Interview with Curandero Charles Garcia
with Charles “Doc” Garcia
In Dialogue With Jesse Wolf Hardin – May, 2012
Doc Garcia is the founder of the California School of Traditional Hispanic Herbalism, street herbalist and well intentioned provocateur, as well as a regular Plant Healer writer and teacher at the Traditions In Western Herbalism Conferences. His teachings and unique personal style impresses, excites, amazes and sometimes offends or dismays, but never fails to earn a reaction. How to describe him? The Doc is a street warrior known to go around packing love, savvy and herbs in his quest to tend the hearts and bodies of society’s diverse underprivileged, its unseen fringe dwellers and needy outliers. He is Teresita seeing to the wounded in the most hands-on ways, Pancho Villa standing up to the powers that be, and the Chinese wise fool Lo Pi, vendor of improbable insight and vital laughter. A novelist whose words function as Robbin’s “can-openers of the mind”. He’s a pragmatist with the soul of an artist, finding beauty in barrio street sounds and medicines in twisted parking lot weeds. And a lover, most of all, a lover of diversity, wildness, rebels and outcasts, old trees and young whipper-snappers, of well spoken words and well made tinctures, of those street people he ministers to with his herbal first-responders bag, an old-school lover of the very act of healing, of uncorrupted truths, and of life. La vida.
Plant Healer Magazine: What was your first exposure to plant medicine?
Charles “Doc” Garcia: I honestly don’t know. The taste of yerba buena is the first thing I can remember. Literally. We didn’t have much money for doctors. So mom took care of us with yerbas (herbs) and remedios (remedies). It’s always been a part of my life.
Plant Healer: Define Curanderismo for us, and describe its roots and branches.
Doc: That would take a whole book and there other books about that. In a nutshell curanderismo is the healing arts of the combined Spanish and indigenous cultures. In California that was primarily herbal. In other states and countries it can have less to do with herbs and more to do with prayers, ritual, and magick. So I must be very careful to call myself a curandero to someone who is from another country. They may think (as in Columbia) that I’m a seer or fortune teller. In Puerto Rico it is someone who delves into the occult. The term curanderismo is archaic medieval Spanish. It simply means, the curing arts.
Plant Healer: Curanderismo usually has a strong religious – Catholic – component, and yet we also hear it associated with witchcraft, the Brujo, even devil worship. What’s up with that?
Doc: Blame the late Carlos Castenada. He was either the greatest anthropologist of his time, or a great novelist. I met Castaneda in my early twenties when a friend took me to the UC Berkeley campus. My friend unwisely said I was from a family of curanderos, so Carlos fixed me with his power-stare, or the hairy eyeball as I call it. So I stared him right back. Eventually we got tired and exchanged some untruthful pleasantries, shook hands and walked off. We did not impress each other. Eventually when I tried to read his tripe I found he used the terms curandero and brujo interchangeably. That did not earn him points to me. A curandero or curandera does one thing. Heals. They also live by a code. Never charge and never use magic (for lack of a better term) for self aggrandizement or to harm…even if your life or someone else is at risk. You can shield, you can confuse, and you can block. If you have rituals to help diagnose a problem, fine. Other than that, you don’t use magic.
Brujeria is dark magic. Now must indigenous peoples had no concept of an ultimate evil deity like the devil. That had to be learned from the padres or Protestant missionaries. (Who also taught the Missionary Position by the way.) Brujos or brujas might use the devil as a symbol, but the idea of devil worship or Satanism is seldom found in Hispanic mystical practices. Not to sound melodramatic but there is unending war between the practitioners of both arts. Now to make matters MORE confusing, brujos and brujas also know how to heal. Sometimes they even cause the illness just to heal it. Of course they expect recompense.
Plant Healer: How does your modern day, streetwise practice differ from traditional Curanderismo, where do your ideas or methods diverge?
Doc: It’s like night and day. I go looking for the sick. I bring my goodies in a canvas sack or cheapie backpack and walk the streets like a cheap crack whore looking for a trick. In the old days, the sick came to you or if they could get word to you, off you would ride on your hot blooded stallion…okay grandpa probably used a mule and later his Model T Ford. Now where they merge is speed. You might be able to make a diagnosis, you might not. Either way you will treat the symptoms first and watch what happens. Kinda like every episode of HOUSE. I carry a portable stove in my bag. I carry some herbs which can cover a large amount of ailments and if I’m luck, like HOUSE, I can give treatment. Sometimes I can go out on the street and find fennel, yarrow, wild chamomile, ginko, certain tree leaves, ornamental rosemary, etc. If you know where to look, you’re never more than a couple of hundred yards from herbs. Like my mom and grandfather did, I carry bullion for soup. With a buck or two I can run down to the nearest mercada and buy an onion, a garlic rose, maybe a squash, and make soup for the sick. In an hour or so I can treat the homeless with the same efficiency as if they came to my home. Work fast heal fast.
Plant Healer: How much emphasis do you put on determining constitution when making a diagnosis and prescribing herbs?
