Category Archives: Folk medicine

Healing an ear infection or ear ache

Background: Informant, B.B is a mother of 3, she knows about this home remedy because of her mother.

Main Piece:

Interviewer:Are there any kind of home remedies that you took from your mom and used on your kids?

Informant B.B: Yes, a remedy my mom told me about when my kids kept getting ear infections was to dampen a cotton ball and stick it in their ear. Then I would grab a paper and roll it up thinly, kind of using it like a funnel and lit it on fire. It sounds crazy but it would always work

Interviewer: What was the purpose of lighting it on fire?

B.B: I think it would “suck up” the pain from the ear, I am not too sure how it works and did not believe it would work at first but to my surprise it did.

Context: My informant is a family member, when I asked her about any home remedies she knows about, this one instantly came to mind. She used it plenty of times, because of how effective it is.

Thoughts: This home remedy sounds a bit dangerous, because of the fire but I suppose the purpose of the paper is to act as a funnel and keep the fire away from direct contact with the ear so with a parent doing it, it should be safe. It is interesting how it sounds like a crazy remedy but actually works.

La Vicks / Vaporu

Background: Informant, B.B. is a Mexican American mother of 3, who turns to home remedies before going out to buy medicine.

Main piece:

Interviewer: Is there any alternative to medicine that you’ve used?

Informant, B.B: Yes, my mom always claimed vicks vapor rub was the answer for any sickness. So when I had kids I began to use it too

Interviewer: What kind of sickness is it for? How does it help?

Informant, B.B: Usually for a cold, or congestion is when we would use it. When we noticed our kids had a runny nose, we would get the vapor rub and put a dot of it under each nostril. If we noticed they had a cold and a cough, we would rub it on their chest. My mom always told me that it helps by opening up the lungs allowing them to breathe.

Context: A interview between me and my family member. I asked her about any folk medicine or folk remedies she knows of or any she has personally used.

Thoughts: Vicks vapor rub has become a meme in the latino community because latina mothers first recommendation when their kids get sick is usually vicks.

Mexican lullaby

Main piece: 

“Sana, sana, colita de rana, si no sana hoy, sanara manana” 

Transliteration: 

Heal, heal, tail of frog, yes no heal today, healthy tomorrow

Full translation: 

Heal, heal, tail of frog, if today it doesn’t heal, it will tomorrow

Background: The one who provided this lullaby was my sister a while back when hurting my younger cousin on accident. My sister was born in LA and she goes to school in Downey. Her spanish isn’t good, or even decent, but somehow she knows this song well. According to her, it stuck because “it’s catchy” and because apparently I would sing this same lullaby to her when I hurt her. 

Context: We were playing basketball in the driveway. It was my sister and my two cousins. And somehow my sister bodied into my younger cousin who’s underweight and knocked her to the ground. She’s currently 12 but she scraped her elbow pretty bad and wanted to cry. That would not have been good news for either my sister or me so my sister sang the lullaby and massaged her arm and my cousin laughed a little and then stopped any potential crying. 

Thoughts: This a fun one because I honestly don’t know what a frog’s tail has to do with healing a wound or bruise. I asked my sister who was my informant in this case, but she didn’t know either. 

Maybe a frog’s tail has luck and it’ll help heal a bruise quicker? But what I did notice from this experience, and even from my own experience, was that it’s funny to the victim. It makes them laugh, or chuckle at least, and eases the pain and tension. So it’s a helpful tool if someone gets hurt and wants to cry. 

Drinking Alcohol to kill Corona

Main Piece: One myth I heard about coronavirus is that tequila or any hard alcohol kills the virus. This is something I’ve heard not just about the virus but when you’re sick in general. It’s based on the fact that alcohol is normally a sanitizing agent so drinking alcohol would sanitize your body. The joke would be set up when someone is feeling slightly ill. Then when someone else hears about the illness, they sarcastically say that they should go take a shot of tequila.


Context: The informant is a current junior at Cal Poly SLO. She is one of many students that were removed from her school due to the Coronavirus pandemic. She encountered the joke from her classmates and peers.

Thoughts: This joke shows off the stereotypical college experience in which people drink a lot. This joke stems from another folk belief that alcohol sanitizes your system for any disease. I think it’s just another excuse for people to drink alcohol.

How to get rid of the Hiccups

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and the interviewer.

Interviewer: So you’ve obviously had the hiccups at one point or another in your life… Do you have a special method of getting rid of them?

