Herbs of Love

Even before she became very ill, Esther Perla was taking una de gato twice a day. Without it, she thinks, things would have gone downhill much faster. For this she thanks her mother, a part-time distributor and full-time believer in the curative powers of herbs and natural products like garlic and echinacea.

Perla (not her real name) grew up poor in the Mexican cities of Matamoros and Zacatecas and, like many of similar background, was raised with natural remedies handed down through Mexican tradition: teas made with yerba buena (mint) and manzanilla (chamomile) to soothe sore throats and upset stomachs. "Cascara sagrada [buckthorn] is very good, too," she says of the natural laxative. "It cleans your system."

But while such treatments for common maladies arepalatable to Western medicine, others are less so. Perla says her mother knows a woman in El Paso, Texas, a naturista, who has used herbs and traditional healing to cure people medical doctors could not--awoman who'd suffered a stroke, a boy with a slippeddisk who now plays football.

Such claims also are the province of una de gato, or "cat's claw," the curious rage of the booming herbal industry. The herb's popularity, mostly among low-income Latinos, has been built on a barrage of advertising and personal testimonies.

Virtually unheard of in the United States 18 months ago, una de gato is now a $100million-a-year business in Peru, where the woody vine--which has curved thorns resembling the claws of a cat--is harvested from the Amazon rain forest. Its supposed curative powers are hawked on infomercials saturating Spanish-language television and discussed in herbal trade publications; as a result, it's not only a hot seller in yerberias and botanicas offering traditional Mexican herbs, but in more mainstream stores like Hi-Health Supermart and General Nutrition Center, too.

Una de gato most often appears as gelatin capsules in amounts up to 550 milligrams, but also shows up as tea and bark chips. Marketed as a "dietary supplement," it thus bypasses the thorough testing and analysis required for drugs.

"Antioxidant herb used for generations by native tribes of the Amazon rain forest," informs a Hi-Health brochure.

"In my 20 years of working with natural products, I have not found any other herb that even closely compares with the healing power and magnitude of [una de gato]," one nutritional consultant says in an ad taped to the window of a Phoenix yerberia.

These are the claims spouted by TV ads, touted by vendors and doubted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration: that una de gato, known botanically as uncaria tomentosa, can cure, treat or prevent everything from cancer, AIDS and arthritis to diabetes, PMS and genital herpes. Such claims, gathering bits of steam in studies beyond the U.S., rankle health officials, who say there is noclinical evidence proving the plant does anything. They also worry that its use could be harmful, especially if taken in lieu of proven remedies.

Says Gil Meza of the FDA's Phoenix office: "When people start to substitute it for prescription medication, it puts them at high risk--particularly with diabetics. And most of the time, they don't share that information with their doctors."

"The appeals are there [for Latinos]," says Felipe Castro, director of Arizona State University's Hispanic Research Center. "We grew up with yerba buena. But if somebody says, 'Here, take yerba buena, you'll feel better,' that's one thing. If they say, 'Take it and you'll be cured,' that's another."

That isn't stopping people like Perla, whose experience with such remedies, distrust of conventional medicine and sometimes simple desperation tell them otherwise, despite incomes that often don't leave much room for such expenditures.

In 1986, after Perla and her husband divorced, she and her daughter came to Arizona from New Mexico. She got a job with a Phoenix moving company and by last year was working the ticket counter for a major airline at Sky Harbor International Airport.

In the meantime, her mother had introduced her to una de gato and stories of people who credited the herb with curing various ailments and diseases. Perla added it to her regular doses of liquid chlorophyll and pau d'arco. "I feel great," she says. "I don't feel very tired. It's increasing my appetite."

Now, she says, she is going to be honest about something. She sits in her living room in Mesa, a 34-year-old woman with long, black hair, thick eyebrows, chalky skin, and a dignified, cheerful optimism that belies her condition.

A few years ago, she says, she learned that her ex-husband had had homosexual affairs while they were married. Then, just before Thanksgiving, what she first thought was the flu knocked her down for a month. When, a little later, her heart rate began to drop and her breathing surged into overdrive, she had to pretend she didn't know what was happening.