Re-imagining and reviving hilot for current and future generations
by Michaela Cruz
Throughout my childhood in the Philippines, my family looked to a womxn named Aling Fe to relieve us of any ailments. We called her the manghihilot which if translated to English means healer. She would find the knots in our bodies and massage it away with her tough calloused hands. It seemed to restore the balance in my young body. The practice and belief in a healing touch are central in the ancient Filipino medical system referred to as hilot. Analogous to Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the system also requires knowledge and use of medicinal plants. When I had flu-like symptoms my mother would bathe me in boiled water decocted with the skin of apple fruits, its leaves or twigs and citrus rinds. The heat and aroma gave me instant relief. I never questioned why she was doing this but later in life, I discovered that parts of apple trees are used in herbal medicine for anti-inflammation. Today when I think of my experiences with hilot I am grateful to womxn such as Aling Fe and my mother for passing down this traditional knowledge. I also realized that the practice of hilot as the giver or receiver requires empathy, a great deal of focus, reflection and prayer. I perceive these as guiding principles for the healing of our bodies as marginalized communities.
After completing my undergraduate in Plant Science, I was called to remember and reaffirm my experience with the teachings and gifts of hilot. Part of the calling was to honour the womxn who graciously passed down the teachings through their healing touch, healing energies, healing words and healing love. This reflection has since prefaced the rest of my life. I was prompted to assert something bigger than myself and to sustain the practices that have helped me through maladies, imbalances, fatigue and mental unrest. I decided to start a monthly workshop series that involves hands-on sessions on food and medicinal plants that grow in and around the urban landscape of Toronto. I thought that one way to start my journey of remembrance was to mend my relationship with the land I currently inhabit and to make connections with lives (human and non-human) that I share it with. The series was named Healing Hands because my long-term goal is to cultivate a healing touch within myself and perhaps others. I strongly believe reclamation of medical traditions involves realizing healing outside of Western medicine by unearthing experiences with ancient healing practices and incorporating them in our day to day. I hope to ensure the transfer of hilot to younger generations in its historical as well as reimagined form. I believe these sessions have the capacity to spark social and cultural innovation. Some of the Intentions/thoughts/ideas/goals include:
unearthing erased histories
food as fuel/food as medicine/medicine as food
recognizing and continuing our elders’ legacies
gaining more respect for the lands we inhabit
acknowledging settler privilege: walking lighter
reimagining the land before the urban
revealing our blind spots and unlearning
practicing unconditional gratitude
loving our beings and all other beings
allowing us to reawaken our child-like sensibilities
Remember what you’re learning. Turmeric, lemon, ginger, honey. Make a paste with turmeric and honey, lick the spoon, twice. Feel the thickness trickle down your throat, massaging the discomfort. Water’s done. Pour it up, pour it up, add the ginger slices and let it rest for a bit. Let yourself rest. As if it were that easy. It’s been four days with bronchitis, I look at my medicine books. Some have dried herb remnants, some have fingerprints of cayenne. I am trying everything. Grab a pot, boil water. Add drops of eucalyptus, lavender, and tea tree essential oils. I clear my desk off. Bills, to the side, ‘Cien Años de Soledad’, to the side. Sticky note with a reminder to call a financial advising service, to the side.
I put the pot on a towel and stir in the oil. Oil and water move together. In my feverish haze I stare at the ripples, it smells so good. Blue, magenta, metallic yellow; oil is oil. It reminds me of the car oil I would see mixed with the rain in Bogotá. Carrying the dirt in the streets, downhill, into the alcantarilla. Never mind that; all that is far way. Sixteen years later and I’m here, still here, reconciling what home is, where home is, with bronchitis and oil.
I feel the burning of the tea tree open my bronchioles. lt tickles. I cough until my ribs hurt. I’m tired of this shit. It feels like I’ve been intentional about this grief work for two years now, and am grateful for its purpose, but I’m tired of this shit. It began as a necessity to go inwards. Alone, on my own, to sit with myself. That was year one. The digging I did in that year was painful, and I grew, read, breathed, was silent, patiently letting myself weave in and out of sickness. Learning that trauma became too comfortable in my body, and forced migration settled in my lungs. In those years, I began to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and learnt to connect to my body using roots, herbs, and through my relationship to food. TCM teachings share that the lungs hold grief, they support the throat, and direct energy down to the intestines. I try to find the connection between loss and bronchitis. Between the grief I am holding in my body from my recent breakup and death of my paternal grandmother, all in the same week, I’m shook. I breathe into the aches in my body and the tightness in my chest as I inhale the steam from the oil-water, water-oil. Healing yourself has a way of forcing you to go back; all the way back. The abusive methods of the English language flattened my tongue, twisted my throat to close up my vowels, cut up my liver, thinned my intestines, and bruised my legs- making sure I could never go back, but couldn’t move forward. Stuck, I continued. An immigrant child, older sister, unprofessional translator, expert weight bearer.
I remember the first time my mother taught me to pick eucalyptus hats. The rough texture of wood lined with wax or hardened sap. Fragrant, brown and cone shaped, painted white on top. We used to collect them off the side of the road, after eating arepas y jugo de mora on the days she was able to pick us up from school. Bogotá traffic, sun shining, horns blaring. Everybody is trying to get home. I never really minded the traffic, it gave me more time to take in the trees that lined the streets. The bright magenta flowers arching up walls into roofs, and, most importantly, enough time to go through each grocery bag in the back seat. I grabbed a mango, perfectly ripe and warm, begging me to peel and devour it. The heat of the car slowed that moment down, as I slowly peeled the skin, and bit into its flesh . Sweet juice running down my chin. Just then, I saw my mother fling open her car door, run to the side of the road, bend down, and begin to quickly pick up small pieces from the grass into her hand. This woman, wearing brown transparent stockings, in a pencil skirt, was almost on her knees in the grass, on a busy street in Bogotá. Her child alone in the car; hands full of mango. She ran back to the car, smile wider than her face, hands full of twigs, branches, and eucalyptus hats. She threw them into the passenger seat, locked the door, and sat in silence. My home. Eucalyptus and mango.
