La 21 Division Botanica

This profile was last updated in 2005

Activities and Schedule

A woman performs spiritual consultations using Spanish Cards (cartas espirituales, Espiritismo) weekdays, Monday-Friday.

History

The botanica was founded in 1996 by La Division 21, a group of three individuals. Originally of Dominican descent, they lived in Spain for 8 years and then moved to the United States to sell their goods.

Physical Description of the Center

This is one of the larger botanicas in New York, with a very complete selection of flowers and plants as well as the usual medicinal herbs, statues of saints and other religious articles. An entire portion of the store is set aside for potted plants. The remainder of the store is filled with shelves of talismans, books, statues of saints, and other mystical supply needs.
Religious consultations are performed in a back room.

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 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.