photo: Araceli Cruz, Vivala/iStock

Botanicas can be mystical places, a little intimidating even. Typically, these small mom and pop storefronts look like a gift shop full of spiritual tchotchkes. Angels, saints, and candles greet you as you walk in, but what waits inside is truly a thing of wonder. The merchandise can seem laughable — a love potion, soap to ward off bad spirits — but there's a reason why these shops are still a vital commodity and a longtime Latino tradition.

People who frequent these botanicas — stores that supply various natural healing products and are located in Latino communities — are those that seek relief and protection. They go here because they have faith that these items will help them. One of the biggest misconceptions of botanica costumers is that they're practicing religions such as Santeria, Candomblé, or Haitian Voodoo, but that isn't always the case.

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On a recent Sunday, a young couple and their child entered Botanica Atahualpa in Jackson Heights, Queens, and inquired about a limpieza and a card reading. Limpieza translates to cleanse, but it's not in the form of a juice or fasting. Actually, limpiezas are used to cleanse oneself of bad energy. Because limpiezas are done in private, how a limpieza is done depends on the person and their specific problem. 

"What's going on?" an elderly woman working behind the counter asks the man in Spanish. 

"I feel a heaviness," he responded. 

"Why don't we first do the reading, and then proceed from there," she suggests.

At this botanica, a limpieza costs roughly $140 dollars, which is probably why the woman suggested a card reading first since that is a lot cheaper. I asked the woman for a time frame of each reading, to which she responded: "There are no defined hours for a reading. It lasts as long as it needs to." 

In every culture there are these alternatives to medicine. Holistic remedies are very popular around the world and it's known as Curanderismo in Latin America. The term itself stems from botanicals, and one of the main reasons that botanicas continue to flourish is because some of us lack the finances to see traditional medical doctors and can't afford medicine. The traditions of natural and spiritual remedies date back to the beginning of time, author Mary Jane Garza states in her book Healing Spirits: The Growing Acceptance of Alternative Medicine Enhances the Popularity of Curanderismo. Although this form of medicine has evolved, its traditions have remained intact since the "Spanish brought their Judeo-Christian religious beliefs to the New World" and "eventually merged with Indian herbal lore." 

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photo: Araceli Cruz, Vivala

The most fascinating aspect to botanicas is that they claim to have all of the answers to your deepest afflictions. If you can't find a job, love, money, a home, or anything really, they can help. If someone is hating on you, or you have a gambling problem, or if your man is cheating, there's soap, incense, spray, oil, or a prayer that could possibly fix all of that. 

However, if all of these weird products are bogus and that people are being scammed out of their hard-earned money, why do people continue to go back? Why are so many stores still in business? In Jackson Heights alone, countless botanicas can be found; even two or three in a block. The same goes for other communities in the Bronx, East Harlem, Los Angeles, and others. 

In Houston, Esther Sanchez works at a botanica called Stanley Drug Co. She told the Texarkana Gazette that in the past people who frequented the store would come in search for love, and now people are being more realistic about their circumstances

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photo: Araceli Cruz, Vivala

"We have a lot of people coming in looking for financial stability," Sanchez said. "We went from selling a lot of 'get a man' candles to 'I need a job.' We sell a lot of 'steady work' candles."

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Botanicas are prevalent all over Latin America. Part of the appeal of botanicas to those that live in the United States is that we want to cultivate similar traditions in their lives here. One of the most interesting aspects of the botanicas I visited is that vendors and business owners are open to incorporating other traditions and cultures such as Buddhism. Latinos will gladly take relief and luck from wherever the spirits can get it. And that's one thing that will always unite us all.