Botanica Santa Barbara

This profile was last updated in 2005

Activities and Schedule

The botanica is open daily and is usually staffed by two individuals. Raul (a santero) performs spiritual consultations using Spanish Cards (Espiritismo) or cowry shells (Santeria). Consultations usually take 25 to 30 minutes, and, on busier days, there may be a line of three to four people.
The botanica has a neighborhood feel. Members from the community–many of whom only speak Spanish–stop in often for a friendly chat or casual advice.

On the Feast Day of Saint Barbara (12/4), the botanica houses a small celebration with wine, rum and traditional Cuban foods. On the Feast Days of other important saints, additional candles and offerings may be bestowed.

History

The botanica was originally opened in 1997 on Broadway between 177 and 176. The two owners had a disagreement and the botanica fell into the hands of Tony Mora, a retired Cuban immigrant that moves periodically between his house in Westchester New York, apartment in Manhattan and condo on Miami Beach. The store moved to its present location in 2003.

Demographics

Employees and patrons of the botanica speak almost exclusively in Spanish. Most customers are Cuban or Puerto Rican (However Washington Heights, where the botanica is located, has a large Dominican population and the botanica caters to everyone). The botanica sells items that can be used in Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices such as Santeria, Palo Mayombe and Espiritismo as well as in Catholic or Pagan traditions.

Physical Description of the Center

A large statue of Santa Barbara stands at the botanica’s entryway. At the base of the statue are offerings, including tall glass candles, flowers, fruits, and monies. There is a glass of water and a glass of wine (espiritismo).
The right side of the store is lined with white shelves that contain tall candles, each dedicated to a particular saint with a particular color. Some shelves have books, incenses and herbal medicines. The top shelves have large brightly-clad statues of saints and African carvings.
On the left, there is a long glass counter behind which the employees–Raul and Margarita–work. It is filled with glass figures, shiny pebbles, shells, notebooks and tarot cards. Behind the counter are more shelves that contain perfumes, corojo de manteca, honey, Santeria floor wash, soaps, colored bath wash and statues of saints. Hanging from the top shelves are bead necklaces in the colors of each of the saints.
Fresh herbs are kept in a side closet and are restocked by delivery every Tuesday afternoon.

Botanicas as Religious Centers

Botanicas are stores that stock herbs, roots, beads, oils, scents, sprays, powders, potions, etc., used in Santería and other ritual practices such as Espiritismo. In communities with sizable Hispanic populations, such as Harlem and Washington Heights, NY, and Union City, NJ, botanicas can be found wedged between the busy grocery stores, barber shops and news stands. Botanicas vary widely in size; most are small storefronts, but some are multi-level emporiums. As Mary Ann Borello and Elizabeth Mathias (1977: 69) write, the botanica “functions as a folk pharmacy” which offers the consumer a myriad of choices. Some customers even come with “prescriptions” for plants and other ritual items written down for them by their spiritual leaders, and have them filled at the store counter.

Commonly, interior space in a botanica is separated into what we might call “front” and “back” regions. The former “sales” area contains display shelves and glass cases filled with colored beads, cauldrons, tureens, perfumes, oils, candles, herbs and other ritual materials for sale. The “back” region is used for private religious consultations (using one of many divinatory techniques, including cowry shells, tarot cards, Spanish cards, and more, depending on the specific faith of the diviner). The consultations performed in botanicas allow customers to participate in the religion without initiation or allegiance to a particular community of worshippers. Those botanicas that do not offer in-store consultations usually supply a list of (and often business cards for) “neighborhood” spiritual leaders.
Because botanicas sell the materials needed to carry out ritual endeavors and often provide space to perform religious consultations, they are the most visible “centers of religion” for the oft-private Afro-Caribbean religions (e.g. Santería, Espiritismo, Palo Mayombe). Most employees at botanicas are involved to some degree in an Afro-Caribbean religious community and have ties that extend beyond the capacity of the botanica.