This video from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly explores the emergence and popularity of botanicas, shops that feature a variety of spiritual and religious merchandise and services, including candles, incense, potions, powders, icons, statues and consultations. The botanicas offer immigrants in the United States a place to go to maintain and sustain their customs and beliefs. Indio Products, one of the largest botanicas in Southern California, is featured, as is an interview with Ysamur Flores, an expert on Caribbean and Latino folklore, who discusses how botanicas reflect a uniquely Caribbean approach to faith.
The blending of two cultures often results in the development of a new religion. This was the case when the Americas were colonized and a large number of African slaves were brought to parts of North America, South America and the Caribbean. As African slaves were moved into new cultures, they brought their religious beliefs with them, and the religions of the Yoruba people became the most prominent. To keep their religions alive, slaves added their beliefs to the traditions of Christianity, the predominant religion practiced by the colonizers. This blending of religions resulted in new traditions, such as Santeria and Voodoo.Voodoo developed in Haiti and blends elements of Roman Catholicism and African religions. Followers of Voodoo attempted to hide their "pagan" religion from their masters, who had forbidden them to practice it. Haitian Voodoo made its way into the United States in the 1800s and exists primarily in New Orleans, but has also spread to large cities such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles. Santeria ("Way of the Saints") is one of the most well-known of the blended religions. Santeria, strongly influenced by Spanish Catholicism, began in Cuba. In some respects, the religious practices of Santeria appear to conform to the Catholic beliefs of the Spaniards. For example, followers of Santeria ascribe Catholic saint identities to their native ochas, or deities. Santeria and the other religions of the Yoruba tradition believe in a single Yoruba god, a neutral energy that does not get involved in the affairs of humans. Instead, followers appeal to the ochas -- gods who have human characteristics -- for assistance with life issues. They are able to stay in contact with the ochas by performing rituals such as dancing, drumming and speaking with spirits. Since rituals mainly take place in private homes or rented halls, there are few buildings devoted to Santeria. In some areas of the U.S. where there are large Hispanic populations, religious stores called botanicas offer customers access to materials used in Santeria rituals. The term botanica comes from botanicals or herbs. Many of the rituals involve special herbs, which are sometimes used as medicines. Other items found in the shops include novena candles, oils, incense, books and statues of saints. While there are plenty of items for practitioners of Santeria, shops are geared toward customers of all faiths and spiritual practices.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Strolling musicians singing songs of love, sidewalk food vendors, and murals in a rainbow of colors. They're all common sights in Los Angeles' immigrant Latino neighborhoods. So is an unusual kind of store called a botanica. On some streets, there seems to be one on every block.
Although a typical botanica can appear humble on the outside, come within and one finds a rich array of spiritual and religious merchandise: candles and incense, potions and powders, icons and statues. Taken together, the products represent a kaleidoscope of faiths and folkloric practices.
YSAMUR FLORES: You can call them supermarkets of the divine. Anything that has to do with the spiritual world you will find in a botanica.
GONZALEZ: Ysamur Flores is an expert on Caribbean and Latino folklore who lectures about botanicas at UCLA, among other universities. He admires the stores' freewheeling spiritual eclecticism.
FLORES: You can find icons from any religious tradition in the world. You have Catholicism. You have Judaism. You have Buddhism. You have any "ism" that you can think of, because the idea is that the botanica is really a polyglot. It speaks all religious languages. So any religious or spiritual language can be found in a botanica.
GONZALEZ: The stores first emerged in the Caribbean, where they originally sold traditional herbal remedies and items used in the practice of Santeria, a faith that mixes together indigenous West African religious beliefs and Christian customs.
In this country, says Flores, botanicas still reflect a uniquely Caribbean approach to faith, one that blurs the borders between different religions while encouraging spiritual self-expression.
FLORES: In the Caribbean, there is no conflict of being many things at once. If you ask anyone in the Caribbean what is your religion, most likely they will tell you, "I am Catholic," but add after a short pause,"in my own way."
GONZALEZ: In Los Angeles, botanicas have shown their adaptability by expanding their selection of merchandise to appeal to the city's large Mexican and Central American immigrant communities.
One of the largest botanicas in Southern California is Indio Products. With its vast selection of merchandise, it has the feel of a spiritual and supernatural Wal-Mart.
Here, you can buy everything from lotions to ward off evil spirits to powders to keep a spouse from straying. The hottest-selling items, however, are candles. When lit, each is supposed to have a unique purpose. Shopper Sonia Williams believes the candles she's buying will protect her and her loved ones.
SONIA WILLIAMS: This is Saint Ramon and I use him for my own benefit, to protect my children, to protect them from gossip. Protecting them from the evil eye. Somebody might wish me bad thoughts and unhappiness. He keeps all of this away from my door. I believe in him very much.
GONZALEZ: For many immigrants here in L.A and other American cities, botanicas are far more than spiritual curio stores; they are safe havens, places where newcomers to this country can go to sustain their beliefs, traditions, and customs in a strange new land.
This icon of a conservatively dressed gentleman, which is sold in botanicas across L.A., is an example of immigrant beliefs brought to this country. He is San Simon, also known as Maximon, a Catholic-Mayan folk saint revered by Guatemalans as a champion of the poor and dispossessed.
This L.A. botanica has a whole temple devoted to San Simon. As in Guatemala, people who come here leave offerings of candles, food, and hard liquor.
In a back room, Carlos Figueroa, like many other botanica owners, offers visitors spiritual consultations. He says he tries to solve practical problems for his largely poor and immigrant clientele.
CARLOS FIGUEROA: Let's say you are the manager of a company, someone who wants to see immigration papers, but you the worker don't have them. You will come here, and we will do something so you can get papers. People come here for their work and for their health. And we will make a spell or ask San Simon so they get what they want.
GONZALEZ: The owners of botanicas have been criticized as modern-day snake oil salesmen, taking advantage of people's superstitions. Others are uncomfortable with the stores' smorgasbord approach to religion.
Their defenders, however, argue that botanicas play a vital role in the spiritual life of communities, helping people sustain deeply felt, if unorthodox, forms of faith. Flores calls this the theology of the street.
FLORES: And that is what the theology of the street means. It is the idea that what people do at home with God, most of the time, is not what they do at church with God. It is a completely different relationship. It is more private and more empowering.
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