Traditional botanicas serve Latino community

Some mornings, before Ana and her husband Fernando Almanza arrive at 8 a.m. to open the doors of their shop Botanica Ana in Salt Lake City, there’s a line at the front door.

Their customers are looking for dried herbs to use in natural home remedies, mint for stomach aches, eucalyptus to cure a cold. Some buy candles adorned with the image of their favorite Catholic saint; they will light the candle and pray for love, a job, good health.

Others take a seat on a white plastic chair and wait for a turn with Ana, the shop’s spiritualista, or spiritual director. She sits in a corner room filled with candles, its door a thick wool blanket. During these private consultations, Ana occasionally sticks her hand out while her husband hands her her “tools.” She may ask for an egg, which she rubs on a client’s body to remove evil spirits through the pores. She often asks for candles, and sometimes for tobacco or some other herb to roll up in a cigar and wave around the client’s body to cleanse the spirit.

After a session, Ana — portly, with blue-black hair and a hint of ashes on her cheeks — emerges from the smoky room with the customer and a few dollars in her hand.

Latino clientele

For about 10 years, many Latin American immigrants to Utah have come to these shops called botanicas and to their spiritual directors or clairvoyants, looking for solutions to life’s problems. In places such as New York or Miami, botanicas cater to medicine men and women who use the store’s herbs, plants, metals and oils, and occasionally animals, to practice Santeria, a religion that mixes ancient African religious beliefs with elements of Catholicism.

But in places such as Utah, where Santeria is not generally practiced, clients come to the botanica with an array of romantic, health and money problems.

“I believe [the botanica] has helped me a lot,” says a woman who calls herself Christina and will say only that she is from South America. (Many clients, or even spiritual directors such as Ana, will not give their full names, saying their business is private.)

Christina has been to botanicas before for marital troubles, and this day has brought a friend to see Ana about the same thing.

“My husband would be upset if he knew I were here,” Christina says. “But this has helped me with work and with my marriage. It’s like going to the doctor.”

Like many clients, Christina is uncomfortable talking about her sessions, saying only that Ana’s remedies often include candles, herbs and prayer.

There are three other people who also are waiting to see Ana, who keeps peeking out from the room asking her husband to hand her a red candle labeled “Come to Me,” which is supposed to lure back an errant lover.

Love gone bad, or no love at all, is the most common problem among her clients, Ana says.

But there are other maladies and other remedies. Some candles are said to keep the law away, and there are those that repel envy, bring justice, attract a lover, reverse the evil eye, boost job performance, make a marriage stronger or get rid of an unpleasant partner.

Potions come in powders that can be rubbed on the body after a bath, in soap for use in the shower, in aerosol sprays or candles to be used at home. Most cost about $3.50, and some come with instructions in English, Spanish and French to accommodate Caribbean and African clients.

The more products, clients say, the more potent the remedy.

Breaking spells

Spiritualistas say their craft is not an easy one. Knowing which potions to prescribe, making or breaking spells and offering sacrifices “is not something you can learn from books,” says Marta Ruiz. “It is something that you are born with.”

Ruiz is the spiritual director and owner of the San Cayetano Botanica in Glendale Plaza. Her business has proved so successful since she opened five years ago that she launched Ni-o de Atocha Botanica in Ogden earlier this year. It is the latest and the fourth botanica to open in Utah, Ruiz says, and clients come from places like Wyoming, Montana and Idaho just to see her.

Like Ana, Ruiz says she became aware of her supernatural powers when she was a little girl. In her native Argentina, she says, she saw visions of the future and once predicted the death of a classmate in a car accident.

“I could see bad things that were going to happen to classmates before they happened,” she says.

But she got in trouble for telling her teachers about what she saw, she says, and that made her so afraid of her powers that she stopped talking about them for a few years.

Ruiz says she began using her powers again in her late teens and for commercial purposes at the age of 20. Now she has been in the business of “helping others” for more than two decades.

Like most botanicas, the window of Ruiz’ shop features candles with images of Catholic saints, including St. Anthony, St. Cayetano (the patron saint of work for whom her botanica is named) and the Virgin of Guadalupe. There’s even a bust of Jesús Malverde, who in the Mexican drug traffickers’ world is said to be the patron saint of narcotics (and who certainly is not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church). The botanicas carry rosaries, scapulars, busts and soaps with his image, which is said to help a drug deal go well.

To the Catholic Church, the use of the faith’s symbols and the casting of spells is a sacrilege, says the Rev. German Uma-a, a priest at Salt Lake’s Sacred Heart Church who came to the United States from El Salvador.

While botanicas exist throughout Latin America, he says, the church does not sanction their activities or products. Even so, the shops — which have different names in different countries –have been in the United States for at least 80 years.

In her book Santeria, the Religion, the anthropologist Migene Gonzalez-Wippler says botanicas appeared in this country in the 1920s when a pharmacist started importing tropical plants with “magical powers” to his store in New York City’s East Harlem. At first, the shop, called West Indies Botanical Gardens, served black immigrants from the West Indies and Africa who came looking for herbal remedies, oils and exotic plants. But as Harlem attracted more Puerto Ricans, they, too, began using the shops. Those who couldn’t speak English well shortened the botanical gardens name to “botanica,” a name now used in cities and towns where large populations of Latin American immigrants are found.

Salt Lake City botanica owners say their business has taken off within the past five years. They agree that the first botanica to open in Utah was San Lazaro Botanica near 900 South and 900 West in Salt Lake. Until it closed this spring, it had been around for a decade.

The cost for the services at a botanica ranges from about $15 to $30 per session, the owners say. At San Cayetano Botanica, services for children are free and, as its advertisement says, the shop takes Visa.

But Uma-a says the costs can add up, and that during confession immigrant Catholics have told him they’ve spent hundreds of dollars using the services. For some people, it’s like an addiction — they can’t do anything in their lives without consulting the “witch doctor,” Uma-a says.

He says some have confessed not only to being ashamed of how much money they have spent, but also for trying to cast evil spells on bad bosses or enemies. Even though Uma-a doesn’t believe the spells work, he finds it troubling that many Latin American Catholics don’t see anything wrong with going to the botanica.

Ruiz, however, believes that the botanicas’ mission goes hand in hand with that of the church. After all, she says, it’s all about helping people and deepening their faith.

Ruiz says she’s “100 percent Catholic” and sees her role as that of a counselor to fellow immigrants. Beyond that, she doesn’t want to talk about the controversy with the Catholic Church, saying only that she respects the institution and so do her clients.

Though Ruiz doesn’t claim to cure physical maladies, she says she uses her gift of prophecy to help clients who are looking for answers during difficult times in their lives.

And it’s rewarding, she says, to hear from clients who call from their homes in Wyoming or Arizona to tell her “what you did helped me.”

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