Antonío Villalda’s sciatic nerve pain causes him to lean to his left and walk with a limp. He says he was injured while improperly lifting heavy objects at work in a kitchen in a Twin Cities restaurant.
To treat it, Villalda’s been coming to Tu Salud y Yo, an informal health clinic in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, for the past year much the same way a client might come to a massage therapist to relieve tendinitis.
Two large vertical signs outside the clinic read “open” and more signs in the windows declare the availability of vitamins, medicinas narturales, and hongos, which means “mushrooms” in Spanish.
Inside, the lobby resembles a small barbershop, with a row of chairs and walls stocked with bottles of over-the-counter herbal medicine, including natural detoxifiers and digestive system cleansers.
Here, Jesus De La Torre, a 56-year-old sobador—a type of massage therapist and healer—wearing a black smock, greets Villalda with a nod.
De La Torre takes his client to a private room in back, where Villalda strips down to his underwear. As Villalda sits up, De La Torre begins massaging his shoulders and back. He starts near Villalda’s right shoulder blade. “All the tendons and nerves are parked here,” De La Torre says as he starts massaging the area. “I’m going to work on the tendon that’s coming down his arm.”
Although Villalda’s pain comes from his sciatic nerve, De La Torre insists it’s important to massage his whole body.
As he makes his way down Villalda’s arms, De La Torre lifts the man’s forearm and swiftly jerks it toward his elbow. Eventually, Villalda lays on his stomach. De La Torre lifts Villalda’s legs and pushes them toward his inner body. “I’m popping every joint back in place,” De La Torre explains. “Do you hear that?”
Villalda periodically lets out a cry of pain as De La Torre works on him.
“He’s a crybaby—don’t listen to him,” De La Torre says with a smile. When he repeats this to Villalda in Spanish, the patient laughs hard. The benefit of the treatment is meant to come after the session and stay with Villalda long term.
At the end of the appointment, De La Torre returns to his lobby with beads of sweat standing on his forehead, slightly winded. “People think being a sobador is easy work,” he says. “It’s not.”
It’s a gift
Jesus De La Torre, who is originally from Durango, Mexico, holds two job titles: sobador and huesero. As he explains his trade, De La Torre delivers wisecracks. In Spanish, hueso means bone, so huesero, he explains, “means a boner, but not … you know.”
“Sobador is kind of like a masseuse or massage,” he says. “That’s why they call us sobador y huesero.” He says that what he does is not a learned technique like other medical practices. “People that do the job I do, we have a gift,” he says. “That’s how I look at it.”
His work is most similar to massage therapy. If a client comes in with an upset stomach, he massages the pain away. If someone comes in with a dislocated elbow or shoulder, De La Torre says he can pop it back into place. “Stuff like that,” he says. “I’ll put it back in no time.”
If a client complains of aches like knee pain or high blood pressure, De La Torre may suggest some of the natural medicine he has on display at his shop as a remedy. To De La Torre, it’s important that everything he provides is natural and rooted in the traditions of his ancestors in Mexico, who treated illnesses with herbs and plants.
Sobador treatment, he says, is an option for people who believe in natural medicine, but it’s not a replacement for mainstream medicine. If someone comes in seriously ill, for example, he tells them to see a doctor. “If I see something dangerous, I don’t even try,” he says.
De La Torre estimates that 90 percent of his clients don’t have health insurance, another factor that draws them to his clinic. Most of his clients are Latino, though he says he treats some who are Asian, some who are from the Africian diaspora and others who are white.
He charges one flat price—$40—per visit, no matter the procedure.
“If you dislocate your finger right here,” he says, pointing to the middle knuckle of his pinky finger, “I’m still going to charge you $40. Or I can do a massage on your whole body and it’s going to cost the same thing.”
He’s committed to keeping his clinic doors open while the COVID-19 pandemic escalates, though he says he’ll refer clients with coronavirus symptoms to the hospital. “I’m not going to close,” he says. “I’m just going to try to stay open to help the community.”
His work, which is rooted in traditional Mexican healing techniques, is not licensed by official medical or governmental bodies. Nor does it need to be. The Minnesota Department of Health offers guidelines to unlicensed “complementary and alternative health practitioners,” most of which revolve around the types of treatments offered and the requirement that practitioners inform their clients of their rights.
Sobadores and hueseros fall into the tradition of curanderismo, explains Tonita Gonzales, a traditional healer and director of Tonantzin Traditional Healing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. By curanderismo, she means, “artwork of healing,” which she says is used throughout Latin America.
