Doña Irene Sotelo: Traditional Mexican Midwife
by Elise Kimmons, CPM, LM

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 58, Summer 2001.]

Irene demonstrating massage

Eugene Conference - Doña Irene teaching massage with oils from Mexico

The traditional Mexican midwife extended her hand to me and grasped mine firmly. “Mucho gusto a conocerla,” I greeted her, smiling. Doña Irene Sotelo's eyes flashed in greeting, and as she smiled broadly back, my eyes filled with warm tears and a lump rose in my throat. I was feeling so many things inside: respect that bordered on awe, delight to be devoting concentrated time to cross-cultural midwifery, insecurity about my ability to speak her language smoothly enough, and anticipation of all I was going to learn from her.

Midwifery Today had invited her to Eugene to teach at our spring conference, and she had arrived, at Publisher Jan Tritten's suggestion, a couple of days early. I was going to spend almost 24 hours with this woman, and I so wanted to do a good job of it. I wanted to be an exemplary representative of American hospitality as well as speak Spanish without jamming too many feet in my mouth. Two years had passed since I'd spoken conversational Spanish with a native speaker, and I was nervous about my vocabulary and grammar usage. The Spanish I'd spoken back then was centered around maternity care, which consoled me somewhat—we were both midwives, and I figured that many of our conversations would revolve around our work. After a rather bumpy start over the potluck lunch with other midwives and staff from Midwifery Today, the Spanish part of my brain revved up and I began to speak more easily.

After lunch, Jan, Doña Irene and I planned the rest of our afternoon. We were going to talk about conference details pertinent to Doña Irene's teaching responsibilities, find out more about Doña Irene's journey through midwifery and also go shopping! Doña Irene understood me (whew!) and seemed content to ease through the rest of the day with us.

As we strolled through the garden section of Wal-Mart, Doña Irene told us about a plant she uses to help stimulate a slow labor. She pulled a cloth bundle from her purse, carefully unwrapping a few strands of a plant she'd brought with her. I recognized it as a houseplant commonly known as “Wandering Jew.” In her part of Mexico it's called the Yerba de Pollo. As she described how she brews the tea and lovingly spoons it into the laboring mom's mouth, we located this plant on the shelf. However, it was too far gone to use in her workshop.

Doña Irene and I arrived home late in the afternoon. Over dinner she engaged my daughter and our roommate in conversation. She was very relaxed and congenial. We then discussed many things about our own families and midwifery care. Doña Irene's knowledge about women's bodies and childbearing is profound. From a very early age she felt guided by God to help women in birth. At the age of 14, she quietly stepped in at a breech birth, compelled by an inner knowing, and delivered the baby while the attending midwife watched her. This 80-year old midwife subsequently invited her to all the difficult births, since Doña Irene's intuition guided her to do the right thing. She says that she didn't feel any fear at these births—she just knew she had to be there and that she could help.

After seven complicated births, she finally attended a normal one, and that's when she felt some doubt arise. The old midwife was unable to attend and told the father to summon Doña Irene because she “had some smarts and didn't get scared.” Doña Irene arrived at the home to find the mother on the floor on her hands and knees, ready to birth. She asked God “What's this?” and then asked the woman to get up on the bed. The woman glared at her and said she felt just fine where she was. So Irene oiled the woman's vagina and delivered the baby perfectly! She was elated after this birth and felt in her heart that she could now deliver babies on her own. She was 14½.

Doña Irene uses one room in her home just for maternal/infant care. She attends births most often in the homes of her clients, but she also will do them in this special room. Massage and herbal remedies are two of the tools she uses. But above all, she knows that her hands have been graced and guided by God. This deep faith and prayer are the other tools she uses.

Doña Irene is a curandera (healer) and treats a wide variety of illnesses from another room in her home. Her home clinic is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mothers bring in their children, and men come to her for help. She feels a special affinity for the girls/women who come to her seeking healing from abuse. She learned this healing art from other viejitas (old women) early on in her life.

Doña Irene has earned the respect of her community. The youth call her Abuela (grandmother) when they see her in town. Adults refer friends (who haven't been healed despite—or because of—modern medicine) to her. She is active with the midwifery group in her state (Morelos) and attends/teaches at the educational workshops. She is what we in this country would consider a licensed midwife, but feels no particular protection from persecution because of that. She sees signs that the government is moving toward abolishing all traditional midwives and homebirths. This confounds her.

If there is one primary thing that we midwives in the North can do to help our sister midwives in the South, it is to keep doing our own work from our hearts and prayers. Additionally, we must continue to promote midwifery awareness and education—crossing borders into Mexico would warm her heart. And finally, Doña Irene's message is strong: have no fear at births; what we are doing is the most important work on earth!

It was an honor to have had Doña Irene as my guest. Her heart was large enough to smile faintly at my grammatical faux pas, and to hold my own midwife-being tenderly in her presence.

Elise Kimmons, CPM, LM, practices midwifery in Eugene, Oregon. She parents three children, teaches part time at a midwifery school and is a former staff layout editor at Midwifery Today.

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