Sastun: My Apprenticeship With a Maya Healer (Belize)

Sastunby Dr. Rosita Arvigo

“Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”–Hippocrates

DISCLAIMER: Rosita Arvigo is originally from the USA. However, the Maya healer she studied with unfortunately didn’t leave us any writings in English.

In 1969, the year *I* was born, Rosita Arvigo had just left a career in advertising in Chicago to “live closer to the land”. First she moved to San Francisco, then to a remote village in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains where she farmed beside the Nahuatl Indians. Dona Rita, a respected elder, taught Rosita the names and uses of medicinal plants.

By 1976 Rosita had moved to Belize, to caretake an organic farm. She returned to Chicago for 3 years to get her degree in “Naprapathy.” (I kept thinking she meant Naturopathy, but a quick trip to Wiki told me that what she studied is a spine-cracker kind of thing.) In cadaver class, she met a “handsome paramedic with healing hands.”

In 1981 they resettled in western Belize on 35 acres of uncleared jungle along the Macal River, near the Guatemalan border.

But it wasn’t until Rosita met Don Elijio Panti, an elderly Maya healer, that the real adventures began.


Belize used to be “British Honduras.” It’s made up of Garifuna people (descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people); Creoles descended from African slaves; East Indians who came over as “indentured laborers”, Lebanese who came as chicle-bosses (yes, as in Chiclets) and postcolonial Mennonites, British, other Europeans and American expats like Rosita and Greg.


Well, it has to come from somewhere, right? Among Belize’s claims to fame is the Wiki comment “Birthplace of Chewing Gum.” Apparently the word chicle comes either from the Nahuatl word tziktli, or “sticky stuff” or the Mayan word tsicte. The Nahuatl-Aztecs and the Maya prized it for its subtle flavor and high sugar content.


You know those diagrams of pigs, sheep, and cows they used to show on TV in the 70s with all the cuts of meat marked and numbered? Going to the doctor in the US has often felt this way to me. I’m a collection of symptoms for the endocrinologist, who doesn’t treat anything having to do with dental or psychological, you know? The doctor doesn’t ask me what the gynecologist said (even though she is the one who noticed my enlarged thyroid.) I’m not treated in a whole-system way, the way Don Elijio treated his patients.

Don Elijio also had an understanding that when you got a person to laugh, half their troubles and sicknesses went away. When is the last time your doctor delighted you or made you laugh?


Don Elijio went through a lot in his own life. His father was a black magic practitioner–and an abusive drunk. The young Elijio vowed never to be like him, and to only  use his talents for healing. (Sadly his beloved daughter married a man just like her grandfather–without the magic–and was eventually killed by him.)

Don Elijio believed that his teacher, Jeronimo, had the ability turn into a jaguar after saying an ancient and secret prayer. He told Rosita he had even seen this one night. I didn’t know what to make of this part, or of the part where Rosita said prayers to the Maya spirits at her initiation and palm fronds rustled where there was no wind; but they were intriguing.


So what, you ask, is a Sastun? It’s a touchstone that allows you to determine the source of an illness or get divine answers to questions. Don Elijio’s was a green marble. I think Rosita’s was a stone.

Don Elijio was very concerned in the beginning when Rosita said she wanted to study with him, because she isn’t Maya and he wasn’t sure the spirits would accept her. But as it turns out, they don’t have enough adherents to be finicky. The knowledge of men and women like Don Elijio is being lost because young people don’t want to apprentice with traditional healers. Plant medicine takes too long. (Even though Big Pharma has derived some of its  most powerful drugs from plants, such as the birth control pill that uses ingredients Maya women have relied on for centuries.)


I liked how each chapter of the book begins with a plant and gives its Spanish and Maya names, plus what it is used for. I was a little suspicious of Rosa-and-Greg’s Rainforest Remedies, having seen a lot of scams in my prior job. But in addition to the website and the seminars and the jars and bottles, they also created a nature preserve and a memorial to the late Don Elijio, both of which I liked, and the book caries this note:

“Harper-San-Francisco and the author, in association with the Rainforest Action Network, will facilitate the planting of two trees for every one tree used in the manufacture of this book.”

This is a lady who believes what she says and lives what she believes. And *I* also believe that Western medicine is criminally and willfully ignorant about nutrition and natural healing.

2 thoughts on “Sastun: My Apprenticeship With a Maya Healer (Belize)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s