Olivia Chumacero has used herbs all her life. She grows her own herbs, teaches a class about their healing properties and even has a blog dedicated to herbs.
“I use home remedies for everything,” says Chumacero, 63. “We use them to get better. All my life I’ve only used organic medicine and other techniques to heal my illnesses or those in my family.”
Chumacero’s blog, “Everything Is Medicine,” focuses on herbal remedies, or remedios, and how they can be used to treat illnesses. A member of the Raramuri tribe from the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, Mexico, she stresses the importance of relying on nature to stay healthy and avoid illnesses. A consultant for the Los Angeles State Historic Park downtown, Chumacero includes pictures of her classes there in the blog, often promoting nature preservation.
“Our culture has lost the information,” says Chumacero. “It has been disregarded because of a chemical and fabricated medicine. All those chemicals [in medicines] have harmed us.”
Remedios, or home remedies, are plants with healing properties. They are typically used as teas or rubbing oils. There are remedies to treat diabetes, high blood pressure and stress. Most of these plants can be found in supermarkets, convenience stores and even in residents’ backyards.
Remedios remain a big part of Boyle Heights’ history. The modern day use of herbs to treat illnesses is the continuation of an ancient culture that still thrives. Experts say remedios bring different choices to the community, giving more opportunities for people to learn more about themselves.
In ancient Mexico, the Aztecs used herbal remedies to heal themselves. The “Badianus Manuscript,” an illustrated Aztec book published in 1552, is the earliest complete Mexican medical treatise known, and it details the use of many different herbs.
Some mainstream medicines, such as aspirin and penicillin, are derived from plants, fungi and other natural sources. However, natural remedies popular among Hispanics are typically unprocessed and unregulated and require knowledge of the herb for its effective use.
Chumacero, a resident of Solano Canyon, notes that herbal remedies can be found everywhere. To make that point, she invited Boyle Heights Beat to join her at Hazard Park, a popular, 26.5-acre city-owned recreation area between Bravo Magnet High School and County + USC Medical Center.
There, Chumacero picked salvia (sage) and romero(rosemary), noting how “wild plants can be considered medicinal.” She dressed modestly and spoke simply; yet, from the knowledge handed down to her overgenerations, she had detailed and precise information on every plant she identified.
Chumacero is not the only person advocating remedios’ effectiveness. Proyecto Jardín grows medicinal herbs in its garden near White Memorial Hospital. And a group of Ramona Gardens residents recently wrote “Nuestra Cultura Cura,” (“Our Culture Cures”), a short book that includes a list of herbal remedies. In the book, community members share their experiences growing up with herbal remedies passed down by their ancestors, as well as some recipes they use for illnesses.
Some of the co-authors recommend peppermint, chamomile and oregano for stomach ailments; anise for allergies; mint for sore throats; and coconut oil for thinning hair.
Rosada Esparza, the person responsible for compiling the book’s recipes, said that the goal of the project was “to build a network within one community because these folks are part of the undocumented and uninsured, and we want them to build their own health network.”
Despite the popularity of remedios throughout the Hispanic community, doctors remain cautious about certain herbal remedies.
Remedios are “as vital and important as anything, perhaps even more important than traditional medicine,” says Dr. Elena Esparza, a chiropractor who works in Boyle Heights. But she warns that education is important. “If you don’t know what you’re taking and just trying herbs, you could be causing more harm than good,” she says. “It’s easy to make a mistake.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates all products that “claim to treat, cure, mitigate or prevent disease.” An FDA spokesperson said the agency does not regulate commercially produced herbs for which such claims are not made or home remedies.
Boyle Heights has about 10 herbal remedy shops, or botánicas. Francisco Quiroz owns Botánica Reina de México in El Mercadito, a small space filled with countless packets of herbs stacked upon each other.
“This botánica is over 50 years old,” Quiroz says. “I do use remedios as part of my nutrition.”
Quiroz, Esparza and Chumacero all emphasize the need for people to educate themselves and take responsibility for their own health.
“Demand is based on the person and the season,” Quiroz says. “When it’s hot, plants that are good for the kidneys sell more. People feel strange things in the kidneys when they don’t drink enough water. They can use horsetail, resurrection plant, tamarisk or palo azul to treat the pain.”
Quiroz believes some herbal remedies should be regulated. “There are many plants that should not be sold in the market,” he says. “You have to have some kind of control so that people don’t do damage to themselves.”
But he’s a believer at heart. “I can cure you without touching you,” he says, “because the plants are the ones that are really doing the job.”