Informant: Oh I’ve heard a bunch of things. Like, get scared is a pretty big one that people say but like i’ve never seen it work. I’ve also heard of drinking a glass of water upside down but I’d rather just have the hiccups for 5 minutes than go through the effort of doing that haha

Interviewer: Yeah I’ve heard about the getting scared and drinking water upside down tactics too from some elementary school friends. So if that doesn’t really work, what do you do?

Informant: Well I forgot who actually told me this, it could have been my mom, but any time i get the hiccups i just take as deep of a breath as I can and then hold it in for as long as possible… and if you hiccup again you just start over until they’re gone… and that tends to do the trick for me haha

Background:

My Informant was born and raised in Southern California. Her parents immigrated from Europe and she is a first Generation American. She is a model and an artist and has exceedingly liberal views. 

Context:

I talked to my informant over a facetime video-call during the 2020 Coronavirus epidemic. We had plans to meet in person, however, the quarantine made that impossible. 

Thoughts:

It’s crazy how many different stories there are that are promised to “cure” the hiccups. I would be interested in a scientific study which tests which methods actually work (If any) and which methods are completely made up. Either way, it seems like hiccup cures are generated more within a family or smaller social group than throughout an entire society since there are not only so many different ideas, but they all vary so widely from one another as well so it seems like they were not derived from one another. 

Home remedy for hiccups by drinking a glass of water covered by a napkin

Main Piece:

Informant: Basically, you get a full cup of water, and you put a paper towel over the top of the cup. It has to be thick, so like a paper towel or a napkin. And then you have to drink through the paper towel, ten gulps without breathing. Like, big gulps too. 

Interviewer: Has it worked for you?

Informant: Mhmm, it has. It didn’t work last Friday though, but it usually works haha. 

Interviewer: Where did you learn it from? 

Informant: My mom, she always has us do it if we are hiccuping around her.

Interviewer: Do you know where your Mom learned it from?

Informant: I wanna say my grandma, my grandma has told me to do the same thing before so it was probably her. 

Background

My informant is a good friend and housemate of mine from USC and is a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention with a minor in Health Care Studies from San Dimas, CA. She says that a lot of her mannerisms and sayings come from growing up in San Dimas which she describes as being a very small town outside of Los Angeles that feels more midwest than the West coast. She attended summer camps throughout most of her life, starting as a camper and becoming a counselor in high school. 

Context

At a birthday celebration out house threw for my informant, she drank some alcoholic beverages and got the hiccups as a result. When I offered her my advice, she told me not to worry and that she had a trick to remedy the cure that was passed down in her family. She went upstairs to her kitchen with me, and I saw her drink the water from the cup. During our interview, I brought it up and she discussed it further with me. 

Analysis

From experience with my family and interacting with friends from back home, hiccup remedies differ from family to family and cultures. Essentially, all hiccup cures aim to do the same thing by controlling the diaphragm to stop it from producing hiccups. Usually, these are different methods of breath control, and drinking a glass of water without stopping is a good way to control breathing. Doing more research, I found this method also listed in the following article listed as number 6.

The article explains this method as a combination of breath control and the fact that “you’ll have to ‘pull’ even harder with your diaphragm to suck up the water.”

Russell, Elaine, and Reader’s Digest Editors. “How to Get Rid of Hiccups: 18 Home Remedies \That Actually Work.” Reader’s Digest, www.readersdigest.ca/health/conditions/7-ways-get-rid-hiccups/.

Using Yerba Buena to ail colicky babies

Main Piece

Informant: That was my situation, I got married at 18 and at 19 I had my first daughter. That is when all of the wives tales emerged. All of my family members shared with me their tips and tricks. My first daughter was very colicky so the first one I remember was feeding her Yerba Buena. It was very hard because Doctors told me not to give her anything, but my family was telling me to. From a science perspective I knew that was ridiculous, but at the end of the day I did it because what harm could be done? 

Interviewer: Can you guide me through what they told you to do? 

Informant: First of all every woman in the family had Yerba Buena, so my Mom called me and told me to come over when I told her my daughter was colicky. She gave me my own little sprout, and a pot to plant my own because she told me that I was gonna need it. First you wash them really really good because they’ve been out in the dirt. And then you put 2-3 leaves and boil it and it’ll turn a light brown, but don’t let that scare you. You have to cool it before you put it in the bottle. I tasted it, it tastes like mint and water. No sugar. You don’t put sugar, you just let the leaves lose in the water. 

Interviewer: How much would you feed her? 

