AP New York

Botanicas, religious and superstitious, thrive in NYC

Associated Press Writer

April 28, 2007, 11:38 AM EDT
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 than 20.

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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 tarot cards.

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 frustrated."

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 feel better."

She said the shops are looked at as a complement to mainstream medicine.

"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 alone.

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.

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