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Cultural memories
The Ancestral Memory of Medicinal Plants in Covid-19

An indigenous ceremony to memorialize those who have fought in the resistance and honor the land.
© Thalia Fernández Bustamante

2020 Shaping the Past Fellow Thalia Fernández Bustamente writes about the impact Covid-19 has had on indigenous communities in Mexico and the challenges they are currently facing. Bustamente delves deeper into how indigenous medicinal practices preserve, elevate, and honor ancestral land, culture, flora, and ways of living. She challenges the reader to critically think about the knowledge indigenous communities possess, knowledge that could aid in healing on a physical and spiritual level.

The world is suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic. This pandemic has had physical, social, economic, and cultural impacts, mostly negative, due to the lockdown and the virtual life we now lead as a result of social distancing and public spaces closing. As a result, there have been consequences for both Mexico’s and the world’s native communities. We have learned to live isolated from our loved ones, our working places, our educational institutions, and our social coexistence methods, such as taking a stroll in historic downtowns which are a gathering point in every state, municipality, and community.

Dealing with a world health crisis like the one we are experiencing is not pleasant for any country, much less for third world countries in Latin America. In Mexico, the majority of the population is divided into suburban zones such as neighborhoods, rural areas and native towns ruled by customs and traditions. These places keep their culture alive by encouraging traditions like gathering for communal labor and tasks, weekly street markets, cultural events, patron saint festivals, sacred and religious ceremonies, among others. These types of communal events maintain the social fabric and keep the memory of people’s ancestors alive. Right now, they cannot be held due to the new way of living and the voluntary lockdown brought on by the pandemic. 

The pandemic has impacted not only the culture, but the physical health of people in native villages and towns located in rural and urban areas. This population’s high rate of secondary illnesses, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, malnutrition, obesity, etc., make them even more susceptible to infection. Increased vulnerability is even higher in populations that live in extreme poverty because they don’t have access to basic services like running water, decent housing, a nutritious & balanced diet, and education, all of which they should have a right too. Moreover, the media doesn’t reach these places, making information rather scarce. As a result, many of these communities are unaware of the gravity of the disease we are facing, or, if they do know, they don’t have access to medical services that diagnose, care for, and combat Covid-19. Even with access to information and healthcare centers, those who are best equipped to battle Covid-19 are extremely far. 

On top of this, there are indigenous communities in resistance who for years have defended and safeguarded their land from huge projects imposed by private companies. These companies have taken advantage of the pandemic to keep dispossessing lands and attacking the physical security of locals, the latter of whom are not only facing conflicts as they defend the land, but also the new pandemic. Companies are leveraging the potential of infection to illegally enter these towns. Given infection cases and recent deaths, organizations, collectives, and towns involved in the resistance have been unable to hold demonstrations, rallies, sit-downs, walks, cultural events, among other events, which are part of their ongoing fight and protest strategies against injustices or human rights violations.

However, it is important to highlight that some communities have organized their own protective actions, in some cases through community organizing to help reduce the movement of people or even closing down entirely. They have distributed the main health recommendations through community radio, social media, apps, newspapers, fanzines, or printed posters. It is worth mentioning that despite this effort, some communities (the most remote) still do not have access to the Internet or other methods of communication.   

Despite facing limitations and challenges, many communities, towns, and neighborhoods have opted to reclaim their peoples’ memory. They have chosen to deal with the Covid-19 crisis with traditional medicine, which is ancestral wisdom that has been used to alleviate physical, emotional, and spiritual illnesses for many years. These are important therapeutic resources due to their beneficial properties. In short, having access to medicinal plants and using them means saving lives in the indigenous world, all while preserving the history of their ancestors. Although it is hard to imagine, the health of our ancestors was in the hands of the wisest women and men in towns, who were elders, shamans, healers and midwives, and heirs to the elemental knowledges of life. There is no doubt that they knew which plants to look for and use, and the exact amounts needed to create a timely remedy for healing.

Remedies inherited by this land allow us to make the most of plants in a different way. For instance, pomades, ointments, shampoo, soap, dye, baths, meals, ceremonies, infusions and others, made with plants, herbs, roots, flowers and barks, such as chamomile, spearmint, Mexican hawthorn, rue, rosemary, lavender, ixtafiate, dandelion, toad herb, epazote, chaparral, French rose, black nightshade, pulque, maguey juice, mushrooms, ginger, etc. All these elements are at hand for most communities. For the indigenous and non-indigenous neighborhoods in the cities, these plants can be acquired at street markets which are, in Mexico, a source of important information because they offer products from many places, and also work as a gathering point for ancestral knowledge. A frequent example of herbs use is the miraculous Temazcal, a circular structure made of stone, clay or bamboo branches where a steam bath is made using infusions from different medicinal plants placed on hot stones. This has different healing purposes for respiratory, digestive or muscular illnesses, although it is also considered a ritual of connection between body, mind, spirit, and nature. Finally, it is worth mentioning that rituals not only improve the body-mind-spirit balance, but they have also been used and kept for generations as an essential part of time and harvests for indigenous peoples. This is why most communities in Mexico uphold the tradition of visiting sacred sites located in the area, whether it is jungles, forests, mountains, or deserts, but which are undoubtedly a symbol for preserving life, culture, education, language and the land itself. 

WHO mentions that:

“traditional medicine is any set of knowledge, skills, and practices based on theories, beliefs and indigenous experiences in the different cultures, whether or not these are explainable, used for maintaining health, as well as prevention, diagnose, improvement or treatment of physical or mental illnesses. They refer to a wide set of practices of healthcare that are part of the country’s own tradition and are not integrated into the mainstream sanitary system. The concept of herb medicaments covers herbs, herb material, herb concoctions, and finished herb products that contain parts of plants, or other vegetal materials, or combinations of those elements, as main active parts.”

Mexico is a pretty fertile country for traditional remedies, on one hand, because of its cultural and ethnic diversity, and on the other, because it is a large territory with a variety of plants, tastes, colors, aromas, and textures that offer useful substances for healing. In this case, medicinal plants provide a range of healing opportunities. That is why it is very important to break paradigms on their usage, continue to further study them, and to create a large network of indigenous communities who can share their knowledge of herb remedies with each other for use in their own communities. It is important to raise awareness through different media platforms, stressing the fact that using these remedies is not bad - they could become a part of current ways of healing in large cities, both nationally and internationally. 

Medicinal plants respond to the memory left by our ancestors, as do the roads travelled to collect them - all these plants grow amidst cracks, lanes, bushes, maguey, grass, and corn parcels. The sacred sites that serve as resting stops and places to pray for health, nature, health, and well-being of peoples can also not be forgotten. This is why it’s important to keep the world’s indigenous communities safe, listen to their needs, give voice to their demands, respect their beliefs, and maintain a connection with indigenous lands and native people, who are a clear example of resistance before so much inequality, and who share and pass down their ancestral knowledge. To provide a decent life and respect nature is to keep an ancestral root present in our learning, since we, as human beings belonging to different times and spaces, are aware that we are also vulnerable to diseases and pandemics, but that, undoubtedly, to value and use the traditional medicine of indigenous communities could save many lives.