of Religion through Commodity
In January 2002, a shop called
Bead Book and Candle opened with an art reception and demonstration of
Bata drumming, Capoeira and Berimbau/Atabaque in San Francisco, California.
As I approached the store, I could hear the drum beat from down the block.
Approximately twenty people enveloped the doorway peering through the
windows from the sidewalk. Inside, a crowd of mostly white middle class
people in their twenties or thirties stood listening to the drums while
their eyes wandered the clean, brightly lit store, resting on colorful
paintings of African figures surrounded by eclectic objects such as peacock
feathers, coins, and mirrors. A few individuals began to sing, adding
the melodic sounds of Yoruban lyrics that few people in the shop understood
to the rhythms of the drums. Slowly the crowd began to sway along with
those who seemed to know appropriate dance gestures affirming that everyone
present felt welcome. While celebrating the start of a new commercial
enterprise, the group reached what Victor Turner terms "communitas,"
through practicing religious ritual songs and dances known only by a few.
Bead Book and Candle claims to sell "the best Afro-Caribbean Art,
Folkloric Items, Books, Music, Herbs, Candles and Religious Goods."
Herbs, candles and other religious goods represent the staple products
of botánicas: shops supplying items needed to practice African
based and Indigenous spiritual traditions. Botánicas serve as unique
sites for the performance of religious culture. Their physical presence
in an urban landscape serves as a quaint, mysterious cultural marker to
those unfamiliar with their tradition and as an outpost to those who understand
their purpose and seek community. Usually marked by vibrant signs (often
placed on the sidewalk in front of a store) and packed from floor to ceiling
with merchandise, botánicas create a highly visible cultural gathering
place in the public sphere. In our ever-shrinking world, such visibility
on the urban landscape can lead to an exchange of cultural ideologies
and the spiritual traditions out of which they come.
The recent edited volume, Religions/Globalizations, includes numerous
theories and case studies on the relationship between religion/spirituality
and globalization. While each of the various authors contributing to the
book gesture towards the difficulties inherent in defining the term "globalization,"
the introduction broadly states that it "is a term that describes,
evaluates, and points to a series of social processes whose outcomes remain
speculative." (Hopkins, 2001: 3)Globalization often describes economic
and market conditions relating to transnational corporations, but may
be used to refer to cultural influences and exchanges resulting from such
market conditions and/or technology, particularly immigration and/or telecommunications
media (including the Internet). Current scholarship also wrestles with
the continuous interplay between "local" and "global"
and changing notions of "community." Botánicas embody
economic, cultural, local, and global social processes.
Botánicas are a place to discover many of the issues currently
comprising Latino/a studies including: the complex mixing of various immigrant
populations and religious traditions, bilingualism, assimilation, and
the marketing of culture. I cannot adequately address all of these issues
within the scope of this paper. Here, I focus on how botánicas
serve as an entrance point into the Latino/a community and how the religious
supplies they sell facilitate the globalization of African-based religious
traditions-particularly Santería-that originally began with the
transatlantic slave trade. Using my fieldwork in various neighborhoods
in New York, NY and San Francisco, CA, beginning in 1998, I examine the
migration of African religious traditions into the global market through
the commodification of religious objects sold in botánicas, Internet
Websites and "gentrified" stores, such as Bead Book and Candle.
Traditionally, botánicas in the US have focused on serving the
needs of spiritual traditions that go by the name Santería in Puerto
Rico and the Dominican Republic, Lucumí or Santería in Cuba,
and Candomblé or Macumba in Brazil which are based on the beliefs
of the Yoruban people in Africa. Variations of the same religious tradition
also are found in other parts of Latin America, including: Venezuela,
Columbia, and Panama among others. The religion evolved in slave communities
where-in an attempt to placate their masters- African slaves accepted
Catholicism while secretly preserving their own African spirituality.
The Yoruba tradition believes in one God-Olorún, who is basically
incomprehensible to humans and distant from daily life-and many orishas
(spirits), who can serve as intermediaries, continually interacting with
humans, helping or hurting depending on how they are treated. Slaves found
that they could relate some of the Catholic saints to some of their orishas;
therefore, they could continue to worship the orishas through the images
of the saints. Spanish slave owners coined the name "Santería"
as a derogatory term for the worship of saints. Although most practitioners
now accept the name, some insist on distinguishing between the saints
and the orishas.
The merging of religious iconography lead to an understanding of the concept
of syncretism: a blending of at least two distinct systems of belief.
After the conquest throughout the Americas, Catholicism also intermingled
with indigenous belief systems, resulting in many variations of religious
practice depending on location. While many practitioners of Santería
accept the notion of syncretism and practice both Santería and
Catholicism, other initiates into the religion maintain the distinctions
between the two systems of belief, preferring the term "juxtaposition."
