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San Miguel’s Drug History

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On a recent tour I had a young, intelligent pharmacist that was asking me questions about the use of chemical and botanical medicine here in town as that was what she studies in graduate school.  Lucky for her, my pooch and I nightly visit my favorite danzon student who took a tumble shortly before the pandemic and has been in bed trying to recover since.  Lupita worked as a pharmacist and is a walking encyclopedia of plant medicine so I was sure to learn more to share with my tour pal.

I’ve always been fascinated by plants.  So much so my first company produced and sold North Carolina based herbal health and beauty products.  Well until the mall our pilot store was to unveil at Monday closed over the weekend and I instead dived into what turned out to be the way more lucrative fields of technical writing and training.

Reliance on plant-based medications is a long-standing tradition in Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, there was already a vast body of knowledge about medicinal plants among the indigenous. The Aztecs were the only ones in the Americas that both identified and used about 400 different herbal remedies that they recorded in their codices, written and illustrated books.  Unfortunately most codices were burned by Spanish missionaries.

A few codices snuck off to Italy and were rediscovered centuries later.  Many of the plants pictured in the codices are still used in the same way today.

As for Lupita, I had assumed she garnered her plant-based pharmaceutical knowledge during her decades as a pharmacist but I was wrong.  When she retired two decades ago medicine was strictly chemical-based.  The mixing of botanical and chemical medicines came into vogue following her retirement.

I learned Lupita knew about natural medicine from both sets of her grandparents.  Some interesting tales I learned include:

  • Back when the creek by the Fabrica was clean, folks with arthritis would sit or wade in the water as leeches were present. Leeches attached to the skin and removed some of the pain-causing blood.
  • For dental pain it was best to make a hot tea from boiled carpenter ants. Their venom, once diluted in the tea, removed gum pain.
  • The wildflowers that bloom every two weeks during the rainy season were each collected, dried and turned into teas for various ailments from asthma to diarrhea.

Of course there was the cacti, considered the greatest gift from the gods.  So great the cacti, the image of a cactus is above St. Michael’s on the chapel in San Miguel Viejo, signifying its importance above the new Catholic religion.

I also learned some other interesting facts about medicine in general here in San Miguel de Allende during Lupita’s career like:

  • She didn’t have any rare Dr. House-like cases to recall as those got sent to LeonCelaya and Mexico City pronto. However she did have emergencies like the unfortunate woman that got her hair caught in the machine at the broccoli processing plant that scalped her.
  • She did note the rise in diabetes over the years.
  • Drugs available changed from mayor to mayor.  It used to be common to give medicine with gold flakes for arthritis, particularly in the legs, but one mayor started hoarding them so gold isn’t in medicine any more.
  • Babies use to be born in the bigger cities (or at home) but that changed about 40 years ago.

All this intense talk of medicine and illness took a toll on my dog that Lupita then sang to while brushing Pepe’s hair preparing him to go to bed for the night.  Luckily he takes his pajamas with him everywhere as those siestas won’t take themselves!

by Joseph Toone

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