As an ethnobotanist in Central America for the past thirty years, I meet some fascinating people, most of whom are healers. One of the most memorable was Miss Hortence Robinson, (1922 – 2009) Belizean herbal midwife and shaman. Here’s her story.
Hortence was born on Cozumel Island, in Yucatan, Mexico, home of the ancient sanctuary of Ix Chel, Maya Goddess of the moon, fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, healers, death, the earth and all bodies of water. A huge portfolio even for a divine being. Hortence’s family background is what Belizeans call “A boil up.” She was of Maya, African,East Indian, Scottish descent and one grandfather was an escaped slave from the United States. Until she was fifteen, her multi-generational family lived in a chicle camp where her mother and both grandmothers were midwives to the women who accompanied the men for their long sojourns in the jungles. Chicle, the sap that runs from sapote trees, was made into chewing gum for the world market.
She never learned to read or write. As the only girl in a family of nine children, Hortence was kept home to help with housework. One of her childhood chores was to collect healing plants for her mother and grandmothers’ rustic clinic. She and her Maya playmates went to the bush daily to collect the list of plants needed for the day. From the children she learned the Mayan names of plants and to speak their Yucatec language.
Hortence was an asthmatic all her life. At thirteen she had such a severe attack that she was flown out of Cozumel to a hospital in Belize City. While there a group of men carried in a labouring woman and left her in the hallway while they went to get a doctor. As Hortence came out of a washroom, the woman called to her saying, “Come here child and catch this baby.” Lucky for the mother that she encountered little Hortence becuase she knew just what to do. She delivered the baby , massaged until the placenta came down then wrapped both in her hospital gown. Naked, she sat on the cot with the woman and waited for the doctor to come. The nurses came running and said, “Now don’t you say a word to the doctor.” “To calm her nerves,” one of the nurses took her into the washroom and gave her a cigarette, the first of a life time habit.
When the chicle industry in Central America crashed, Hortence’s family returned to Ladyville, outside of Belize . Until she began her own midwifery practice when she was all of eighteen, she assisted her mother and grandmothers to care for women and children. In time , she became a famous herbalist midwife in her own right. After I met her in 1990, I nicknamed her “Mil secretos” or a thousand secrets because of her endless remedies . Every time she delivered an unwanted baby, she wrapped it up and took it home to raise. She married twice , had eight children of her own and adopted fourteen. At fifteen, she adopted her first baby then took in washing to earn the money to buy milk for the baby. She spent most of her life as a single mother.
Like other traditional healers of her status, she was taught spiritual healing through dream visions. In her dreams, she learned prayers, plants and treatments for spiritual ailments common to people of Central America. Susto or fright, tristessa or depression, pesar or grief, envidia or envy are only a few. As a shaman, hortence used prayer, herbal baths and incense in her spiritual practice. She was a woman of great humor, humility and faith in God all of which she applied to every aspect of her healing. “You could never too humble,” she said often. In her forties she learned to bathe and prepare the deceased for burial, thus guarding both gates of birth and death.
Hortence often spent months at a time with me on my farm in Belize. She was an animal whisperer. While she was in my home, we were surrounded by nesting birds, armadillos, foxes and jungle animals that approached only while she was resident. One morning at dawn, I heard a strange noise downstairs where she was sleeping in the guest room. I went to my porch to look outside and saw an enormous yellow and black spotted jaguar loping in great strides off my front deck into the jungle. I ran downstairs to tell her. Scowling, she pushed her face into mine, poked me with a finger and said, “And don’t you dare tell a soul! He has been here every night sleeping outside my door for the last month. He’s injured and knows this is a house of confidence.” I slept with her for the next few nights and ,just as she said, that jaguar appeared on her porch at mid nite and, snoring peacefully, slept against her iron-clad screen door until dawn.
One morning I sat outside with her while she drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. She loved to watch the birds flitter and fly about in the garden. “It will rain in three days,” she announced. “Really?” I asked. “How can you be so sure.” She pointed to a little bird on the ground and said, “Bouncey turned over a leaf this morning.” So said and so done. The rainy season started in three days.
Kind, funny and loving, Hortence exemplified generosity of spirit. She cared more for the welfare of others than she did for her own. Over the years, she taught me a plethora of her secrets for healing women and children. We taught classes and workshops together for twelve years. In our profession of Maya Abdominal Therapists, we teach Hortence’s Point, a spot known anatomically as Alcock’s canal through which runs the pudendal nerve. She taught us how to treat it to improve nerve function to the entire pelvic floor. Especially helpful during labor and delivery, it has re-started or shortened countless labours. The massage she taught us to do during pregnancy relieves a host of common complaints and greatly aids labour and delivery.
The practitioners and clients of Maya abdominal therapy know that we owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude. As our spiritual guide, Hortence Robinson still appears to many of us teaching us in dream visions to better care for our clients and their children with prayers, massage and plants.