When I was 7 years-old, I was admitted into emergency care with pneumonia. I had been fighting a nasty bronchitis for a week, before my mother rushed me to the hospital with insuficiencia respiratoria. I couldn’t breathe. I remember the nurses taking me to a room where I was instructed to put on a mask and breathe; a cold vapour quieting my cough. I was on antibiotics to fight the infection overstaying in my lungs, sticking to my throat, making my eyes too hot and my feet too cold. My mother slept in the hard chair beside my bed for a week, taking turns with my aunts during the day. After a week, the fever had gone down, but my cough had gotten worse. Nothing the doctors tried was working. My mother went to the market and got some Yerbamiel, a sweet syrup made of eucalyptus, honey, and other medicinal herbs. Secretly, she would give me a spoonful, sometimes two, when the room was empty. After a weekend of her rebellious healing with herbal medicine my cough became softer, wetter, my body started expelling the infection, and the doctors sent me home.
As I had struggled with lung infections my whole life, my mother continued to soothe my cough with this sticky sweet sap for the next two weeks, combining it with natural fruit juices in the morning, and sitting with me to drink bone broth in the afternoons. Agua y aceite para que suelte. Water and oil, so it flows. She hung a bundle of eucalyptus branches on top of my bed. She hung a bundle on the shower head, so the steam would be heavy with medicine. She calmly boiled water with a bundle, in a pot. My mother, the medicine maker, healer, birthing calm and helping me breathe. Back then, without knowing the medicinal properties of eucalyptus, I understood this pant as my ally, with great respect for the trees that lined the mountains.
Eucalyptus has supported and healed me through a recurring core health issue. Time and time again, I have come into contact with it in different forms, first as a plant in my home land, then as a support for the respiratory system in the form of syrup, and now in the form of essential oil, inhaling it as steam when I am ill. This process of reconnecting to myself and my identity in the diaspora after migration, as a settler on stolen land, is entrenzado; braided, with my process of decolonization, of rejecting the medical industrial complex and actively choosing to honour and learn to heal with plant based medicine. The medicine dispensed and sold to us by the medical industry is stolen from the medicine in plants with no respect to the connection to land, the story of the plants, or the connection to emotions in the body. My work as a healer, as an advocate of children, and my commitment to healing myself is an act of political resistance. It resists capitalism and the attempts of corrupt governments in Abya Yala and Turtle Island to continue the macabre project of colonization. Although i don’t have access to eucalyptus trees like I did in my home land, growing wild on the roadside, my reconnection to it here in Toronto bridges this diaspora gap.
Medicine making to heal myself and my loved ones is a commitment to transnational healing, crossing borders and rooting here. I recognize that working through lung infections with grief work is also root work. I am starting to understand that grief work is continuous, and dealing with grief and trauma is not limited to this lifetime. It is a strange realization to have. The trauma I carry in my body is from many women before me, as relentless violence against Indigenous, and Afro-descendent women continues in Latin America, and machismo and patriarchy takes a toll on the spirit and the body. Every time I get sick, I pay attention to the emotions stored in that part of the body, and study and spend time with the plants that will support the healing of that area.
Use what you have. Every remedy I have sought in this period of illness I already have in my home. This idea that committing to plant medicine means buying expensive products at the natural health food store is just as synthetic as the medical industrial complex itself. In my process of connecting with plants and learning my body I have understood the importance of listening to the subtle changes, the aches, the weight, and the space within the body, and getting creative with the medicine that is already around me. Part of knowing my body and my innate ability to heal myself lies in knowing that I have knowledge in my bones trapped under years of forced silence.My struggle with my health is a path to clearing the blockages that trauma in this lifetime and past, has had en mi cuerpa; my body. It’s painful to know that because of the effects of colonization, genocide, and forced displacement, I don’t know what region or people the traditions I feel and use in my medicine come from, but in this intimate process I trust that my ancestors passed it down to me. That is my resistance.
In these two weeks of healing my body from infection, I supported my lungs with essential oil steams, soothed my throat with the medicine of honey, and nourished my intestines with bone broth to support the immune system, strengthening my intestinal flora. I used onions,carrots, celery, garlic, rosemary, sage, thyme, potatoes and chicken legs. To support the lungs energetically, I stretched every morning after waking up, some days longer than others, and breathed in a low hum that tickled the lungs. I screamed, cried, wept whenever it rose up out of me. I stretched my chest, my back, and especially made space in my ribcage with strong exhales through my throat, sometimes sticking my tongue all the way out. I wrote stories, wrote letters, and slept in as much as I could. I payed attention to what I was absorbing, stories, ideas, and news from the media and the people around me, massaged my lower abdomen with warm oils and breathed deeply during sex. I meditated on the connection between the ideas I feed my body and how they support or hinder my relationship to myself, as they enter my throat to my mouth, cushion my heart, fill my lungs, sit in my stomach, reach into my intestines, and swirl back out with my breath. I understood that this grief work and the congestion in my lungs became easier to break through when I forgave myself.
Melisa Prieto Melisa is a Colombian born, Toronto raised, fat, queer, mestiza woman, unapologetically loving her body as political resistance. She is a Child and Youth worker, herbalist, artist and workshop facilitator on conversations of sex and pleasure.