NEWFIELD, N.Y. – When Joe Soto was about 10 years old, he started trailing his grandmother and great uncles on house calls in the hills outside Moca, Puerto Rico. Soto’s relatives practiced the art of huesería, or bone-setting, a traditional Taíno healing technique.

“I thought they were so weird!” Soto, who was raised in the Bronx but spent much of his childhood in Puerto Rico with family, said laughing. Fifty years later, Soto is a huesero. Alongside a career as a registered nurse, eldercare provider, and Family Treatment Court employee, Soto is keeping the indigenous tradition of huesería alive as a healer and teacher from his home in Newfield.

When Soto started to learn huesería from his family in the 1970s, indigenous and Catholic beliefs co-mingled in the mountains of Puerto Rico. Neighbors would call on hueseros and hueseras when they fell sick or became injured. Even then, though, Soto said huesería was becoming less common.

“I know that when my grandmother and my great-uncle were teaching me, I was one of the few remaining apprentices on the island,” Soto said.

Beginning in the 15th century, European colonization decimated the Taíno population in the Caribbean, which once numbered in the millions. On the 2010 Census, about 23,000 Americans identified as Taíno, including about 9,000 residents of Puerto Rico.

Related: Indigenous Peoples’ Day: Local indigenous communities work to rebuild

On Borikén, as Puerto Rico is known in the Taíno language, indigenous people struggled to maintain traditions. Soto said increasing access to doctors in the mountains decreased demand for huesería healing ceremonies.

“The reality is, strictly from a historical standpoint, this is a dying art,” said Alexas Esposito, one of three apprentices currently training with Soto.

Esposito and Soto hope that by bringing awareness to huesería and showing its relevance to problems people face today, they can help sustain it. On a 36-acre plot on the edge of the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area, they treat ailments from back pain to addiction.

Soto said people dealing with injuries, illnesses or trauma often come to him when other healing methods fail them. “When people have exhausted all their options or means and are looking for someone to do alternative healing, they call me,” he said.

Joe Soto, a huesero healer and teacher. (Photo provided by Alexas Esposito)

From the outside, huesería ceremonies may look similar to chiropractic sessions: a patient typically lies on a massage table or mat, while the healer manipulates their bones and joints. But Soto said the process is not just about making physical adjustments.

“It is mind, body, emotion and spirit. It’s a total body, holistic approach,” he said.

His apprentices are therefore engaged in an immersive learning process.

Esposito spent her upbringing in Syracuse and Buffalo before attending Ithaca College. Now she lives in a cabin on Soto’s land, where she said she is learning not just healing skills, but also a way of life.

“I’m fully immersing myself in learning about my own culture, because I’m Taíno and my grandmother was from Cuba and I was adopted, so there was — I don’t want to say a severing of the roots because it wasn’t permanent — but there was that disconnect for a while,” Esposito said. “Not only am I apprenticing, but I am choosing to embrace my indigeneity,” she said.

Soto’s teaching process is tactile. “Huesería is not often spoken,” as Soto put it. When he was learning the technique, he said his teachers would tell him, “You can’t learn if you’re going to keep asking questions.” He said he found that response frustrating until he understood that questions imposed a linear way of thinking that is antithetical to huesería’s circular, continuous logic.

“To really understand traditional teaching and this type of healing work, you have to not just consciously be present, you have to be spiritually present. Because you’re working with people’s spirit and energy,” Soto said.

The deep learning of apprenticeship requires attuning oneself to others’ trauma and pain. When Soto senses during a healing session that a person is harboring pain, he said he might tell them, “Your spirit is telling me that you may have suffered this type of trauma.” When it is brought out into the open, he said, “everything changes at that point. Because they’ve been hiding it, protecting it.”

Alexas Esposito is apprenticing as a huesera. (Photo provided by Alexas Esposito)

As an apprentice, Esposito spends much of her time watching and listening, when she is not busy with upkeep work around the house and gardens. With the other apprentices, she might be asked to gather herbs from the garden and prepare teas for rituals or to simply be present during healings to help create a space that is safe and welcoming to women.

Outside of apprenticing as a huesera, she works as a doula, assisting women through pregnancy and birth. She plans to attend nursing school to become a midwife. For Esposito and Soto, indigenous rituals offer a way to supplement conventional medicine and bring spiritual healing.

It’s possible for healings to reactivate trauma, Soto said. When working with people who have experienced sexual abuse, for example, he said he may spend several hours walking through trauma with them to reach a point of forgiveness.

“You’re not forgiving the person because you want them to go scot free. You’re forgiving them so that trauma doesn’t have you bound up in its chain, so you can move forward,” he said.

Working with people who struggle with addiction, Soto said, is likewise challenging, “Because we have to shatter their high.” While Soto and Esposito believe huesería can be restorative for people struggling with addiction, they ask people to abstain from drugs and alcohol for as long as possible prior to healing ceremonies. Soto’s household and adjacent cabins are always drug and alcohol-free, they said, to mirror pre-colonial life in Taíno communities.

Soto said he adjusts his techniques for each unique case and doesn’t turn people away, but he acknowledged that huesería is not the right fit for all people or ailments. He meets with people interested in healing ceremonies ahead of time to establish whether or not to move forward.

There will be a workshop on huesería from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3 at the Multicultural Resource Center, as part of a two-day Dia de los Muertos event. Esposito said the workshop will address the history and current applications of huesería, including how it is used to heal trauma.

“This will be a four-hour workshop with a 30-minute lunch break. It will be intense, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It is designed for everybody, you don’t need to have any knowledge about indigenous traditional healing modalities at all to attend. Only an open mind is required. There are no age restrictions or limits, but know that some of the discussion will be difficult for some,” Esposito said.

Those interested in learning more about huesería and other Taíno rituals can visit Soto and Esposito’s website.

Featured image: Apprentices and volunteers work in the garden on Soto’s land in Newfield. (Photo provided by Alexas Esposito)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.