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Delving Into the World of Botanicas

Times Staff Writer

Renee Wells sees colorful displays in the windows of botanicas -- the multipurpose, pan-religious spiritual supply stores that dot the landscape of Latino Los Angeles -- all over the San Fernando Valley, but rarely enters.

On Sunday, Wells, 66, was one of dozens of students, museum patrons and spiritualism enthusiasts who listened to a panel discussion at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History on the practices and traditions of the priests and priestesses who offer their services from the storefront shops.

As men and women known as spiritists talked about their work, Wells, a Sherman Oaks elementary school teacher, got a glimpse at a world beyond what she could see from the sidewalk.

“What’s behind there is so much deeper,” Wells said. “People need to understand other people and not be so self-righteous in their belief systems.”

The discussion was part of the museum’s exhibit, “Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels.” The show, which runs through Feb. 27, features a walk-through recreation of a typical L.A. botanica, complete with curative lotions, candles, oils, sculptures of saints and religious figures of all stripes, from Native American icons to Catholic martyrs.

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In recent years, botanicas have attracted the attention of academics and researchers interested in the shops’ curious mix of spiritual traditions such as Santeria, Mesa Blanca and Palo.

“We look at it as a mark of the changing demographics,” Patrick Polk, a UCLA folklore professor who curated the exhibit, said of the growing presence of botanicas in Los Angeles. “Southern California and Los Angeles have always been the site of some of the greatest spiritual and religious experimentation. Beyond the Latino component, [botanicas] are an entry point to new faiths.”

There are hundreds of botanica shops in Southern California, Polk said. The shops cater to a predominantly immigrant Latino clientele who seek out spiritists’ help with health, marital and financial problems. The services offered include tarot card readings and seances.

Yoruban priest Charles Guelperin, a former nightclub promoter who runs the Botanica El Congo Manuel in Hollywood, said that in spite of skepticism about botanicas in mainstream circles, people are drawn to their practitioners because they seek different approaches to solving their problems.

“Whenever you see a church, you know there are people inside who are in communion with God,” Guelperin said. “Because we don’t speak to God in the same way, it does not mean we’re not in communion with God.... These are all traditions. We have to try to mingle it together, especially for Los Angeles.”

Boyle Heights spiritist Ysamur “Sammy” Flores-Pena, who holds a doctorate in folklore and teaches at UCLA, rejected the suggestion that as an educated man he shouldn’t believe in “superstitious stuff” such as animal sacrifice, magic candles and African trickster spirits.

“It’s not a matter of being educated. Faith is what faith is, and faith is what faith does,” Flores-Pena told those gathered. “I change my suit and tie for my white santero outfit. You have to go back and forth. But you never break with tradition. How could you?”


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