Vanessa Bauza | News Columnist
Emerito Rodriguez has never taken an aspirin for a headache or an antibiotic to fend off an infection. He has never had an X-ray or required surgery. And he is not being treated for high blood pressure, diabetes or any of the other ailments that might afflict a man 75 years young.
The robust farmer and former forestry worker shuns all modern medicines, clinging instead to his community’s faith in the healing properties of water, a tradition among a small cluster of families known here as los acuaticos, or “the aquatics.”
They are devotees of a mystical, charismatic healer who is said to have received divine inspiration for her water cures in western Cuba in the 1930s and became popular among the local peasants who did not have enough money for conventional treatments and doctors.
Cuba now has a free and universal health care system, based on medical science and not unproven folk remedies and belief systems. Still, a few families scattered across western villages hold fast to their traditions, treating all their ailments the same way: with a cold, predawn bath and spoonfuls of water.
“I’ll cure myself with water until the day they take me out of here feet first,” Rodriguez says with a smile that creases his sunburned features under the dusty brim of his straw hat. “I have faith the water is curing me; without faith there’s nothing.”
Rodriguez and about six other remaining aquatic families who live in the mountains around the town of Vi�ales, 115 miles west of Havana, drink and bathe in spring water that is channeled to their homes through a network of metal pipes and plastic tubing running along the ground.
But unlike hydrotherapies popular in the United States and Europe as early as the 18th century involving sulfur springs, icy rivers or seawater, the acuaticos’ water boasts no special healing properties, they say. The cure comes from their conviction.
“The water is normal, like anywhere else,” says Guillermina Rodriguez, 47, who lives in a small wood and palm thatched homestead, halfway up a hill overlooking a verdant valley. “It’s the faith we have,” she says. “Just like you go to the doctor and you believe he will cure you, we believe the water will cure us.”
Her faith did not falter even when one of her daughters died from what she describes as dengue fever at the age of 10.
“If I had wanted to I could have taken her to the hospital. I don’t believe in that,” she says. “It was what God willed.”
These families of acuaticos live only a few miles from one of Cuba’s tourist destinations, the valley of Vi�ales, where lush mountains rise spectacularly from a scenic patchwork of farms and tobacco fields. Still, they seem to belong to another era. They have no electricity or telephone service; this is not by choice but rather due to their location on the hillside. They transport supplies on wooden sleds pulled by a pair of oxen. They grow much of their own food. And their children are schooled by a teacher who visits their homes twice a week.
In isolated communities across Cuba, tradition dictates daily living, from the way crops are planted to the use of alternative home remedies. But younger generations in these regions are gradually abandoning their parents’ lifestyles in favor of modern conveniences in surrounding towns. Many acuaticos say their beliefs could be facing extinction.
“Some follow the tradition, others change it,” said Eudosia Maura Barrio, 73, one of the community’s elders. “I don’t plan on changing, but the new generation does things differently.”
Barrio’s granddaughter, Yaneli Ch�vez, 20, married a man who was raised outside her close-knit community and moved to the valley to start her own family.
“While I lived up there, I did as they did. Now I take medications,” Ch�vez says, as she glances out the window of her wooden home to look up at the nearby mountain.
Ch�vez’s husband, Hernan Martinez, 22, says he sees the acuaticos “as something normal” but does not believe water can substitute modern medicine.
Zenia Leon married into a family of water cure believers, but has not adopted their water cures.
“I don’t believe in that. I wasn’t born into that,” Leon, 33, says. “My husband agrees that I should take our daughter to the hospital if she gets sick. I give her medicines.”
Leon admits she gets sick more often than her husband. Maybe it’s his hardy genes; his father is going strong at 75 and his grandmother lived to be 93. Or maybe it’s the fresh air and stress-free, active lifestyle of this rural area.
True believers in this region trace their beliefs back to Anto�ica Izquierdo, a peasant woman who, according to lore, cured her son’s meningitis after hearing a voice in the fields that directed her to bathe him in the river before dawn and give him three teaspoons of water to drink.
Izquierdo went on to become a folk hero, drawing caravans of pilgrims from western Cuba and even a boatload of believers from Mexico, said Fidel Valverde, a local author who researched Izquierdo’s life for his novel, Virgin of the Keys, which won a national Cuban fiction award in 2000.
“She had a social impact,” Valverde said. “A myth was created around her.”
But Izquierdo�s unorthodox practices led to clashes with the clergy and medical establishment. She was hauled off to a Havana mental hospital, where she died in the 1940s, Valverde said.
Her beliefs survive in a few families, who still keep faded black and white photos of her on their walls.
“Almost all the parents took their kids to her so she would baptize them,” says Barrio, the village elder, who met Izquierdo as a child and credits her with curing her brother’s hernia. “She would sprinkle water on our faces and give us three little spoonfuls of water. She always told people they must have faith in God and faith in water, not in her.”