Amartelo - The Love Sickness

15 Feb, 2013 | Luciana Molina

Social issues and Indigeneity

Whether we’ve been heartbroken or experienced deep suffering at the loss of a loved one, most of us have been lovesick at some point in our lives. In the Andes we have a name for this malady: amartelo. Amartelo is a state of melancholy that may lead to graver consequences if not dealt with appropriately. I still remember my grandmother telling me stories about children that died of amartelo when one or both parents died or abandoned them for long periods of time. One of her solutions to avoid amartelo was to tie a red lace on one of my wrists so I would not suffer when my parents traveled for long periods of time. Amartelo is a chronic sadness that invades our soul, channeling itself into a feeling of emptiness within the chest. It can keep us from getting up in the mornings yet it perversely keeps us awake at night.

We feel amartelo when someone we love leaves us and we fear or know that they won’t be back. We also feel amartelo when we leave, or left behind by our family, friends or land. We may even feel amartelo for the sea (that many Bolivians will never get to see), or remembering idyllic times during in our past that may never come back. It presents itself as an interruption of our happiness in our daily lives, and it leaves us with a profound longing. We experience amartelo as an absence which is ever present.

Not long ago, I read an online forum that discussed intercultural medicine in Spain where a case related to amartelo came up. One of the doctors shared their particular experience with a three-year-old child that was sick. The child, the doctor said, was the son of a South American immigrant and was left behind by her mother for two years until they could be reunited in Spain again. When the child got to Spain, he was sick. He did not want to eat, he did not feel like playing or going to school, and he cried often. The doctor explained that the mother had boiled her own clothes in water, which she later gave to the child to drink, as if by doing so, the child would reunite spiritually with the mother and create the bonding lost after a long absence in the child’s life. The doctor explained that the child actually did get better.

Anthropological studies show that amartelo features among the causes of death in accounts from indigenous people of the Altiplano, in both rural and urban areas of Bolivia. In some regions, Khasgo Nanay and Pecho Nanay are names for the types of amartelo that are directly related to sentimental frustrations that lead to chest pain, sighs, and lack of air. It is quite common among teenagers. Children are especially vulnerable to amartelo. That is why parents put clothespins or bracelets on their babies, most of which use a seed called Huayruro to protect their young from the love sickness.

Huayruros are seeds that can be found in jewelry or small bottles. My mother used to say that if you leave two Huayruro seeds inside a little box filled with cotton, a little huayrurito would be born shortly after. One female huayruro, red in colour, needs to be placed with a male huayruro, which are both red and black. Put on some music, leave them in privacy and wait a few days to see what happens. ‘Una wawa huayrurito!’ they will exclaim. Watching this happen makes it easy to believe that this seed has magical and curative powers. For Andean people, huayruros not only represent love and fertility, but also amulets to scare away bad energies in general.

Amartelo may be triggered by many factors. It is the absence of a very deep love that was experienced and somehow vanished, leaving us with the love inside, yet without our loved ones. We can hear amartelo in some wind instruments from the Andes and in popular huayños, a music closely identified with love maladies. Amartelo is contained in the sound of many sighs, if you listen closely, as well as in the words of Jaime Saenz, in ancient textiles, and many other Andean cultural forms. What’s most curious is that expressions of Amartelo can be at once nostalgic and blissful in their approach to life and the spiritual world. Amartelo may begin as an emotional rupture but later break out from our soul, finding its expression in our bodies. One thing is certain: while amartelo is initially experienced as a period of grief, it is said to be followed by a powerful period of rebirth.


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