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Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh
The Way We Eat

Curandera Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz on What People Want from a Healer in the Midst of a Pandemic

updated Aug 23, 2020
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Name: Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
How many people eat in your home? 2
Any avoidances? Beef, pork, poultry

If you’ve watched Taste the Nation, chances are you recognize Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz from her appearance on Episode 7, “The Original Americans,” where she gives Padma Lakshmi a tour of her home and surrounding land and has a conversation about indigenous foodways. Because of my connection to my indigenous Filipinx ancestry, I have been a longtime Instagram fan of her Kitchen Curandera account for years. In the Before Times, Felicia used to teach herbalism and native food classes from her home and with indigenous communities. My close friend and I would say to each other, “One day, we are going to Arizona to take one of her classes!” 

While any plans to visit Arizona are on hiatus for now, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of interviewing her here (an immediate text went to my girlfriend “Guess who I get to interview?!?!!”). While I was excited to learn from her, I didn’t realize I would be walking away feeling rooted in my own ancestral path, like I had my own spiritual cleansing and was blessed with her wisdom.

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

Can you explain what a curandera is, and how did you find yourself on this path?
A curandera is simply a single word for traditional healer, and it can also mean a medicine woman. There are all different branches of it, so people might be working with herbs, or someone might be working with the body (as in a massage person). I’m trained in massage therapy. I naturally work with energy. I have a background in folk herbalism — specifically plants indigenous to the Southwest. 

My great-grandmother was a curandera. She specialized in working with the plants of her area, which was in old-town Albuquerque in New Mexico. And her knowledge of plants helped her with women, catching babies. It’s something that is in our DNA, because my sister is a professional midwife — she also catches babies. I don’t think we went out to find out how to do this; it was just kind of like a calling.

And being a curandera, whatever your branch of expertise is, it’s my way of not only reclaiming who my ancestors are or were, but it’s also reaffirming who I am. 

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

What is your approach to healing? How do you see people, what is your method?
One of my natural gifts is my name. I was named Felicia, which means happiness, and I think I tend to bring that to a lot to people when they look at my food, when they taste my food, when I’m talking about food — there’s a sense of joyfulness.

In my practice here in my office when I’m seeing people, one of the tools I give them is connecting with their ancestors through food. And a lot of times, people feel like that’s real deep, heavy work to do, but it’s actually really uplifting and light. It’s holistic. We’re just this little person in the middle, and everything is just around us. Food just happens to be, I believe, a major factor in how we feel — energetically, spiritually, even our intuition with our gut, what we are eating.

When people come to me for consultation, they often come for spiritual grounding, and they leave with recipes. I think they think they’re going to be leaving with a sage bundle and they’re leaving with notes.

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

How has your business changed since the pandemic?
It’s changed tremendously. My business is grounded in working one-on-one with people, or working as a group, whether it’s indigenous herbal workshops or healthy cooking on the reservations. Everything stopped because of the pandemic.

But four weeks ago [early June], I started to see clients again for one-on-one consultations — for the limpias (copal limpias, which is the smudging with the Mexican resin). I have a protocol they have to follow now that we’re distancing. And then three weeks ago, I finally was able to teach a workshop to members of the Salt River Maricopa Indian community here in the Phoenix area.

I made a list of all of the ingredients needed, gave it to the person in charge, and then they bought all the ingredients and delivered them to each person taking the Zoom call. It was a simple herbal class for a digestion remedy, and also for immune support, and it was hard. I work so much with people on the reservation, and a lot of times, there’s no WiFi. To have a computer is a luxury. To have a smartphone is a luxury — and I was working with elders. My heart was breaking because there were people that did not have access to these things so they could not connect through Zoom — they just called in.

I love teaching, but I can no longer say, “Here, smell this, pass it around,” or “Let’s get this plant and smell it, and everybody, what does it feel like to you? What does it smell like to you? Here, let’s make tea. Let’s taste it.”

And that’s such an integral part of learning — at least in my teaching. 

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

Especially with food.
Yes, tactile, sensual. It’s everything. There is still so much uncertainty that when I opened up my practice again, there was such an influx of people wanting the copal limpias, which is the smudging with the Mexican resin. It was so heavy in here, I had to smudge out my space all the time, because people were freaking out. I don’t want to diminish it by saying freaking out, but the fear that they were carrying was manifesting in so many ways in their bodies: headache, losing hair, all of these things. I don’t want to just shut things down again.

I want people to have an opportunity to still release those negative emotions that they’re carrying with them, or negative entities and feelings that they have around them, to help them to feel hope again. So people need a way to digest that anxiety, or to detox it or to let it go.

No one is coming to see me about nutrition right now. No one is coming to see me about, “Oh, I have breast cancer. There are certain foods that might help.” No one is coming to see me for any of that. Everyone right now wants to just release — that’s all they want to do is release.

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

How does your work as a healer impact the way you cook at home?
I do a lot of things that no one taught me; it’s something very innate. So, for instance, when I’m cooking, I only like to stir the pot a certain way. I also love humming while I’m cooking. That’s something I’ve always done since I was small, which now, people who practice sound healing might say, “Oh, you’re putting your frequency into your medicine,” or whatever. And I don’t want to sound so out there, but there is a lot of happiness that I do feel from cooking. Maybe it has to do with my name. 

