Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Botanicas of New York: Siete Potencias

I love botanicas, and New York was once full of them. They're the plaster-statue-filled religious items shops catering to practitioners of folk religions. Inside they're full of candles, cheap perfumes, painted plaster statues, beads, animal parts, religious pamphlets, prayer cards and all manner of trinkets and baubles, and sometimes refrigerator cases of fresh tropical herbs and plants. They serve communities of a panoply of related spiritual paths: syncretic folk magic, Lucumi Santeria, Puerto Rican espiritismo, Afro-Cuban Palo, Haitian Vodun/Voodoo, the Dominican 21 divisiones, Mexican Santeria, South American Indian herbalists and healers, and others. As neighborhoods gentrify, the ranks of botanicas have thinned drastically over the last ten years.

It's not always easy to tell which kind of shop you're looking at; many mask their true nature. Someone selling a beaded necklace they've dipped in holy water or waved through incense probably isn't a Santero as my tradition would use the word; while someone doing spiritual or card readings for people coming in off the street may well actually be a priest of a certain religion or may just be a person who gives good advice. Some are welcoming of new patrons, and some deeply suspicious of customers outside their presumed ethnic base. Some are just business endeavors, and I've seen several over the years that were obvious fronts for drugs. The busy Almacenes Chango in East Harlem, now long gone, was one of the few that served primarily initiates of the Yoruba-based Lucumi Santeria into which I was initiated. It was a hubbub on a Saturday morning selling supplies for initiations and other ceremonies.

I love the aesthetic of these places, especially their store-front windows. Its clutter speaks to me, and its multicultural chaotic abundance challenges the eye. Statues of idealized native American indians stand next to Catholic saints and African gods and Chinese good-luck deities. There are solemn gory martyrs dripping blood, rakish gypsies, and sometimes skulls and skeletons. There's an old-fashionedness about them that speaks to me. I love how in the window shown here most of the statues are peering out from cellophane wrapping.

These windows are a reflection of something I love about New York. From time to time I'll be posting pictures from the various botanicas I stumble across.

(These photos were taken by me of the Botanica 7 Potencias on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Click on the images to see the divine chaos larger.)


  1. Now that you mention it, there are fewer botanicas in San Francisco too. The Mission district, where most were located, is gentrifying quickly.

  2. And then there's the crazy shrinking 7-day candle. I think it happened when the price of oil shot up a few years ago...the diameter of those glass candles shrunk dramatically.