Curandera’s Spell May Soothe Your Soul


It all seemed too good to be true. A candle to bring me the love of my life? A prayer to bring me success? Tarot cards that would tell my future?

The promises of the curandera struck me as absurd. But here, in a Latino neighborhood where immigrants bring with them old customs, you don’t want to dismiss them too lightly.

Curanderos, or healers, practice a mix of Spanish, Native American, Greek and Arabic traditions dating to the Mayan and Incan civilizations. The centuries-old traditions play on mysticism and superstition to help those seeking cures for life’s ills. With a candle and a few prayers, curanderos say they can help people do everything from finding love to putting a little extra cushion in their checking accounts.


In Mexico, one usually finds curanderos working out of their homes in remote villages or small towns. In Los Angeles, one finds them in strip malls.

Botanica de la Selva in Sylmar is sandwiched between a pizza place and a pharmacy in the 12730 block of Glenoaks Boulevard. The name means “Botany of the Jungle.” Curanderos use exotic herbs and oils in their work, and many use the word “botanica” in their business name.

The Sylmar shop is about the size of a living room. Shelves filled with herbs, spiritual books, religious figurines and glass candles line the walls. The place smells as if somebody had been burning incense.

Candles of all colors sell for about three bucks. Each holds a different promise.

Light it up and the man or woman of your desires would succumb to your pleasure, says the wrapper on a green candle.

I had to admit, it sounded intriguing.

I first heard of a curandera as a child in the small Mexican town where I was raised, Juchipila, Zacatecas. My grandmother, a small woman with a rugged face, had crosses all over her brick home, along with candles, pictures of her children and paintings of men and women wearing what looked like royal clothing. “Saints,” she would say. “They are saints.”

I would hear my grandma talk about the trabajitos (little jobs) her curandera would do for her. “Oh, she is good. She is. She has the power to heal and bring you luck,” my Grandma Maria would say.

Well, it’s really God, she would add, making the sign of the cross every time she mentioned God. “You know, God works in different ways. God is almighty. But she can help you, the curandera.”

The sound of a soft voice brought me back to reality.

“Can I help you?”

It was the curandera, Fidelia Pineda, a short, stocky woman with long hair and thick glasses. She told me she had taken over the operation from her brother six years ago when he moved to Oregon.

Spiritual Healer Says Phone Home

For $25, the 38-year-old Fidelia agreed to read the Tarot cards for me--kind of like a general checkup.

She laid out the cards, then began uncovering them one by one.

She told me I have not kept in touch with my family back in Texas. Not a good thing, she said. Heard of a phone?

I had to admit, she was right. I should call more often. Someday.

She laid out a few more cards and asked if I had children. No, children, I said. “Are you sure?” she persisted.

I think I would know.

Other cards said there was a person who was trying to control my life, and that I was often depressed--but that at the same time, I had so much energy.

This confused me. I’m not always smiling, but then again I’m always going faster than the Energizer bunny.

Then Fidelia pulled a card showing a skeleton wearing a monk’s robe. The word DEATH seemed to say it all.

“Death?” I said out loud.

Fidelia smiled. Nobody is dying, she assured me, but it seems your communication with your family has been dying out.

Other than that, you are OK, she said. Nobody has put any spells on you, and you don’t need a limpia. That was a relief--in a limpia, she scrubs herbs all over your half-naked body to cleanse away evil.

That was about it. It seemed more like a horoscope reading. Some things rang true and others, well, not so true.

But to some people, at least, she offers a comfort.

Sometimes customers show up with unexplainable pains and periods of bad luck. For luck, she asks them to light candles she prepares for them. She also does a limpia or recommends they take certain herbs, like te de tila for the nervous system.

That is why Alma Sanchez, 28, of Sylmar, came to see her. She believed somebody had put a spell on her to separate her from her husband and make her ill.

Fidelia gave her some herbs, told her to light some candles and gave her a lucky charm to protect her from all evil, Sanchez said. After lighting candles and praying, she said, the pains went away.

“My life is so much more peaceful since I started coming to see Fidelia,” Sanchez said. “She told me to have faith. I light up candles. She prayed for me. The pain is gone. She is a good one.”

Fidelia sees mostly women, typically immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Some have been abandoned by their husbands and want them back. Some light a candle to bring luck and money into their homes. Some want protection for their loved ones. Others want to fight black magic.

Sanchez says Fidelia’s fees are fairly inexpensive for the cures her customers seek. About 20 bucks for a first consultation and $30 or $50 depending on what kind of job the person needs--a card reading, candle or herb.

Advice to Lovelorn Needs Business License

Sometimes things don’t turn out the way the customers plan, so they come back for another candle, another prayer, another herb.

Fidelia is happy to help others, she said. Her older brother taught her many things when he worked in the shop. Since she took over for him, she has been able to offer most of the same remedies and prayers.

“We all have this power,” she says. “You just have to find it.”

Dr. Shirley Fannin, director of disease control for the Los Angeles Department of Health Services, noted that selling herbs and candles and giving advice to the lovelorn is legal and that to set up shop, curanderos need only a business license.

But they cannot cross the line and begin giving medical advice, she noted, and cautioned that anyone suffering illnesses should go to a real doctor, not a curandera. Still, she didn’t completely rule out the healing powers of curanderas for other sorts of woes.

“We do not know everything that there is in the universe,” Fannin said.

Then I remembered how my grandma is always able to go to sleep at night, thinking that the candle at the end of the room will protect her youngest son working in fields across the border.

Then it hit me why curanderos have survived all these years. It’s faith--something cold logic has never been entirely able to squelch.