The popularity of botanicas point to the failures of the Catholic Church to properly provide for its own
Before I migrated to the United States, meaning shortly before I turned five years old, my father’s sister decided I had been given the evil eye and needed a cleansing. She took me to see a healer who ran a small botanica out of her home in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. My aunt was fervently Catholic at the time, but she walked into the botanica like it was a church, and looked on stoically as the healer rubbed a live guinea pig all over my body and spit alcohol into my face to ward off evil spirits.
Botanica means botany or botanist, so named for the medicinal herbs sold inside the shops that also stock oils, soaps, sprays, washes, statues, rosaries, amulets, books, and animal skulls. The shops vary in size and content, but they’re everywhere in immigrant neighborhoods. The Bronx, for example, is home to Original Products Co., reportedly the largest botanica in the Northeast. Formerly an A&P supermarket, it is the size of a warehouse but has the intimate feel of a small head shop. Upstairs, rent-free, is The Pagan Center, run by a lesbian Wiccan couple. Lady Rhea, a high priestess, and Lady Zoradia have their own small section in the store called the Magickal Realms Enchanted Candle shop. There are books (Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs) and oils (Better Business Oil, Break Up Oil). I searched for something to do with long-distance relationships but found only the Mile and Distance Oil, which promises to keep my enemies far away. The powder version comes in one-ounce, half-pound and one-pound packages.
A portion of the store is dedicated to Santería, an oft-misunderstood religion that dates back centuries and has its roots among the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. For centuries, thousands of Yoruba were trafficked to the New World. When the Iberians forced them to convert to Catholicism, many found a way to continue practicing their rituals by combining them with Catholic customs. They assigned each Catholic saint a corresponding orisha, or natural spirit, and worshipped them as they normally would according to their customs. There are some 2 million practicing Santería followers today, 50,000 of them in the U.S. alone. Some have rejected the syncretic nature of Santería’s development, tracing and returning to its West African roots; others navigate a happy medium by belonging to the Catholic Church while still practicing Santería.
My aunt, who took me to the botanica in Cotopaxi, eventually joined an evangelical church after becoming disillusioned with her local church and began to deny my “healing” ever took place. Her new church cautioned against spiritism and false idols—guinea pigs included. But although she stopped going to the shops, some remainders of her formerly syncretic Catholicism lingered—rosaries, holy water, red string bracelets to protect us against the evil eye.
Mainstream Catholicism does not openly condone Santería but typically adopts a laissez-faire attitude toward the varied influences that have seeped into local practices of Catholicism in Latin American countries, especially ones with large Afro-Caribbean populations. Protestant groups, even evangelical ones, are much more aggressive in their denouncement of idolatry (the statues, the candles, the prayers) and the occult, so they openly frown upon places like botanicas. But like my aunt, who kept both the holy water and the red thread bracelets, many newly converted evangelicals keep vestiges of their past syncretic worship. Some continue to frequent the botanicas even as they continue to worship in their disapproving churches. The historical syncretism of Latin American Catholicism as it is practiced by millions carves out a space of casual permissibility if not outright approval of churchgoers’ extracurricular spiritual activities. Frequenting botanicas is a complementary aspect to many people’s spirituality, not a replacement for it.
Catholic converts bring with them this worshipping framework to their new evangelical churches: 68 percent of Latinos in the U.S. identify as Roman Catholic, but many are leaving the church in favor of evangelical faiths. Four-fifths of practicing evangelicals are former Catholics. There are doctrinal differences that explain the conversions, but driving the shift is also a broader socioeconomic issue: Evangelical churches provide a social safety net that is especially attractive to immigrants who lack the support systems and networks they had in their home countries. And botanicas, too, serve as spaces of support and community for immigrants who would otherwise have limited social networks to rely on when faced with unemployment or the need to find the best dance hall in which to throw a baby shower.
