Medicine Woman

Leah LeMoineMarch 2019
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Photography by Laura Segall

Valley healer Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz carries on the tradition of her curandera great-grandmother with indigenous healing and cooking.

When Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz speaks to nursing students at Arizona State University about indigenous medicine, she has to remind them that it isn’t extinct. “We’re still practicing it,” she says. “We’re not in the past. We’re still here.”

Cocotzin Ruiz is a chef and a curandera, a traditional healer who uses recipes and folk remedies passed down through the generations in her Mexican and Tewa family. She’s part of a rising tide of modern Native American chefs and activists who are revitalizing the customs and ingredients of their people after decades of attempted – often forced – assimilation.

“Part of assimilating for all of us was turning our back on our culture – not because we wanted to, but it made our lives easier,” Cocotzin Ruiz, 47, says, remembering being teased by classmates and called a witch for burning sage and using herbal remedies. “So now I’m at the age where I can share these, because I feel like I didn’t really have that opportunity… It was the ’70s, the ’80s. It’s so different now. I feel like now, medicine in general, allopathic care – they’re starting to recognize energy really exists.”

It’s something she grew up with as the great-granddaughter of a New Mexican curandera. “She specialized in working with plant medicine, and she also caught [delivered] babies,” Cocotzin Ruiz says. “We saw [her legacy] in the house – different teas my mom might use for different stomachaches, or things like that. That’s very typical of Mexican-American families. The grandmas always had what we call yerba buena, which is like spearmint or mint. Everything was always growing outside our door.”

Her parents moved to Phoenix before Cocotzin Ruiz was born, and her mother became a nurse. Cocotzin Ruiz remembers collecting plants during walks with her great-grandmother and then preserving and experimenting with them in empty prescription medicine bottles from her mother. “It’s kind of a funny contradiction,” she says. It wasn’t until she became an adult, enrolled in massage therapy school and started learning about aromatherapy, yoga nidra and therapeutic food that she realized natural healing was her calling. She treated her own migraines by eliminating certain foods, and honed her culinary skills as part of her curative tool kit.

“Not to sound too woo-woo, but it’s just that feeling of understanding that we all carry with us an energy,” she says. “That’s why I always say whether you’re a teacher, a doctor, you know, a partner – when you walk into a space, you have to be responsible for that energy you bring with you, because that can be a change-maker for people you are going to be in the presence of.” Her own presence is serene, and you feel the quieting effects of her soft, sweet voice and gentle, balletic movements.

Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz collects her popoxcomitl, a tool to burn sacred tree resins and plants, after a ceremony marking her as a curandera in 2018; Photo courtesy Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz collects her popoxcomitl, a tool to burn sacred tree resins and plants, after a ceremony marking her as a curandera in 2018; Photo courtesy Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz

“She’s a very calm person, and her food is calming,” says Mahfam Moeeni-Alarcon, chef-owner of Mingle + Graze in Chandler, who worked for Cocotzin-Ruiz at the late Lola Tapas, a restaurant Cocotzin Ruiz owned for several years with her first husband. “We’ve always uplifted each other in our journeys. She’s been through so many different paths since owning a restaurant, and now she does a lot of workshops and teachings… You hear about so many chefs using natural ingredients in the desert, but she is the desert.”

After her divorce and the closing of Lola in 2010 (she bought out her ex-husband and then sold the restaurant; her ex used the name for his Downtown Phoenix coffee shop, Lola Coffee), she hit rock bottom financially, feeding her now adult daughter with food stamps and scrounging for personal chef gigs. By 2012, though, “I was really coming into my power… That’s when I was like, ‘Wow, I can take all of my gifts and, for lack of a better word, kind of package them so I’m able to work with food, with herbs, with energy. It all made sense, because in indigenous thinking, no matter where you’re from, it’s always looked at holistically.”

Since then, she’s taught workshops at Desert Botanical Garden on the medicinal properties of plants and cooking with fresh herbs. She married her second husband, a physical therapist, four years ago, and teaches classes in the sunroom of their historical Phoenix home. She makes house calls to cook for people facing illnesses and to help counsel clients through grief. She speaks at medical schools to bridge the gap between “Western” medicine and traditional medicine.

“If we had to really think about that, what I practice would be in the Eastern medicine group, right? But I’m from here,” she says with a laugh. “So how does that work? I like to just let people ponder on the fact that when they make these two groups – Eastern medicine and Western medicine – I feel like they’re forgetting that we [indigenous people] were here, too.”

Despite her commitment to natural, ancient ways of healing, Cocotzin Ruiz does not view modern medical science as the enemy. She calls her particular brand of healing “complementary medicine” as opposed to “alternative medicine,” and often collaborates with doctors.

“What I would love to see is us working together,” she says. “If we’re trying to have a patient or a client get better, shouldn’t we look at all avenues?”

C-BOMBA JAM
“Hibiscus and rosehips are excellent for boosting the immune system [and] fighting off infections, and taste so good paired up with a little chile,” Cocotzin Ruiz says. Spread the jam on toast or crackers, or eat it by the spoonful. For more recipes, classes and offerings, visit
kitchencurandera.com.

1 ½ cups dried hibiscus flowers (often labeled “jamaica” at Mexican grocers)

½ cup dried rosehips

2 cups orange juice

2 chiles de árbol

½ cup honey

Add hibiscus, rosehips, orange juice and chiles to a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes. Pulse with honey in a blender or food processor to desired consistency. Transfer mixture to a clean jar and allow to cool completely before putting lid on. Refrigerate.

Go to our Web Extras page watch a video of Cocotzin Ruiz making C-BOMBA jam.

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