BOTANICA, Hell’s Kitchen

I should really spend more time in Hell’s Kitchen — there are some old and strange buildings and signage lurking in the side streets. In mid-December I was attending a recital by my friend DeeAnne Gorman and was a little early, so I went lurching around the area looking for interesting items. I actually found  a street full of palaces — I plan on returning during the day to get those, one of which has a statue of Vladimir Lenin in the lobby — but on West 54th near 9th I passed this hand-drawn Botanica (“A shop that sells herbs, charms, and other religious or spiritual items, especially those associated with Santeria”) sign, which also mentions candles, prayers, and apparently, books on dream interpretation. With Santeria I am in realms of which I know little; so any enlightening Comments, below, will be appreciated.

2/4/16


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5 Responses to BOTANICA, Hell’s Kitchen

  1. Jose Ruiz says:

    My mother was a believer in many things that had to do with espiritismo (spiritualism). She dragged me to many places where she would have the tarot cards read for her. I remember one time I went with her to a lady’s apartment somewhere in Brooklyn. We entered a very dark room with the only illumination coming from several candles. There was a large altar that had several statues of different saints. I was really scared and stayed close to my mother. There were also trips to many botanicas to buy candles, prepared brews to use in baths to cleanse away the evil and restore good fortune. Or a candle that was specially prepared to bring one man back. One time my mother lit a candle and had it on a table and the candle exploded and burned away part of the wood of the floor. Thank God she got to it on time. But she was pleased because it is believed to be a good sign when a candle explodes…that means that whatever evil was working against you had been eradicated. Que viva Chango.

  2. Emilio Castro says:

    You described these little shops perfectly, Kevin – back in the day they dotted every Hispanic neighborhood in the city and New Jersey ( where there was at one point a large Cuban population). Usually the proprietor was a member of a Santeria sect and would also do consultations (much like going to see an M.D. or a therapist) and would give advice on how to handle a particular problem (your love life or financial issues, etc). They would then prescribe the aforementioned herbs to boil or bathe yourself in, or give you a lotion which supposedly would alleviate alleged symptoms or induce different behavior in others (“Vente Conmigo” – translated as “come to me” was a very popular one). The shops would, as you described, contain many religious artifacts, mainly depictions of saints or the Virgin Mary, but were allotted African names. The shops were also good for vinyl record hunting, as most of them carried popular Latin music or Santeria related percussion recordings. I can tell you from personal experience that their religious ceremonies were a hoot! There aren’t many of them around anymore, but many who follow the faith also operated from their homes. I remember one person in particular from my childhood that my mother visited in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She was skinny and penciled in eyebrows and used to scare the hell out of me!

  3. Elvin Rodriguez says:

    You guys are spot on with the descriptions.
    My uncle owned a couple of bodegas in the South Bronx…Grant Ave…White Plains Rd…in the early seventies. He even had a ‘Lechonera’ or what would be a tiny Latin food spot that would specialize in making roast pig and other Puerto Rican meals. He did pretty good for himself until the day he died in ’09 in P.R.
    I remember he had a spiritual advisor, basically a specialist in Santeria who he counseled with regularly.The guy had a Botanica, just like the one in the photo above, somewhere up in Spanish Harlem. My uncle was a true believer in this man’s “powers”. He didn’t talk much about what they both spoke about but I remember my uncle once wearing white from head to toe for a whole year. It was crazy.
    Apparently it had to do with a ‘promesa’ or a promise to wear this color clothing in order to get something you wanted in return.
    This was the type of thing that was associated with Botanicas. The owners and people who worked out of them held a lot of respect from plenty of folks from the city’s Caribbean Hispanic population back then. Some thought they were just cooks but for the most part no one really messed with these people.
    Just another part of the NYC’s almost Forgotten past.

  4. Cinda Beter says:

    Hi Elvin,
    If you uncle wore white for a year, it is possible he was going through an initiation. Check out this book:

    http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/A-Year-in-White,5624.aspx

  5. Elvin Rodriguez says:

    Wow Cinda. Thank you.
    I had no idea about this at all…it may explain some things. I’m getting the book.
    Thanks a lot.

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