Botanicas thus recreate and satisfy the same needs of the new evangelical churches, many of them popping up in storefronts and former factories, offering charismatic pastors, services that encourage audience participation, song and dance, books and pamphlets, preaching and canvassing, movies and books, concerts. Because of immigration, a third of Catholics in the U.S. are now Latino, a coalition that brings with it the syncretic nature of Afro-Caribbean and Mesoamerican homeland practices, convergences that have found a welcoming space outside churches and inside the botanicas of their new home.
It is difficult to know how many botanicas there are in the U.S. because they are commonly registered as religious or herbal stores and are thus not subject to the staunch regulations that would apply should they be registered as anything clinical. Some botanicas have healers or Santeria priests on-site, and others refer clients to healers outside the practice. But since botanicas are not registered as medical practices, they toe a careful line on what healers can and cannot promise or sell, lest they face the wrath of medical-licensing laws. The potential danger of botanicas becoming the only or primary health care source for Latinos in the U.S. is very real. Latino unemployment is two points above the national average and a quarter of the 50 million Latinos in the U.S. currently live in poverty. Historically poor access to health care has led many Latinos, many of them undocumented immigrants, in dire straits and many resort to botanicas for serious medical treatment.
Undocumented immigrants are routinely villainized in the U.S. as burdens on the national healthcare system because it is assumed that they cannot pay for their care. Studies have found, however, that they are actually less likely to seek health-care professionals than their documented counterparts or other Americans. A small recent study found that while some immigrants used the botanica as a complementary treatment alongside biomedical care, others—33 percent of their study sample—were using it as a primary source of health care. They weren’t only seeking care for folk illnesses either: 71 percent of study participants sought care for somatic ailments like asthma, cough, digestive problems, swollen legs, and nervous system problems. Typical obstacles to obtaining health-care for Latinos such as language, transportation, legal status, lack of insurance, and inconvenient operating hours are overcome in the botanicas. People can receive treatment in Spanish, they are open later and on weekends, health insurance doesn’t matter, and legal status is immaterial.
But botanicas are not merely as independent shops that sell good luck charms and love potion oils, but as places through which to access other goods and services, like medical information and referrals, that perhaps would not have reached clients. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, botanica owners were paid to take an HIV/AIDS workshop where they learned basic information about protection, transmission, and testing. After the workshop, one store owner referred nine out of 53 high-risk individuals tested within three months of initial training, which was deemed a success.
The reliance on botanicas for medical treatment can be dangerous. A lag in diagnosing and treating communicable diseases may lead to an outbreak, delaying the visit to an emergency room can be fatal, and the unsupervised dispensation of antibiotics can lead to unusually resistant strains of bacteria. Powders used in treatment of infant colic have been found to contain high quantities of lead. Studies have shown newly arrived Latin American immigrants to slowly develop the same kinds of illnesses endemic in the U.S. such as obesity, diabetes, asthma, and high cholesterol, all conditions meriting medical treatment, yet one in six undocumented male immigrants have never seen a doctor.
This will be only get worse under the Affordable Care Act, which calls for U.S. citizens or permanent residents to purchase insurance while excluding undocumented immigrants from non-emergency programs. The repercussions could be devastating to immigrant communities that already have a fraught relationship with healthcare. Further alienation from conventional medical coverage may push Latino immigrants to rely more on alternative medicine that’s offered in places like the botanica, which is able to access a segment of the population that is not easily reached by typical biomedical channels because of patients’ fear, positions of precarity, and lack of awareness.
The popularity of botanicas today thus points to the failures of the church to properly provide for its own, highlighting its postcolonial fracture, the failed missions of conversion, and its inability to keep believers from converting and leaving. It also points to neoliberalism’s inability to care for its most vulnerable populations.
For many disenfranchised groups, the botanica serves as safety net and important social network, a destination and a portal for services offered both in this world and the next, and above all a space of casual dissent, where religious men and women openly and publicly reject the counsel from the pulpit that warns against the occult and Santería. The space of dissent embodies these significant protests against church and state while still making room for the occasional love potion or enemy dispeller—a sense of safety, home, and God, dispensed in powder form, in one-ounce, half-pound and one-pound quantities.