Sobadores are hands-on healers who use the indigenous wisdom of their elders to help others, Gonzales explains. “It’s something that we don’t call ourselves,” says Gonzales, who in the past has conducted traditional healing seminars at Centro Tyrone Guzman in south Minneapolis. “It’s an honor for the community to call you a sobadora.”
Hueseros, she adds, are a rare find because they also have extraordinary knowledge of how the bones work, knowledge they may have gleaned from their predecessors.
Watching his grandmother
De La Torre first became aware of his gift at a young age. His grandmother, who lived in a mountain village close to his hometown of Durango, had it too. There were no medical doctors or hospitals near where she lived, so the locals relied on treatments from people like her.
If a neighbor came by to report that her son was throwing up, De La Torre’s grandmother would boil herbs into tea and give it to the sick child for treatment.
All the while, De La Torre casually observed her. When he was 12 years old, De La Torre saw his uncle twist his hand and suddenly got the urge to start massaging it. “I came over and worked on him, without me knowing nothing,” he says. “Then I would hear him say, ‘Oh, look at this little mocoso! I feel better.’” (Mocoso means “brat” in Spanish.)
His first major treatment on a patient came one year later. His infant cousin, then just a few weeks old, was crying uncontrollably and would not take the bottle during feeding. De La Torre noticed that his cousin’s soft spot, or fontanel, had sunken inward, which he said was the cause of his restlessness. “Some of the babies get high temperature, they get diarrhea from having that,” he explains now.
To treat it, he did something he had seen his grandmother do (and something the Sahan Journal does not recommend readers replicate). He put warm water in his mouth and placed his lips around his cousin’s soft spot and sucked two or three times. Then, he flipped his cousin upside down and whacked the bottoms of his feet swiftly three times. The treatment worked, says De La Torre. His cousin immediately stopped crying and took the bottle calmly.
The next morning, De La Torre says his aunt took the baby to his grandmother and told her what had happened. He expected congratulations. Instead, his grandmother cursed at him for putting the baby in danger. Outraged and taken aback, the young healer cursed at his grandmother and walked away in a huff.
After he’d gone, De La Torre says his grandmother looked at his aunt and whispered something much different: “That little [expletive] fixed him.”
At 16, De La Torre moved to the San Fernando Valley in California for a better life. Part of the reason he moved, he says, was to escape his abusive father. In the U.S., he played a lot of soccer. When other players injured themselves by twisting and spraining their ankles, he would do his sobador work on them. His reputation for healing athletic injuries grew quickly among his teammates and opponents.
“Everybody was looking for me to fix them,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m not going to do this for free anymore.’ So I started charging.”
For years, he worked construction jobs in the mornings before spending his afternoons and evenings treating patients with bad backs, stomachaches, and dislocated shoulders. In the early 2000s, De La Torre moved to Minnesota after separating from his wife. She had moved to Minnesota with their kids, and he came along to be close to them.
It was here that he was finally able to shift to healing work full time. He started out in a storefront on St. Paul’s east side and, two years ago, moved to his current location near Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis on 38th Street.
He advertises his services through social media and fliers posted in Latino restaurants, bakeries, and businesses across the Twin Cities. Still, many of his patients hear about De La Torre through word of mouth. Villalda, for example, came to De La Torre through a recommendation from a friend.
De La Torre stresses that his methods of healing require something of the patient as well—a belief in his practices. “For you to come and look for me, that means you have faith,” he says. “And that’s what’s going to help you. Not me.”
“It’s hard to believe, right?”
De La Torre sits behind his desk in the lobby of his clinic. Behind him hangs a picture of former Minnesota United soccer player Darwin Quintero, who now plays for the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer. De La Torre says he’s used his healing techniques on a handful of professional sports figures.
As he holds court in the lobby, De La Torre dispenses advice on diet and discourages his clients from eating junk food, which he maintains can stay in the stomach and digestive system for days and lead to bigger problems.
“Let’s say you eat a bunch of cookies or chips or hot Cheetos, the ones that stick in your stomach,” he says. “That stuff sticking in your stomach is not going to go away. You can keep drinking [water] and it’s going to pass right by. If you don’t massage it, it’s going to stay in there, and if it stays in there long enough, it may cause an infection.” He says he aids his patients’ intestinal health with targeted massage.
The human digestive system, De La Torre says, can hold up to 14 pounds of crud at any given time. The estimate runs contrary to the thinking among practitioners of conventional Western medicine, and De La Torre knows it.
When he finishes explaining, he pauses to let the information sink in. “It’s hard to believe, right?”
Sahan Journal’s health coverage is supported in part by a generous gift from Delta Dental of Minnesota.