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Shopping for witches brew.

THE SEXUAL PROWESS of Porfirio Rubirosa, international playboy par excellence and sometime-diplomat from the Dominican Republic, is the stuff of legends. His innumerable liaisons from Evita Peron to Joan Collins and his mind-boggling incredible techniques fascinated the public in his day as well as now. What is perhaps not so well known is that, according to several Dominicans, one of his aphrodisiacal secrets was a beverage called Pega Palo, a delirious concoction guaranteed to do the astounding. Let us not forget that the fabled Rubi was nicknamed Toujours Pret (Always Ready) by the French and that in the 1950s when you said "Please pass the Rubirosa" you were referring to a pepper mill. The Pega Palo beverage consists of rum that has been left in a curious blend - almonds, raisins, a small piece of liver, shrimp and/or fish, assorted herbs like cobrita, molasses, brazilwood, the member of a tortoise, spices such as cinnamon and cloves. The essential ingredient is the Pega Palo plant, which gives the drink its name and an interesting, almost smoky taste. It can be purchased at your local botanica: den of iniquity to some and life-saving haven to others.

A simple definition of a botanica would be a store that deals in witchraft, or in a more euphemistic vein, a shop selling religious articles. However, a more accurate description might be a kind of general store geared towards all things magical and spiritual. In reality, it is a gathering place where simple people, for the most part, seek realization of their dreams and aspirations or protection from forces beyond their control. Ultimately, a botanica could be seen as a microcosm of one of the most microcosmic areas of the world - the Caribbean basin. the diversity of the region in terms of synthesized cultures - blending of races, languages, religions - is without precedent as a global melting pot and the botanica is a perfect reflection of this phenomenon.

Every city in the United States where there is a substantial Hispanic population has at least one botanica. In the greater metropolitan. New York area, there are many. One of the oldest and most comprehensive is Almacenes Justo, located at 134 East 104th Street. Subtitled El Arte Espiritual, it was established in 1930 and includes a vast assortment of plants, incense, candles, books, images, statuary and other paraphernalia all related to the magical and occult in its unabashed form or in the guise of the spiritual. In sum, all the necessary ingredients for the Latino-African rituals prevalent in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Central America, Mexico and Haiti.

Jorge Vargas Ranjel owns and runs the shop that was started by his father Justo, a former merchant marine. A pleasant man of ample girth, Jorge is knowledgeable and will give generous advice to the numerous customers who constantly visit his shop. He is a native of Puerto Rico, like his parents, although his father was brought up in Cuba and his mother was a Mexican at heart. There are interesting stories about how his father became familiar with the magical Afro-Cuban world through laborers in the sugar refineries where he worked as a young man and how it was in the songs of the blacks that he first heard about Oshun, Babalu-Aye, Yemaya and Chango. Jorge feels strongly that this peculiar folklore, with its accompanying magical rites, is the force which kept the Caribbean blacks united and gave them their identity. He believes that it serves as a vehicle that helps Hispanics to better understand themselves as well.

In addition to providing the customers with everything they need to cast a spell or to make a simple cup of herbal tea, spiritual readings are available on a daily basis at the shop. The name botanica derives from the fact that originally, it was a place where one could purchase plants and herbs, many with purported medicinal properties, that have a fascinating array of names. From the mysterious sounding yagrumo, anamu, tautua and boshu, to the commonplace alfalfa, laurel, eucalyptus and sassafras, the store harbors a profusion of plants. Of course, this is still the prime raison d'etre of these establishments, but a number of other things have been added over the years, including Vicks Vapo-Rub and toy witch dolls for children.

The religious statuary - from the totally conventional within the established canons of Christianity to the bizarre - is another important part of the business of a botanica. The statues are of different origin; some are from Italy, while others are from the Dominican Republic or even the United States. Looking at the replete shelves one definitely gets the feeling that the saints have come marching in. Here is Santa Barbara next to San Lazaro, who stands next to San Gregorio Hernandez, a twentieth century uncanonized but very popular Venezuelan saint, as well as other wilder ones like Santa Marta Dominadora, who has a large serpent coiled around her body and a small child at her feet.

A noteworthy aspect of these santos is the fact that they often have two names. The Hispanic name can be La Caridad del Cobre, Patroness of Cuba, but you can also call her by he African appellation of Oshun or Yege-Cari. One of the deities with the largest following is Chango, whose color is unmistakeably red and who is also known as Santa Barbara. The Christian Hispanic world melds with the Yoruba African with a ] tinge of the American Indian and gives birth to something else that makes many Hispanics feel uncomfortable. White Magic? Black Magic? Superstition? Witchraft? Whether one believes in it or not or whether one is offended or prefers to ridicule it, santeria, voodoo, brujeria, magia and the many sects and cults connected with this unusual world are a fact of life in the Caribbean universe.

