La Curandera Quest.
An Interview by Shari Shepard
Speaking with Shaela Noella makes you want to slow down and catch your breath, nothing seems to betray her calm.
After spending nine months fundraising and gaining community support from Herbalists without Borders, Shaela journeyed through Mexico to learn about the concept of curanderismo (the art of curing); from Tijuana, to Mexico City, Oaxaca, to the Yucatan Peninsula, with the help of friends and translators along the way, Shaela sought out elders to share their medicinal wisdom with her.
Before and during her trip, “things just fell into place. I had so much support from HWB and from my community.” Shaela mentioned. The impetus for her quest was a question posed by the name of her new musical group: Las Curanderas, (women healers), when a member of her band raised the issue of cultural appropriation in the naming of her group. From this Shaela was inspired to do some deeper soul searching.
“It sounds funny now, but I wanted to ask Curanderos what they think about Las Curanderas.” That’s how the Curandera Project was born. However, her reasons for going to Mexico were also more personal - “My father is Spanish, Pueblo and Apache,” she says reflectively. “It’s also about self-discovery. It put me on an introspective path.”
Curanderismo is a mixture of healing traditions practiced by Spanish Catholics, practitioners of Santeria, and the indigenous healing ways of North, Central, and South America reaching back to the prominence of the Inca, Aztec, Maya, and indigenous people of the Southwest. In regard to western traditions, the influence of Catholicism on curanderismo can be seen in the observance of a duality between good and evil, of black magic and white magic, that wasn’t there before. “But there are a lot of curanderos that don’t believe in that aspect,” Shaela says. Shaela’s goal is to pave the way for others to learn from the Curanderas and to establish a connection so others can go back and continue learning. “I’m inspired by connecting wisdom and cultures across the border. There are no borders for music, education, wisdom. I want to honor that we’re more connected than disconnected.“
Shaela makes note that there is a sense of urgency to learn as much as possible before the knowledge of the Curanderos dies out. “All of the curanderas I learned from were in their 60’s, 70s, or 80s. The sense from them was ‘God-willing, if I’m still alive. Then yes, come back to learn.’”
Shaela’s visit was only meant to last a few weeks, but when the Coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a halt, she and her companion found themselves stranded in Mexico indefinitely. “We were stuck down there but it was an opportunity to learn even more. I was learning but not as intensively until the quarantine.” When asked what she carries with her from her experience, she pauses, before stating several things without hesitation:
“All the different ways people live. Trusting more in the elements as power tools for healing. Trusting more in myself and my journey. Faith in humanity - community is pretty powerful.”
There’s that calm lightness again. Is it any wonder that over hundreds of miles navigating new and familiar territory with friends and strangers alike, that her journey was anything but powerful?
While the Curandera Project is currently on hold, Shaela still hopes to share her experience with the wider community as a documentary.
To other herbalists and questers she says “Believe in your dream and that you’re completely worthy of it. Then follow it.”
Maybe at the root of that calm is a solid faith in others and in life to connect us across borders that don’t really exist, and across generations with arms open wide.
For more information on Shaela Noella or La Curandera Quest, please enjoy this video post.
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Shari Shepard has had a love for wild things since her first summer spent in her grandmother's garden in Alabama. She is a writer, wanderer, teacher, ritualist, and musician. She comes from the sea spray and redwoods of the Ohlone lands, now widely known as the San Francisco Bay Area by way of the Chattahoochee River Valley once stewarded by the Muscogee. Her herbal learning is influenced by the Wise Womxn tradition, western herbalism, the root workers of the southeastern United States, andsh West African traditional medicine. She credits the plant world for opening up a doorway to deeper understanding about her ancestral lineage and for helping her step on the hard yet rewarding path of healing the traumatic loss of cultural identity caused by the colonization and captivity of her ancestors.
Her favorite medicine food is ginger, her favorite tea is Tulsi, and her favorite tree is the Sweet Gum.
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