Botanicas refocus from love to money

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

By Almudena Toral

Botanicas may be some of the few businesses in East Harlem that are thriving during the economic recession while other stores around the neighborhood face financial concerns.

But those who run the shops, which sell religious items to Catholics and Santeria practitioners, say the downturn has shifted their costumers’ focus from romance to finance.justo botanica 1

“People don’t come with love worries that much anymore. They’re worried about money,” Jorge Vargas, 61, said in Spanish. “People look for good luck and hope now a lot more with the economic crisis.”

Vargas, a plump Puerto Rican, owns Justo, a botanica on 104th Street that has been open for 80 years. At the end of a recent workday, he said he was tired.

He said hours have been long–there’s plenty of work. Sales are down on blessed candles, rosaries, scents and herbs, items that used to be bestsellers, said Vargas’s ex-wife, Mercedes Vargas, 63.

These days it’s the backroom spiritual consultations that Jorge Vargas performs that bring in more income.

“He keeps me here as if he had cast a witch spell on me,” his former wife said in Spanish. She smiles as knocks and maraca-like sounds came from the back room, where Vargas was consulting with a client.

Botanicas are diverse havens for believers of diverse religions. Some botanicas only sell Catholic items. Some others practice spiritualism and Santeria, a religion that is a mixture of the Latin American and Yoruba African traditions that originated from Spanish colonization of the Caribbean islands.

otto botanica close upDeities and their Yoruba versions, called orishas, are worshipped in similar fashions in these centers.

People come here in search for hope, as with any religion, Vargas said.

An intense scent of incense and a loud canary song filled the air at Otto Velas Botanica in 116th Street.

Francisca Chavez, a jovial Mexican shopkeeper, said her costumers often brought their employment worries to the store.

To attract jobs, Chavez and the rest of the staff recommend getting plantas dulces -sweet plants-. “Marjoram, rue, sandalwood, mint… those all help,” Chavez said in Spanish. Those herbs and plants are kept in a freezer in most botanicas, the kind that normally has bottles of beer in small, corner grocery stores around the city.

Owners of East Harlem establishments who were interviewed recently said their revenues had not gone down despite the recession.

They’re even getting some new costumers. Harlem resident Coco Brown is a single mother, worker and student. In tough times, Brown said, it’s difficult to make ends meet. That’s why Brown finally have in and went to a botanica for counsel, something a friend had been trying to convince her to do for months.

“Now I am a regular just because we need some faith, we need to believe things are going to be better,” Brown said while sitting in a plastic chair in front of a small altar in Ochun II botanica.

Plastic-bagged six-feet tall statues of saints hung from the ceiling. Flasks of fortune perfume, which brings good luck, were stacked behind the counter.

Pilar Almeida, 46, from Ecuador, is the owner of Paco’s Botanica. She rang clients up silently and with a gentle smile. Paco’s botanica doesn’t do consultations or tarot.

Almeida learned the craft of spiritual advice and her knowledge of herbs from the previous Guatemalans who owned the shop before she bought it five years ago.

Although she is against Santeria practices, the herbs she recommends have served well certain people in the community, Almeida said. “I say it’s not me; it’s their faith,” Almeida said.

The practice at Paco’s Botanica’s practice is the one linked most closely in the neighborhood to the Catholic faith. Almeida said reconciling church and botanica is possible.

Hands full of plastic bags, sisters Lucy and Magnolia Dickinson, 69 and 73, were excited about their purchases as they left Justo Botanica. They said they came from New Jersey just for the herbs Vargas sells.

“Botanicas will survive for years to come,” the younger sister said before getting into a taxi.

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