NEW YORK --
It's the ultimate in one-stop shopping: a place
to pick up advice, or get your aura cleansed, or find the right
herbs to flush out both evil spirits and your colon.
The botanica, part shopping center and part cultural center,
provides a haven for new immigrants finding their way in the
nation's largest city. Long a staple in Hispanic culture, botanicas
are flourishing in New York neighborhoods with large immigrant
populations _ a small stretch of street in Queens is home to more
The shops are home to the sacred and the mundane: homeopathic
herbs and fragrant soaps, magic potions and religious artifacts.
Gloria Rivera has owned the Botanica San Lazarito in Queens for
nearly 23 years, and she specializes in cleansing auras and reading
But she also counsels her clients, many of whom are recent
Hispanic immigrants, on families, jobs and life in a new country.
Rivera, whose family has worked in and owned botanicas in the
U.S. and Caribbean for seven generations, sells more than 800
different types of oils and 475 different perfumes along with books
on magic and religion, natural laxatives to cleanse colons and teas
to soothe sore throats.
"I offer support," she said in Spanish. "Sometimes they need
a lift, because many are very limited, and feel very helpless and
The topics may be heavy, but the mood is jovial inside her
store. Customers come in to chat about problems with their
children, or difficulties at work, and Rivera stands behind the
counter listening, offering advice and doling out bath oils and
candles to help improve the situation.
"It is just to clean the air, to get rid of bad energy and bad
luck, and to get rid of bad dreams," Rivera said. "People have a
lot of negativity in their dreams, (they dream of) many witches,
many negative things."
If it seems like a hoax, Rivera says, it's because you don't
understand _ or it's not part of your culture.
"You have to have a certain faith, you must believe in it for
these things to have any effect," she said.
Rosita Romero, who runs the Dominican Women's Development
Center, is a strong believer of natural medicine, and a regular at
botanicas near her Washington Heights home.
"There's a psychosomatic component," she concedes. "Sometimes
people are sad, they feel stressed out, and doing a cleansing or
burning incense to bring good spirits to the room helps them to
She said the shops are looked at as a complement to mainstream
"People are once again looking to aromatherapy and other
natural therapies to heal, but in the Latino culture, we never left
it," she said.
In New York, botanicas for the most part are run by Puerto
Ricans, then Dominicans, Cubans and Colombians. Each group has its
own specialties, ranging from Voodoo to Santeria to Spiritualism.
Their customers are Latin American and Caribbean immigrants as well
as lifelong New Yorkers and, in some cases, residents of other
cities who order by phone.
Anahi Viladrich, a medical anthropologist who runs the
Immigration and Health Initiative at Hunter College, has studied
botanicas and said there are at least 350 such shops in the five
boroughs. There's likely more, but many try not to publicize for
fear of backlash.
"They don't want to be labeled witchcraft," she said.
As neighborhoods gentrify, botanicas close, and as immigrant
communities shift around the city, more crop up. In Jackson
Heights, Queens, for example, there are more than 20 on one street
For some immigrants, botanicas are the main source for medical
and mental health care, because they don't speak English, lack
health insurance or are wary of Western medicine and the more
sterile patient-doctor relationships.
"They miss their traditional methods of curing," Viladrich
said. "And at a botanica, they can buy products that are familiar
to them, that come from their countries; and they can talk to
people who understand what they are going through."
There have been some problems with the shops selling imported
items containing dangerous ingredients, like mercury or lead, and
the city keeps vigilant watch, health department officials said.
"We're a big city with lots of different ethnic populations,
and we have problems we're concerned about from all over the
world," said Nancy Clark, the city's assistant commissioner for
environmental disease prevention.
For the most part, the shops are considered harmless. And, as
Rivera is quick to note, alternative medicine is becoming more
mainstream. More than a third of American adults have tried
alternative medical therapies, including prayer, folk medicine and
natural products, according to a 2002 survey of 31,000 people by
the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine,
part of the National Institutes of Health.
Alternative medicine was once dispelled by the established
medical community, which cites lack of scientific proof the
treatments work. The Food and Drug Administration cautions that
"natural" doesn't necessarily mean safe. Natural treatments may
be risky because they don't undergo the rigorous testing _ and
regulatory scrutiny _ to ensure effectiveness and safety as is
required for conventional medicines.
And there's no scientific or clinical studies to determine, for
example, a safe dosage, side effects or whether natural remedies
would interfere or be dangerous if taken with over-the-counter
medications, certain foods or prescriptions.
"They are on one hand community networks, good informal
counseling systems, and they satisfy the needs of many people
looking for familiarity and comfort. But are they substitutions for
efficient and scientifically grounded mental and physical care? The
answer is no," Viladrich said.
Rivera readily admits she's no doctor, and she's doesn't attempt
to diagnose disease, prescribe medicine or even suggest her
products are tried-and-true cures.
"The botanicas, more than anything, are for good luck, for
everything natural," she said.