Santeria Central


"Do as I Say . . . Do as I Say . . . Do as I Say. . . ." The inscription is repeated hypnotically as a mechanized squeegee swipes the ink through the silk screen onto long glass jars. Labeled now, the jars roll down the conveyor belt to be filled with candle wax. They'll be boxed, shipped, shelved, sold . . . and eventually burned by customers who feel the need for a little magic to control their lives (or, in this case, the lives of others).

"It's all in the mind," says Marty Mayer, 54-year-old president of this enterprise, Indio Products. Mayer, who oversees the transformation of several tanker-cars full of wax into candles such as these every week at his Long Beach factory, doesn't believe in magic. At least not any more than necessary to keep his inventory of nearly 7,000 magic candles, oils, essences, soaps, aerosols, and floor washes flowing to distributors throughout the Americas, Europe, Australia, and Japan.

Locally, he sells his wares a few miles north of the factory, on Manchester Avenue in Los Angeles. A veritable warehouse of juju, the place bustles with grocery carts piled high with gallon jugs of blessed floor-wash, 25-pound bags of myrrh (used to scent incense), and assorted talismans.

Most customers are wholesalers running botanicas--stores frequented by, among others, devotees of Santeria, a Cuban cousin to Haitian Voodoo. Santeria is a synthesis of West African religion and Catholicism, attracting a broad spectrum of practitioners ranging from those rigorously involved in worship of African deities to Catholics looking to supplement their faith.

Other practitioners may be more casual, interested primarily in resolving a problem through magic or mixing and matching Santeria with herbal remedies and devotions to non-canonical, folk saints of Latin America. "We've come out with some new saints, and they've done very, very well," Mayer says, referring to candles, oils, and dashboard ornaments depicting the natty cigar-smoking San Simon from Guatemala and Jesus Malverde, a martyred Mexican bandit, whose specific patronage is over drug smugglers.

Mayer, who does not speak Spanish, prefers to describe his inventory with mainstream labels such as "New Age" or "spiritual." He became involved in the business as a boy in Chicago, where he stocked the shelves of his uncle's drugstore with magic candles and oils produced by Lama Temple (a mystical-sounding name for a third-floor factory occupying a rundown Southside building).

Eventually, he went to work for Lama Temple Candle Corp., as assistant manager of the incense department. In 1969, Mayer moved to California to work for a division of Candle Corp. in Torrance. In 1977, he became a freelance distributor, selling a variety of candles and incense from his truck. In 1987, he purchased a grocery and drugstore on Manchester Avenue from one of his retiring clients. That location became Indio Products. He purchased the factory later.

Over the years, Mayer has acquired formulas and proprietary names from other sources. Some of his product lines were purchased from Lama Temple. Some came from the "Seven Sisters of New Orleans" label, which he purchased from the son of one of the sisters (who'd moved her business to downtown Los Angeles in the 1950s). Other formulas came from Netty Seligman, 94, who owned a downtown L.A. occult shop. Seligman taught him her secret formulas for "chasing powder," (to send bad luck packing) and black salt (used to drive off bad neighbors).

One line he purchased, Anna Riva, turned out to be almost more than he'd bargained for. He found himself weeding through 1,600 books, including many on Satanism and other more sinister items he was eager to lose.

"We don't fool around with animal parts, human skulls, body parts," says Mayer. "People will come in and ask for something like genuine snake oil. Anything with rattlesnakes is against the law in California. I won't touch it."

More commonly, though, he gets requests for advice, particularly from retail customers who are not familiar with his products. "They come in with a problem--they're going to Las Vegas, they're going to court, their husband has run off with another woman."

And sometimes requests come by mail.

"I get letters from prisoners. I got one guy on death row, and he wants to talk to Anna Riva. He's in love with her, and he's writing a book, and it's on and on and on like this." (Anna Riva is a product line, not a person.)

Death row inmates obsessed with occultists, magical protection for drug smugglers, luck-bringing floor wash, and candles dedicated to African powers all are worlds away from Mayer's home in suburban La Can~ada. And he sometimes has trouble navigating between the two halves of his life. In fact, he says, friendships have been ruined because he "mentioned something at dinner about what I did."

Nowadays, he says, he'll describe his business without going into specifics: "I own a candle factory," he'll say. "If you get too far into it, it's just going to tear you apart."

The cultural divide may be difficult to straddle, but Mayer feels he's providing a service. "When people go to a psychiatrist week after week after week, they're dependent on that. It's the same thing here--they're dependent on burning candles. You can't take that away from them."

And Indio's seven-day candles, he points out, retail for only $3.95.

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