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An ethnographic study of salt use and humoral concepts in a Latino farm worker community in California’s Central Valley

Barker, JudithC., Guerra, Claudia, Gonzalez-Vargas, M.Judy, Hoeft, KristinS.
Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine 2017 v.13 no.1 pp. 11
Latinos, anthropology, farm labor, flavor, focus groups, immigration, interviews, medicine, migrant workers, psychological stress, rehydration, researchers, roots, table salt, temperature, California, Central America, Mexico
BACKGROUND: This article reports on the use of domestic or table salt for its perceived health effects and healing properties in a Latino farmworker community. It explores how contemporary salt usage beliefs can be seen to have roots in long-standing humoral theories of medicine and health. METHODS: This qualitative investigation comprised 30 in-depth individual interviews and five focus groups conducted in Spanish with Mexican and Central American immigrants in one small city in California’s Central Valley (N = 61 total participants). Interviews and focus groups were audiotaped, translated into English and transcribed. Several researchers independently and iteratively read transcripts, developed and applied codes, and engaged in thematic analysis. RESULTS: Strongly emergent themes identified the importance of balance in health, and beliefs about the effects on salt on health. Valued for its culinary role, for bringing out the flavors in food, and used by people of all ages, salt use is part of a robust set of cultural practices. Salt was regularly mixed with foods in different combinations and ingested to restore balance, prevent disequilibrium or reduce vulnerability to diverse illnesses, promote rehydration, and address symptoms of exposure to extremes of temperature or physical or emotional stress. Statements made and practices engaged in by participants were highly suggestive of health and healing beliefs common to humoral belief systems based primarily on a hot-cold dichotomy in classifications of foods and healing behaviors. We evaluate these statements and practices in the context of the existing literature on historical and contemporary humoral beliefs in Latin American communities, in Mexico and Central America, and in the United States. CONCLUSION: Humoral theory is a useful framework for understanding contemporary rural Latino migrant farmworkers’ perceptions of the importance of salt for their health.