Embracing Earth Medicine
An Interview With Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz
Nicky Hedayatzadeh, Mint Photography
S&H editor at large Stephen Kiesling sits down with September/October 2021 cover person, curandera Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz.
Featured photography by Nicky Hedayatzadeh, Mint Photography mintphotography.com.
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz grew up with a mix of the traditional indigenous foods of the Southwest and what’s
now called SAD, the standard American diet.
So many members of her family were diagnosed with diabetes and food-related illnesses that she realized even as a teen that her ancestral foods are medicine. She became a chef and eventually a curandera. Now she’s sharing a lifetime of personal remedies and body care recipes in Earth Medicines: Ancestral Wisdom, Healing Recipes, and Wellness Rituals from a Curandera.
The first time I saw you, you were teaching a cooking class at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. How did that come about?
That all started during the Great Recession. I had a restaurant that closed and I was forced to step back and ask, what’s next? I’ve always worked in healing in some capacity. Before the restaurant, I went to massage school, and even when I had the restaurant, I was working on people. And before that I was cooking for my family and making herbal formulas— all kinds of different things.
I was born and reared in Phoenix, Arizona, but my family is from northern New Mexico, where we’ve been for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. I would take my brother’s film cannisters out into the wilderness and collect plants and make flower potions. I didn’t know what I was doing, but it felt so natural to me. These amazing plants called to me, so I knew at an early age that it was in me to create remedies. I was on the path to become a healer like my Mexican ancestors, a curandera.
But the restaurant was my bread and butter. When I had to close it, everything stopped. Do I go back to being a full-time massage therapist? Do I want to cook again? So many people were having to give up what they love.
For a couple years, it was very blurry for me. In 2012 I hit a low point of sadness and frustration. I realized that when I watched cooking shows and read cooking magazines, nobody looked like me. There were no brown women in the kitchen, or at least very, very few. Our indigenous foods were being showcased by those we would call hipsters, who didn’t grow up with them. A lot of people who were sharing the food ways of the Southwest were not even from here; they were either transplants or they were European Americans. They were sharing our foods—which is a wonderful thing— but at the same time I felt frustration because I had no one to look up to. Someone who saw the world the way I do. So I said, I’m going to be an indigenous foods activist. I’m going to be that person I don’t see on TV.
I created a very tiny vision board, basically an eight-by-ten piece of paper, and I placed a picture on it and wrote that
I wanted to share my work with museums or with universities. I was very specific. And within 30 days, a connection
that I had made had a connection to the Smithsonian. Every
year in July the Smithsonian held a Native American version
of Iron Chef. They asked me to compete.
How did you feel?
I was terrified. That was my first museum appearance and it was the Smithsonian! And I’m not a competitive person. But I said yes because it would have felt foolish to say no. Still, in my mind and in my heart, I was not wanting to do the competition. But then something happened: The Smithsonian cancelled the competition and instead allowed me to present along with the two other chefs. We ended up doing demonstrations on whatever we wanted, and I got to give a talk. To be honest with you, it’s not surprising it happened. That’s been the tale of my life. I’m just allowing it to happen.
Kitchen Supplies for Recipes and Rituals
Mortar and pestle: This is a valuable tool—I have many. I use one for smashing garlic only so that my fragrant spices don’t take on the flavor of garlic, and I also have my great-grandmother’s molcajete (volcanic rock mortar and pestle) that I use only to grind dried chiles and spices.
Potato ricer: This is a great old-school tool generally used to turn cooked potatoes into creamy mashed potatoes. I love using it to press out every single drop from an herb-infused oil instead of using an herbal press, which is better for large-scale production.
Cheesecloth and nut milk bags: These are cotton pieces that, depending on their use, can be handwashed and reused several times. I use them often for my sun teas.
Double boiler: Double boilers use steam as a heat source rather than the direct heat from the stovetop and are perfect for heating beeswax and solids such as raw cacao butter. If you do not have a double boiler, simply use a small pot or saucepan and a stainless steel bowl or Pyrex dish that fits over top. Add a few inches of water to the bottom pot and place it on the stove over medium heat with the bowl on top.
Bottles and jars: Jars and bottles of various sizes and shapes are ideal for many of the recipes in the book. Before reusing, give them a plunge in boiling water to sanitize them. Never use bottles or jars that held food or beauty products made with toxic chemicals.
Kitchen scale: This is a helpful tool for creating products so you can remember exactly how you did it later.
Many of the recipes in this book are not exact, and
experimentation is part of the process. Just a fraction
of an ounce of beeswax can change the final result in
a salve or balm, so always take notes when using your kitchen scale so you can make adjustments in the future.