While the idea of syncretism as a blending of belief systems does not
accurately describe the ceremonies of Santería, there seems to
be no contradiction in practicing multiple religions, each distinct within
itself. There are Catholic Santeros (initiated priests in Santería).
Some individuals also practice other African spiritual traditions, such
as Palo and Vodou, alongside Santería. These fusions of distinct
traditions stem from early forms of globalization: the transatlantic slave
trade and the colonization of the Americas. An individual's belief in
multiple traditions, seems "global" in that aspects of each
tradition can be traced to distant geographical locations.
Brought to the United States by waves of immigrants from the Caribbean,
Santería was practiced as an underground religion for decades due
to its roots in slavery-where secrecy was necessary-as well as basic prejudice
against immigrants and threatened legal actions prohibiting the religion's
ritual sacrifice of animals. In 1993, a Supreme Court ruling legalized
the use of animal sacrifice as a legitimate religious freedom. This decision
has brought Santería out into the open and many new botánicas
opened as a result. Although Yoruban cosmology contains a rigid hierarchy
of orishas and human initiates, Santería does not have an organized
structure with written bylaws or a physical structure such as a church,
temple or mosque. The religion is taught and practiced through networking
with santero/as; new initiates are reborn into families created within
the religion. Without an official public entry point into these networks,
those seeking spiritual guidance often rely on botánicas as a meeting
Santería, some other African based traditions and many indigenous
practices, all need the supplies sold in botánicas. Botánicas
sell ritual objects to be consecrated to the orishas as well as supplies
for ritual ceremonies such as candles, incense and herbs for spiritual
cleansings. Santero/as (priest/esses) require these items to practice
their religion since each orisha has different characteristics and interests
along with specific ways in which s/he should be worshiped. Sometimes,
the proprietor of a botánica will be a trained Santero/a and can
offer spiritual consultations. A proprietor may practice another tradition,
or not be initiated but, invariably, s/he will be able to refer a customer
to a Santero/a if asked directly. If customers appear to be from outside
the tradition, or strangers in the neighborhood, they most often will
be left alone to browse the shop unless they confront a worker with questions.
The way in which religions and beliefs are combined in botánicas
reflects how Latino/a culture in the United States results from the myriad
traditions of Spanish speaking people who have come to the United States
from throughout the Americas.
Botánicas now can be found in any U.S. city that has a sizable
Latino/a population, particularly those with ties to the Caribbean. The
number of botánicas found outside of New York and Miami has grown
tremendously in the last ten years. Although there are still many secret
aspects to the religion (as with most religions), recently the orishas
have been emerging gradually from behind the images of Catholic saints
to stand on their own. At the same time, new combinations of spiritual
traditions are appearing. Eastern spiritualities, such as Buddism and
Hinduism, are being added to African traditions. Some botánicas
sell Buddhist and Hindu statuary alongside images of the orishas and offer
instruction on creating a home altar. While Santería largely remains
outside of the consciousness of mainstream society, the religion has gained
popularity. Many African Americans in search of their African roots have
come to the religion, as well as "new-agers" interested in alternative
medicine and spiritualities.
Religious items often consist of only part of a botánica's stock,
the rest of which depends on its particular location and the cultural
and religious traditions of its customers. Bead Book and Candle caters
to practitioners of the religions Lucumí/Santería and Palo
and introduces these traditions to new consumers who are often affluent
non-Latino/as, hence the store opened with a "demonstration"
of performance elements well known to practitioners. Marcos Sanchez, the
proprietor of Bead Book and Candle, chooses to focus on the artistic elements
of the African based religions he serves by selling an array of CDs of
orisha songs, bata drumming, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian music as
well as using the walls of the store as a gallery for paintings of the
orishas. Folkloric items (among which Sanchez includes some African fetishes),
art, and music extend beyond ritual use within the religion. These representations
and expressions of African based religions are all accessible to the public-
even if their true spiritual meaning remains secret. By selling religious
goods in an open gallery-like space, Sanchez makes a new demographic (affluent,
non-Latino/a) feel comfortable approaching the religion.
In the Corona section of Queens, New York, Botánica Indio Atahualpa
at 102-12 Roosevelt Ave., represents a comparatively large botánica
with a great deal of variety in its merchandise. The store carries traditional
(necessary for the faithful practice of Santería) items found in
all botanicas, such as representations of orishas, herbs and candles,
but these products form only a small part of this store. Botánica
Indio Atahualpa spills its wares onto the sidewalk to entice everyone
walking past. Tables on either side of the entry overflow with an eclectic
mix of blank cassette tapes, batteries, plastic toys, and pictures of
saints. It also stocks a full selection of mainstream health and beauty
products attracting anyone who needs toothpaste into the store. A two-foot
tall statue of the Virgin on an altar greets customers as they enter.
