The stories of how this practice came to be are innumerable, but for me, it began as a child. With a nervous tummy and a nurse mom, she taught me a soothing and healing massage for my upset belly. For my teacher, Rosita Arvigo, it began with an early fascination of the healing power of plants. And for her teachers, it began, in part, by the necessity of living where food IS medicine, where the natural world offers abundant remedies, and where the body is in no way separate from the spirit...and their love and connection to it all!
Dr. Rosita Arvigo
Rosita's relationship to herbs has spanned her lifetime, across North America into Mexico and Central America. Born to immigrant parents in 1941 Chicago, as a young adult she travelled to the mountains of Southern Mexico to learn survival from (and with) the land. Herbs as food and medicine were an imperative knowledge, and she soaked up the wisdom of the locals with her own fascination. Settling in the jungle of Belize in 1977, she eventually formed a relationship with an lifelong indigenous healer, Don Elijio Panti, with whom she apprenticed for 12 years. She also worked with an herbal midwife, Miss Hortence Robinson, who imparted both indigenous herbal
and pregnancy/birth/postpartum care. She continues to live and teach just up the hill from the land she first loved in the Cayo district of Belize. Rosita has a great combination of an open and generous heart, a feisty spirit, and endless curiosity about the world around her. Her collaboration with the indigenous healers of Belize, work to protect the rainforest, focus on educating the children of Belize, and helping raise awareness of the profound healing possible when working with the uterus and abdomen is incomparable. As a colleague once said, "'Aint no moss gonna grow on her!". You can find Rosita giving talks about herbalism worldwide, teaching bodywork, spiritual healing and herbalism in Belize and around the world, leading herb walks at the Chicago Botanical Garden, writing manuals, articles, herb and fiction books, playing with her grandchildren, tending her garden, telling stories about her many (often hilarious) adventures, conspiring with other herbalists and bodyworkers, and so much more! She may one day slow down, so catch her if you can! Learn more about her story here, and read her page-turning autobiography, Sastun: My Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer, and at her website, https://rositaarvigo.com
Don Elijio Panti
Born in Guatemala in 1893, his family moved across the border into western Belize when he was just one years old. As a young adult, Don Elijio worked seasonally at chicle farms in the area, and when he was 30, he met Jeronimo Requeña, a Cadbe Indian h'men, or healer. He was introduced to the healing arts and learned with him, eventually opening a practice in San Antonio, Belize, a community of Mopan and Yucatan Maya people. Over the years, he became renowned in Central America. People would travel from far reaches to receive his healing touch and wisdom.
In working with Rosita, he was confounded by her need to write everything down. He said that her pencil was making her stupid! When working with Rosita and Michael Balick with the
National Cancer Institute to explore the cancer and AIDS fighting medicines in the jungle (and to save them from deforestation), it became clear that Don Elijio had over 500 plants, including their benefits and where and when to find them, stored in his mind.
Don Elijio died in 1996, at the age of 103. His work with Rosita and the community around him continues to benefit the land and innumerable people around the world, including his beloved own.
Miss Hortence Robinson
Born to a midwife mother on Cozumel Island in 1923, Miss Hortence was known as 'Mil Secretos', or a thousand secrets. Her knowledge of healing was vast, and with 23 children (9 birthed and 14 adopted) running through her bustling home, she served as the general and specialist doctor from pregnancy to birth, and through adulthood. An expert herbal midwife, she birthed thousands of babies in her lifetime. Science, intuition, dreams and prayer informed her care.
Miss Hortence also traveled around the world speaking to doctors, midwives, scientists and nurses about her work. A powerful speaker, she amazed crowds with
her effective natural remedies and ways. With a warm heart and a wry sense of humor, she and Rosita had many adventures both at home in Belize and where their work took them. Because "a healer without plants is like a mechanic without tools", she was very involved with the Belize Ethnobotany Project, deciding where the team would collect plants for research. She was awarded the National Treasure Award by the Traditional Healers Foundation in 1990. Constantly surrounded by family, community, colleagues from around the world, and her beloved animal kingdom, Miss Hortence brought heart, humor, humility and a generous spirit to everyone she could.
Miss Hortence Robinson died in 2010 and is survived by at least nineteen grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
I have been extremely fortunate to study with Rosita. It's not often you meet someone like her, much less get to learn so much from them! My deep respect mirrors the love and mutual respect she had for her teachers, and her teachers' teachers'. The parts of my practice that were seeded in the work that comes from the jungles of Central America and its Mayan people are profound. They helped me shift my own gut and reproductive system issues, and since then I have had the honor to assist in shifting so many people, so many bellies!
While I feel committed to honoring the healing wisdom I have gained from a culture not my own, I need to acknowledge the damage cultural appropriation does to the people and communities the knowledge comes from. Because my own experience with abdominal massage, gut and uterine struggles and bodywork wove inextricably into this training, unwinding it would be impossible, and likely fall into other traps of disrespect. Here are some main issues with cultural appropriation and ways I am trying to combat its harm:
Disconnection from the actual people and places the practice came from:
Don Elijio made it clear to Rosita that he only wanted to teach her if it would ultimately benefit his people. One of her (many) big
projects was to start the Bush Medicine Camp, an opportunity for kids, mostly from Belize City, to head off into the jungle every
summer, learning all about the plants and traditional healing practices of the region. Don Elijio was specifically concerned about
the next generations not receiving this knowledge. I make a monthly tithing to help support the continuation of this fun camp.
She also supports local folks trying to make a way in the healing arts, recently including tuition for a San Ignacio woman to attend
nursing school. There are many ways to directly support this community, although the pathway of those funds is tricky related to
strict laws surrounding funding in Belize.
Taking a practice from people who are historically lower-income, and making it financially inaccessible to them:
This is a big one, especially when it comes to bodywork, which is inaccessible to most folks no matter the modality! Because
bodywork is such a physically strenuous job, I have struggled to find the balance, honestly. But I always offer a lower cost option
as an ancestral honoring/reparation and also to include lower-income folks. I have never turned anyone away for lack of funds.
Taking a cultural practice and making it your own:
This seems like such an obvious insult, but it gets tricky when just mentioning another cultural practice can feel appropriative. I
have found that it is some sort of balance between honoring it, and not 'wearing it on your sleeve'. Humble, committed, honest. It
would be entirely disrespectful to sterilize my practice of the Mayan healing aspects, but I really needed to look at when and how I
used that content to honor them, not promote myself.
Not looking around our own communities for practitioners from these and other traditional lineages:
I love referring people to those who will serve them, and supporting people and businesses who have historically been overlooked
(but simultaneously pilfered from!). There is an abundance of care to be had out there, we just need to commit to looking for it,
sometimes in less-than-conventional places!
This is a lifelong conversation, practice and evolution. I am committed to learning and evolving with it. If you have questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out. I don't pretend to be doing it all the best ways, but the worst crime would be not to try!