Bowls and baskets: I was once told by a Diné elder that
plants don’t like to be in plastic. When I am collecting
herbs or creating a blend, I turn to wooden, glass, or
metal bowls for mixing and various baskets for drying
From Earth Medicines: Ancestral Wisdom, Healing Recipes and Wellness Rituals from a Curandera, by Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz. Published by Roost Books in September, 2021.
You write about having a personal relationship with plants and that different plants have different personalities. That’s a very different way of being in the world. Where did it come from?
It’s different to you, but for many indigenous people it’s not. We have a relationship with everything around us. That’s something I often talk about. People say things like, “Oh, I need to get out into nature” or, “When I’m in nature, I feel better.” Indigenous knowledge says we’re part of nature; we don’t have to go into nature. That’s where my relationship with the plants came from.
It’s not unusual when you’re planting your garden or when you’re picking plants—wildcrafting and things like that—to speak to the plants and create a reciprocal relation- ship. Simple things like, “Thank you. And by the way, here’s some water for you.” Some people are more attuned to it than others. I’m sure some people think it’s really funny, but if you listen, plants really do talk to you.
I think we all can understand the experience of walking into a space and it just feels a certain way: Maybe it’s serene energy or even angry. When I was in my twenties, I began to feel that with the plants, certain plants, just by looking at them. I began to recognize that certain plants have energies that feel very powerful. And then other plants seem very delicate and you can almost tell that they are very sweet in nature. Sometimes it’s almost like you can tell that they’re used for certain things, like putting children to sleep at night. They just hold that energy.
You write that it took 23 years to become a curandera. What’s the process?
Well, let me start by saying that it’s not complicated, it’s complex. You can be a curandera without having a title. There are many grandmothers in our tradition who we would consider curandera, but they didn’t go through a ceremony to receive the title. There are also people who call themselves curandera after a few workshops. I share that it took me 23 years to earn the title because otherwise it would be very disrespectful to my tradition and to all of the people that hold decades and decades of knowledge.
I’m not yet an elder. In my tradition, you’re technically not allowed to call yourself an elder until you are 52.
How did your curandera ceremony happen?
After 23 years of diving deep into curanderismo—long after
other people were calling me a curandera—one of my teachers, curandera Patricia Federico, said it was time for me
to be able to call myself one. That was not until I was in my late forties. And that’s just one example of making sure that our tradition is preserved. She put this ceremony together and brought in different elders from our community here in the Phoenix area. It was very special. I earned my copalero, which is the clay vessel that we burn our sacred aromatics in. When I’m blessing people—what many people know as smudging—I use the vessel I earned when I got my title.
You grew up with indigenous practices that were buried in Catholicism.
Yes. Many indigenous people are coming to terms with the fact that we weren’t Catholic. Many of us have a lot of Spanish blood because of colonization, so we understand where the Catholicism came from. But the Spaniards scared people into becoming Catholics. That was not our true spiritual practice. As I write in the book, curanderismo is not a religion, but because of 500-plus years of colonization, little elements of it were hidden within the Catholic church. It could be something as simple as making the sign of the cross: A Catholic person understands making the sign of the cross in one way, but it’s also a secret way of indicating the four directions.
Indigenous people everywhere are starting to recognize their own tradition hidden in Catholicism and take back their spirituality. We weren’t even allowed to practice our indigenous religions or spirituality until the 1970s, and that’s not very long ago. But I do think the veil has lifted.
Cucumber Aloe Vera Medicine Water
Makes 4 servings
4 cups water
1 large cucumber, peeled, chopped
1 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1/2 cup fresh aloe vera gel, store-bought for consumption or harvested from an aloe vera leaf (see below)
Natural sweetener (honey or maple syrup, optional)
Put the water, cucumber, lime juice, turmeric, chia seeds, and aloe gel in a blender (working in batches if necessary) and pulse until smooth, adding more water if needed to achieve desired consistency. Add a sweetener of your choice to taste. Serve chilled or over ice.
How to Prepare Aloe Vera Gel
You can find fresh aloe vera leaves at most Mexican grocery stores. To prepare the aloe vera gel, first trim the base and the top of the leaf. Drain the aloin (yellow substance) from the leaf by placing it in an upright container or in your kitchen sink for about 10 minutes. You will see the aloin ooze out from the bottom. Although it is not toxic, it has a strong bitter flavor. After 10 minutes, place the aloe vera with the flat side down on a cutting board and slice off the spiny sides. Using a vegetable peeler or small paring knife, remove the bright-green layer. Use a spoon to remove the gel or slide your knife under the gel to carefully release it from the other side. You can now cut your gel into small pieces and refrigerate.
