Short Story: Curanderas In The Ceiling

There are fish in the ceiling. Giant orange and white clown fish circling above my head, like sharks circling prey. A clear layer of glass and eight feet of air separates me and the fish. I lay on the operating table. Awake.

My mother is holding my left hand so tightly, I fear she might crush it to dust and to dust it will return. That’s in the Bible—somewhere. In Spanish it’d be: De polvo a polvo. I have lost all feeling in my hand. But all I can focus on are the clown fish that the hospital has placed in the ceiling above me. When the nurse wheeled me into the room earlier, I noticed blue fish swimming in the floor.

I wish the fish would stop moving. With the pain medicine and the fish, I’m a little nauseous. And I wish the lady that is here with my mother would be still too. Doña Maria. She who pulled me through the globs of blood that came from my mother’s uterus. She cleaned out the goop, as it made its way into my mouth with her pointer finger that had long lost its nail when hammering a makeshift cross together and had never re-grown. Doña, who is now peering over the doctor’s shoulder into my vagina, down a concave of muscles toward my cervix at the white circle that has appeared from the vinegar solution the gynecologist applied moments before.

The solution causes a slight burning and I squirm a bit in discomfort. My mother is still crushing my hand but now she has begun to ask los Santos for help, followed by more praying to Jesus, and Mary, and lastly straight to Dios, all in Spanish so that the güera nurse with blonde hair who is preparing the station for the surgery can’t help but glance at my mother. The muscles in the nurse’s face twitch as if she is trying to figure out whether to laugh or to look at me with pity for the embarrassment I am suffering on the day of my surgery.

If only it was Mamá who was the only other person in the room with me. But she insisted Doña Maria accompany her. Actually Mamá didn’t even want me to come to the gynecologist, even if she is a Mexican woman. Who ever heard of a woman needing to peer into the parts of another woman that Dio, Himself, does not shine in and shall never. The only time someone should look down there is when a child is being pulled from the darkness to the world.

Mamá didn’t even know I was coming to these women doctors. And why do I need to even go to a woman doctor? she had asked. Then realized why, and scolded me. ¿Mi hijita una ramera? Sleeping around and giving you diseases. What Mexican man will want to marry you now? I tried to explain that it was only with one guy, leaving out the part that he wasn’t even Mexicano, he’s a güero, a white guy, but she wouldn’t listen to me.

I thought Mamá would feel better and send Doña home when she saw that the doctor was a Mexican woman, Dr. Ramirez. But that didn’t seem to matter.

Mamá was even happier that she had brought Doña Maria. Doña must take away the malo that has found its way into my body, she must. Mamá does not believe there are “abnormal cells on my cervix”. She does not believe that after sleeping with the first and only guy I had ever slept with that I contracted HPV. “HPV—a la caca!” She yelled at me. She does not believe it can give me cancer if it is not taken out immediately since it has developed to a moderate stage which is worse than mild, and barely less than cancer. She only believes that someone has placed this harm on me or that some evil spirit has done this to me, perhaps Diablo himself!

The doctor peers over the cloth that has been placed over the top of my legs. She did not understand why I needed two women in the room, and she did not understand when I said one of the women was not related to me at all, that she was a curandera, a Mexican healer, and that my mother insisted she come along. She did not understand that it was a compromise between Mamá and Papá. That Papá did not believe in all the curandera healing powers, that he thought they were all brujas, and to only trust the white American doctors. But Mamá had found the hottest chilies and had placed them in every one of my father’s meals until he relented and allowed the curandera to come along. The doctor did not understand any of this. She didn’t even know what a curandera was! Maybe it’s because she is an atheist.

This morning when the doctor was going over the procedure and having me sign forms she had said, “Miss Gonzalez, you are twenty years old, not a minor anymore, you did not even have to tell your parents much less allow someone like this in the examination room.”

The connotation of the word ‘this’ indicated that she thought nothing of curanderas.

“But the ‘Equality and Accommodation of Religions, Beliefs, and Practices Act’ allows for Doña Maria to accompany me,” I had said to the doctor.

“I know what the EARBPA says and I know we have to accommodate your belief system, however, the ‘Medical Emergency Veto Act’ allows for me to veto such accommodations requests under EARBPA and I do not feel comfortable enough to do my duty with this Dona character present.”

She pronounced Doña as “Donna.”

Poor doctor didn’t know she was dealing with a pre-law student with a focus in post-modern laws of equality. “The MEVA only pertains to an emergency and I don’t think the state or the courts would consider this an emergency surgery. If you don’t let Doña Maria in the operating room, you will be violating EARBPA and even the ‘Protection of Mexicans from Discrimination Act’ and that’s grounds for a lawsuit.”

It was then that the doctor had agreed.

