By Minji Lee
Most of us at Pitzer use the Mead Hall lobby as a passage point between the residence halls and the academic buildings. In the midst of all the foot traffic, sometimes we do not notice the clean windows and polished floors that the dedicated facilities workers maintain in order to keep our campus looking beautiful.
I spoke with María Guerra, the kind-hearted Mead Hall building attendant and “curandera,” or herb doctor, who never passes up an opportunity to say “hola” to students passing through Mead or to help students with ailments such as indigestion, headaches, or the occasional hangover.
On her Friday morning break, Guerra transported me from the Mead kitchen to Mexico—where she first discovered healing herbs and their remedial properties—with ease and enthusiasm, in her beautiful native tongue. Ever since she was nine years old, she was eager to learn about the medicinal properties of plants that her “abuela” and “bisabuela” grew in their humble herb garden in Mexico. As the women in her family were “parteras,” or midwives, they grew their own medicine to calm, soothe, and remedy their patients during the birthing process. Guerra continues this tradition in her own family today by adopting the healing properties of medicinal plants for her nieces and nephews.
“Todos mis nietos toman mis plantas cuando estén enfermos. All of my nieces and nephews take my plants when they are sick,” Guerra said.
When Guerra began to work at Pitzer 16 years ago, she was able to use her valuable knowledge of medicinal plants to assist college students in times of sickness. Since 2000, she has been planting her natural remedies throughout campus in hopes that students would utilize them when suffering from a variety of ailments from stress to high blood pressure. In sharing these experiences with me, Guerra recalled, with a laugh, an anecdote that she remembers from five years ago (translated from Spanish to English):
“After taking a trip to Nicaragua, one student came back to Pitzer with parasites in his stomach. He complained of stomach pain and indigestion. I gave him some “yerbabuena” (peppermint leaves) and told him to take these leaves with some olive oil in his tea. The next day, he came back to me with a worried look. (“Yerbabuena” can be considered a natural Pepto Bismal, without all of the artificial ingredients.) The next day, he came back to me with a worried look. He said, “My poop is black.” I laughed and explained that “lo pegado en el estómago,” the things that are stuck like glue in the stomach, needed to come out—in a natural way.”
Although Guerra has continued her passion of planting remedial plants on Pitzer’s campus, the rabbits and rats have eaten the majority of her plants and she has been unable to apply the full extent of her remedial repertoire on campus. However, in an interactive tour she gave me, she demonstrated seven types of plants in and around the community garden that can be used to heal and promote good health. While only a few of them are mentioned here, students can easily access more detailed descriptions of these plants by simply asking to borrow the personalized scrapbook she has made and willingly lends to students.
“Te de limón” is good for preventing stress, acne, and insomnia. “Alvacar” is good for nausea. “Zapate” lowers high blood pressure, and “chaya” lowers blood sugar. In addition to these, Guerra noted that herbs such as oregano give great flavor to food and can be found in the garden as well. Other herbs that she mentions are “mirto,” “anis,” and “poleo,” all of which strengthen the body in different ways. The majority of the plants require a simply wash and boil in water, and can be taken with honey or sugar as rejuvenating teas. Although some of these herbs cannot be found in the community garden, Guerra is more than willing to share her knowledge about them for students to find natural pathways for healing.
As we finished our tour, Guerra’s passion for natural medicine and the well being of students here at Pitzer was revealed to me. She continued to reflect on how beautiful it is to share the gift of healing with a community of curious people.
Although her role on Pitzer’s campus as a facilities worker easily goes unacknowledged, her gift in growing and sharing natural herbs to promote health and healing is unique, beautiful, and endearing to our student body. This is reflected in her genuine smiles, warm greetings, and enthusiasm to share her rare knowledge with every student that walks through the Mead Lobby.