A Mexican Folk Remedy for a Broken Heart

The limpia, or traditional cleansing ceremony, is designed to restore emotional health. It requires a raw egg, fresh herbs and a vase for burning copal, an aromatic tree resin from central Mexico. (Sara Bernard/KQED)

http://www.kqed.org/.stream/anon/radio/tcrmag/2014/02/2014-02-14f-tcrmag.mp3

I've got a broken heart -- and I'm ready to try anything to fix it. When I heard about a curandera, or Mexican folk healer, who created an herbal formula to treat just that, I had to meet her.

Her name is Atava Garcia Swiecicki, and she runs a small business in Oakland called Ancestral Apothecary, selling herbal products, teaching classes and conducting healing ceremonies like the limpia, a traditional cleansing ritual that helps people heal from loss, such as a death or a breakup.

That’s exactly what I need. A few months ago, my boyfriend and I split up. I’m a mess. Some days the tiniest reference to love and romance will make me start sobbing, and then every other part of my life feels like it’s falling apart, too. I know I’m not alone here -- breakups are something almost everyone goes through at some point -- but that doesn’t make it any easier.

“I had one client who was so heartbroken she said she felt like she had a bruise on her heart,” Swiecicki tells me when I show up at her office near Lake Merritt. “She’d wake up and look in the mirror, and be like, ‘Do I have a bruise there?’ It just felt sore.”

Atava Garcia Swiecicki is a curandera, or Mexican folk healer, based in Oakland. When she conducts limpias and other ceremonies, she dresses in traditional garb. (Sara Bernard/KQED)
Atava Garcia Swiecicki is a curandera, or Mexican folk healer, based in Oakland. When she conducts limpias and other ceremonies, she dresses in traditional garb. (Sara Bernard/KQED)

Swiecicki is half Mexican and half Polish, and has trained with many Mexican curanderas, conducting countless limpias for clients, friends and family. I’m crying every day, I can’t concentrate and I’m grasping at strings. I have to try it.

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To begin the ceremony, Swiecicki sets up a small altar in the center of the room, carefully arranging the necessary objects -- a raw egg, feathers, a special resin called copal, a drum, a rattle, fresh rosemary and red hummingbird sage.

She holds the rosemary and sage to my nose. I take a deep breath. “I’m not going to burn these plants; I make a little broom, and -- with your permission -- hit you with the herbs,” she says with a laugh. “Gently, with love. It’s kind of like if the body was a house and we’re sweeping, we’re cleaning it off.”

The egg, Swiecicki says, is an especially important part of the limpia. “It’s used as a psychic vacuum cleaner. It’s rubbed all over the body, to pull off negative energy, cords, to move stuck emotions.”

And I do feel stuck. There’s just so much that’s tangled up in losing a romantic partner. There’s the sense of yourself that changes and, really, the whole direction of your life. I hope that, somehow, participating in a ceremony like this can help me transition into the next chapter.

An herbalist as well as curandera, Swiecicki makes tinctures and distillations using plants she's gathered from around the Bay Area. (Sara Bernard/KQED)
An herbalist as well as curandera, Swiecicki makes tinctures and distillations using plants she's gathered from around the Bay Area. (Sara Bernard/KQED)

When Swiecicki lights the copal resin with a candle, it starts to crackle and pop; a trail of fragrant smoke fills the air. I sit in a chair in front of the altar and glance around the room. It’s crammed with images of healers and deities from all sorts of traditions, glass bottles of herbal tinctures, crystals, rocks and candles. There are also lots of plants. Ever since Swiezecki started what she calls her “lifetime love affair” with flowers and herbs, she’s been fascinated with their wisdom. She uses them to help with physical, emotional and spiritual ailments -- not only for her clients, but also for herself.

“In my own life, I felt like I went through what you could call the dark night of the soul, or a descent into the underworld,” she tells me. “I hit a tremendous amount of grief, which I felt was from my lifetime but also ancestral. I was grieving, and I was crying so much that I had a rash from my tears.”

So she started experimenting, and came up with an herbal formula specifically designed to remedy the pain of an emotional loss. She called it Heart Mend. Ingredients include herbs and flowers thought to help both the literal -- and the figurative -- heart, such as hawthorn, lemon balm, red roses, and the flower and bark of the mimosa tree.

“In Chinese medicine, mimosa is called ‘the happiness bark’ or ‘the happiness plant,’ ” she says. “They grow around here. They have these wild, pink Dr. Seuss flowers. It’s known to be, quote unquote, ‘the herbal Prozac.’ ”

As Swiecicki begins to play the drum, slowly and rhythmically, I close my eyes. I’ve been crying. And I keep crying as Swiezecki brushes my arms and back with the herbs, and the egg, and lulls me into a kind of trance with the rattle and the drum.

Swiecicki has been creating herbal formulas for about ten years. One of her products, Heart Mend, contains mimosa, lemon balm, red roses, and other herbs. (Sara Bernard/KQED)
Swiecicki has been creating herbal formulas for about ten years. One of her products, Heart Mend, contains mimosa, lemon balm, red roses, and other herbs. (Sara Bernard/KQED)

The ceremony couldn’t have lasted longer than half an hour -- and maybe far less -- but I feel really dizzy and overwhelmed. I realize my sadness isn’t just about this loss. It’s about all kinds of things I haven’t fully dealt with.

“Working with these medicines and these ceremonies doesn’t necessarily take away the heartbreak,” Swiecicki says. “But it’s like having a warm embrace, or a soft blanket, or that cup of tea, just something there to comfort us, to hold us, to feel like we’re not alone in it.”

Even if a ceremony like this doesn’t do much in and of itself, that’s probably not the point. I walk out of Atava Garcia Swiecicki’s office with a bottle of Heart Mend and the feeling that it is OK to be just exactly where I am.

Anne Hoffman contributed to this report.

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