A pool of water filled with coins sits in front of her, while plants and
charms surround her. Books on Santería, Vodun, Christianity, the
Yoruba, booklets that described individual orishas, and how-to books for
various spells (for luck, love, money, to curse etc.) all cover a center
island in the shop. The shop's business card said they carry products
from Ecuador, advertising the geographically distant, "authentic"
source of their stock. The wide array of merchandise, drawing on several
religious traditions, illustrates that this store caters to clients of
Many customers do not enter Botánica Indio Atahualpa in search
of religious products; however, they cannot avoid seeing the plethora
of religious items. Once inside, if they are curious, they can flip through
the many books to discover new spiritual worlds. They may also be lured
by the more commercial (meaning mass produced, manufactured) Santería
items offered, such as "Evil Go Away" aerosol spray and "Amarra
Hombre"(the man will love me) perfume-the label of which shows a
woman leading a man on a leash as he crawls after her on his hands and
knees. These items derive from principles of the religion where herbs
are used to spiritually cleanse a person or location in order to elicit
the aid of an orisha to repel evil or attract good. Yet these consumer
products indicate a loose adherence to the traditional faith where such
cleansings are performed as rituals, usually under the guidance of a highly
trained santero/a. Purists of the religion deride the use of such items,
although it is quite common.
Referring to the use of aerosol sprays, Joseph Murphy, a Santería
practitioner and scholar, explains: "Distanced from the ritual acts
that can truly energize an object spiritually, these objects only alienate
the devotee from the healing work of preparation." (Murphey, 1988:
48) Sanchez, a practicing santero, does not sell many of these manufactured
"magic" items in Bead Book and Candle. He states: "in some
ways it sells, but in others you are recommending stuff to people that
you know no Santero has ever touched. It's made in Mexico, created in
mass and doesn't really do anything. So I guess it boils down to- if the
person believes it, then in theory that's half the battle, but there is
a lot of stuff I don't carry." An aerosol spray undoubtedly stands
as a commodity and as such can be widely circulated in today's global
market. Since "belief is half the battle," evil might go away
when a believer uses the spray.
Some believers, particularly of indigenous spiritual traditions, go to
botánicas seeking cures for physical ailments; for others, a botánica
can serve as a type of pharmacy. The San Francisco Chronicle published
an article on botánicas by Robin Kirk and Teresa Calle on August
13, 1989 that offers a relatively full account of healing practices derived
from Africa and Latin America. "'What is happening is that new rituals,
fit to the lives of Latinos in the United States, are being formed,' says
Tato Torres, a community psychologist
'Latin people will make it
here,' he emphasizes, 'but only when they find the rituals that make them
healthy.'" The relationship between Western medicine and spiritual
belief has always been precarious. Cultural and class differences intensify
the patronizing view mainstream America has regarding some healing rituals;
however, comparable rituals are gaining acceptance under names such as
In Washington Heights, a predominately Dominican neighborhood in New York
City, the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center looms above the 168th Street
subway stop. The hospital's presence creates a unique tension between
those who live in the neighborhood and those who work or visit there.
While botánicas abound throughout Washington Heights, none using
the word 'botánica' in their name are within sight of the hospital.
While they do not bear the name "botánica," there are
stores within view of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center that sell candles,
herbs and amulets, most notably the Saint Jesus Pharmacy and K&L Discount
Health and Beauty Supplies-a 99 cent store advertising candles and herbs,
among other things. As seen through Bead Book and Candle, the use of 'botánica'
in a shop's name is not essential, and it seems to be avoided in neighborhoods
where it would be misunderstood.
Botánicas seem to attract the attention of reporters searching
for public interest stories. The media's perception of botánicas
and Santería can be watched through occasional newspaper articles
that have appeared in such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami,
Boston, Seattle and New York over the past decade. Articles generally
fall into three categories. The first type appears every couple of years
for generic public interest, describing botánicas as "exotic,"
"Hispanic herb shops," religious supply stores, or "purveyors
of potions." The second kind of article relates to public health,
warning about the dangers of using mercury for rituals as well as issues
of animal sacrifice in Santería. The last category links botánicas
to actual crimes. The bulk of articles are brief and emphasize the commercial
aspects of Santería without giving much background information.
However, a few in-depth articles offer multiple perspectives and contextualize
botánicas and Santería, giving a curious reader a glimpse
into Latino/a culture in hopes of better understanding and appreciating
it. Although many people avoid wandering unfamiliar neighborhoods, a few
readers might find the descriptions in these articles intriguing enough
to seek out a love potion, or consultation; others may log on to a cyber-botánica.
Overall, these articles offer an amused, paternalistic view of botánicas
and their patrons, yet they introduce botánicas to readers. The
introduction serves as a reminder that our cities are bigger than the
few blocks around which we live.
A growing number of botánicas now also use the World Wide Web.