The downfall of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega revealed that he was heavily involved in the occult. This would hardly be surprising to Dominicans since it is common knowledge in their country that Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo consulted brujos. On the other side of the island President a vie Francois Duvalier changed the blue in the national flag to black in deference to le vaudou, which has received official recognition as a prime religious force in the Haitian Republic. With the fall of the Duvalier clan the original blue in the flag was restored. In Cuba, all presidents were traditionally initiated santeros, including Dictators Gerardo Machado y Morales and Fulgencio Batista. There are stories about how Premier Fidel Castro has had to learn to live, albeit at a distance and within his revolution's confines, with the rich traditions and lore of the Yoruba-santeria world. There is even a theory that he was brought into power by the mayomberos, Cuban with doctors.

The botanica offers the complete garb one needs to wear to conduct may rituals, which can be quite festive and which usually include invoking one or several spirits through those persons capable of receiving them. There are dresses in bright symbolic colors, beads and assorted metal ornaments, bracelets, chains and crowns. Behind the clothing and adornments, bookshelves are lined with volumes by mystics such as Allan Kardec, the famous nineteenth century French spiritualist who is greatly admired and consulted and whose tomb in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is a mini-Mecca for the followers of the diverse sects of Spiritualism. There are serious works such as those by the remarkable Cuban anthropologist, Lydia Cabrera, who is now ninety and lives in Miami. Cabrera's works are devoted to "the religions, magic, superstitions and folklore of the native blacks and the people of Cuba. One of the grandest Hispanic dames ever, Cabrera is a true investigator. She befriended Federico Garcia Lorca in Spain, and during his 1930 visit to her native homeland, introduced him to the mundo afrocubano, including the famous yet esoteric nanigo ceremonies of the Yoruba cult. Lorca, in turn, dedicated his ballad The Faithless Wife to her. Highly respected, Cabrera's book El Monte is considered to be the definitive work on Afro-Cuban folklore and everything that accompanies it. Other volumes include Santeria: African Magic in Latin America, by the Puerto Rican Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, who has taught at Columbia University as well as more prosaic booklets such as Protection Against Evil by Henri Camache.

A large sign in the back of the store announces goods that are not on display, including live lizards and toads, as well as diverse horns, hides, teeth, fangs, claws, even excrement from a number of different animals. As though that were not enough to stimulate curiosity, the names of some of the potions are bound to conjure up vivid images. Arraza con todo (Demolishes everything) and Abre camino (Road opener) are self-explanatory, while the musical Morivivi - which is a synthesis of the Spanish words morir (to die) and vivir (to live) - is meant to kill a love or to enliven one. Some of the names of the potions made a definite point like Yo puedo y tu no (I can and you can't), Haras mi voluntad (You will do as I say) and Vente conmigo (Come with me). There is an enigmatic plant called escoba amarga (bitter broom), a potion called Dejame el cheque en la cama (Leave me the check on the bed) and a perfume called Quiereme (Love me) that comes in a conventional bottle that is as obvious as its name. On the other hand many potions are available in aerosols, in keeping with twentieth century progress. These are for dealing with specific necessities such as jinx removing, money or house blessing. The packaging and labeling on these items have to be seen to be believed. For those who want it all in one shot there is the "All Purpose Spray." On the can are graphic drawings that illustrate the seven blessings to be had at the push of a button: Divine Eye, Peace, Dominating, Fast Luck, Protection, Money Drawing and Conqueror. There are also different kinds of incense that claim to protect, labeled in both Spanish and English, with meanings that can be slightly divergent in the two languages, such as Espanta muerto! (Dispel Jinx!) and Quita maldicion (Take Away Evil).

A typical Saturday afternoon at Almacenes Justo brings out a representative sampling of customers who are as varied as the names of the plants. There is the young Salvadoran woman who is anxious to protect her new bakery. Saint Michael is immediately recommended as the force that is needed. She buys a fairly large statue of the archangel with two brightly decorated large candles. An older woman, originally from Cuba, is searching for the right herb to help her ailing asthmatic granddaughter and she purchases the cabrita plant. Asthma, arthritis, rheumatism and other maladies are dealt with daily at this counter. A nun, from a nearby convent, makes a swift, hasty visit for the most unexotic purchase of the day - three small candles and an old novena that is out of print and not available elsewhere. Next comes a Colombian man who nervously brings out a list on a small piece of paper that he fidgets with the quickly announces that he is buying the items for his wife. There is also a blond Brazilian who brings a large tote bag full of charms and talismans all guaranteed, she emphatically insists, to bring only good luck. She tries to sell her goods to Almacenes Justo but does not succeed. One of the most surprising customers of the afternoon is a black, middle-aged woman from North Carolina. A Costa Rican man who is about to buy some Florida Water and a small eleggua talisman asks the North Carolinian whether she believes in all of this. She replies that she likes to meditate in front of candles but gradually begins to open up and tells how the herbal baths have helped her and reluctantly confesses that one has to dispel the evil eye. She walks out with two large shopping bags full of plants, incense, potions and a large multi-colored scarf that are handed to her by Jorge's young Mexican assistant.

