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Mainstream medicine is beginning to explore the aisles of botanicas

The shops, burgeoning in the Southland, sell herbs and remedies long used by Latinos.

February 07, 2005|Hilary MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

Drive along many boulevards in the Los Angeles area and you will see colorful botanicas, with their curious mix of candles, incense, potions, lotions, rosaries and a pantheon of Catholic and folk saints in the window. Botanicas have arrived in this metropolis along with the immigrants they serve, soaring in numbers as Latinos make up nearly 45% of the Los Angeles population.

Patrick Polk, a visiting professor at UCLA who has studied botanicas for more than a decade, believes there are more here in Southern California than anywhere else in the country, with much of the growth coming since the early 1990s.

As botanicas have become a more common sight, health officials, researchers and the general public have shown increased interest in this cultural phenomenon.

Through March 6, Fowler Museum at UCLA is presenting the exhibit "Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels." It focuses on the artistic, religious and cultural aspects of botanicas. Last Thursday anthropologists, folklorists, priestesses and traditional herbalists gathered at the Fowler to discuss botanicas as sites of alternative medical practices.

"Increasingly botanicas are a critical aspect of alternative, if not mainstream, healthcare in California," said Polk. "Three decades ago there were about three dozen in all of Southern California. Now there are about 500. That is a significant increase. We have to ask: What does that mean?"

No one can say for certain where this new interest comes from -- whether it's Latina nannies suggesting folk remedies to parents, curious urbanites wandering into the mysterious shops or the ever-expanding influence of this country's burgeoning Latino population.

But the public's increased use of herbal products and folk remedies has experts looking at a relatively poorly studied area: the Latino botanicas. And in the cultural mix of Los Angeles, many people who might never set foot in a botanica are now finding products such as una de gato, an immune-stimulating herb with anti-inflammatory properties, in drugstores and health food shops.

While interest in natural herbs and supplements has grown in the last decade, there has been little research on the efficacy of Latino folk herbs. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture and a professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, said he hopes that will change.

Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, "for some reason want to deal with very exotic Asian sorts of things -- acupuncture and ayurveda," said Hayes-Bautista.

"When I go back to Washington I tell them, 'There is another body of knowledge right under your nose. We need to understand more of what Latinos are doing, which may include alternative therapies and how they maintain mind-body balance. It may be pedestrian, but maybe we need to understand that too.' "

Despite a lack of research, there are signs that some of these herbs may be inching their way into the American mainstream.

In the last two years the Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy has begun to stock a handful of Latin American herbs -- among them una de gato, holy basil and boldo, for digestive and liver disorders. Manager Steve Litvak expects the number to grow in the next few years but said the going will be slow because store personnel must test each herb and brand until they know it works.

In Texas, Dr. Victor Sierpina, a family practice doctor and a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has begun in recent years to suggest Hispanic herbal remedies to some of his patients. These are herbs he learned about from other patients, about 20% of whom are Latinos.

"A lot of my work is in alternative medicine, and it didn't take me long to realize these people were taking herbs I had never heard of, that were not even listed in the herbal literature," said Sierpina, who has done research on some Latino herbs for a book he is writing.

Sierpina said he expects use of these herbs to grow as the Latino population in the United States continues to increase. "I think the challenge is going to be for healthcare professionals to become as familiar with these herbs as they are with echinacea and St. John' s wort," he said.

The Fowler show grew out of medical field research done by Polk, the curator of the current exhibit; Michael Owen Jones, a professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures; and several graduate students.

The researchers used a $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to study botanicas in Los Angeles.

They sought to establish what products and services botanicas provide; to learn about diagnostic techniques employed by healers in some of these botanicas and the conditions they typically treat; and to document the kinds of rituals and herbal therapies healers provide to consumers.

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