How could I explain that this woman, this curandera had cured me of numerous coughs when I was younger with some te con canela, with a little drop of whiskey and honey? That Doña Maria had brought my brother back from the brink of death when he had become so depressed he had stopped eating for three days and would not leave his bed. She said he had susto, his soul had wondered halfway to the other side but she grabbed it in the fog and forced it back into his body. This was before Papá had become manager at the factory, before we had money and good insurance to pay for a güera doctor, and all we had was Doña Maria.

When I began to attend Arizona State University, most of my friends who were güeras, told me how important it was to go to the health care clinic on campus to get my first pap smear and to get on birth control, especially since it was free and one could never be too safe.

Doña Maria moves away from behind the doctor’s shoulder now and is by my mother’s side. Her hair is wild, sticking up on the top and slicked straight down in the back.

This is wrong, she tells my mother in Spanish. This doctor knows nothing. She needs comfort, teas, una limpia, and a new diet; not a piece of metal shoved inside her!

Mom looks so confused. Papá told her to let the doctors do what they know how to do. To make sure Doña Maria doesn’t get in the way. He reminded her who the man of the house was. In which she replied with, “Pah! Hombre de la casa el dije!” Despite her sarcastic remark she did not wish to displease Papá.

Please Doña Maria, help my child. Do una limpia while the doctor does his procedure, yes? That can help, no? My mother asks. Doña Maria’s face scrunches in anger and the crease between her eyebrows speaks of disappointment; not at my mother, but at me.

Yes, I will. Doña Maria replies. Then she looks at me. You will regret this. I could have done all this without the pain and the cost. Remember that. I look away a little ashamed for not having enough faith in God, in her, whom I’ve always had faith in before. But not now. The thought of getting cancer or losing the ability to have children concerns me too much. And besides what will my friends say if I tell them I didn’t go through with the surgery?

I look down the length of my body again. The doctor has turned to the blonde nurse asking her for something. The nurse looks at the silver table in front of her and grabs a syringe. Suddenly, I feel cold and my body begins to shake a little. Doña Maria has pulled out a stick of something and a lighter from the big bag that hangs over her shoulder. She pulls a match out to light the stick when the doctor notices.

“What is she doing? You can’t light that in here! This is a sterile environment,” the doctor says to Doña and then looks at me, because I told her that Doña cannot speak English. I translate for the doctor but before Doña can respond my mother interrupts.

“It’s okay. She help, yes? It’s fine.”

The doctor asks me, “What is she trying to do with that?”

“A cleansing,” I respond, “It’s to push evil spirits away, to cleanse my soul. I’m sorry. Please she won’t get in the way. I promise.”

The doctor raises her hand to push her hair back, and then stops, remembering that she has on plastic gloves which have been in my vagina for the last twenty minutes preparing for the procedure.

“Damn laws,” she mutters and I know she has given in once more. “Miss Gonzalez, I am about to administer the anesthesia around your cervix. You will probably feel a few pinches.”

I probably won’t feel anything. Didn’t they already give me something for this? I can’t remember. They gave me so much medicine earlier. For my heart. For my pain. For my bladder.

I shut my eyes tight. “Okay.” Mamá squeezes my hand, a signal that she cannot see the needle anymore and that I am about to feel the pinch. I can smell whatever Doña Maria is burning—sage. It reminds me of the many times my mother took me to get cleansings. When I was thirteen and Mamá found me and my cousins looking at a men’s magazine with half naked male athletes in their whitey tighties. She said I needed my soul cleansed for looking at such things.

I feel the pinch and my fingers convulse around Mamá’s hands. And another one, and another one. Until I only feel a pressure on the next one. And then nothing. I relax some, until I see Doña Maria above me making the sign of the cross over my body. She pulls a clear bottle out, dips her fingers in it and then makes the cross over my forehead. Lukewarm holy water. She puts the vial back and pulls out some more sage and begins saying Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s over my body, flicking the sage in rhythm, sweeping the bad spirits away. She finally finishes.

I lift my head up slowly. The doctor and the nurse are frozen in position. The doctor has her hand held out to the nurse, waiting for some instrument, and the nurse stands inches away hand held out, but not far enough.

Doña Maria finally notices them. She makes a ‘humph’ sound. It breaks the frozen state of the doctor and the nurse.

“Uh, nurse?” The doctor says. Nurse rushes to the doctor and hands her the tool. The doctor goes back inside me.

“Can you feel that?”

“No.” I reply.

“That?” she asks.



“Okay,” she says. “We are ready to remove the cells. Are you ready?”
Of course I’m not freaking ready. She’s about to take an instrument and cut off the cells from my cervix. Even though I have the anesthesia, she said I may feel some discomfort, a little bit of pain.

