Eva Castellanoz rubs the foot of a local woman with coconut oil. The woman works on a local factory line and came to see Castellanoz feeling depressed and tired. Castellanoz gave her a sobada, or healing massage. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
NYSSA – Since the 1980s, Nyssa folk artist and curandera Eva Castellanoz has been nationally recognized for her work creating coronas – flower crowns of paper and wax for events like quinceañeras and baptisms.
Her artistic production has slowed in recent years but, at 82, Castellanoz continues to her healing practice from a tiny room with a shelf full of herbs in the house she built with her father “a long, long time ago.”
Castellanoz was born in central Mexico to parents practiced in curanderismo, or faith healing. Her father was the first in the family to come to Nyssa during World War II as part of the Bracero Program, which brought Mexican laborers to work the fields temporarily emptied of U.S. farmers turned soldiers.
When Castellanoz was 3, her family crossed the Rio Grande River into Texas and became migrant farmworkers.
“People treated us as ‘mojaditos,’” she said, using a derogatory term for Mexican-Americans without legal status in the United States.
In Oregon, Castellanoz picked cherries, strawberries, and raspberries. In Texas, she picked oranges, grapefruits, and cotton.
Despite the bounty which surrounded her, Castellanoz was often hungry as a child. She described being 8 and helping serve breakfast at her boss’s estate. After the meal, she would collect the plates, hoping for a scrap of the leftovers. But the mistress of the house would always scrape the plates directly into the trash.
“It was as if something fell inside me,” she said, describing how she felt when she saw the casual waste of food.
Even on Christmas, Castellanoz wasn’t permitted to try the food that the boss’s family ate. Instead, she and her family were gifted the same citruses they picked every day in the fields.
“They gave us what we were already eating every day,” she remembered with a laugh.
After years of travel between Oregon and Texas, Castellanoz’s father finally decided that he was ready to build his house. He bought a property in Nyssa and began to clean it up, but the building process went slowly.
In the meanwhile, his four children slept in a trailer while he and his wife slept outside under cardboard boxes.
Despite the poverty she experienced as a child, “I had a very beautiful life with my parents,” Castellanoz said. “My parents were very hardworking and very wise. They had this knowledge to not harm anyone.”
Since childhood Castellanoz had participated in her parents’ healing practices, learning for herself how to collect and apply herbs, say the prayers, and give healing massages, or sobadas.
Castellanoz described how her mother would use hot water, sand and stones, to “cover (you) up for a certain time, at a certain temperature.”
“My mother, she knew at what time the sun would cure you,” Castellanoz said.
As Castellanoz grew, she continued to practice the arts and healing she had learned from her parents. In 1987, her work came to the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts and she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1987. The award “recognizes the recipients’ artistic excellence and supports their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage.”
As an artist and curandera, Castellanoz has spoken in various settings – the Smithsonian Institution, local libraries and to nurses at Boise State University. She was even the subject of a book, “Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz,” published in 2010.
She still has many healing clients among the local Mexican communities, but she said that traffic has slowed in recent years.
“Young people don’t make their costalito de poder,” she said, referring to a small bag of precious stones, oils, and herbs thought to protect the carrier, “nor use herbs for baths.”
Still, Castellanoz continues curing local people for a sliding-scale fee who come to her with all manner of ailments.
“Sicknesses of the stomach, ears, eyes, skin, whatever,” she said. “Depression, too.”
On a recent day, Castellanoz saw a patient who said she was feeling depressed and tired from her highly physical work on a factory line. Castellanoz, whose spryness belies her years, dropped to her knees and sat on the ground at the woman’s feet. She pulled out a jar of coconut oil and began massaging the woman’s feet.
The woman winced.
“Don’t worry if it makes you a little nauseous, because we are just doing your foot, but it has to arrive to your eyes, to the tips of your hair,” Castellanoz assured her.
When the sobada was finished, Castellanoz dried the woman’s feet with a paper towel, then lit a chalice with coal and copal, or resin incense, and placed it at her feet. She opened her closet door, which hides an altar bedecked with religious relics, and took out a large wooden cross, on which she positioned a figure of Jesus and two burning candles.
The woman and her partner sat with their palms turned up on their knees as Castellanoz stood over them with the cross and prayed with them.
Then, Castellanoz knelt once more and anointed the woman and her partner with oils in the sign of the cross on their feet, hands, hearts, eyes, and lips.
Castellanoz bid the woman to come back later in the week to make a new costalito de poder.
But the visit wasn’t all business.
Castellanoz also spent time catching up with the woman, who she’s known for many years, and looking over photos of her new grandson.
“I am what they need,” said Castellanoz. “I’m like their friend, like their mother, like their grandma, like their person.”
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.
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