Some Websites serve as cyber-botánicas, offering pictures of merchandise
and order forms for sales; others simply list their name and address.
Most sites-especially the more elaborate ones-are from areas outside of
New York City, primarily Seattle (Washington), California, Texas, and
Louisiana. Historically, New York and Miami have had the largest number
of Santería practitioners, hence, the most botánicas. As
the physical presence of botánicas forms a well-established part
of communities in these cities, the use of the Web is not as essential.
Many Websites also dedicate themselves to introducing the tradition of
Santería to the browser in addition to making mail order sales.
How the Web functions in relation to the globalization of religion deserves
careful analysis, which I hope to pursue in a future paper.
Botánicas have been and continue to be the public face of Santería.
Their brightly colored signs announce a cultural meeting place to any
passerby. For religions that do not have a formally regulated structure
or a single architectural center for worship, botanicas offer their physical
presence as reference point for the organization of the religion. Through
their storefronts along with the media, the arts, and the Internet, botánicas
perform for an audience well beyond the communities out of which they
grow. Latino/a culture and religion consists of a heterogeneous mix of
numerous European, Asian, African and Indigenous spiritual traditions
and cultural heritages. Botánicas reflect this diversity in their
names, customer bases, use of language (Spanish, English, Yoruban), technology
and the products they carry-all of which exemplify the global nature of
Latino/a culture and the globalization of religion.
An email announcement
for the store opening uses the term "demonstration," highlighting
the pedagogical nature of the event. Bead Book and Candle is located at
3253 16th St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Turner claims communitas is: "a bond uniting people over and above
any formal social bonds." (Turner, 1974: 45)
Although there are some variations according to geography, Lucumí/Santería
practice in the Caribbean and United States remains consistent while Candomblé
and Macumba traditions in Brazil vary significantly from Santería.
Michael Spiro, a drummer and santero, claims, "all Santería
is Cuban Santería. Candomblé of Brazil is different."
While Santería derives mainly from the Yoruba people in Africa,
in Haiti, the Vodou tradition developed in a similar fashion from a variety
of different African groups, including Fon and Kongo combining with Catholicism
and Masonic practices.
The documentary "Bahia, Africa in the Americas," states that
Candomblé stands juxtaposed to Catholicism rather than being syncretic
with it. (Brewer and University of California (System). Extension Media
Center, 1988) Initiation into Santería is an intensive period of
education and involves many rituals. The official initiation period takes
one year; however, the process of preparing for that period may take much
A video documentary on Voodoo interviews Ava Kay Jones who claims to be
a voodoo priestess as well as a Santera. (David M. Jones, 1996 ) Michael
Spiro and Marcos Sanchez, two Santeros I interviewed, both maintain that
Santería is not syncretic, but rather an independent religion.
(Spiro, 2001) Although not Catholic, Sanchez is a Santero and Palero (an
initiate in Palo). They believe that practicing multiple traditions does
not create any problems, as long as they remain separate. Gina Melstrand,
a Dominican woman who was raised in both Santería and Catholicism,
indicated that most of the people she knows in the culture believe in
syncretism. (Melstrand, 2001) Sanchez explains: "Syncretism: I almost
equate it with tourism. You know, you put on the face. When we are in
the Igbodu (which is the room where ceremonies are held) there is nothing
Catholic anywhere around. ... I don't consider myself catholic, at all.
I pretty much out right reject it. ... Most Santeros, especially Latino
ones, consider themselves Catholic. They go to church on Sundays, for
Christ's sake." (Sanchez, 2001)
This is seen through the number of listings in telephone directories,
as well as newspaper articles mentioning botánicas and personal
Sanchez, Marcos. Interview 3/06/02.
Lantigua, J. (1995). Get Your Potions Here Botanicas' Appeal Grows. Miami
Herald:SUN June 11 1B.
Brewer, Geovanni, and University of California (System). Extension Media
Center. Bahia, Africa in the Americas. University of California Extension
Media Center, 1988.
Hopkins, Dwight N. Lorentzen, Lois Ann Mendieta, Eduardo and Batstone,
David, ed. Religions globalizations : theories and cases. Durham N.C.:
Duke University Press, 2001.
Jones, David M. and Pitre, Glen. New Orleans Voodoo From the Inside. DMJ
Melstrand, Gina. "Cultural Observer." 2001.
Murphey, Joesph. Santería: African Saints in America. Boston: Beacon
Eyiogbe, Baba. OrishaNet. 2001. Webpage. OrishaNet. Available: http://www.seanet.com/~efunmoyiwa/bembe.html.
June 3 2001.
Sanchez, Marcos. "Santero, Omo-Yemaya." 2001.
Spiro, Michael. "Bata Drummer, Omo-Obatala." 2001.
Turner, Victor Witter. Dramas, fields, and metaphors; symbolic action
in human society. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974.