Growing up, the visual of an altar was normal in our household — tall candles in different colors, burning sage, saints statues, and offerings on a plate that included coins and hard candy. This was a display intended to bring the energy of abundance into the home.
Personally, it was a slightly intimidating picture for a child that did not understand the meaning behind it. Although for others the holy practices that went along with the supernatural were full of blessings. The world of spirituality can sometimes scare those that consider the occult an unknown evil.
If you were raised in a Latino household or stroll along the string of mom and pop stores in Harlem, Washington Heights, Bronx or Brooklyn, or Little Havana in Florida, you would find a botanica.
The mystical shops are filled with amulets, candles, crucifixes, ointments, and incense that fill the air with sacred energy. Patrons visit in hopes of finding the magic fix that will bring a streak of good luck and fortune. Botanicas can be found all over in plenty of major cities. Some have been in business for decades, becoming part of the fabric of the local Hispanic communities all over the globe.
Botanicas are a place where believers go for answers. Generations have trusted their luck to the divine, but where does the hallowed ground come from?
A tale as old as time, the desire to find faith can force us to gravitate in unimaginable directions. Centuries of religions have been built on civilizations looking to hang on to their culture, traditions, and belief system while seeking solace during challenging times. The history of goods and services provided by botanicas is deep-rooted in the past of the Afro-Latino Diaspora. Although the flow of incoming captives into the United States decreased during the 19th century, it kept going in countries like Brazil and Cuba. This event influenced efforts to preserve the history of its people by creating a stronghold around the African culture in the Caribbean.
The Afro-Latino past served as the base for religious practices, including these well-known botanicas. The African culture was transported across Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico into the United States. The time of captivity was a period of great despair. However, nurturing these spiritual and religious customs has been part of community building that continues today. This critical point of connection transcends generations and promotes awareness of a population that has been powerless for years.
As a young girl, I recall a visit to a botanica with my mother. I will never forget the eerie feeling of walking into a place that felt alien to me. The fear of the unknown overwhelmed my senses and connected the dots between my mother’s past and present. She shared stories about family, culture, and the beliefs instilled in her upbringing, which was useful to see why these and other rites were important to those in the community.
The most important thing you should know about the Afro-Latino Diaspora and its botanicas is what I learned during that afternoon visit with my mom. The history of the botanicas is much more about tradition. It brings people closer, conserves history, and ties in the old world with the new one. This is one of many customs helping fortify the foundation, encouraging understanding of where we come from, and motivating us to learn more. I believe these things inspire curiosity across generations, hopefully preventing the extinction of the culture and creating more opportunities for the population that follows us to learn about the diversity of past civilizations.