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Esther Cepeda: A cure-all for the human spirit

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Esther Cepeda
November 16, 2013

CHICAGO -- Anyone living in a community with a large Latin American population knows the local botanica.

It's part surrogate doctor's office, part mystical goods shop—what The New York Times once called “a veritable Home Depot of spirituality.”

A botanica is where traditionalist Hispanics go when they need the sort of help that a medical doctor can't provide. Or when they can't afford to see one.

 I always seem to stumble into the shop in my neighborhood shortly after the first snow, right when winter previews all its harsh glory. I look for a nice, soothing candle or something. Invariably, I lose myself while perusing all the magical charms and get hustled out empty-handed at closing time.

 Several years ago, I left a botanica on Chicago's south side with a mysterious plant that was supposed to symbolize my spirit and provide a cleansing effect for my cluttered life.

“Take good care of it,” said the curandera—this is the feminine noun for “healer” in Spanish. “You are supposed to grow it.” Not surprisingly, I proceeded to ignore it.

 My husband, who this year made it his mission to revive the long-neglected plant, reminded me about its mystical history once he saw his efforts bear fruit.

Then last week, a white flower rose up from the mass of revitalized green leaves and slowly opened up like an angel spreading its wings.

Serendipitously, the first snow had just fallen, so I naturally slid down the block to my local botanica for an expert assessment of my plant.

But first, a little color.

 A glass case filled with colorful saint cards, playing cards from Spain for divination and a wide selection of sacred stones caught my attention. Sitting on top was a gallon jug of ajo macho, or male garlic, supposedly good for guarding against evil spirits, breaking the effects of the evil eye and/or warding off the envy of others.

Evil spirits are a popular theme among the many oils, soaps, candles, herb sachets and sprays you'll find in a botanica. I found house-blessing powders in a variety of scents, “Reversible Spirits” incense, a dusty substance for releasing curses and a “Witchcraft Breaker” aromatic herb bath.

 For those in need of a quickie fix for a stink eye or some such curse, I found a bright yellow aerosol spray can with the silhouette of a hen on it called “Black Chicken,” also for warding off the heebie-jeebies.

And what would a botanica be without an extensive selection of good luck attractants?

My store stocks a “Lucky Gamblers” candle for lighting before the next Casino Night, your basic “Mr. Money” pillar candle and the cheery “Road Opener” for when you need a little boost to get yourself on the right path.

 The soaps are a delight in and of themselves, and you won't find these at Costco. There's “Jabon de San Simon,” a soap for getting rid of all your problems, and “Santa Clara,” which promises to cleanse your aura or clear your head. Also, many varieties for making your co-workers like you or someone else to fall in love with you.

There are innumerable love potions, creams, gels and “honeys” for both men and women—most too steamy to write about in this venue—but “Super Macho Bovine Glandular Concentrate” does comes in pill form.

Mostly there are endless dried herbs and flowers for teas to soothe upset stomachs, scratchy throats, aching heads and runny noses. In stock on this day was pomade purporting to be “bee poison and viper oil” for sore muscles and creaky joints. It was sitting next to a general use “super miraculous” cream, just in case.

 Turns out, my flower is a Spathiphyllum, commonly called the Peace Lily here and known in Latin America as the “Lirio.” The curandera recognized it right away. It's thought to harmonize conflicts and heal negative places, people and relationships.

Clearly, it's a plant right at home in any self-respecting botanica—and one I ought to take better care of from now on.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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