New York – Ortiz Botánica could be the waiting room of any slightly unconventional health practitioner’s office. Posted next to the consultation room door, a sign in Spanish sternly warns customers, “I only trust in God. Everyone else pays up front.”
Undeterred, a steady stream of customers comes through the door and takes a seat along the wall, paging through gossip magazines while waiting for their consultations with José Ortiz, the 63 year-old owner who reads cards in the back. They laugh, gossip and complain about their relationships and jobs. Some customers pop in, see the long wait, and decide to come back in a few hours.
“I think the recession has been profitable for us,” says Randy Concepción, 49, who works Ortiz Botánica’s front counter and says appointments are booked for a week or two in advance. “They come, they find conversation, they interact with each other, some of them will leave us their fliers for their own little businesses: taxis, catering, cooking, cleaning, nannies. So we kind of disseminate information for them as well.”
Botánicas -which sell religious and spiritual artifacts and services- have had a long presence in largely Latino enclaves, but their social significance is not always well understood outside the immigrants they cater to, whose spiritual practices were brought to the Americas centuries ago by African slaves and influenced by indigenous and Catholic beliefs. Like the botánicas themselves, these traditions vary across Latin America and have many names: Espiritismo, Santería, Palo Mayombe, Babalawo, Candomblé, Umbanda, and others.
Botánicas are also part of a wider trend in U.S.-Latino entrepreneurship. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners, Hispanic-owned businesses grew by 43.7 percent between 2002 and 2007, more than twice the national rate. As far as small Latino-owned businesses go, botánicas have a targeted market and a specific function: there are thought to be more than 300 in New York City alone, overwhelmingly run by Latino immigrants for the benefit of their communities.
“These businesses, rather than being hurt by the economy, have been flourishing because they provide people with what they need,” says Anahi Viladrich, the appointed director of the Center on Immigration Studies at Queens College. “They are social spaces for community bonding, social support, social capital, areas where people can get access to an accountant who will charge them little money, will show them how to get an application for Section 8 affordable housing, and get a loved one to come back to you.”
This isn’t to say that frequenting botánicas is cheap. Sandra Rossi, who shops at Botánica La Caridad in Queens and inherited the practice of espiritsmo from her mother, says she hasn’t kept track of how much she spends each month.
“Oh, it’s more than $100, much more, because I buy candles and that kind of thing,” says Rossi, who visits La Caridad every week.
Likewise, expenses for a typical 7-day initiation ceremony for practitioners of Mayombe can run upwards of $10,000. “The expense is outrageous,” Concepción says, describing the immense amount of labor and planning that goes into the ceremonies.
But there is a flip side: all that money is being put back into local businesses.
“We buy our stuff from the Spanish markets, the materials that people wear from the Spanish stores, we try to sink it all into our community,” says Concepción, gesturing toward a rack of colorful skirts for sale made by a retired seamstress. “We buy them from her, we put extra money in her pocket, and it helps.”
Botánica La Candelaria in Queens provides a good sampling of the community Concepción describes. Though botánicas are plentiful all along Roosevelt Avenue, the advantage of La Candelaria’s nearly 40-year reputation is clear right away.
Inside, the store is brightly lit and salespeople jostle back and forth behind a long counter, a bulwark against the crowd of customers waiting in line. Most of these customers are botánica owners themselves, launching new businesses or stocking up on supplies for their botánicas in the Bronx, Connecticut, and upstate New York.
At the register, Hansel Baca-Arus and his friends confer over a waist-high stack of cardboard boxes and an army of saint figurines, considering how to move it all outside to their waiting van. “We came here yesterday and we came here today,” says Baca-Arus, 38, whose Oggun Dei Botánica in Freeport, Long Island has been open less than a month. “Today we spent $2000, yesterday we spent $1500, and the week before we spent $1500.”
La Candelaria’s popularity seems to demonstrate that longevity and reputation count big in this business, a sentiment that is echoed by other botánica owners. Deo Parasram, a former computer programmer and part owner of Vandi’s Perfumes and Vandi Religious Supply in Jamaica, Queens, said that Vandi’s started 58 years ago out of the back of the founder’s car on 28th Street in Manhattan. Today, Vandi’s supplies Texas, California, and “pretty much the whole East coast” or about 600 botánicas across the U.S., with its candles, oils and perfumes.
Parasram says his business is doing well and that he’s making 50 percent more profit than he was two or three years ago, allowing him to overhaul the packaging and presentation of his products. “It’s a niche business,” he says of botánicas. “You wouldn’t find our products in a 99 cent store, so it’s not something you can go down the block and find. So when someone needs spiritual help, they go to a botánica. They know where to go.”
Viladrich believes botánicas matter to Latino immigrants in large part because of the major economic and social challenges that many new immigrants face in the U.S.
“Social spending for government subsidized programs has been cut, particularly for immigrant families, so even people who are legally in this country are suffering,” she says. “For people who have no documents, family being deported, no real job making no real money, who don’t speak the language, why are they still here? For the idea that things will become better.”
Aaron, 22, who works at a botánica just off Roosevelt Avenue and declines to give his last name, says he often meets customers who are desperate for help. “People who are really in need are the ones who come in here,” he says. “They’re not just Spanish. Cops come in to the botánica too; it’s not just the stereotypical idea.”
Do all the candles, prayers, and consultations help? “I think it works, to a certain point,” Aaron says. “It works because you say, ‘I did this,’ so they have hope.”
“All of us, not just Latinos, use different forms of healing. Everyone tries to get whatever help to feel better”, says Viladrich, who explains that botánicas provide status, belonging and cultural familiarity to immigrants which sometimes aren’t available anywhere else.
“We don’t want to say ‘oh, they cure’, but they sell the promise of luck, the promise of love, the promise of hope,” she says. “And hope is a highly regarded commodity. If you promise hope, you’re half the way there.”