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Diaspora and Health? Traditional Medicine and Culture in a Mexican Migrant Community

Waldstein, Anna (2008) Diaspora and Health? Traditional Medicine and Culture in a Mexican Migrant Community. International Migration, 46 (5). pp. 95-117. ISSN 0020-7985. (doi:10.1111/j.1468-2435.2008.00490.x)


As members of the Mexican diaspora acculturate/assimilate to life in the United States they gain skills that should help them improve their socioeconomic status and overcome barriers to the mainstream American healthcare system. Thus, we might expect better health among more acculturated Mexicans. However, most of the research conducted during the past 20 years shows that the health of Mexicans living in the United States deteriorates as acculturation increases. This suggests that certain health promoting aspects of Mexican culture are lost as migrants adapt to and adopt American ways of life. This paper is the first step in testing the hypothesis that declining health among acculturated people of Mexican descent is related to a loss of traditional medical knowledge.

During an ethnographic study of women’s medical knowledge in a, unacculturated Mexican migrant community in Athens, Georgia, USA, I observed many ways low-income, undocumented migrants maintain good health. Migrant women encourage members of their families to engage in health promoting behaviors and treat sick family members with a variety of home remedies. The efficacy of the herbal medicines that women bring from Mexico to the United States is well documented in the chemical and pharmacological literature. Additionally, migrant women in Athens learn how to navigate the American medical and social service systems. The barriers to professional healthcare are overcome through social networks that provide information needed to access these services. Nevertheless, migrant women often prefer to treat sick family at home and indicated a preference for Mexican folk medicines over professional medical care in most situations.

This case study suggests that migration and diaspora need not always lead to disease. The maintenance of a Mexican culture that is distinct from the rest of American society helps ensure that traditional medical knowledge is not lost, while the social networks that link Mexicans to each other and to their homeland help minimize threats to health, which are usually associated with migration. The results of this study suggest that increased access to professional medical care may not improve the health of migrants if it comes with the loss of traditional medical knowledge. Future research is needed to determine how well traditional medical knowledge is preserved in more acculturated Mexican communities and whether an abandonment of traditional medical practices is indeed associated with poorer health.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1111/j.1468-2435.2008.00490.x
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Divisions: Faculties > Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation > Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology
Depositing User: Anna Waldstein
Date Deposited: 31 Mar 2009 09:39 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Aug 2019 10:32 UTC
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