Notes from a Botanica

Seven African Powers

I spent last weekend visiting friends and colleagues in a major metropolitan area in the Midwest. On Sunday, we agreed to make a fieldtrip to a nearby botanica in order to allow a colleague to get what I presume is his first direct exposure to this kind of popular Catholicism and for me to get an idea of what botanicas in major cities are like, as I live in a more rural part of the Midwest. It turned out to be an ethnographic perfect storm, where the right kind of persons and interests were matched, seemingly ideally, to allow an unusually loquacious and helpful santera to say/do everything that might be helpful for such research. The following is a rough set of field notes (subject to addition or revision if you were there and/or have corrections or suggestions) about what transpired this weekend for those who are interested in learning more about Santeria as a form of popular Catholicism.

After a brief internet search for possible sites, we found a botanica in a nearby, predominantly Hispanic suburb of the regional metropole. Most of the botanicas I have previously visited have been considerably smaller and quite derelict in appearance and bereft of internet advertisement, but this one was in a glossy, new(ish) building of ample proportions – I don’t know whether to attribute this to a wealthier suburban clientele or simply a much larger base of interested persons to support the enterprise. It appeared particularly well-stocked from the outside, with a generous number of well-made Buddhas, deities, and saints’ images in the display window. We were initially confused as to whether or not the botanica was in fact open, and it turned out not to be. But because the owner was present with her daughter to get some work done in the store, the doors were unlocked, so we presumed the botanica might be open and entered.

We were treated hospitably despite barging in uninvited, and upon my companion’s expression of curiosity about various herbal baths (“Is this ‘curse bath’ meant to curse someone or uncurse someone?”) and my strategy of playing dumb in order to force dialogue with the owner (“Come on, do you really think that an enemy you are hoping to curse is going to agree to take a clearly-labelled ‘curse bath’???” I somehow managed not to say), we found ourselves engaged in conversation with the owner.

(This is unlike my typical experience in botanicas, where I think race/ethnicity may be something of an issue and my efforts to start conversation initially fail only to pick up again when the proprietor or clerk figures out I might know something about the products and how to use them and decides to treat me with a certain guarded respect. I have generally found that social awkwardness in botanicas is inversely proportional to the population of the city – the smaller the Midwestern town, the less ethnic mixing there appears to be overall and the more unusual it appears to be for non-Hispanics to patronize botanicas – and I suspect this alone may be responsible for most of the difference in treatment. No matter what the reason, the subsequent conversation was amiable and forthcoming and informative, without noticeable social or religious tensions).

The proprietor’s initial comments seemed somewhat stereotyped and rehearsed, as if they were prepared remarks to answer questions and concerns which people unfamiliar with botanicas might be expected to ask – the basic thrust was that we are good Catholics in this store, and we do not believe in using Santa Muerte or evil spirits for magical purposes nor do we believe in cursing people. (My colleague did notice Santa Muerte and break-up candles on sale in the store, but we did not ask for an explanation for the apparent discrepancy – perhaps they are available for those who wish to do such work, but the owner will not herself recommend or undertake spiritual work involving “negative” purposes or figures). Everything that we do here is thoroughly Catholic, the owner said – we go to mass and pray to the saints and try to live good lives, and the remedies we employ are things like baths and prayers and holy water used with faith to allow us to live happy and peaceful lives. We bless people. God gave spiritual energies to animals and herbs and other substances, creating these things for humans to use for their benefit. She did seem eager for us to position ourselves on the question of whether or not we believe in energies and to convince us if we do not; I hastily insisted that for my part, I do believe in spiritual energies. In essence, she went on, we are practicing Catholicism in a particular, African way – the Catholicism of slaves who were ripped from their own culture and traditions and needed to find ways to bring their own experiences into the faith and did so by fusing African pieties with the worship of Catholic saints.

After browsing around the store in silence for awhile, I volunteered (perhaps somewhat presumptuously) that my friend has issues with illness and probably will not bring up the issue directly himself, so is there any particular herb or remedy she might recommend to help him? This led to further discourse and finally an invitation to a comfortable commons area and ultimately the main office of the botanica for a spiritual consultation.