But I nod yes, although ‘no’ is stuck in my throat like the thick molé sauce Mamá makes. The nurse and the doctor begin preparing, and I look back at the fishes before Mamá interrupts my gaze.

Mija, Doña says we must pray, yes?

I nod, because I am past the point of wishing my mother and her curandera would act normal. My mother lets go of my hand and joins Doña Maria who has already knelt beside the table. Doña pulls out a few plastic statues from her bag and places them beside me. Our Lady of Guadalupe; Our Lady of Lourdes, Saint Bertha, patrons saints of healing—creating a mini altar of safety, good intentions, and love.

The doctor and the nurse are moving around. I hear instruments clacking against the metal table. The doctor and nurse are speaking quietly to each other. I am not looking at them, but I hear their conversation pause when Mamá and Doña began praying aloud. Their voices come together and find a rhythm. I close my eyes. Regardless, of the weirdness of the whole debacle, their voices calm me. My mother’s voice rises higher. She has prayed over me, many nights of my life. When I had the fever and chills; when she thought I was sleeping, but I wasn’t, praying that I would have happy dreams; when I came home from the college one day, crying my eyes out, because my boyfriend had broken up with me, and I found out he was seeing some güera with big boobs and a big butt and fiery red hair on the cheerleading squad.

The doctor interrupts my thoughts. She has to speak over my mother and Doña’s voices. “I’m about to shave the infected cells. From there, I will staunch the bleeding with this instrument here.”

Mamá begins to cry. She sees the doctor being handed the big scary rod instrument. She doesn’t stop praying though. She just cries and prays, cries and prays. Next to her, Doña seems to have gone into a trance. Her lips are moving, and she is making weird noises that sound like a chupacabra. Coo-cooey! Coo-cooey! Suddenly, she jumps up, much quicker than a woman of seventy. Which causes me to jump and the doctor to curse.

“You can’t move Miss Gonzalez! Get that woman to stand still!” The doctor yells, her voice reverberating against the stark walls.

I repeat what the doctor says in Spanish to Doña, a bit breathlessly. It has just hit me that other parts of me could have been cut off accidentally, thanks to Doña. But she doesn’t seem to be listening. She has pulled out an egg from her bag and is rubbing it over my forehead. She places her hand on my chest so I can’t lean my head up and I am forced to look up at the fishes again. I begin to count them. One, two, four, seven.
“Miss Gonzalez?” The doctor says.

“Miss Gonzalez!” The doctor says more forcefully. My head whips up. I’m feeling a bit woozy and queasy.

“Yes. Sorry, what?”

The doctor’s eyebrows are pinched in frustration. “You cannot move. Do you understand me? I don’t care if that woman is the Dalai Lama or Jesus Christ, Himself, you make sure she doesn’t do anything crazy like that again. I’m not going to follow EARBPA if it means losing my license because I accidentally shaved off more than needed!”

My mom stops praying and speaks up, before I can. “Everything good, yes? No problems, yes? Calm, yes?”

“Yes, it’s fine. Sorry. Just do it already,” I say to the doctor, not caring if I am polite anymore. I allow my body to fall backwards toward the table again, too tired to do anything else. The conversation between the doctor and I has not deterred Doña, she continues to administer the cleansing.

I hear the doctor say, “Okay, let’s try this again. Be very still.” I nod, even though she isn’t looking at me, but lost beneath the white cover.

Doña is muttering over me. I look at the fishes, trying to not think about anything. Trying to tune out the noise, the loco in the room. Waiting for the doctor to start. There is one little fish among the larger clown fish. It darts in and out between the others.

Chingao! ¡Hijo de su madre! I lose my breath and it feels like my entire lower body has contracted and for a second I am nervous that I will have a bowel movement in front of everyone. I can feel it, a slight burning feeling in the lower regions of my abdomen. Cuss words begin flying in my mind as I grip the sides of the table, while Doña is rubbing the egg over my stomach and chanting, and my mother is still on the ground crying and praying. ¡Hijole ¡A dios Mio! ¡Ay wei!

“Okay. Now I’m going to cauterize the bleeding. Nurse.”

I begin breathing like a woman in labor; quick in, quick out. I want to cry out, but I don’t. I am scared what it might do to my mother and the doctor who is holding tools that burn human flesh. I look up. The small fish is looking at me. He has swum to the bottom of the ceiling; his nose must almost be touching the glass.

Suddenly, I feel pressure followed by the smell of burning flesh. I gulp down the bile that has risen up my throat no sooner than Doña Maria finishes with the egg and begins yelling at me.

What’s that? What is that smell? Hija, are they burning you? She asks in Spanish.

To stop blood. I manage to reply.

