The young woman leaning over the glass countertop at Botanica Cristo Rey in East Los Angeles is distraught. With her baby at her feet, she explains that her philandering husband finds her unattractive. He hits her when she confronts him about his cheating--and she is in desperate need of a remedy for her deteriorating marriage.
"This is war," shop owner Juanita Alvarez whispers as she beckons the customer to come closer. There is a store full of ammunition to consider.
Will it be the Separar ("Breakup") candle, reputed to have the power to put the kibosh on the extramarital affair? Or Destruir Todo ("Destroy Everything"), a body lotion that, if used by the husband, is supposed to repel the other woman? Or Ven Ami ("Come to Me"), a liquid bath soap and aphrodisiac that doubles as a floor wash?
"Whatever you decide," Alvarez cautions in Spanish, "remember, first God. Always with God. Always."
The customer buys the breakup candle on which she will write her husband's name. If it is burned for five consecutive days, Alvarez says, the cheating husband will cheat no more.
Then Alvarez adds an extra bit of free advice: "If this doesn't work, then do what I tell every woman with man problems: Grab a hammer and bust his lips."
For 20 years Latinos have been coming to Alvarez's botanica, one of the several hundred believed to be in business in Los Angeles County. These spiritual pharmacies are crammed with candles, herbs, amulets, necklaces, charms, feathers, oils, powders, lotions, soaps, sprays, incense and statues of saints that are said to bring good luck, success and money to believers, as well as cure everything from earaches to broken hearts.
The products sold at botanicas are linked to a variety of Latino religious, folkloric and medicinal traditions that range from praying to a statue of Santa Barbara for protection against earthquakes to drinking a cup of steeped zaragatona (psyllium) seeds for relief from indigestion.
Some health-care professionals caution that the purveyors of such products exploit Latinos--especially newly arrived immigrants--by selling products that produce nothing more than pleasant aromas. And they warn that herbal remedies are no substitute for modern medicine. But many doctors, nurses and psychotherapists who work in the Latino community contend these products--and the rituals associated with them--fill psychological and physiological needs that, because of language and cultural barriers, go unmet.
In many cases, health-care experts say that newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrants don't know that public health and counseling centers for the needy are available. Others simply refuse to go to a hospital or clinic, because of a lack of transportation, communication skills, and money--or the fear they will be deported. Instead, they have come to rely on botanicas and curanderos (folk healers), hierberias (herb shops) and hierberos (herb sellers) who pass out business cards in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods advertising their products and services, which also include limpias or spiritual cleansings or exorcisms.
"I am providing a community service," Alvarez says, adding that many times she feels like a psychologist as she listens to customers' problems and suggests remedies.
Adds Robert Cervilla, who operates an East Los Angeles herb emporium with his brother Alven: "Our customers remember back when their grandmother would give them a cup of manzanilla (chamomile leaves that are steeped for a tea) to cure a stomachache. They are familiar with the traditions. This is what they were brought up with, and for many this is all they can afford because they are from a lower income."
For 18 years, Abel Martinez, a health education coordinator with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, has studied botanicas and curanderos, which, he says, "are a part of a Latino's cultural diet."
Martinez conducts workshops for health care practitioners on Latino folk medicine and beliefs related to products sold at botanicas.
He tells medical professionals unfamiliar with the Latino culture that the products sold at botanicas can have a positive effect on a person's health because treating the spirit "can go a long way toward healing" a physical ailment. And he emphasizes the uncertainty and fear that many immigrants feel about mainstream health care. The atmosphere of botanicas, he says--with their scent of incense, flickering candles and statues of revered saints--reminds many customers of a church.
The Roman Catholic Church has a different perspective. Father Gregory Coiro, a special assistant with the public affairs office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, says botanica patrons "should put their faith in the power of prayer" and not buy religious goods sold at a botanica "because they are not really intended for Catholic purposes, but for the practice of santeria and the occult.