(The layout of this particular botanica, which has a commons area appropriate for small classes or informal socialization and perhaps modest rituals behind its main storefront, seems fairly common for botanicas and suggests a strategy for the use of space somewhat different from that of most commercial establishments – rather than packing in the maximum amount of product in the minimum amount of space to optimize a “shopping” experience, the human and relational elements of spiritual work are emphasized by this layout. The botanica clearly sells products, but the goods seem more like the material adjuncts to allow one to do the rituals recommended in an expert consultation, which seems to be the transaction more highly valued. This is not to deny a profit motive, but to suggest that the real “product” being sold might be initiations or advice from a reputable spiritual worker, who can turn a profit on free or inexpensive consultation through the goods necessary to perform the kinds of ritual he or she recommends).

Before initiating a formal consultation, the owner gave us an overview of the etiology of illness according to African diasporic traditions. Like the previous discourse, this is cultural material one cannot presume that a pair of white, non-Hispanic walk-in clients will necessarily share. She granted straightforward medical causality for the majority of cases of illness, but insisted through some rather graphic examples that spiritual influence can be a factor in some cases – sometimes a person who wants something very badly will call upon negative spirits such as Santa Muerte who will demand evil deeds such as a murder in return for a favor, find himself the object of curses or the evil eye or forms of more deliberate magical attack, or otherwise become influenced by spirits or negative energies from the environment. When conditions do not respond to conventional medical treatment, perhaps they are spiritual in nature, which one can discover through a consultation. Powerful people such as politicians and government officials are frequently the objects of envy or deliberate magical attack, so many high profile politicians (she named specific individuals) have either called upon her services or those of some other qualified spiritual worker to deal with these problems. It would not be unheard of for my colleague to do the same.

My friend agreed to the consultation, so we ultimately found ourselves in a small office with a door which afforded some possibility of privacy. For the most part it seemed like a conventional office, but I noticed a prominent image of Chango (in the form of Santa Barbara) and a set of Germanic runes and more traditional ritual objects scattered inconspicuously throughout the clutter of the office. The preferred divination method was obi, wherein one asks a yes/no question and casts four coconut shells for a possibility of five different answers; the madrina did this twice, allowing us to see in a book that what she said the cast meant is what it actually means (so we could be certain that she was genuine and wasn’t using the divination as a mere theatrical prop while saying whatever she wanted to say). This particular check against the possibility of cold reading did not entirely satisfy my skeptical side, because it was clear that a great deal more interpretation of my colleague’s situation was offered than one could get from two simple yes/no questions, but my friend also was willing to vouch for the accuracy of what seemed like very pointed, specific, and private details about the operation of his own mind for which no obvious mechanism of cold reading suggested itself, while appearing genuinely disconcerted by the accuracy of the details. It was far easier to suspend disbelief and accept that this as a genuine spiritual encounter, particularly as there was no obvious profit motive for the reading itself (offered for free), the diagnosis, or the remedy suggested (which seemed deliberately chosen to be simple and traditional where more elaborate and expensive remedies were possible, grossing the madrina less than $10). Clearly botanicas make money, but not this one in this particular way.

(I do not mean to imply criteria of valuation in which the efficacy of a spiritual reading is dependent upon its being 100% pure and uncontaminated divine revelation without any role for intuition, probable judgments, or the reader’s social skills in assessing the situation. But I might perhaps be skeptical of readings in which such factors accounted for the sum total of insight, without any element of divine revelation, so the skeptic in me appreciates the rather significant gap between what I think the madrina might have known or guessed about my colleague and what she was able to venture without contradiction from him).

The madrina clearly gravitates to more universalist as opposed to ethnic tendencies within Santeria, as her remedies involved my colleague appealing to the orishas under the auspices of the Seven African Powers. He had much greater fears about ethnic and religious particularity than her, being concerned that the Seven African Powers might be inappropriate for a descendent of Southern slave owners and that perhaps he would show disrespect to the Catholic religion if he (being Jewish) were to make use of holy water. I suspected that the latter might become a deal-breaker for him, so I presumptuously took it upon myself to inform the madrina that he was afraid he would be disrespectful taking holy water since he is Jewish – what does she think of this? The resulting discourse again exemplified universalist tendencies within Santeria: Jesus baptized everybody (Jewish, Gentile, whatever) because he wanted to help them and he didn’t ask them what religion they belonged to when he did it, so when he returns, what will he think of those human beings who take a little bit of the divine and say “this is Catholic, so you can’t touch it” or “this is Jewish, so you can’t touch it” in order to divide people from one another to gain political power over them? Surely he will discipline them as he disciplined the money-changers. The gifts of God are meant to be given to everybody freely and without charge, and woe to those who put restrictions on them. Insofar as appealing for divine mercy goes, my colleague should be concerned not about being a good Jew or a good Catholic or whatever, but about being a good man vis-a-vis the five major relationships in his life (being a good father, son, brother, husband, and friend). The madrina must have been aware of his or my perfectionistic tendencies, as she made a point of emphasizing that she was speaking of basic goodness (“being human”) rather than being perfect – she is not talking about the goodness of somebody who realizes a pen does not belong to him and brings it back six hours later to avoid “stealing” or who somehow manages to be completely unmoved sexually when he sees a beautiful person other than his spouse, but about being “human” (not “perfect”) in a generally decent sort of way.

