CON Grad's Documentary on Traditional NM Midwives

History in New Mexico has shown the great impact of traditional Hispanic midwives and healers, also known as cuandera-parteras, even before New Mexico was a state. In San Miguel County in northeastern New Mexico, it was documented that, in 1936, curandera-parteras attended 701 of 972 births (72 percent).

While current New Mexico nurse-midwives aren't delivering 72 percent of babies, certified nurse-midwives (CNM) attend 32 percent of births making New Mexico the leader in the United States of CNM attended births with the next state reporting at 15 percent.

Documentary creator Felina Ortiz, CNM, MSN, and a 2003 College of Nursing grad, believes this is because the spirit of the cuandera-parteras lives on, hence the title of her film "El Espiritu de les Parteras," which means "the spirit of the midwives".

Cuandera-parteras usually gained experience by being the apprentice of a grandmother or older female relative rather than through formal education. For many expectant mothers in rural New Mexico they were the only source of prenatal and maternity care.

"It wasn't until the1930's that the New Mexico Department of Health realized that because of limited available physicians, poor road conditions, cultural preference, and poverty, the cuandera-parteras services were vital to the mothers and babies of New Mexico," Ortiz said.

This began a valuable relationship with the cuandera-parteras and the state through a Midwife Consultant Program. Through this program, the midwifeswere taught when to ask for a doctor help and sanitation practices that could make an impact on birth outcomes.  For the documentary, Ortiz interviewed the last surviving cuandera-partera that the state recognizes, Jesusita Aragon, who told her how much these classes helped her as a midwife. According to Ortiz, by the 1940s over 800 cuandera-parteras were registered with the state.

The agreeable and effective working relationship achieved between curandera-parteras and public health in this time-period helped create the positive support for midwifery that is apparent in New Mexico today.

Barbara Overman, CNM, PhD, an associate professor and former director of the New Mexico Midwifery education program at the University of New Mexico, also believes that much of New Mexico's acceptance of midwives today derives from the strong roots of midwifery that the curandera-parteras created. 

Overman states that the Nurse-Midwifery education program has been consistently funded since 1998 and that the positive support from individual New Mexico legislators in some cases came from personal experiences with curandera-parteras or midwives.  "Legislative leaders were pleased to tell me of their own births by curandera-parteras while lobbying for midwifery education support," she said.

Overman believes this link between New Mexico's legislators and curandera-parteras is one reason New Mexico's Nurse-Midwives enjoy independent practice and prescriptive authority today.

The premiere of the film celebrating the work of traditional New Mexican midwives and healers will be at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 12, 2004 at the College of Nursing Auditorium, 2502 Marble Ave, NM. For more information call (505) 242-4104.

The presentation is free, but donations to the Albuquerque Kapulli Izkalli House, a clinic in the South Valley that offers women's health care in a traditional setting, will be gratefully accepted.

Contact: Angela Heisel, 272-3322

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