Informant: No more than an ounce, I would give her more as she grew up but usually just an ounce. 

Interviewer: Did you see it work? 

Informant: Yes, I saw it work. You have to burp the baby after they drink. When they have colic they are tense and crying– usually that’s how you know. You will see the relief in them, they will start relaxing- at least she did. She was able to calm herself. 

Interviewer: What does this practice mean to you?

I think this is where the conflict between Americanized medicine and, I’m forgetting the word, what do they call it now? Alternative medicine. We used to call it home medicine, back in the day that is how we had to go about treating it when medicine was new. People knew this stuff, and even today some of it is true. 

Any other comments? 

No. I just think when you are a young mother you just want your baby to be happy. I was skeptical when my family told me about this, but I saw the proof in my own eyes. So, I guess I started to, um, trust the remedies more.

Background

The informant is my mother, a Mexican woman who is first-generation and the oldest of 3, who was born and raised in San Ysidro,CA  a border town just north of Tijuana, Mexico. Influenced by memories and conversations with her great great grandmother, many of her practices, customs, and beliefs were passed down from her maternal side of Mexican customs. Fluent in both English and Spanish, the informant has always felt conflicted about her culture as she wanted to fit in with American customs but wanted to preserve her Mexican heritage and traditions. The informant had her first child when she was 18, and worked her way as a single mother with two kids to attain her Master’s Degree and is now the Executive Vice President at a non-profit health clinic that serves the community she was raised in.

Context

My Mother and I often joke about how horrible babies we were, and she often tells us the stories of the different practices that my Nana would teach her to calm us down. My grandmother lives in our house in San Diego and still practices many forms of folk medicine and plants her Yerba Buena in our garden to this day. Over the phone I asked my Mom about the different practices we would talk about to understand the context better. 

Analysis

As the informant points out, this is a perfect example of folk medicine as it can not be proven with “science” but has passed down in our family for generations. Since the informant has worked in the healthcare industry for most of her professional life, she is often conflicted with following these home remedies even though they work because she is around medical professionals on a daily basis. However, I believe that she still practiced many of them and tells my sister’s who now have children of their own to practice them not only because they work, but to preserve our Mexican culture and roots. 

Armenian Coffee Readings/ Ritual

Main Piece:

Informant- “So when you are done drinking your Armenian Coffee you want to flip the cup away from your body and place it down into the saucer. You wait for the grounds to fall from the bottom of the cup. This is why it is important to use the Armenian style espresso cup which is not rounded on the sides. The grounds fall down the sides of the espresso cup and dry at the bottom. 

So you should never read your own fortune. Thats what my friend, who is a professional Armenian coffee cup reader, tells me. 

Waiting for the coffee to dry is important because it is time to have a conversation with your friends or family. 

So when its ready.. you take a look at your cup. So there are a few things to look out for when you are reading someones cup. 

If you cup sticks to the bottom and is hard to take off, then someone is in love with you! This is what some people believe and it is what my Armenian grandmother told me. I have had many Armenian grandmothers teach me how to read cup and what to look out for. 

So, when you look in your cup the coffee grind will settle at the bottom. You look and interpret what you see. So for example you could see a bird, and that may mean you are about to travel or freedom. You can see an egg or something.

So it is very important to read your cup during the day. You get bad luck if it is read at night. You shouldn’t read you own cup because then you will just see what you want to see. If the cup is very dark and filled with ground then your mind is full. If the cup has clear spots then your mind is at ease. 

Lastly you should hold your cup and think of an intention or wish and then mark the bottom of the cup with your finger.”

Background: The informant learned about the practice of reading the coffee cup from her mother and grandmother. She says it is a fun way to keep traditions. Reading cups is a good bonding experience and has connected her to her parents and grandparents. 

Context: This piece was collected from a video tutorial sent by the informant. Here is the audio transcription describing her experience with coffee readings. In the video she shows the espresso cup used and the different shapes of dried coffee grounds. 

Thoughts: This is a very interesting tradition and fun activity that brings family and friends together. This is an interesting folk practice and belief that is widely believed. She explains her friend who is a professional coffee reader. You can read more about the history of cup reading or  Tasseography in many blogs or academic sources. There are many professions or products distributed surrounding this folk belief. 

A variation of the Armenian coffee reading can be read about here;

Giorgi, Carina Karapetian. “Intuitive Knowledge: The Queer Phenomenology of Armenian Matrilineal Rituals of Tasseography.(Essay).” Armenian Review, vol. 56 -2, no. 1, Armenian Review, Mar. 2018.

