The air is musty, almost minty and decidedly green. A row of silver machetes hang above a circular wicker basket containing Nag Champa soap. Along the far wall are endless shelves of colorful candles adorned with images of patron saints and the deities of the Orishas. Herbal bath packets and glass tincture bottles fill tubs on the floor alongside statues of Ganesh, Buddha, the Virgin Mary, Yemaya and Jesus. At the checkout counter are endless herbal sachets promising wealth, health, beauty, and various other wishes. African masks with cowrie shells for eyes and ox fur for hair, some with mouth's sewn shut, others with, wait, are those human teeth?!?, leer at you from the wall behind the register.
Botanicas have become staples in New York's Afro-Latino Caribbean communities. Sanctuaries of healing, Botanicas are a place to find medicines, novelties and comforts from the old country. Every Botanica is slightly different depending on the origin of the owner and community, but for the most part, Botanicas are small unassuming stores that stock alternative products such as herbal oils, ceremonial candles, herbs, amulets, ritual baths and plants often associated with Santeria and its many rituals.
A direct product of the African diaspora, Santeria is a fascinating belief system that combines the Yoruba religion of West Africa, Roman Catholicism and Native American healing traditions.
The herbal practices specific to Santeria have evolved from the indigenous healing practices of West Africa and from the Native Americans. In Santeria, the two traditions are merged to create a powerful system of alternative medicine. At a Botanica you can find salves and teas, tinctures, oils and healing baths. There is a tremendous wealth of herbal knowledge in these unobtrusive storefronts.
The Afro-Latino communities in New York, mostly hailing from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Columbia and Venezuela have been relying on Botanicas for generations to assist with matters such as the common cold, arthritis, high blood pressure, hair loss, fertility issues, and issues related to love, finances, death and divorce. Botanicas are centers of hope and healing in these communities and provide a way for people to maintain a connection to the natural healing traditions from their homelands.
In a world where people are quick to pop a pill for every minor ailment, it's refreshing to see a return to tradition a return to the basics.
“You have any sugar?”
“No, no baby, I don’t got any sugar, but you can check next door. I got a good relationship with them.”
“How about honey?”
“Yeah, I got it. Just a second.”
“I’m in no hurry, take your time.”
The woman holding the white paper cup of tea, leans against some boxes beneath a row of alligator claws. Steam rises slowly and swirls before her face causing her black framed glasses to fog. She makes no attempt to wipe the lens.
“Can I help you?” The man in the white t-shirt says, eying me over quickly.
Beads of sweat have formed on the top of his bald head.
“I’m just looking.” I glance around hesitantly.
“Take your time.” He says before disappearing behind a dull red patterned curtain leading to a back room.
I walk by shelves stacked with china bowls and boxes of feathers. Drums and dried herbs hang above my head.
Having made my way to the back of the store, I try to take everything in, the amulets, talismans and masks.
The woman, whose long black hair is tied into a tight ponytail, breaks a leaf off of a nearby aloe plant allowing the clear slimy liquid inside to slowly drip into her cup.
Within seconds the man emerges with a plastic bottle of honey.
“A little more.” She directs as he squeezes the honey into her cup.
“That’s good.” She takes a small sip. “Thank you.”
The man disappears once more behind the curtain.
“I need some of that stuff for a sore throat. That powdered stuff you got. I think I’m coming down with something.” She calls towards the curtain.
The man returns with an amber jar and scoops a heaping tablespoon of what looks like ash into the woman’s tea.
“Thanks.” She smiles, swirling the wooden stir stick.
“Any questions?” The man looks at me.
“Yes,” I feel emboldened. “What remedies do you have for stress?”
Of course, there is a controversial side to Santeria, a world of ritual and conjuring, but as I have not been exposed to it, it is not my place to judge. I am however in absolute admiration of the herbal traditions of the faith and will make it my business to explore and support the Botanicas in my community regularly.
Below is a list of the Botanicas I visited for this post.
376 5th Ave, Brooklyn NY 11215 (718) 832-3606
C&G Botanical Inc.
1467 Nostrand Ave, Brooklyn NY 11226 (718) 282-9022
Botanica San Lazaro
3834 Broadway, NYC 10032 (212) 781-7131
1702 Lexington Ave, NYC 10029 (212) 534-9140