the brooklynite

Very Superstitious
By Daniela Gerson

THE BOTANICA LAS MERCEDES is nothing if not ecumenical.

Behind the counter of the musty and cluttered Bushwick store, dozens of beaded strings hang in a rainbow of tributes to Roman Catholic saints and Afro-Caribbean gods. Corn, signifying abundance in the Aztec tradition, dangles from the ceiling near a black Madama rag doll, representing the African Earth goddess. For the shop’s Mexican clientele, there is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe; for its Guyanese Indian shoppers, there’s a statue of Hindu gods. In one corner is a rusting file cabinet, loaded with yellowing files of prayers, dedicated to the likes of the Virgin Mary and Buddha.

“All the people, no matter what god they appeal to, will find it in my botanica,” said Christian Mendez, the store’s 58-year-old owner.

There are approximately 350 botanicas, or Hispanic religious healing shops, dotting the city, according to a Hunter College study. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans own most of the shops, followed by Cubans and Ecuadorians. Traditions differ: Cubans tend toward Santeria, a syncretic blending of African and Catholic beliefs, while Ecuadorians incorporate more indigenous healing practices. Mendez’s offerings run the gamut.

Botanica Las Mercedes sells vials of green liquid that promise to be helpful in bed and herbs for good-luck inducing baths. Inside a glass case sit crystals for protection and evaporated goat’s milk for prosperity. On the wall are signs that offer prescriptions in Spanish for curing various ailments: “If you have pain use the balsam of San Lorenzo and it will cure you.”

On a Sunday afternoon early this spring, Mendez, wearing a blue sweat suit and a blue-and-gold beaded necklace honoring his patron saint, San Miguel, held court from behind the counter. The shop’s santera—a woman skilled in Santeria who provides spiritual consultations by reading cards, shells, and palms to help cure emotional and physical woes—was out sick. But the steady trickle of clients seemed satisfied to make purchases—along with getting a bit of advice from the handsome proprietor.

Mendez bantered with the ladies who came in to buy herbs for cleansing baths or for advice on which scented oil will bring them luck. Occasionally, Mendez explained, a man will come in for a potion to win back his wife or to win the lottery, but most customers are women. And they are usually after the same three elixirs: treatments to bring love, money, and good luck.

Mendez became acquainted with the botanica business in his native Dominican Republic, where, he said, such stores are “almost the same” as those in America, except there the focus is on natural herbs from the forest rather than liquid extracts. He took the reins of the Bushwick botanica from his older brother some two decades ago.

This Sunday afternoon, a Mexican woman arrived with her daughter to buy herbs for a cleansing bath she read about in a book, “Magic Done at Home,” which Mendez had recommended to her. A babysitter from Trinidad bought a black candle to protect her family, calling it a Roman Catholic tradition, and a Puerto Rican woman purchased a “Mr. Money” candle, saying she hoped it would make her rich.

Mendez gladly advises his clients on spiritual issues. But the only such practices he regularly engages in himself are tributes to his patron saint, such as the necklace he wears, and the overripe bananas hanging above the botanica’s door as an offering to San Miguel. On trips back to the Dominican Republic, he will also bathe in a river and rub his body with fresh varieties of some of the dried herbs he sells to promote health.

Now, however, his days of catering to Bushwick’s spiritual needs may be coming to a close. Mendez, who commutes from the Bronx each day, is ready to give up his business. His children are now grown professionals, and he would like to move back to the Dominican Republic, which he left 37 years ago. A more recent immigrant, an Ecuadorian factory worker, is interested in the shop, and Mendez spent the late hours of the afternoon telling her how lucrative the business is.

For Mendez, though, the store has been “more than a good business.” What he says he really enjoys is “helping people with problems of the spirit and body.” And 80 percent of the time, he says, the potions and herbs he sells will do the trick.

“They bring their problems, and I give them solutions.”

Botanica Las Mercedes, 219 Irving Ave., Bushwick (M to Knickerbocker), 718-628-6395.

Daniela Gerson is a former staff writer for The New York Sun. She is the recipient of a Humboldt Fellowship to report on immigration issues in Germany.