photo: Araceli Cruz/Vivala
I’ve always been really intimidated by botanicas. A lot of it stems from my upbringing. Though I'm not religious by any means, I did grow up in a conservative Latino household with parents who had grown up around santeria. They had seen spiritualists casting spells or "demons" out of people at a young age, and it left a negative impression on both of them. Subsequently, they engraved in my head growing up that anything mystical or associated with a botanica was just evil. Now, as an adult, I don't believe that, but I still feel very uneasy in those environments, so much so that I can literally count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually stepped foot in one. 

So when I found myself thinking about botanicas for the first time in years, I wasn't exactly sure why. I think I had this vague memory from years back of the older women I knew talking about botanicas that sold essential oils, creams, or soaps made of all natural ingredients, so I had this idea that I'd be able to find them there. 

I visited two botanicas, one by my apartment in Brooklyn, and one in Jackson Heights, Queens. The first trip was nothing like I had expected. I walked in and literally walked right out when the lady running the store told me they didn’t have any “beauty products.” 

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“Tenemos baños para limpiezas. Pero no productos de belleza,” she told me. “No, gracias,” I said, hesitant to try anything that was even slightly spiritually tied. I not only felt embarrassed but incredibly confused by her response. 

A week later I hit up the shop in Jackson Heights, hoping to find more options. I saw everything from saint candles to estatuas catolicas, tons of baños for spiritual limpiezas, perfumes specifically for casting spells, potions, muñecas, and spiritually tied oils.

“Realmente, no entiendo lo que usted esperaba encontrar,” the lady told me after I asked her if she had any other options. “Esta es una tienda spiritual. La mayoría de los productos están atados espiritualmente.” 

The truth is, I don’t really know what I was expecting to find exactly. As someone who never shops in botanicas, a part of me really thought I was going to find an aisle full of all-natural or organic beauty products, like coconut oil or rosa mosqueta.

¿Qué tienes que no es espiritual?” I asked. She took me over to an aisle full of natural soaps. 

These weren’t just ordinary soaps either. Each of these jabones came with a beauty benefit. There was an olive oil soap for dry skin, an oatmeal soap for irritated skin, an aloe vera soap for skin inflammation, and a cinnamon soap known to help reduce inflammation, sore muscles and joints. So I bought only two products that could address any of my current beauty needs: the olive oil soap and the oatmeal soap. 

photo: Johanna Ferreira/Vivala
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“Estos jabones naturales son tan populares ahora, pero los hemos estado vendiendo en las botanicas por años,” the lady told me, relieved that I was actually buying something. 

Overall, I was satisfied with both soaps, but what would have been a normal shopping experience for someone else wound up calling up a lot of identity issues for me. Not only did I know nothing about what I could actually find in these stores, but for a second the experience did trigger some shame and embarrassment. Most Latinas I know grew up going to botanicas and were exposed to limpiezas and spiritual tchotchkes. But since I didn't, a part of me almost felt less Latina throughout this entire experience, as if I missed out on a relevant part of my culture growing up that I'm just learning about now. 

I can't say I'd visit a botanica again, but after exploring them, I do feel less intimated and more open than I did before.