In downtown Los Angeles sits an innocuous corner store called Farmacia Y Botanica Million Dollar. Here you can buy aspirin, soap, rubbing alcohol, and Pepto-Bismol. Just beyond the toothpaste, you’ll notice a plethora of colorful plastic bottles in a section labeled Aguas Espirituales (“spirit water”). For a mere $5.50 per bottle, you can get a dose of spiritual power to help you cope with life’s difficulties. For those with business problems there’s Exito En Los Negocios (“Success in Business”). Having romance issues? Try Haz Que Te Ama (“Make Her Love You”). Are you being sued? How about Caso De Corte (“Court Case”).
This is the realm of the botanica, an urban retail store specializing in folk medicines, religious candles, and magical amulets. Botanicas are sprinkled throughout cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Miami and wherever there are large Hispanic populations.
The Spanish term botanica translates to “plant store.” Botanicas offer medicinal herbs and alternative medical treatments and cater to those living beneath the poverty line and without access to standard medical care. Customers can find “cures” for arthritis, hair loss, diabetes, and menstrual pain. They can also find potions to overcome evil curses and bad luck.
The roots of the botanica stretch back to Africa and the slave trade. When slaves were captured and taken to Cuba, many adopted Santeria, a folk religion synthesizing elements of Catholicism, voodoo, and spirit communication. As Santeria spread through Central America to the new world, botanicas arose as gathering places to practice religion and teach herbal remedies. The practice of folk healing was called Curanderismo and the person who passed on this knowledge was called a Curandero.
Botanicas offer spiritual cures for supernatural maladies. They carry products used in Roman Catholic religious practices like rosary beads, holy water and images of saints. Many botanicas have a shrine dedicated to the popular saint La Santa Muerte (“Holy Death”). Customers make offerings of food and money to the saint in exchange for good fortune and spiritual protection.
As you drive through eastern Los Angeles, botanicas are found in strange places. They’re wedged behind car repair shops, next to tequila bars, or in the front room of residential apartments. Botanica Reina De Mexico is a packed two-story shop in Boyle Heights specializing in magical candles. Votive candles include the standard options for love and luck, but there are more terrifying choices as well. How about a candle to help you battle the police? Or one to get snitches to stop snitching?
In South Gate you’ll encounter Botanica San Martin, specializing in solutions for the romantically troubled. The clerk shows you how to carve the name of your crush in candle wax and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar as a magical means of tipping love in your favor. For cheating spouses, you can opt for a candle called “Your Lover Will Hate You” as a way to end marital affairs or induce break-ups.
In East Los Angeles, Botanica Jukila offers candles that induce white magic to counteract black magic curses. The store clerk has practiced spells for years. Though he counsels that candles only possess the magic imbued in them by those who purchase them, he teaches proper candle protocol. All magical candles must burn to the end and the votive must be placed in a plastic bag before being dumped in the trash.
In the heart of downtown, Botanica De Los Angeles offers products that evoke the power of Christianity. Buyers can choose from statues and candles of the Virgin Mary and a large selection of well-known and remote saints. The color of each candle is important. Green means money, white equals truth, red evokes love, and blue means peace. Strangely, the menacing black candles supposedly protect one from harm.
Rumor has it that some botanicas still offer animal sacrifice as a means to counteract human illness. In a practice that goes back hundreds of years to Haitian voodoo rituals, off-the-grid Curanderos slaughter chickens as a way to soothe dark spirits and heal disease. This might be urban legend but a 1993 US Supreme Court decision in the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. City of Hialeah upheld the right of Santeria practitioners to practice animal sacrifice as part of their religion. Clearly botanicas remain a unique and alternative venue to practice magic in everyday life.