When my daughter, who is almost 20, lived with me and wasn’t feeling well, I would always pray into her food while I was cooking and I would ask the Creator to nourish her body and help her get well faster. I barely see cooking as just one other aspect of my practice. There’s no division. I have now taught all over the Southwest, and almost all of the Native 80-something-year-old grandmothers that I’ve met talk about energy and praying, and making an intention when you’re cooking. And I’ve been called, many times, a little grandma, and I don’t take it as an insult.

Sometimes when I see food that looks like a science experiment — no shade to those chefs who make that beautiful food — it doesn’t resonate with my soul the same way as something, let’s say, a mother might be cooking with just a few random ingredients. It’s just missing that element. I think praying into the food, giving my intention into the food, my happiness into the food — whatever that little magic essence is — that’s my secret ingredient, because you just have to have it.

What’s a typical meal for you? Or a favorite meal? 
Just this last week, I made a saffron couscous with golden raisins and almonds, and then my friend had a whole bunch of eggplant they gave me from their garden, so I made Moroccan eggplant to go with the couscous. It had cinnamon and all of these aromatic spices. And we do eat fish in our home, so I made a steamed cod to go with that. But then, the next day — my husband is from Baltimore — so I was like, “Okay, let’s make some kind of a crab boil or something with Old Bay seasoning.” And then the next day, maybe we had a Greek salad. I’m kind of all over the place.

The one thing that I do — especially because we can’t travel right now — is to use lots of different kinds of spices in my cooking. It’s easy for me to put certain things together, so long as I can plan and go get the ingredients at the international market and things like that.

This isn’t meant to diminish my indigenous side, because my yard right now is full of prickly pears, so hopefully soon I’ll be making some type of a prickly pear syrup to use in different dishes. I also have an olive tree and sometimes I’ll make teas with the olive leaves. So I’m trying to “live off the land where I am,” but I’m just so curious. My tongue is curious; I want to travel so badly. So to answer your question, we’ve had Moroccan food, we’ve had Ethiopian food, we’ve had crab boils, we’ve had … oh, my gosh. We’ve just had so many things.

And it’s trial and error, because we don’t really eat beef, chicken, pork, and things like that. It’s kind of limiting depending which cuisine we’re going for. But it’s so much in the spices and the plants.

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

I noticed that you are surrounded by land. How large is the property that you live on, and what can you forage from that?
I would say it’s probably half an acre of property where we are, which probably by New York standards is a whole block. My husband and I live in a very tiny adobe home that was built in 1934. It’s only two bedrooms, and we have a lot of outdoor spaces, which is  literally just the desert.

There are several palo verde trees. When the spring comes, I harvest the palo verde pods, which are kind of similar in taste and appearance to edamame. We have cholla buds that we harvest — like that were eaten in Taste the Nation. I have barrel cactus fruit, saguaro fruit, and three different types of mesquite. Not to mention the other edibles that are out there that I use for medicine.

I really had to convince my husband that this is where we wanted to live, because he wanted to live in a bigger home, maybe something a little bit more modern. But something clicked for me with this home, and I realized later that it was the adobe. So many of my aunties and uncles, my grandmother, my great grandmother — they all lived in adobe homes. I remember the ceilings were low, the doorways were low, you had to duck to get in there. I think it’s something about the actual earth of the home that makes me feel so good. 

Tell me about your kitchen!
My kitchen is pretty small. I remember when I was working to just survive as a personal chef, I would go into these very, very wealthy peoples’ kitchens where they had every imaginable appliance. Their kitchens, though, did not speak nourishment. It was all for show. It was too immaculate. 

And to me, I would rather have a small kitchen that is a workhorse, and our kitchen is just like that. Whenever someone comes to my little kitchen, they usually say the exact same thing: “Your kitchen is so adorable!” It has a lot of character: There are herbs hanging, garlic over here, clay pots. It’s just a lot going on, but it’s workable. I’m honoring my lineage through all these little things that I never felt when I was in other peoples’ kitchens.

You use the hashtag #decolonizeyourdiet on Instagram a lot. What does that mean?
I didn’t come up with that hashtag, but I use it because I want people to recognize that many of our health issues are coming from eating colonized foods, and some of those foods are processed foods, and foods high in sugar. Decolonizing your diet doesn’t mean, “Oh, you can only eat food from 1491.” It’s a mindset more than the actual food itself. It’s about connecting to foods of the earth again, even if that means you’re eating cabbage in the Southwest where cabbage did not grow naturally and abundantly; it’s still nourishing your body in a way that we are trying to reconnect again. So many of us are trying to reconnect with our foods.

I have been called the godmother of the Decolonize Your Diet movement, and I don’t know how I feel about that. I don’t eat a decolonized diet 100% of the time. I don’t want people to feel that they can’t eat any European foods. It’s really a matter of making  food from scratch again and putting those prayers into it and knowing you’re choosing a nutrient-dense diet, and you’re feeding your body, and you’re feeding your soul. That’s decolonizing your diet. It’s a concept. 

Credit: Nicky Hedayatzadeh

What are some ways our readers can help create food sovereignty for indigenous people, and what are some resources they can use to educate themselves?
I’m the board chair for the North American Traditional Indigenous Food System, so I really like to push that nonprofit. It’s chef Sean Sherman‘s nonprofit. The purpose is really to help educate not only our own people in terms of indigenous people, but other people, too. I also think it’s important to find out more about where you are. What did people eat around you before your city became what it is? Just because something is considered local doesn’t mean it’s indigenous to the area. 

I love educating people and just finding out what is a native plant to your area. A lot of times, people don’t even realize things are edible. 

Thank you so much, Felicia! Follow her on Instagram.

Credit: The Kitchn

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.