Her hands fly to her head. Ay! Monsters! And you allow this! She is pointing at me now. Burning you.

I hear the doctor speak up. “Is there a problem, Miss Gonzalez?”

Doña then turns to the doctor who is pulling the instrument out with part of my blood on the tip of it and drops it in a bag the nurse is holding. Doña’s finger is pointing now at her. I curse you and all these doctors. Hurting women with your medicines, your burning instruments. You will burn in hell with the devil. White man’s whore! Manditos! And then she spat on the ground. Twice. To seal the curse.

I hear Mamá gasp as Doña Maria claps twice and disappears leaving behind the statues on the bed.

Mamá begins speaking to the doctors. “Everything okay. She say thank you. All good, yes?”

“Where did she go? Where is she?” The doctor is asking.

“She was just right there!” The nurse says shakily.

I look up at the ceiling and suddenly, the small fish is replaced by a small Doña Maria, swimming, looking down at me. Her skin is orange like the small little fish. But it is her alright.

I can’t stop looking up at Doña. No one else has noticed her above us.

My mother says, “She go. She have leave. Say thank you.”

“You didn’t say she was a witch, Ms. Gonzalez. They don’t fall under the EARBPA act, and the Equality for Dark Forces Act does not apply here,” the doctor says.

Suddenly, the nurse throws her hands in the air, palms out toward me with her head thrown back. A string of unintelligible words comes from her mouth at a high level. A Pentecostal. I have seen this on T.V., speaking in tongues. They do this now, in public. I hear they can’t control it.

I want to say something, but in that moment, I can feel the blood rushing from my head, my vision blurs and begins to fade. I can hear the nurse speaking in tongues, Mamá crying, and the doctor yelling at someone. I can feel my head falling backwards toward the table, until the last thing I see is Doña Maria, her cheeks puffed out like the clown fish, holding in her breath and flopping her arms as she pushes herself closer to the glass barrier so that I can see the look of disappointment on her face.


A week later I return to the doctor’s office for my after-exam check-up. I am wearing a pad to help the bleeding. Mamá insists on driving me. When I complain about the pad, my mother replies, Aren’t you comfortable with those now?  I reply yes, forgetting that my mother does not know about the tampons I usually wear. She says tampons are bad for women, that they keep all the bad blood inside.

There are no fish in the ceiling of the patient room in which I wait. When I see the doctor, she asks basic questions as she is checking my cervix. How are you feeling? How is the bleeding? Any side effects? I answer quickly, but I want to know about the results. I want to know if they got all the bad cells out; if I will be okay. She comments that I am healing quite well.

After I’m dressed I feel the need to say, “Sorry about all the craziness last week.”


“Yes, you know the surgery and everything?”

I notice a wrinkle in the middle of her forehead that doesn’t seem to go with the smile she gives me. Then she says, “So anyways your results. They came back clear of all abnormal cells.”


“Abnormal cells. The lab couldn’t find any.”

“I don’t get it. Nothing? They weren’t any? How is that possible?”

The doctor shrugs. “That happens sometimes. Your body must have fought it off before the procedure.” I am stunned. Not sure how to respond, how to feel.

“Does that usually happen? I mean that sounds rare?”

She laughs. “It happens more often than you think. So here is a copy for you. And I set up an appointment six months from now, if you don’t have any more questions?”

“No, uh… thank you.” I stand up when she asks one more question.

“So was it worth it?”

“Was what worth it?”

“The surgery?”

Once, I leave the doctor’s office and meet Mamá outside in the foyer and tell her the news, she will probably rejoice and start crying out thanks to God, in front of everyone. Then she will call Doña Maria and discuss the miracle. Even though I will explain that the doctor said it isn’t rare, that this occurs to girls without curanderas she will not believe me.

And Doña will insist that I drink some tea and get a cleansing once a week for three weeks to make sure the malo doesn’t return. Then Mamá will beam and gloat at Papá at dinner, saying: See Chelo? I told you Doña Maria would cure our hija. And no matter how much Papá tells Mamá that it was science, and that Doña is just a crazy lady getting money from poor Mexicans, that those ceremonies she does in the back of her houses far from the world, well, they don’t make her a saint or healer…but no matter what he says—Mamá won’t listen. And I’ll keep having dreams of Doña as a clown fish.

I respond by waving the test results in my hand at the doctor before walking out.

In this short story, a young Mexican-American woman struggles with two colliding worlds: her Mexican heritage culture and the culture and modern science of her American identity .


Alex Temblador
Alex Temblador is the founder and editor-in-chief of She’s a full-time freelancer with dreams of being a full-time novelist and blogger.
Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador

Alex Temblador is the founder and editor-in-chief of She's a full-time freelancer with dreams of being a full-time novelist and blogger.