Mal de Ojo in Hispanics and Latinos

Culturally Bound Syndromes like mal de ojo in Hispanics show the far-reaching consequences that culture has on medicine. In “From Hippocrates to Adams County: Tracing Humoral Medicine in Literature and Practice,” the reception of Hispanic medical theory in Western culture is explored. Culturally, Hispanic medicine is rooted in humoral theory, and disease is rooted in the disturbance of one or more of the body’s four humors. The disturbance or imbalance is traditionally remedied using the hot/cold law of opposites. Mal de ojo, or the evil eye, is an illness transmitted through the eyes, carried through the air, and received through the eyes of the intended recipient. The affected individual believes that she has suffered an illness[1]. The eye is given to a child that the instigator covets, and the strong feelings from the one that gives the eye “heat” the blood of the recipient. The symptoms of mal de ojo result from this heated blood, and are commonly medical problems such as vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and mental problems. The syndrome is most common in infants and children, but adults may also experience the symptoms resulting from mal de ojo[2]. Treatment by western medicine currently involves understanding the illness in order to bridge the cultural gap. The common Hispanic treatment is to take the child to a folk healer for herbal remedies and ritual cures. A common remedy is to pass raw egg over the child to absorb negative energy, and then placing it in a bowl under the child’s pillow overnight. If the egg cooked overnight from the blood’s heat (a result of mal de ojo), then the child had the syndrome[3]. Aranzeta concludes that employing literature as a cultural agent may alleviate barriers between the provider and patient in order to strengthen the relationship. By reading books to be educated, western medical providers can gain a greater depth of understanding of the Hispanic culture.

[1] de Aranzeta, Alexandria E. “From Hippocrates to Adams County: Tracing Humoral Medicine in Literature and Practice.” International Journal of Healthcare & Humanities. [2:2] 2008

[2] “Culture-bound syndromes, cultural variations, and psychopathology.” Handbook of multicultural mental health: Assessment and treatment of diverse populations (pp. 140-141). New York: Academic Press. 2000

[3] Carteret, Marcia. “Folk Illnesses and Remedies in Latino Communities.” Dimensions of Culture. 2011

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Sarah Newman says:

    I would define culture as similar characteristics found in a group of people of a certain area. I think the terms race and culture can easily overlap and be maybe even mixed up once realized that race is not just skin color or area of origin. I think mal de ojo, seen in Hispanic culture, should be considered a CBS because the illness has cultural significance and treatment throughout the community. referring to CBS definition, as taught in lecture, mal de ojo seems to be a “specific pattern if aberrant behavior/ a troubling experience” for the Hispanic culture. Also since the condition is recognized as an illness and is given a common name, I think mal de ojo can be classified as a CBS. An advantage to viewing mal de ojo as a CBS is that the culture can hold on to anciet practices of spiritual healing and herbal medicine. I think it is good for cultures to remain grounded in ancient beliefs and to hold onto what makes their cultures unique. Unfortunately, however, holding on to these practices means that the actual symptoms and disease is not treated and may continue to wreck havoc on the person’s body. In American society, the disease mal de ojo probably most represents a stomach flu type picture, where the cooking of the egg under the pillow could be justified by someone having a high fever. American doctors may think that the person experiencing these symptoms may have eaten rotten food, caught a virus, or somehow gotten a bacterial infection. Treatment would be rest, fluids, and possibly antibiotics.

  2. Ben Caldwell says:

    I would consider culture to be a shared lifestyle of a certain population. So a group of people living in the same geographic area that have similar beliefs, practices, or other basic ways of living.
    It seems pretty evident that Mal de Ojo should be considered a culturally bound syndrome as it isn’t an understanding of illness that’s shared in other cultures. I feel it would be beneficial to understanding Mal de Ojo to recognize it as a CBS because then the culture in which it’s based can be studied more extensively in order to better understand the illness. If the culture is understood, perhaps it could lead to discovering the biological cause of the illness. If this can be achieved, then the “Evil eye” illness could be more effectively treated.
    In the modern, western medical system, the germ theory would most likely be used to understand the illness. As the author of this post points out, none of the symptoms of Mal de Ojo are that unusual. This leads me to suspect that the same illness, or at least something similar probably is recognized in the western medical system under a different name. This reinforces the idea that greater understanding of the culture around the Mal de Ojo illness could lead to a more effective treatment.

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