Onions to Cure Fevers

Main piece:

(The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant and interviewer.)

Interviewer: Do you know any old remedies for- did your mother impart any useful cures onto you?

Informant: Their cure back then for things were like, if you had a high fever… I would get onions, and she’d [informant’s mother] put onions on my wrists and the bottom of my feet and wrap a white cloth around them. T – because the onion would draw out the fever.

Interviewer: That was the belief?

Informant: Uh-huh.

Interviewer: But it – it worked? Would you try that again today?

Informant: No because it never ended up working.

Interviewer: (laughs)

Informant: I had to go to the doctor anyway and get a penicillin shot. But no I had to lay there for a week with onions until they found out the fever wouldn’t break so she would call the doctor and I’d go get a penicillin shot and then I’d feel better.

Interviewer: So how long would you go between changing the onions?

Informant: (laughs) Oh you get em changed every day. You get new onions.

Interviewer: Why do you think that was a thing?

Informant: Because they just had a belief that the onion, you know – you know how onions are stingent? And stuff like that? That that would pull – I don’t know why it had to be on your wrists and the bottoms of your feet. I was just a kid, don’t ask me! I just did what I was told! (laughs)

Interviewer: (laughs) True, true.

Background: My informant was born and raised in southern Illinois to very strict Catholic parents. She has strong Irish and Italian heritage. She grew up quite poor, as a family of farm workers with many siblings.

Context: The informant is my grandmother, and has always had a proclivity for telling stories, jokes, and wives tales. This piece was selected out of many from a recording of a long night of telling stories in a comfortable environment.

Thoughts: Though it apparently was not an effective folk belief, this folk remedy for fevers is quite interesting. It was repeatedly ineffective but the informant’s mother continued to try it, possibly to avoid the costs of medicine even if it meant wasting onions. Given that they were poor, I find that to be a very likely reason, along with the possibility that the informant’s mother was just stubborn – or that her ability to believe in things was strong as is reflected in her devout religiousness. The informant said onions are “stingent” which is not a word but which I believe means to have a strong odor. It is possible that the informant said stringent meaning strict, but that wouldn’t make much sense.

Folk Medicine: Chopped Onions Heal

Main Piece:

Okay so recently my grandma has started putting bowls of onion around the house, especially with, like, all the new coronavirus stuff. And she’s done this before, but it’s, like, a pretty common thing for, like, Asian people to do when someone is sick because the idea is that, like, the onion is supposed to suck up all the, like, bad stuff in the air.

Interviewer: Okay. So, and this is something that like your grandma does? Um, is it something that your mom does as well? 

Informant: It’s just my grandma.

Interviewer: You think this is like an East Asian thing or like Vietnamese specifically?

Informant: I’m not sure, I just know it’s supposed to “cancel out the virus” or something like that. Chopped onions specifically.

Interviewer: Nice. Yeah, is it in strategic locations or is it just like generally around the house?

Informant: That’s a good question, they’re just around the house. She leaves a bowl in my room when I’m coughing.

Interviewer: That’s funny.

Informant: Yeah, it is. I smelt like onions for like a long time.

Background:

My informant is a friend and fellow student at USC. She was raised in the LA area but her family is ethnically Chinese and immigrated from Vietnam so she has multiple East Asian influences in her life. She saw this exhibited by her grandmother and it’s simply been something that’s part of life when her grandmother stays with her.

Context:

I had set up a Zoom call with my friend because she said she had some examples of folklore that she could share with me. This sample was shared during that call

Analysis:

Some research shows that this is a relatively well known Chinese folk remedy. It finds its origins in ancient Chinese foot reflexology. While modern science does not corroborate the effectiveness of foot reflexology, it was believed that the nerves in the feet were access points to the internal organs and foot nerves have been a large part of Eastern medicine for millennia. Where this links to onions in a bowl is that in the 1500s it was apparently believed that placing chopped onion around the house could help protect from the bubonic plague. Some people, drawing from Eastern foot reflexology, would even put chopped onion in their socks. It seems that my informant’s grandmother is practicing a folk remedy that takes inspiration from both ancient Eastern medicine as well as European, plague-time beliefs.

To read more about this belief, see the following website:

Cafasso, Jacquelyn. “Will Putting Onions in Your Socks Cure the Flu?” Healthline, 17 May 2017, www.healthline.com/health/cold-flu/onion-in-sock.