Doc: A lot. But not in the sense in how it is taught today. Relying solely on constitution issues (and I don’t mean the Second Amendment) can be limiting. Having all available information is wonderful. But, like in the first season of HOUSE, his main complaint about diagnosis from personal information was EVERYBODY LIES. Of course I want to know the obvious, allergies, medical history, etc. But I want to know about lifestyle, activities, how you fuck (no joke… one client got migraines doing it missionary style….damn those missionaries….but no other way. What does that tell you? It told me a lot.) In the old days, everyone in the neighborhood, or tribe, or cave, KNEW everyone’s lifestyle. The information was right there. Now I need to ask, observe, play SherlockfuckingHolmes, and then find the right herbs or foods. But sometimes, all your information comes up zilch, nothing, nada. What are you going do? If you’re HOUSE you wait to the last commercial and come up a beautiful and perfect diagnosis. If you’re me, you treat symptoms, see which ones subside and then figure out why. People have to be cared for before they are cured.
Plant Healer: What are some of the most underrated and under-utilized herbs?
Doc: I had a wonderful ongoing argument with the late Michael Moore about this. I believe chamomile is very underused by the majority of practicing herbalists. Also, the Rodney Dangerfield of herbs (“I don’t get no respect.”) is chickweed.
Plant Healer: A recent Plant Healer poster I made says “The earth provides the medicines we need… not to live forever, but to liver better.” Would you agree with mine (and Kiva’s and Anima’s) stress on the wholeness, enlivedness and richness of existence, over the simple elimination of disease or alleviating of discomfort, pain or other symptoms?
Doc: Absolutely! Curanderismo is a holistic form of healing. Stress, depressions, lifestyle all must be dealt with but not necessarily at the same time. First thing…get the patient out of pain. Once your client is functional then deal with the deeper issues. Diet and a change of lifestyle (within the lifestyle) can work wonders. While being happy doesn’t always cure an illness, it gives the client a fighting chance at improving at a rapid rate. We use music, colored flowers, baths, sunlight, changes in food, even a glass of wine or a culturally banned food to help people heal. (Once you get a Jew to eat a shrimp with garlic butter, they never go back!)
Plant Healer: What’s Doc Garcia’s personal succinct definition of healing?
Doc: As pithy as it may sound, my mother probably had the best description. “A person can’t grow back an arm or leg. But if they can be happy with their life afterwards, they’re cured.” I guess that covers it. I work with a lot of the terminally ill. Nothing I can do will change their fate. Same for my homeless. But if I can make that one day better, they’ve been healed.” I’m not out to save the world. The world is too big and too fucking complicated to save. I’m trying to save one person for one day.
Plant Healer: How does one best attend to that healing?
Doc: With the truth.
Plant Healer: What are the most important qualities of a healthy/healthful life?
Doc: Hmmmm? Great question. I could give the boiler plate answer, eat good, sleep good, all things in moderation, have goals etc etc etc. Bull shit. Not everyone can do that. To be healthy is to enjoy your virtues and vices equally. Laugh. Laugh til you shit your pants. Love powerfully. And if that love dies then believe you will love again. Help a friend. Hell! have a friend! You can get angry, but don’t think destructive thoughts.
Know the difference between fucking and making love and enjoy them both.
Maybe, just maybe this is what kept me alive after being beaten to pulp by bullies, beaten by the San Francisco PD Tactical Squad, stabbed by an ex-girl friend, shot twice, losing a daughter to a drunk driver, having a stroke, and being fired from two careers for not lying for the powers that be….maybe all that kept me alive.
Plant Healer: What are the most important qualities of character?
Doc: Empathy, honesty, courage (all kinds), and open mindedness.
Plant Healer: Describe your work in street medicine, administering the poor with herbs you gather or pay for out of pocket. How did you get into it, and when?
Doc: It must be twelve years now. My memory is a little shaky from my last minor stroke, but I remember a winter evening driving near a small park not too far from my home. The people were just sitting there in the cold. While it does not snow in the San Francisco bay area you can still die from hypothermia. Having almost died in a snow storm I know how easy it is to sit down and just wait. So I drove home, got a load of blankets and gave them out. I may have given out some old sleeping bags. Then I saw what they were eating. Not much. Went back home and made some soup. I returned day after day, mostly with soup or hot food. They always hit me up for change, which at that time I didn’t have and wouldn’t have given it to them anyway. In a very short time I heard the coughing and wheezing of flu, bronchitis, and god knows what else. I started making phone calls to two cities where the park intersects and learned that nothing was being done. So I got my tinctures and off I went. Suddenly, at that point, everyone became suspicious of me. Do-gooder are not always welcome. Suckers are. So I decided that I would go undercover. Hey, I’d been a cop. How hard could it be? Fuuuucccccckkkkk! In various parts of town the homeless wondered who I was, what I was, and why I was doing whatever I was doing. And they got sicker and sicker. So I started observing. Watching the rhythms of the night so to speak. When did certain problems get worse? Check time. When was bronchial issues the worst? Surprisingly summer time. Who was psychotic? Who was functional? Who had HIV? What was the most common problems with men? What were the common problems with women? And it went on for months.
