Botánicas: Retail Magic

Maybe you’ve spotted one of these little stores with a hand-painted sign that looks like it was drawn from some arcane tarot deck and wondered about the odd products arrayed along its shelves. Or maybe you’re a regular customer who knows just where to stop for all your icons, herbs, and ritual candles. Either way, the presence of these ceremonial supply shops that often go unnoticed by the uninterested or the uninitiated is something of an open secret in Los Angeles.

Some local botánicas operate right out in the open, while others take pains to partially disguise themselves as discount stores or flower shops. The Spanish word botánica translates simply to ‘botany’ in English, and in this context it refers to the shops’ primary role as sellers of herbal folk medicines. Traditional and alternative remedies for common maladies such as colds and headaches can often be found right next to the more mainstream, over-the-counter treatments you’d find in any pharmacy. But there are other, stranger items on sale here too. Religious supplies such as rosary beads and holy water are common, as are a range of oils, incense, and perfumes used by practitioners of various forms of curanderismo (healing), espiritismo (spiritualism) and brujería (witchcraft).

The Caracoles, an oracle based on the throwing of shells

Some stores offer readings of the Tarot cards or the Caracoles, a divinatory system based on the throwing of cowrie shells. The Orishas (a pantheon of deities and ancestral spirits derived from West African mythology and central to Latin American religious traditions like Santería) are represented by altar figurines that can range from lurid to lovely, or from fantastical to frightening. Glass-jarred candles (veladoras) come in a crayon-box of colors and are decorated with images of the Orishas themselves, or else with pictures of the Catholic saints that have been used to secretly represent them. For example: Elegua, an important patron of roads, travel, and doorways, can be associated with either Saint Anthony or Santo Niño de Atocha, while Oshun, a goddess of love and beauty, has been masked by la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (the patron saint of Cuba), and Shango, the popular Orisha of war and lightning, is traditionally syncretized with Santa Barbara.

Ritual candles (veladoras) for sale

An altar dedicated to Oshun, with offerings of fans, candy, copper jewelry, and a toy boat

An Elegua candle and head icon. These concrete heads with cowrie-shell eyes are often kept in corners or near doorways in order to guard the home

Amongst the weirdest and most unexpected offerings on display would have to be the scented aerosol sprays used in limpias, or spiritual cleansings. The cans’ colorful labels suggest they can assist with a standard catalogue of magical requests, from drawing luck or money to attracting new lovers and/or getting rid of old ones. If the idea of spritzing your way to a lottery win or a torrid affair sounds a bit far-fetched, remember that ritual—any sort of ritual—can sometimes have a powerful effect on the psyche, and from there upon the world. Some of the sprays, candles, and mass-produced amulets available at local botánicas might seem to represent a surreal collision between modern manufacturing and ancient folk belief, but they’re all part of a vital tradition that continues to evolve, on its own terms and almost in secret.

Iron cauldrons on display in a San Fernando Valley botanica’s front window

Behind the counter at a North Hollywood botanica

Further reading:

Santeria: The Religion: Faith, Rites, Magic by Migene Gonzalez-Wippler

Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown

Creole Religions of Caribbean by Margarite Fernandez Olmos & Lisabeth Paravisini-Gelbert