While we were wrapping up and preparing to leave, my longsuffering colleague insisted that I really needed a consultation too – ostensibly, because my life is a maddening mess in any number of ways and I often react to this in an extremely emotionally tumultuous manner, but I suspect ultimately because it’s not fair to expect him to look like somebody with a bunch of serious problems it takes a madrina to sort out without being willing to submit to the same sort of social humiliation myself. (The latter at least is what I thought to myself and accepted as a suitable rationale for getting the consultation).

The madrina did the same obi reading for me and said, no, I do not have problems with spirits or magic-wielding enemies and I am not depressed. In fact, I am an extremely powerful person who ought to get the appropriate training in order to give spiritual consultations myself. She expressed her statement about my power or ashe in somewhat personal and somewhat relational terms – I have personal power because a significant amount of ancestral power is upon me. Unlike the standard Christian theory of the soul (wherein a soul is an indivisible and autonomous center of personhood which cannot be overlaid with other personae without being compromised or invaded as a form of negative possession), it appears that spirits are multiple and selves permeable – you are what you are as an individual in large part because of the other spirits that enter you or which you take upon yourself. Personal power is in some part a result of possession by powerful ancestral spirits, and possession is generally a positive rather than a negative phenomenon. Indeed, the madrina attributes my extreme emotional reactions to my unusual sensitivity to and permeability by spirits – I am frequently acting out of excesses of emotion that aren’t even my own natural feelings, but picked up from people and spirits and energies in my immediate environment. The ritual solutions she suggested for this problem were geared towards solving what she considers a basic self misrecognition as someone powerless, bathing in river water and florida water while praying that I might recognize my strength and perceive appropriate ways to exercise it in any situation. I am somewhat mistrustful of this positive valuation of my spiritual abilities, as my interest in and knowledge of this kind of material could easily have been ascertained over the course of conversation and the statement made to flatter me or persuade me to accept an expensive initiation. I was more impressed by her forceful insistence that I must never drink alcohol because of an ancestral spirit of alcoholism which wishes to ruin/kill the members of my maternal family – this is dead-on, and a few generations back there was in fact a devastating suicide over a particularly ugly constellation of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder combined with alcoholism that still has obvious repercussions within the family system. (Is this true of so many people that she could make a wild assertion with a reasonable chance of it being true of me?) I was even more impressed by her spontaneous assertion that I am blocked in love and recommendation of magical remedies to overcome it. (But perhaps it is obvious that a person in their 30s without a wedding band is blocked in love?) I don’t feel I can entirely rule out cold reading and reasonable inferences, but there is a decent gap between what I think the madrina could have asserted from observing us interact in so brief a period of time and what she was willing to correctly venture as interpretation. If most santeros are so accurate most of the time, it is little wonder that their advice plays a powerful therapeutic role whether or not it results from supernatural causation.

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5 Responses to Notes from a Botanica

  1. El Pelón says:

    I know I am supposed to be a horrible skeptic about these things at this point, but I thank you for sharing your botanica experience. I share most of your observations, and have found that these places sell services more than they do products (I have seen lines in botanicas with people waiting for “una consulta”.) On your general observations, I would say that most people who run botanicas for average, working class Latino clients would no doubt also protest their being “good Catholics”. As I have said in previous blogging avatars, the difference between “magic” and science for these people is often only one of nomenclature. Compared to the triumph of psychoanalysis and advertising in the modern world, such acts of “prayer with props” seem to merit the title of “sorcery” less than more accepted “rational” forms of mass self-suggestion. The problem with the modern world is that we are so used to these forms of magic (advertising, the stock market, and other forms of virtuality) that competing forms of magic, often far less pernicious, are viewed with great suspicion.