The overall ambience at Almacences Justo is somewhat laid back. The radio is tuned to a station that plays the golden oldies of Frank Sinatra and many others of the 1940s and 1950s. The absence of salsa and lambada is not by chance. Jorge prefers to keep the atmosphere of the place calm so we are treated to a vintage version of "Embraceable You." By the entrance of the shop is an unexpected Lotto stand. Many visit this botanica with the sole purpose of buying a lottery ticket, never making it to the back of the store. It makes sense for them to purchase their tickets here since Almacenes Justo is considered to be the "Lucky Shop"; they often touch the belly of a nearby buddha or Babalu-Aye (San Lazaro).

Some of the customers know each other and chitchat in a neighborly fashion. One can overhear stories like the one about the man who received, as a gift, a copy of a book on santeria that was jinxed. Everything went wrong in his life from that moment on, until an old Haitian gave him the remedy. He had to urinate on the book and then burn it. Jorge tells about an old and unusual Puerto Rican ritual called Mesa Blanca in which twelve men representing the apostles sit around a table. Each, in turn, receives a different spirit. He feels that this ritual is something very pure, not phony like so much of what is happening in today's spiritual world. He also tells about Las Siete Potencias Africanas, a powerful combination of forces for extremely difficult cases. Its image is a kind of mandala of santeria that includes Obatala (Nuestra Senora de la Merced), Eleggua (Santo Angel Guardian or sometimes San Antonio), Chango (Santa Barbara), Oggun (San Pedro), Orunla (San Francisco de Asis), Yemaya (Nuestra Senora de Regla) and Oshun (Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre). Jorge claims that it was first drafted visually by his father, Don Justo, who was described as a philosopher in Gonzalez-Wippler's book on santeria.

Shortly before closing time an attractive Puerto Rican girl makes her entrance, at a more leisurely pace than the fleeting nun, and starts to talk about her fears concerning her love life. She desperately needs to do something because she suspects foul play in the attentions of her boyfriend. Scrutinizing her good looks, which consist of intense almond eyes, smooth cafe au lait skin and a slender body, one is convinced that she is endowed with complete beauty. A woman standing next to her reaffirms this conviction through an abrupt interruption, "Querida, you have everything that it takes to keep a firm hold on your man!" Her robust laugh seems to punctuate her words, as she adds "You don't need to purchase anything here!" However, it seems that she needs an added touch of reassurance, explaining that a Dominican girlfriend has given her the perfect answer. She has been introduced to the cult of Anaisa and she is to take several baths invoking this deity, who is one of the most popular in the Dominican Republic.

Anaisa is a disconcerting blend of Santa Ana, mother of the Virgin Mary, and a Haitian prostitute whom it has been said was murdered by a jealous lover. A tenida or invocation of Anaisa, whose beauty was legendary, is usually a jovial, raucous occasion with a great deal of music and drinking to keep the atmosphere upbeat. Foul-mouthed and baudy Anaisa, also known as Anaisapie, is widely thought to be one of the most efficient and reliable Metresas of the Misterios, specializing in matters of love and having a fondness for men, although she is equally faithful to the women whom she protects and befriends. Those who receive Anaisa (men are as capable as women) transform themselves, falling into frenetic dancing spells, with their bodies gyrating to the fast paced kind of merengue that Anaisa favors, in ways they would never have thought possible. Having a sharp tongue that is laced with quick wit, she is the complete antithesis of one of her sister spirits, Metre Sili, who is an equally disconcerting mixture of a French nun and the Mater Dolorosa. Metre Sili is very serious, never laughs, would never utter the obscenities that are so frequently heard with Anaisa and has a special fondness for jewels, perfume and champagne, which is the required offering one makes to her instead of the rum and beer that so greatly delight Anaisa.

Anaisa's forte in matters of love has convinced the Puerto Rican girl that everything will change for the better. As soon as she leaves, Jorge locks up the shop, leaving its many inanimate inhabitants in semi-darkness. A lecherous Congo stares intensely at an unfortunate Santa Lucia, whose eyes are placed on a small dish that she holds, while a grimacing wooden American Indian and a complacent porcelain Arab sheik stand guard by the door. In the stillness of the place, the only sound to be heard is that of the steady drops from a leaking faucet somewhere in the dark that seems to be marking time. These objects, however, have a hidden life of their own; they simply wait to be released into their unknown destinies.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:botanicas, spiritual supply shops
Author:Suro, Federico
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Previous Article:Branded for a balanced biosphere.
Next Article:Juan Luis Guerra reaches a perfect pitch.

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