Jennifer Koshatka Seman received her Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University and is currently a lecturer in history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she teaches courses in U.S. and Latin American history.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Jennifer Koshatka Seman: “Borderlands Curanderos: The Worlds of Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo” is a work of borderlands history, and it came out of my graduate research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where I received my PhD in history.
The graduate history program at SMU, at the time I was there, was focused on the U.S. Southwest and U.S.-Mexico borderlands. The topic of curanderismo (Mexican/Latinx faith or folk healing) in the borderlands came from the research I did for my courses at SMU.
I became intrigued first by the curandera (healer) Teresa Urrea, “La Santa de Cabora.” Teresa Urrea is more popularly known in Mexico and the borderlands because of her involvement with rebellions against the Mexican government of Porfirio Diaz on the eve of the Mexican Revolution.
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There are excellent publications about her out there, most significantly Luis Alberto Urrea’s two works of historical fiction, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and “The Queen of America” — both of which are based on historical research even as they are works of “fiction.” I was lucky to meet Luis Urrea when I was a graduate student at SMU, where he gave a talk about his writing and border activism. He generously shared his research with me, and offered his support of my fledgling dissertation idea (he eventually served on my dissertation committee).
I later learned about Don Pedrito Jaramillo, another curandero who left Mexico and then maintained a healing practice on the U.S. side of the border. I decided to research his life as well. Thus, the dissertation, and then book, became a kind of dual biography of both Santa Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo that deeply contextualizes both of these curanderos in their borderlands worlds.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Seman: The excerpt I selected comes from the first chapter, “The Mexican Joan of Arc: Healing and Resistance in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.”
The main theme of this chapter is how this curandera, Teresa Urrea, becomes both a part of — and a symbol of — the resistance in Mexico against the presidency (or perhaps more accurately said the “dictatorship”) of Porfirio Diaz.
A central theme and argument of this book is that these two curanderos were significant. They and their healing practices influenced the world they lived in — a world filled with oppression of the poor, Indigenous, and on the U.S. side of the border those of Mexican descent. In particular, Teresa Urrea was a part of pre-revolutionary radical movements in Mexico that crossed the border, like Ricardo Flores Magón and Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM).
The excerpt shows that Teresa Urrea was on the radar of the Mexican government because of her resistance to the oppressive regime of Diaz, and that officials in the U.S. worked with the Mexican government to suppress dissidents. This reveals another theme of the book: The Mexican and U.S. governments worked together to suppress Indigenous uprisings (and really any uprising that resisted the dominant power structures in both countries).
I also love how the “Mexican Joan of Arc” manifesto quoted in this excerpt reveals so much about the spiritual and gendered ideas prevalent at this time, the late 1800s-early1900s (referred to as the “Porfiriato” in Mexican history and the “Gilded Age” and “Progressive Era” in U.S. history).
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While Teresa Urrea is depicted as a “dangerous” woman, a revolutionary, she is also idealized as the perfect and pure woman who sacrifices herself for the nation. She is both a “perfect” woman, and a “dangerous” woman who has stepped out of the proscribed bounds of womanhood.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Seman: This book came out of a dissertation that I wrote in 2015 for my PhD in American history at Southern Methodist University. So, my experience in writing this book is very research-based. It first had to pass the muster of my dissertation committee (Neil Foley, Christa DeLuzio, Sherry Smith, and Luis Urrea), and then the muster of my wonderful editor at the University of Texas Press (Robert Devens) who wanted something narrative and compelling, as well as academically rigorous.
The research I did in archives in both Mexico and the United States was formative for this book, as well as discussions with curanderas practicing today who shared with me their perspectives on the history of Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo. I am grateful both to the healers who shared their ideas and experiences with me, as well as the archivists who helped me find the documents I needed to do this project.
It was exciting but also challenging to do this research, as these two healers did not leave lots of documents or writings of their own for historians to work with. So I had to search for documents where they were mentioned such as Mexican surveillance of Teresa Urrea, various newspaper articles from large and small papers, and interviews with living ancestors, among others. I was happy to find lots of sources, but it was a bit of a challenge in figuring out how to pull it all together into a narrative, how to address the “silences” in the archive.
SunLit: Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Seman: This is such a great question. For this book, one of the arguments I wanted to make at the outset — before I had done substantive research — was that these two curanderos were significant historical forces, not simply interesting cultural curiosities as they often are portrayed.
What the research revealed to me was that indeed they were forces in their communities, forces that challenged hegemonic power such as the state, the medical institution, and the church. I hope more scholars and writers take up their stories to continue to show how these borderlands curanderos shaped the worlds they lived in, just as those worlds shaped them.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Seman: By far the biggest challenge in researching “Borderlands Curanderos” was finding the primary sources with which to tell their stories. Because Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo were not elites, finding sources about them was challenging.
They do not have large archival collections featuring their letters (such as Porfirio Diaz or Thomas Jefferson) so I had to dig around the edges. What did others say about them, such as the Mexican government? How could I find the opposition newspapers that featured Teresa Urrea?
I found answers to these questions, but it took a lot of digging, and most importantly lots of help from friends (thank you Luis Alberto Garcia). Researching and writing this book made me a firm believer that historians must excavate the stories of people like Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo.
It is not easy. But it is important. They reveal so much about the borderlands at the turn of the century that is not obvious in many sources, but none-the-less is significant to communities oppressed by hegemonic power structures.
SunLit: Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?
Seman: I have not encountered any controversy yet in the presentations I have given for this book. What I have seen is that people are very interested in these stories — and that makes me happy.
Because this is a work of borderlands history, the status of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands today does come up in discussions about the book. In the conclusion to the book, I do touch on this.
I am an advocate for border reform, and I support DREAMer students on my campus at Metropolitan State University of Denver, so I do not hesitate to make the connection that the border is a construction. The border has a history. It is not natural, inevitable.
Looking at the lives of Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito Jaramillo shows, in part, what the borderlands were like at the turn of the century. How has it changed? Why? What do the changes mean for the communities from Mexico and the United States that live in the borderlands? What do changes that have caused the strengthening of the border mean to those people today, like Urrea and Jaramillo that cross the border to seek refuge or opportunity?
These are all questions that the book sometimes inspires. They are important to think about historically.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Seman: This is a complicated process for me. As a historian, I first have to do research in primary sources and archives, as well as secondary literature. I take lots and lots of notes.
Then, I begin to form what I think is an appropriate narrative. For “Borderlands Curanderos,” this process began with my dissertation research in 2012 and culminated with the finished book manuscript in 2019. However, during much of that time I was also working fulltime teaching courses in American and borderlands history.
It was challenging to do both, but with the support of my wonderful spouse, Michael Seman, I was able to do it.
In terms of the actual process of writing, I am a visual person, so I have big white boards and Post-It notes hanging in my office that I use to storyboard ideas before I write them down. And, like all writers, I revise, revise, revise.
It is fun, frustrating, inspiring, discouraging all at the same time. But the most important thing is just to keep plugging away, don’t give up!
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Seman: At the moment, I have been working on projects of a more pedagogical nature. This last year, I edited two primary source anthologies for Schlager Publications, and I am currently working on a project for the history of Multicultural America with colleagues at MSU.
I hope to write more about Teresa Urrea and Don Pedrito as I have much research that did not make it into the book. Ideas are brewing… time will tell!