Doctor brings healing hands to Chiapas

Sergio Castro with a patient | Photo courtesy of Stephen Franklin

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]AN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico—The last couple tourists slowly shuffled off from his small museum when Sergio Castro softly spoke up about what he really does.

“I help the poor with medical care. And that is why we ask for donations,” he said, and they promptly oblige.

But his description is a far understatement of what he has done for over four decades. He has been a savior for countless poor and mostly indigenous here in the heart of Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most desperate states.

His work is a small window into the still vast needs of the poor and indigenous 21 years after the Zapatista uprising that was meant to bring them a new life. Life is as cruel as ever for some in Chiapas’ steep mountains, lush valleys and dense jungle.

The villagers suffer from burns when they stumble onto the open fire pits that they use inside their homes. They suffer from diabetes in a region, where hunger and malnutrition is rampant. They often can’t afford to travel to distant hospitals or to pay for their medicines.

With few decent paying jobs available, some flee in search of work in Mexico’s larger cities or try to make their way to the U.S. Yet many linger on, living lives untouched by Mexico’s slow upward economic spiral.

At the tiny space here, a makeshift clinic, where Castro nightly dispenses medicines and medical care for free or in nearby villages, Castro is called “doctor” or “saint” or known simply as the healer.

But he rejects the titles.

He explained that he is an agronomist, who came to Chiapas and soon found himself trying to fulfill needs he never imagined. “They sent me here and I found my place,” he explained.

When there were no wells for clean water, he helped find the money and build the wells. He did the same when there were no schools in isolated villages.

After initially encountering villagers, who had cut themselves with their machetes and were going without care, he began treating them himself. That began his self-taught, self-planned crusade—a crusade not driven by the politics of struggle that so infuses Chiapas’ recent history, but more by his sense of personal mission.

Working with the indigenous, who still make up about one-third of Chiapas’ more than 3 million residents, he learned at least three of its languages. He picked up English and French so he could give his talks to tourists at his museum, where his clinic is located.

Several decades ago, in order to pay for the medicines, he opened a museum of regional indigenous clothes and artifacts called Museo. The clothes and artifacts came free from the people he helped.

His message usually goes beyond the uniqueness or beauty of the items to the fact that they represent legacies that go back far into time, some of them sadly on the virtual edge of disappearing.

In good times, when there are visitors to this mountaintop colonial city, the museum has brought tourists and money. And some of his visitors have become long-term supporters as well. “It is sometimes easier to find help from outside (Mexico) than from inside.”

He has also found help from foreign visitors with medical skills. One of these has been Patricia Ferrer, a middle-aged physician’s assistant from Arizona, who has visited Don Sergio, as he is called, for several weeks annually for the last few years.

On a busy night not too long ago, she was seated on a short stool dealing with a lineup of people with skin diseases from burns or diabetes. Besides her was Jose Iker, a tall, thin nurse from Spain, who was passing through San Cristobal on a global journey when he visited Castro’s clinic by chance. He stayed for almost a year before recently moving on.

The outpouring of people, who come for the nightly clinic amazed Iker. He was surprised by the inadequate care that he said they often receive at state facilities. “At the hospitals, they don’t follow up and sometimes we are their last hope,” he said.

It was getting late, but there were enough people waiting in line to keep the three working for an hour or more. Castro, wearing his typical outfit, a bandana and jeans, moved between the stools where he too applied bandages. He steadily traveled back and forth, removing items from a small cabinet where he stores supplies and medicines—some of it donated from outside Mexico.

Often, Castro keeps his clinic open seven nights a week, with a line of patients already waiting when he opens the doors. But supporters like Ferrer wonder how much longer he can keep up his work at 75 years old and what will happen when he is gone.

“I will work until 100,” he said, taking a break, “if God permits.”

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This post is also available in: Spanish