    The insight on the soul (ashe) is interesting. I don’t know if you read Maya Deren’s book on Haitian voudoun yet, but I still recommend it. The soul and thus the afterlife are in Deren’s telling a sort of ancestral energy that affects our daily life. In other words, the “soul” (lwa) run through our veins, they are out life force and our inheritance from the past. Here, we are no longer in the realm of dualism between idealism and materialism: the ideal and the material are two ways of viewing the same phenomenon. In such a world view, it would make sense that trouble would be caused by an “imbalance” or noxious influence of one spirit over another.

    That being said, what sense did you get from la madrina concerning the role of faith (“hay que tener fe”). This seems like a theme going back in faith healing all the way to Jesus: he could do no miracles where faith in him was not there. Perhaps, if we take the ancient sense of the word “pistis” or “fides”, this was the case because people were not committed to their own self-healing. In other words, the power comes from us, really, and it takes God (whose Kingdom is within) to channel that into something powerful. By the way, there is a work I have run into by a Brazilian author who speaks of Jesus as the Orixa of Compassion. I don’t know if you have run into it, but here is a link:

    http://www.servicioskoinonia.org/LibrosDigitales/LDK/EATWOTGettingThePoorDown.pdf

  2. lonelygoth says:

    One good turn deserves another – I have a friend with access to this album, and when I can figure out how to share it, I will.

    http://closetcurios2.blogspot.com/2012/04/voices-of-haiti-recorded-by-maya-deren.html

    (More later, but I wanted to let you know about this wonderful bit of ethnography from Maya Deren).

  3. lonelygoth says:

    I guess I’ll stop procrastinating and answer now:

    1. I in no way doubt the authenticity of the Catholicism of the store owners and practitioners.

    2. I agree that advertising/Wall Street/psychoanalysis are often far more dubious and destructive a form of magic than “prayer with props,” and unfortunately more invisibly so. If I had time to write a full-fledged screed, it would be on the usual value, safety, and lack of expense of traditional spirituality and alternative medicine compared with their often ineffective, expensive, and dangerous mainstream medical counterparts. There are exceptions of course and everyone needs to negotiate their respective medical paradigms in a careful and discerning manner, but most of the stuff you get at botanicas is innocuous at worst and effective at best, which is more than I can say for mainstream sleeping pills and anti-depressants, which (given my family’s particular biochemistry) are generally more liable to kill me than help me.

    3. I’ll pick up the Deren volume at the library before I leave for home. But I think I understand and agree with the paradigm you articulate.

    4. I mostly practice hoodoo, and there more often encounter the sentiment that spells work whenever you do them more-or-less correctly, whether you believe in them or not. But there is a significant undercurrent of the opposite sentiment, and I have not been able to discern yet whether my circle of practitioners is more typical or atypical in attitude. I couldn’t really place this madrina on the spectrum. She would have needed to have been somewhat blind not to perceive a current of skepticism in the pair of us (she was aware that we were academics, and even that I might wish to interview her at some point for research), but seemed to think that so long as we did things in a certain way, they would probably work (or else she probably would not have made the recommendations she did). For my part I probably give the impression of being more skeptical than I actually was or am. I do like to try to weed out good practitioners from more questionable ones, but she gave every sign of being a good practitioner, and the fact that I am willing to reflect somewhat critically on the experience to satisfy requirements of academic form in the narrative above could give a superficial appearance that I did not think she possessed supernatural insight, when I am reasonably convinced that she did.

    5. Thank you for the reference. I looked it up and am not so allergic to liberation theology as not to find it useful.

  4. J. H. Numen says:

    What interesting experiences you have, Wulfila! And you are so good in describing them.
    There is someone here who feels he is being protected (from what?) by a certain Grandpa Kell (who seems to be an ethereal being). We do not know how it works, but it seems to be affecting his attitude in welcome ways. His troubles resemble those of your botanica-visiting companion, and of course we wish for healing from all ills, however they may be achieved.

  5. Pingback: The Three Miracles of Newman (Part II) | The Lonely Goth's Guide to Popular Catholicism

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