Parteras, Hierbitas y Remedios

Women as Healers

Many women in this exhibit served the community as midwives, herbalists and traditional healers. To elaborate the context of this work in the Westside, we have included the following excerpt from “Doña Enriqueta Contreras en San Antonio: Midwives and Healing Traditions” by Antonia Castañeda, published in La Voz de Esperanza, September 2010, (Vol 23, Issue 7). The article offered historical context for the visit of renowned Zapotec midwife, herbalist, and healer Doña Enriqueta Contreras, as part of the Rinconcito de Esperanza programming for a series of pláticas, enseñanzas, y consultas about the traditional medicine she practices.


Healing Ourselves with Story


Across time and space, from ancient Meso America to contemporary Oaxaca, to the transnational Institutes that bring Doña Enriqueta to the work carried out at El Rinconcito de Esperanza, at the intersection of Colorado and Guadalupe in the Westside of San Antonio, Tejas, the knowledge and practice of midwifery, of serving community as healer and herbalist, are connective tissues and threads that bind us historically and culturally. Created in 2001, el Rinconcito de Esperanza is home to La Casa de Cuentos, where the work of recovering and preserving the history of the Westside is integral to Esperanza Center’s mission of social justice and empowerment of community. En ésta casa en éste rinconcito, where people gather to recordar, contar, y documentar su historia is a space of reclaiming history, of recovering cultural selves, and of healing. In foto banners of pictures local residents have shared; in oral histories, and in paseos of Westside neighborhoods, the community is recovering the historical memory of the Westside. Gente, many who still live in Westside barrios, and many who grew up here but have since moved, gather to tell stories of the families, individuals, neighborhoods, organizations, institutions, businesses, aesthetics, and architecture of the working class peoples and communities whose daily labor built San Antonio, and whose labor continues to keep our city strong. To welcome Doña Enriqueta, we share brief highlights from a recent presentation about San Antonio’s historical Westside, the urban extension of the 18th century Presidio and mestizo colonial settlement in the land of the Coahuiltecan peoples on the Yanaguana River.


The San Antonio Westside has a deep, profoundly rich social and cultural history, which includes the lives and work of midwives, herbalists, and traditional healers that we are working hard to recover. During the paseo del Westside in May, herbalist and healer Don Jacinto Madrigal spoke to a rapt audience in the backyard of La Casa de Cuentos, about plants and their healing properties. In addition to questions and telling stories of their own experience of seeing a curandera or curandero, community members brought plants to the event and held a plant exchange after Don Madrigal’s talk. We know, too, that midwives have historically practiced in San Antonio, from the beginning of its founding to the present. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tejana midwives attended to women in the presidio, in the missions and the ranchos. They baptized babies who were stillborn or at risk of imminent death when priests were not available, and healed themselves and their families with remedios y hierbitas they planted and tended. Historical research in the San Antonio Public Library’s Texana Collection has yielded a treasure of birth registers of three local midwives who, in concert, practiced their profession in the Westside San Antonio throughout most of the twentieth century, from 1911 to the 1970s.


Romana R. Ramos (1881-1969), who began practicing midwifery in San Antonio in 1911, also owned and operated a maternity home, La Casa de Maternidad in the city. the shingle in front of her house read “Midwife/Matrona.” Agapita R. Bonilla (1897-1977), Ramos’ daughter, followed her mother’s profession. Bonilla’s birth registers date from 1934 to 1971. We have yet to locate personal data about María Romo, the third midwife whose birth register is in the Texana Collection and who worked as a midwife from 1959 to the 1970s. Living and working in San Antonio for the better part of the 20th century, Ramos, Bonilla and Romo saw tremendous growth and change in the Westside community they served. While we do not yet know when Romana Ramos came to San Antonio, what we do know is that she came to a thriving, if struggling, bilingual working class Mexican American/Mexican community with ties to the larger Spanish speaking world and ready access to local, national, and international news sources. Spanish Language newspapers, for example, have been published in San Antonio since the 1850s, beginning with El Bejareño, 1855-56. Eleven of the 86 Spanish language newspapers produced in Texas between 1890 and 1900, were published in San Antonio. During the early part of the 20th century San Antonio became the staging site for radical, reformist, and conservative factions of the Mexican Revolution and their respective publications. San Antonio also became a way station for some, and a home for many of theMexican people and families fleeing the instability of revolution. The Mexican population of San Antonio and the Westside grew and was invigorated.