From Earth Medicines: Ancestral Wisdom, Healing Recipes and Wellness Rituals from a Curandera, by Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz. Published by Roost Books in September, 2021.
I love the idea of earth medicines as opposed to Eastern medicine or Western medicine.
Every time I’ve brought that up, a light bulb goes off in people’s minds—especially people that are indigenous to the Southwest. It’s like my Auntie Mona wrote in the forward
of my book: “If you’re out in space, you don’t see our borders. You see the Earth.” That makes sense to me, because indigenous cultures all over the world have practiced some type of earth medicine and still do. So, it feels uncomfortable for me to cut the world in half: to say this is Eastern and this is Western. It feels just as important to me that I carry on my traditions. And I love thinking that there’s someone just like me, who may be living in India or Egypt, and they’re carrying on their own family’s earth medicines.
You also borrow from Ayurveda and other indigenous practices around the world. How did that start?
I was 13 when the responsibility fell into my lap to start cooking for my family, and already many of them were diag- nosed with diabetes and what we now consider food-related illnesses. We ate a lot of traditional foods, but that was overshadowed by the standard American diet (SAD), and I just knew that I could make things that were more helpful— that food is medicine. I first learned to cook from extended family members back home in New Mexico, but I also watched PBS and checked out lot of books from the public library. I never felt like I had to cook only Mexican food or foods of the Southwest. I made Moroccan food and Japanese food. I made all of these different things because they were interesting to me. That’s where my journey started.
Gradually I started looking at indigenous foods and medicines as a whole and saw that earth medicines are grounded and rooted in the same modalities. Even though the teachings may be a bit different because of where people live or because they’re rooted in religions, it still felt like they all come from a similar place. People everywhere use the sun for therapies and water for purification. There are different rituals and different ways of using the elements, but they’re really very, very similar.
I do a lot of speaking on holistic wellness and often say that curanderismo is about working with body, mind, and heart. That’s indigenous living. Holistic living is indigenous living. And indigenous living is working with all of the earth medicines. To me, it just makes sense to be a body worker and also to work with energy and to listen to people and let them express their emotions and encourage them to stay hydrated and to eat high-frequency foods—all things that are going to benefit them. That’s indigenous living, no matter where you are.
Your list of kitchen supplies for recipes and rituals is very simple.
What you need is very simple. It’s also about being as local as possible. And eating seasonally, which sounds like it should be so easy, but I think it’s also hard for people because they don’t even know what’s in season because we have so many foods that are coming from around the world. I never put anybody on a diet, but I do encourage people to eat more intuitively—which is about becoming attuned to where you are.
I don’t believe that we are stewards for the world. I think that the world is taking care of us: The earth is taking care of us. I believe that many people are feeling disconnected, and I want to help people get their footing back and get grounded again.
Where do your recipes come from? Are they your own creations?
Many are my own creations from trial and error. I love things that are colorful. I love things that are extremely simple. I don’t like things that feel intimidating for people. Some of the body-care recipes come from trying to figure out how to make something that’s familiar to people without the chemicals. For instance, Fierce Tigress Balm is my rendition of Tiger Balm. I loved Tiger Balm, but I didn’t want the petroleum products. I make my own version with beeswax.
What is the way for an urban dweller to adopt earth medicine practices?
Even if you live in an apartment or a condo, it’s still about connecting daily to the earth. If you can’t have a garden, then make sure you have plants in your house that you care for. It’s about opening your windows when weather permits. I find it so intriguing that so many people never open their windows and let in fresh air. It’s about learning what’s around you. There are rivers and lakes and springs around every urban area, but many people never leave their city. I can’t imagine not being outside at some point in the day. I love, love, love to pick plants and have them inside the house. I love to see what is ready for foraging. I do my best to eat at least one ancestral food a day that I’ve foraged or bought locally. It might be making sure I have blue corn that day or red chili that day— something that keeps me grounded.
I guess if there’s one thing I want to share from the book it’s to trust the process and to connect with your ancestors every single day. If that’s not part of your tradition, then honor what your tradition is. But for me, I truly believe that the ancestors are all around me, all the time, and they’re encouraging me and bringing different people into my life. There was a lot of trauma in our life as indigenous people. But now I really feel blessed, like they’re helping so many of us rise up and share different things that our world really does need right now. I’m just allowing it to happen.