One of the joys of growing up Mexican American was learning a lot of your religion at the supermarket. At the local grocery store in my childhood neighborhood, there could be found a generous selection of votive candles for sale, all with prayers in Spanish and English for all occasions and afflictions. San Lazaro, San Ramon Nonato, La Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos, El Santo Niño de Atocha . . . the list could go on. This was a colorful way to get to know Christ, the Virgin, and the saints.
Most of these candles would have faces familiar to most American Catholics, but there was one candle that was hard to identify. It was called Las Siete Potencias Africanas, or the Seven African Powers. Over various images of Catholic saints (St. Barbara, St. Francis, St. John the Baptist), there were written corresponding African names (Chango, Orula, Ogum). Later I came to find that these were the names of African deities from the syncretic Cuban religion, Santeria. These candles could be found at this store in spite of the fact that there were very few (if any) Cubans living in the neighborhood.
Along with a centuries-old Catholicism, immigrants from Latin America often bring with them to this country a taste for the occult. This can be seen even on Spanish television, where fortune tellers and self-proclaimed curanderos (folk healers) advertise their abilities to take “envies” off of people (for a fee, of course). But the center of this underground spirituality is a phenomenon becoming more and more prevalent in Hispanic neighborhoods. Besides the ethnic grocery stores, the restaurants, and other small businesses, there is the botanica.
The term botanica also comes from Santeria, but it has come to serve as a catch-all name in this country for any occult shop in a Hispanic neighborhood selling orthodox and not-so-orthodox religious goods. These have always existed throughout Latin America in one form or another, either in small storefronts or in street vendors hawking holy cards on the sidewalk. Aside from traditional statuary and gifts for First Communion, they will sell special soaps, perfumes, and oils for everything from finding a job to making someone fall in love with you. The names for such products in English translation range from the ominous to the ridiculous: “Money Come to Me Soap,” “I Dominate My Man Oil,” “Win the Lottery Candle.” These will be found side by side with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe or a Baroque crucifix.
To call these places a parallel church would not be an exaggeration. Many of the customers for these shops are at least nominal Catholics, and some much more than that. People who go to botanicas are often just as likely to be sitting in a pew at Mass on any given Sunday. These stores tend to be run by folk healers who have a clientele that they help with a number of personal and spiritual problems. Some carry prescription medicines from Mexico that allow undocumented people to self-medicate when no other medical treatment is available. And, perhaps most strikingly, they serve as the primary centers of the cults of such “folk saints” as la Santa Muerte (St. Death) and Maximon.
Walk through any Latino neighborhood in a large city, and these figures could be spotted everywhere. The feminized Grim Reaper peaks out at you from the window of a dollar store. You will probably catch a glimpse of a mustached man in a black suit, a bag of money on his lap, a rifle in his hand, and a cigar sticking out of his mouth: This is the Guatemalan Maximon. Enter the botanica, and you will find a good selection of other questionable spirits, such as the Lonely Soul of John the Miner, the Powerful Monicato, the Coyote, Don Diego the Goblin . . . the gothic list could go on. But everywhere, it seems, is Death: la Santa Muerte. In the botanica, in the dollar store, and even on the magazine rack of the supermarket, Death sells. You could even call her the unofficial goddess of the botanica — and it seems that on both sides of our southern border, her cultus is growing.
This can all seem like airing out our Latino dirty laundry in public, but the Catholic Church in this country should be more aware of the existence and growth of these occult establishments. On the one hand, they represent the darkest manifestation of ancient superstition: veritable dens of iniquity for sins against the First Commandment. On the other hand, we must come to terms with the very un-enchanted nature of much of American Catholicism: a reductionist view of religion that often results in a politicized deism with props. No doubt one should be rightly shocked by the existence of botanicas, but neither should we overlook the rather jaded attitude toward the supernatural found in even the best of Catholics.
The solution to the problem of botanicas is not to be found in the secularization of the minds and desires of these immigrants. Rather, it lies in a stronger dose of good old-fashioned Catholicism — a remedy that would benefit the entire Church.