So…I bought used clothing that didn’t fit to well, let my hair grow, didn’t shower as often, carried a cheap backpack or bag, and just hung out with the wretches whenever I could. Then I would treat myself for a cough, or phelgm, or a skin problem I faked. If they asked what I was doing, I’d explain. Then I’d offer some. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not. But I had my in.
They invited me to stay in a squat or a hidden camp and I did. I had my little cook pot and chemical stove, so I shared soup and made teas and decoctions. Sometimes I would disappear for a week or two. No one asked where I had gone. It was just part of the life. I knew I couldn’t carry all the herbs I needed so I tracked out an area where I could stash some, pick some, or steal some. The homeless gave me a post-masters education in dumpster diving and squat living. The rest is history.
Plant Healer: How important are free clinics?
Doc: Free clinics are now beginning to offer more herbal alternatives if and when they can get a knowledgeable practitioners. They are incredibly important. But they tend to offer herbal services when the allopathic cupboard goes dry. Since most clinics are allowed to run under the guidance of a doctor or nurse practitioner there is some contention as to when to use herbs, for what, how much, and how often. The majority of allopaths know nothing about herbal treatments and tend to be very conservative in their use.
Plant Healer: Talk to us about guerrilla gardening in urban and public environs.
Doc: Hehehehhe! Guerilla gardening is the planting of herbs or veggies in accessible if illegal environs. Those of us who partake in this activities tend to be closemouthed as to where are gardens are. The trick is to find the right environment for said flora, plus the ability to access it. The gardens can vary through the seasons. I tend to grow medicinal herbs in areas where wild herbs might be growing. Where fennel grows, thyme can grow. Where sage grows, rosemary will grow. Onions can be planted almost anywhere you can find a steady drip of moisture… say, the side on an abandon building. Healing flowers can be planted in urban parks. The city’s department of public works is often stretched fairly thin. Moving grass is a low priority. Plus, if it looks like it was professionally planted they will assume it was authorized by someone. A few years ago Prunella was sprouting all over the ghettos and barrios of Richmond.
Plant Healer: We love the diversity in herbalism overall and in the Plant Healer folk herbalism community in particular, from well educated clinical practitioners to spike haired dumpster diving plant lovers… with none being less typical than you, sir. Everyone wants a place and way to fit in, but would you say that “normal” is a tad overrated, and fitting in a bit constrictive?
Doc: Normal is over rated and constricting. It is the moral equivalent of Orwell’s 1984. And it can be dangerous. Normal was informing on your Jewish neighbor in the early days of Nazi Germany. Normal was owning slaves in (pick your own favorite culture). Normal was building huge pyramids and then running away to a place with no fucking oil! Normal was throwing your kid out of the house because he was gay. No no, you can have normal.
Plant Healer: What are the greatest threats to the practice and community of herbalism today, both from within and without?
Doc: Regulation. With regulation comes enforcement. And you can’t take the word force out of enforcement. With regulations comes limits on herbs and cultural protocols. I fear the American Herbalist Guild like a virgin boy fears a priest, a redneck fears bad moonshine, an Irishman fears cold beer, Utah fears same sex marriage, and the Ku Klux Klan fears another minority president.
Plant Healer: If you could do anything you wanted with the remainder of your life, if your future were a blank canvas unencumbered by obligation or habit and you held every available color, what might that composition look like?
Doc: If I had good health I would walk a thousand miles. Note book, camera, backpack, walking stick. If I could not do that, I would like to find a cabin or homestead in New Mexico or Arizona. Try to live a comfortable if primitive off grid type life, and read the classics. Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Pilgrims Progress, the poetry of Keats and Shelley. Then biographies of great people. Curie, Pasteur, Lincoln, Elizabeth the First, Kipling, Burton. I’d make love to a gentle woman in the evening. Make jam in the morning. Tend my garden. Make goat cheese. Write letters by hand. I guess that covers it.
Plant Healer: Tell folks a bit about what you will be teaching at the TWHC this September.
Doc: I’m teaching two classes. One on Chronic Pain: An Hispanic Perspective. I’m excited about this as I’ve never lectured directly on this topic. I will be sharing how Hispanics have dealt with chronic pain in the past, both with herbs and patent medicines, but also the mindset of those who have dealt with this depressing condition. I think folks will be surprised. One thing you won’t hear is, “Pain has something to teach you.”
I’m also teaching a class on Death and Dying: Coping for the Herbalist/Caregiver. I first taught this last year with the aid of a dear friend who is a hospice nurse. This deals with recognizing the signs of care giver burn out and finding coping mechanisms, herbal, social, maybe spiritual, and dangerous.
Plant Healer: How do feel about coming back to teach for us again?
Doc: I love coming back. I was frankly surprised to invited back the second year. I still remember the shocked faces of some of the students who survived my lectures the first year.
Plant Healer: If you had only a short amount of mortal breath with which to give to herbalists and others a bit of your distilled wisdom, what advice might you give?
Doc: That’s easy. And not very profound perhaps. I would say two words: “Give care.”