I had the honor of accompanying Physician Assistant Patricia Ferrer and Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Eldred on a tour to San Juan Chamula with Don Sergio Castro one beautiful sunny day in July 2015. Patricia had told me Sergio's story and how he came to be known as "St. Sergio of Chiapas" through his selfless dedication to poor communities in the region. But words fail to transmit all that St. Sergio means to the people he has served.
Sergio's life work and his way of being in this world is best understood in the presence of the emotions he elicits from people in communities such as Chamula. As we walked through the streets on our way to the spiritual centerpiece of the town, the church of San Juan Bautista, Don Sergio brought smiles, laughter, and reverence from all the men and boys in the church square.
It seemed all felt a special connection to Don Sergio in his unassuming blue handkerchief and cowboy hat. I felt I was walking alongside a ray of hope in the world, a reminder that although good seems to disappear for some time, it will always return. But it was the embrace in the main streets with an elderly woman that moved me to tears. This woman could not speak and I do not know sign language, but her gestures, the look in her eyes, and the way she nestled so closely into Don Sergio’s arms told me everything I needed to know. Her hands up to the sky, then to her heart and mouth, and then melting into Don Sergio’s arms, she told me how Don Sergio saved her life with his medicine and that he was pure love. A love that heals you because it tells you that you are not alone in the world and that we are all here to care for each other.
Inside the church, the floor covered with fragrant pine needles and lit candles, Don Sergio explained in his soft and gentle manner what St. John the Baptist represents to the people of Chamula, the history of the church, and the native view of healing through “curanderos,” elder men and women healers who are thought to have a heightened ability to communicate with the saints.
With nothing but reverence for this indigenous way of life so different from how he was raised, Sergio explained how the curanderos come to the church with their patients, light candles, offer sacred pox (a liquor made from corn) and now coca-cola, pray, and wait for the message from the saints about the best course of action. They use the fizzy drinks to expel gas, and thus metaphorically, expel the spiritual disharmony that ails them. The message from Don Sergio was simple and profound: This is their cosmovision and their reality is as legitimate as any other. In this way Don Sergio walks among the curanderos of the indigenous peoples of southern Mexico, utilizing resources he has from Western Medicine, but always humbly recognizing that there is something greater than all our scientific knowledge, and that the sometimes the best we can do is just simply care for others.
Adriana M Manago is an assistant professor of psychology at Western Washington University, specializing in cultural developmental psychology. She conducts research in the Maya community of Zinacantán, studying how sociocultural changes associated with modernization and the proliferation of communication technologies are connected to patterns of change in social development during adolescence and the transition to adulthood.