photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

The magical menthol ointment, colloquially known as “vivaporú,” is marketed as a topical cream to be used for chest congestion, cough suppression, and muscle aches. But Latinos have found a slew of creative uses for vivaporú, with some bordering on sheer superstition and anecdotal “proof” rather than actual medical evidence. How did this cultural obsession come to be?

Vicks VapoRub, originally called Vicks Magic Salve, was developed in 1894 by Lunsford Richardson and manufactured by the family-owned company Richardson-Vicks, Inc. in Greensboro, North Carolina. The formula contained ingredients from around the globe including menthol from Japan, Eucalyptus from Australia, juniper tar oil from Africa, turpentine oil from North Carolina, nutmeg oil from the East Indies, thyme oil from France, and camphor from the Formosa Province in Argentina (with that last ingredient being another major player in Latin American household remedies).

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Richardson was a hustler when it came to successfully marketing his product by providing incentives for large orders, publishing ads and coupons in newspapers, advertising on billboards, mailing out promotions, and developing a children’s book around the benefits of VapoRub. When the world was hit with a devastating flu pandemic from 1918 to 1919, later nicknamed the Spanish flu, 500 million people were infected and 50 to 100 million lost their lives during the outbreak, including Brazilian president Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves. During this time, Vicks VapoRub saw an exponential increase in sales (from $900,000 to $2.9 million) in just one year, which led to the massive spread of the product. The company was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble in 1985 and Vicks VapoRub started being manufactured and packaged in Mexico as well as India.

While we don’t know exactly what it was that sparked Latinos' long-standing infatuation with the menthol cream and all of its weird uses, generations of us continue to wax poetic about our love for vivaporú to anyone who dares to fall sick. I spoke to lots of different Latinas to try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

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“Vivaporú is a must-have in every Latino household,” Yasmin V. confirmed. “It cures everything. Cold sore . . . vivaporú! Pimple . . . vivaporú! Stuffy nose . . . vivaporú! Chest congestion . . . vivaporú!”

How many of us haven’t heard about the many ways vivaporú can be used to heal anything that ails us — including a broken heart? From dabbing your temples to get rid of that headache to moisturizing your footsies and treating toenail fungus by lathering them up in that menthol goodness and covering them with socks overnight, the magic of vivaporú knows no bounds. Even though the product label warns against applying VapoRub inside the nose, mouth, or on open wounds, it seems people have taken this advice with a grain of salt. A sore throat is treated with a spoonful of the salve, a dab across your chapped lips will make them smooth again, and cold and flu symptoms suddenly disappear after packing your nostrils full of vivaporú for a night.

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“My mom said vivaporú cures everything,” Leomary R. said. “Headaches, stomachaches, chest pain, congestion . . .  She’d even put some on the tip of my tongue! If I had a third-degree burn, she’d say, ‘Ponte vivaporú.’”

There are also tales of using heated vivaporú to painlessly pop zits, mixing a batch with salt to treat chichones, and burning off excess fat.

“When I used to go to the gym, I spread some on my love handles and belly and then wrapped myself up in plastic,” Nalley V. said.

And if the medicinal effects of vivaporú weren’t enough, some have called upon the spirits for some extra-strength healing. Mabel C. recalls how her mom used to apply a bit of the oily cream in cross forms on her body “to add the extra holy to the vivaporú experience,” she said.

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But this penchant for using the ointment in creative ways isn’t just restrained to the Latin community because its ingredients — essential oils and herbs — lend themselves to home remedies and alternative medicine. All these years later, these same components continue to be the basis for our hearsay cures, and as long as they keep working for some of us, we’re going to keep touting its healing properties to everyone we love.

“Vivaporú was a right of passage in my marriage,” Evelyn P. said. “One night early in, I apologetically wrapped a scarf over my head, rubbed vivaporú on my temples, across my neck and chest, and inside my nostrils and jumped into bed with my curious — but luckily not horrified — husband. I slept like a baby that night. A few months later, the hubs came down with a cold and he asked, ‘Hey, can I get some of that stuff?’ That was music to my ears!”