Though they were here but briefly, Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, the radical anarco-syndicalist brothers, published Regeneración, the newspaper of the Partido Liberal Mexicano in San Antonio in 1904. In 1910, Francisco I. Madero, aspirant to the presidency of Mexico, and his supporters, wrote the Plan de San Luis Potosí, the political document that ushered in the Mexican Revolution and the downfall of the presidency of Porfirio Díaz, in San Antonio, though published in San Luis Potosi. Here, too, the original La Prensa, was published from 1913-1963, and is still published in another incarnation. During the Chicano Movement of the mid 1960s to mid-1970s, San Antonio, with 67 papers, literary magazines, and other journals, was the leading publisher of bilingual newspapers, magazines, and journals. The Westside has a long and proud tradition of literacy that the community is reclaiming.


From the late 19th century through the Great Depression of the 1930s, Westsiders developed working class organizations and institutions, including Mutual Aid Societies/Sociedades Mutualistas, that emphasized cooperation, service and protection for the memberships in an era of Jim Crow laws and rampant racial discrimination. The Gran Círculo de Obreros de Auxilios Mutuos of San Antonio operated from the 1890s to the 1920s. Sociedades Mutualistas afforded economic protection, education, and community service. They provided sickness and burial insurance, loans, legal aid, social and cultural activities, libraries, classes, leadership opportunities and safety nets in the period of segregated schools, swimming pools, and cemeteries. Some were trade and labor mutualistas, others were not. In 1917, the Sociedad Morelos Mutua de Panaderos staged a strike that lasted a year, until the US Department of Labor mediated a settlement. At least two women’s mutualista organizations existed in San Antonio between 1915-1930. María L. de Hernández a social and political activist, helped found the Orden Caballeros de América in 1929, an organization focused on civic and political activities. Under the auspices of the Orden, Hernández and others organized the Asociación Protectora de Madres which provided financial assistance to expectant mothers; the Asociación operated from 1929-1934. La Agrupación Protectiva Mexicana of San Antonio (1911-14) organized against lynching and unjust sentencing. The School Defense League--La Liga Pro-Defensa Escolar was founded in 1934 to address educational issues. The Liga, which had grown out of the Committee on Playgrounds and School Facilities under Council 16 of LULAC, developed a coalition for school reform that included 73 civic, social, and religious groups representing 75,000 persons, and in October 1935, sponsored a rally that drew 10,000, especially women and children. While Ramos and Bonilla’s birth registers inform us of their extensive work as midwives to Westside families from 1911 to 1971, we do not yet know the quality of life for this mother and daughter team. Certainly they would have had access to newspapers and been in the city during the political, social, and cultural activities cited above, but we do not yet know their political sympathies or ideologies. Further research, we hope, will enable us to provide fuller details on the lives, work, and history of Tejana/Mexicana/Mexican American midwives in San Antonio. At this time, we provide this brief overview to offer insight into the deep and rich history of the people and lives of the Westside and of San Antonio that we urgently need to remember, recover, and honor as we make our own history and tell our own stories.


We could think of no better way to honor Doña Enriqueta than to by sharing a brief history of the Westside Rinconcito. To honor Doña Enriqueta’s story, and ours, we close with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Pueblo writer, who reminds us that stories are medicine, that they heal:


“I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.”


Bio: Dr. Antonia Castañeda is one of the few Chicana feminist historians in the U.S. Recently retired as an associate professor at St. Mary’s University, she remains active as a scholar in the academy and the community of San Antonio.