This profile was last updated in 2005
Founded in 1921 by Alberto Rendon, Otto Chicas-Rendon botanica is the oldest remaining botanica in Manhattan. According to Migene Gonzalez Wippler, Alberto Rendon pioneered the concept of the botanica. In the 1920s Rendon was a pharmacist that worked in east Harlem; he noticed that many clients would enter the pharmacy in search of medicinal herbs and oils. As a result he decided to open a store that would sell its own ointments and herbs, imported daily from Puerto Rico. He called the botanica “West Indies Botanical Gardens”. As the neighborhood changed, Rendon adjusted the botanica’s inventory to fit customers’ needs. The botanica initially stocked medicinal herbs and oils that were sold to the West Indians in the neighborhood. But, as the Puerto Ricans began moving into the area in the 1940s, the botanica began to sell Santeria products and images of saints brought in from Cuba.
Alberto Rendon died in the 1970s, and the store is now run by his nephew, Otto Chicas.
Physical Description of the Center
Otto Chicas-Rendon botanica is one of the best stocked botanicas in the area, especially with concern to herbs and dried plants. A large refrigerating cabinet that contains various plants–from algodon, anamu and apazote to romezillo and jobo–is located on the left side of the store. Containers of labeled dried herbs are stocked one on top of another in freestanding shelves in the middle of the store. And, one can find any type of oil, honey, perfume, powder, spice or mineral in the back right corner of the botanica. There is also a large collection of religious books. A long service counter runs along the right of the botanica. Behind the counter are shelves containing beads and oils. Three to four employees keep the store organized and will help one locate any occult item.
Botanicas as Religious Centers
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 often 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.