalta sought a curandera's advice about her future with a married man she was seeing. The faith healer instructed Villalta to buy three roses, bathe with the petals and return them in three bags, each stuffed with $250 cash. The ritual would bring good luck, Villalta recalled the curandera telling her.

The healer also took Villalta shopping for a dress, perfume, a baby crib and a suit for her would-be groom. Villalta said she gave the woman the merchandise and never saw it again. The love affair eventually fizzled. Villalta, meanwhile, figures she spent more than $1,000, charged on credit cards she is still paying off.

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"I will never go back with that lady," said Villalta, who continues to seek spiritual counseling at least twice a week from other curanderos in the Southeast area. "These days, I don't trust nobody."

Still, Villalta's vigilance failed to shield her from trouble earlier this year. A curandero working out of a motel room in Lakewood tried to take advantage of her while supposedly reading her fortune, she recalled. The man told Villalta that she was having problems with her latest boyfriend because she "didn't know how to have sexual relations," Villalta said. "He offered to teach me and asked for my phone number," she said.

Traditional healers in the Latino community admit their field is rife with impostors. The crooks sully the reputation of otherwise honest practitioners, some healers complain.

"There are curanderos who abuse people. They use the Lord's name to get rich," said Montesino, the spiritualist, who says she charges $10 for a consultation but also sees those who can't pay. "It doesn't matter if people have money. I can help them find the right path in life."

Montesino and others said that true healers recognize when they are unable to treat a serious illness. In those cases, they refer patients to doctors.

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San Keo, a Cambodian traditional healer, says that illnesses such as cancer are beyond his power because he lacks roots that are available only in Cambodia. Keo, who worked alongside Western doctors in a Thai refugee camp in the late 1970s, said he recommends that some patients see doctors. "If I can find the medicine, I give it to (my patients) right away," said Keo, 79. "But I'm very frustrated. I know when spirits stay in your inside so long, you can die."

Even without a complete arsenal of herbs, Keo keeps busy. Ardent believers visit him each month in his tiny back-yard cottage in central Long Beach. He is just one of many Kru Khmer throughout the city who quietly continue their centuries-old healing craft.

The healers stay active because of people such as Sophal Kong, the Long Beach man who seeks spiritual guidance when his children are ill.

Sometimes, Kong says, he sees his parents in his dreams. They are angry because he is not missing them enough. Soon after, one of his children will fall sick. Kong will seek a Kru Khmer or a monk at the temple for a blessing. "A couple of hours after praying," he says, "the fever goes away and my child can walk without using medicine."

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