Don Bartolo el Sobador

Don Bartolo

Grandpa didn’t post flyers on a telephone pole, hand out business cards or place an ad in the yellow pages. He relied on simple word of mouth. It worked.

The strangers always arrived with their families to Grandpa and Grandma’s house on Hicks just north of la Brooklyn. Sometimes, it was easy to tell which person (or people) was the reason for the visit. Other times it wasn’t so clear.

They’d amble up the driveway and interrupt a frenzied game of freeze tag amongst cousins.

“Buscamos a Don Bartolo. Está ocupado?”

I understood them, but I never answered. I resented them for taking up my Grandpa’s time. Instead, one of my more polite cousins would respond and direct them to the workroom behind the house. There the strangers would wait for Grandpa in the detached garage that had been converted into a small apartment and a workroom. Meanwhile, I’d be sent to inform him that someone was waiting for him.

“Grandpa, alguien llegó para verlo. Lo están esperando atras.”

Sometimes, I’d follow him to the dark and musty workroom. Here, he’d set up a couch and few chairs. on the other end of the room he’d set up a wooden table covered with a large scrap of carpet and an old sheet. Within arms reach of the homemade massage table, he’d set up another table with Vicks, Vaseline, matches, rubbing alcohol, glass tumblers, rolled up bandages and other supplies. If he let me, I’d stick around as he worked his magic.

Grandpa was a sobador and healed by simply using his hands. My mom explained that he was just like a doctor, except he used different methods to heal. I never asked her how he learned to sobar. Later, I asked my dad and he told me Grandpa’s talent was simply passed down from his grandfather, Esteban.

All throughout my childhood I was accustomed to the strangers dropping by the house. They’d come on weekdays and weekends. They always paid Grandpa a little bit for his time. He’d use that money to take us out to brunch on Sundays. Whenever someone in my family was injured playing a sport or simply being clumsy, we’d go see Grandpa first. I hated that. It wasn’t that I distrusted Grandpa’s talents. After a quick sobada, I always felt better. Rather, I feared his words. He was quick to scold us for being careless.

When Grandpa got sick in the fall of ’96 he stopped seeing people. The cancer took it’s course quickly. We buried him on New Years Eve.

For several months, perhaps even a year or so after he had passed away, the strangers would still come to Grandpa’s house. When they asked for him, we’d break the news.

“Ya falleció… cáncer de los riñones… hace seis meses.”

They were always shocked.

“Pero todavía estaba bien joven… Parecía muy saludable… Qué lástima… Espero que en paz descanse.”

The strangers would walk back to their cars and return to their homes. They were clearly disappointed, but not as much as we were. They’d lost a sobador, but we’d lost our grandfather, father, uncle and husband.

We miss him a lot more than we miss the sobadas.

11 thoughts on “Don Bartolo el Sobador

  1. they took me to a sobador once when i was a youngster. I used to get hurt all the time and the doctors would take forever to see me and with their wimpy medicine it would take even longer to get better. The first time I saw the sobador it was really painful, for a minute i didnt think he knw what he was doing but the minute i walked out of his appartment, i was feeling alot better. I never really trusted sobadores or their techniques but that one day i was convinced, sobadas do work!! Sorry for ur lost cidylu =/

  2. People like your grandfather are the unsung heroes of our communities. When the medical institutions fail us or are non-existent, it’s folks like your grandfather who provide low cost relief and comfort to the people who need it.
    I’ve often wanted to visit a sobador but because you usually find them through word of mouth, I have not found anyone in my neighborhood. I have started visiting a low cost Chinese acupuncturist/herbalist and he’s helped me way more than my regular doctors. Half of his clientèle is immigrants, Latinos and other international folks.
    Thanks for sharing your story!

  3. Thanks for sharing such a lovely memory. Your abuelo sounds like a very caring person. I recall the sobador from my mother’s neighborhood, also a wonderful person who was valued in the community.

  4. Thanks Cindy. You made my wife cry. She comes from a family of sobadores, and your story especially touched her. Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  5. Will,
    Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Thank you. And yes, the sobadas hurt. I remember watching my Grandpa work on my mom. I cringed as he’d crack her back. But it worked. I miss my Grandpa all the time, but especially when my wrist or back hurts and I still think, “I should go see Grandpa.” And then I remember, I can’t.

    Thanks. I’m glad he was able to really touch people’s lives while he was still here.

    Definitely. As a kid, I didn’t really think of the difference between people fortunate enough to have insurance and afford [Western] medical care. You know some medical insurance plans include acupuncture?

    East Los,
    De nada. He was very caring and compassionate. But he was also strict, sometimes brutally honest (he told my brother he’d never be a pro baseball player due to his asthma), and quite old school. Not that those were faults. My mom said that he would also offer consejos to the people that came to him for sobadas. He’d talk to them about being better people, Christians. I guess he was half therapist and half sobador.

    Random hero,
    Damn. What happened to your legs when you were younger?

    Al Desmadre,
    Gracias. I’ve been working on this one for a little while. I’m slow on posting here.

    Aw man. I didn’t mean to make anyone cry.

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