Owners of the Latino remedy shops known as botanicas are careful to note that nothing they sell can be construed as a cure for the coronavirus.
In a health advisory, a federal agency agrees.
“Some of these purported remedies include herbal therapies, teas, essential oils, tinctures, and silver products such as colloidal silver,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19. In fact, some of them may not be safe to consume.”
Still, business is booming at botanicas across Tampa Bay, the owners say, and coronavirus is a reason.
Customer Yadira Ortiz is a believer. Whenever she’s unwell or feels something coming on, the 46-year-old Cuban-American heads to a Tampa botanica for a home remedy or spiritual relief.
Ortiz hopes to keep from catching COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has infected some 59,000 people in Florida and claimed the lives of 2,700.
She knows there’s no cure, but she trusts that natural herbs strengthen her immune system. She uses a body wash made from the herb ruda to bring her good luck, health and prosperity.
“I follow traditional medicine," Ortiz said, “but I also believe that faith and spiritual protection help a lot.”
You won’t hear botanica owner Maura E. Hernandez making any COVID-19 claims, even as she acknowledges that many of her customers now are coming in to seek protection from the virus and even from the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.
“We don’t sell any cure or magic medicine for a disease like coronavirus,” said Hernández, 27, owner of Botany Babbalu Aye on West Columbus Drive in Tampa. "What we offer are spiritual and natural products that cannot be described as a treatment against a pandemic. It’s that simple.”
So how do you prevent coronavirus? Hernández recites the well-known guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: social distancing, wear a mask, wash your hands.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the use of herbs dates to the era of European colonialism when indigenous people turned to plants to treat ailments.
Botanicas first emerged in the Caribbean, selling these traditional remedies as well as items used in the practice of Santeria — a religion that blends elements of Catholicism and African Yoruba religions.
Botanicas have spread across the Tampa Bay area with the growth of immigrants who brought their religious and cultural pursuits with them, said Yosmani Montano, president of the Tampa Bay Yoruba Cultural Association.
A non-profit with headquarters on West Sligh Avenue, the association represents about 100 people who are working to grow the number of Yoruba followers. Members include Cuban priests and botanical authorities.
Montano estimated that the number of botanicas has grown to 40 in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
“We don’t have an exact record, but this has been the trend,” said Montano, 47.
One reason for the growth is Tampa’s close historic and cultural ties with Cuba. The region has the third-largest population of Cuban-Americans in the United States. Another reason is the growth among other immigrant communities: According to Census estimates, nearly 30 percent of Hillsborough County residents — more than 400,000 people — are Hispanic.
As a result, botanicas that once catered only to practitioners of Afro-Cuban religions have expanded to incorporate merchandise for Cuban, Dominican, Mexican and other Latino shoppers.
To visit a botanica is to step into a colorful world.
Shelves are lined with statues such as Babbalu Aye, known as San Lazaro to Catholics, with his purple mantle and crutches; Ekeko, a god from the highlands of Peru; and José Gregorio, the poor people’s doctor, venerated by Venezuelans.
There are oils and candles that, when lit, invoke deities associated with a particular need. Shoppers pick up folk treatments in powder and herb form, hoping they’ll ward off evil spirits.
Regardless of the views among practitioners of mainstream medicine, Lázaro Enciso said botanicas can help in a time of crisis, when despair and fear are at their worst.
Enciso, 57, owner of Cuatro Caminos Botany on West Waters Ave., said he is convinced COVID-19 attacks mental as well as physical well-being.
“So spiritual protection is important for us,” he said.
Two authorities on Latino culture agree that botanicas play a vital role in Latino life and question the harsh COVID-19 warning from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a part of the National Institutes of Health.
“Many people from very diverse religions and cultures are visiting botanicas and this has contributed to their growth,” said Michelle Maldonado, dean of The University of Scranton’s College of Arts and Sciences in Pennsylvania.
“You don’t have to be a religious practitioner to visit a botanica. And nothing is going to harm you. But it is important to realize that the ‘spirit for healing’ does not replace medicine."
For many people who don’t have insurance or access to medicine, botanicas become a healing center, Maldonado said.
Madeline Camara, professor of world languages at the University of South Florida, challenged the federal government to prove what’s dangerous rather than issue a broad warning about botanicas.
“Even if you don’t want to embrace this more mystical approach to nature," Camara said, "you have to accept that even science recognizes the use of herbs as we see in homeopathic practices, some of them approved by health insurance companies."
Raquel Aché, 77, a Tampa-based Venezuelan activist and a believer in the power of spirituality, said she trusts the kind of communal knowledge that fuels the popularity of botanicas — especially when it comes to herbs and their medicinal properties.
Valerian for sleeping, she said, eucalyptus for energy, lemon or aloe to strengthen the immune system, and Jamaican flower for diabetes.
“I’m a woman of great faith,” Aché said, "because I believe in our internal strength. We must find an order in our bodies with healthy foods and products.”