Blogger One More Folded Sunset and photographer Larry Racioppo are working on a series of pieces on Brooklyn's Third Avenue. This is the third. Click here for the first and second, and stay tuned for more.
It's loud on Third. Even in a changing city economy, with "makers" on the rise (how did we ever live without them?), and industry lighter than in earlier decades, that expressway traffic never goes away, and the cycles of delivery, spreading out across the city, roll on and on. Even when most of the businesses below bring down their shutters for the night, leaving only the twinkle of Candy Land and the other forlorn adult stores to light up the avenue with their cheap come-ons, the trucks keep going. A vein of capital hauls along, rig by rig, the goods and services that fuel the economy. The cycle's so insistent I've started to recognize some of the regulars. There goes Food Nation doing the rounds again.
There are other, quieter systems of transport in the city, that move not on William Blake's "chartered streets" (or elevated highways), but in visions, messages, the sudden turn of a card in a pack. Just a hundred yards or so up from Third on 32nd, Mystic Essentials of Brooklyn offers you pathways to the spirit world. From outside, the place looks unassuming enough, with its plain, modern windows screened by potted plants. There's no store sign, but it hardly needs one.
It was Bob Palinkas who brought me to Mystic Essentials. Palinkas owns the beauty supply store Mariposa Products down on the corner of Third and 32nd, along with a string of properties up the block, including the botánica. He introduced me to José Santana, who's been at this location since 2008. Before that, José and his late partner, James Rosado, owned a botánica at Fourth and Dean, on the Park Slope/Boerum Hill border, but they were forced to move due to rising rent. It's common enough round here to see the 'moving south' signs of businesses headed for Sunset Park or beyond: hair salons, tire shops, cafes and travel agents. And then where? Like the Downtown Albee Square Mall where James once worked – formerly a hub of Black street culture - community staples are vanishing fast.
Despite the displacement that occurs as neighborhoods change complexion, botánicas can be still be found widely throughout the city, most often in Caribbean communities. The faiths supported there, such as Santería (also known as Lucumí ), Espiritismo or Vodou are derived from the diaspora experience. African ancestral beliefs and customs were preserved in the Americas during slavery and/or other periods of colonial oppression, and absorbed elements of Catholicism there - through forced conversions, as a facade behind which to maintain traditional beliefs, and as a nominally accepted (if not necessarily fully integrated) partner to African belief systems. In Santería and the Dominican 21 Division Vudu, for example, which evolved via Cuba and Haiti, Christian saints and Native American spirits are "syncretized," or associated, with ancestral spirits, or orishas. Via countries such as Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, Hindu gods are syncretized too, as are Mexican and Central American religious figures. There's a cross-fertilization between the varieties of African-based religions, particularly in the States, as successive waves of Caribbean immigrants have moved to North American cities such as New York and Miami. José explains that while his work is rooted in traditional belief systems, and he is trained as a Santero, his healing work draws on multiple sources, and attracts a diverse crowd of believers. He studies with a Trinidadian Hindu guru, who visits New York periodically, and serves as a 'consultant' healer with several of José’s clients. He also studies the Kabbalah. His network of visitors is broad-based too. A contingent of clients date back, via James, to the Albee Square Mall days, and most of his other visitors are from Brooklyn. But people come to him from across the city, and consult him online or by phone from as far as Florida or Texas, or even overseas. The countries of origin they represent stretch far across the Caribbean archipelago - a glittering chain of island and coastal nations. While I'm there I meet women of Puerto Rican, Dominican Republic, Jamaican and Guatemalan heritage.
There's a flexible, creative energy at work in these faiths, one that borrows from other sources but bypasses the dogmas of 'ordained' religions. For some believers, the traditions of Santería or Vodou, say, are adjunct to Catholicism, while for others they're the sole faith. They offer a support system, and a celebration of cultural roots. Believers seek to achieve a state of blessings, or harmony, which is given through communion with ancestors, and to connect with a force of energy and growth. In Santería this growth is called aché. As in other African-based traditional religions, Santería is grounded in the senses, the elements and natural healing remedies. If not in opposition to the rational mores of modern urban life, faiths like Santería are at least an antidote, and can offer an alternate path in the face of oppressive economic and social conditions. For most believers, consultations, or consultas, are a practice they've grown up with over generations, both overseas and here in the States. A consultation might be a regular occurrence, part of maintaining a general sense of spiritual balance, or it might be a sporadic one. A healer or priest might be the first person to turn to in a crisis, or a visit might be a last resort, when 'rational', societal solutions to a problem either cease to exist or have failed you. If you're landed with a lawsuit, can't pay the bills, are betrayed by a lover, or struggling with sickness, you might come to a traditional healer, who can counsel, prescribe and serve as a spiritual liaison. The healer is part doctor, part priest, the botánica part business, part temple. The spaces it occupies? A liminal portal between faith and day-to-day necessity.
The 32nd Street botánica is painted in vivid reds and yellows, and underneath the windows at the front, there are chairs. It's not unlike a friendlier and more charismatic medical office, and it's a good deal nicer than the gray little rooms my budget-rate insurance plan provides. Whenever I visit, the place has a steady stream of customers. Almost all of them are women. There's no rushing here. José is generous with his time, and patience is a given. In fact, sitting here is calming and pleasant. Often the air is thick with incense. Frankie, the slender young man who works behind the counter, dispenses sweet black coffee in thin cups, and ersatz New Age music plays, muting the voices from the back room. Sometimes an agitated phrase of conversation breaks through to the front, but those of us waiting our turn make an effort to tune it out. Sometimes it’s the gentler sound of bells. Relaxing as the atmosphere is though, a notice in English and Spanish instructs us not to disclose any personal information to strangers. Trouble will always find its way to the unwary; you'd be a fool not to be cautious. For a new visitor, there’s a lot to take in, and with each subsequent visit, I find differences - a shrine repositioned, a table shifted, a new figure in the pantheon. It’s slightly disorienting, this rearrangement of space and energy. Every time there are fresh discoveries.
A rack down the center of the room holds a number of books in Spanish and English, most of them related to traditions of Santería and Haitian Vodou, but the titles are varied. Some of the books are well thumbed through - it looks as though they're more often used as waiting-room material than purchases, and I'd rather read one of these than an issue of a news-expired Time.
Shelves of candles dominate one side of the room, and varieties of healing despojos, or baths, the other. The canisters of incense powder, like the candles, are used for purification, and are also specific to certain situations, such as court cases, love problems, the combating of envy, and business difficulties. There are also amulets, tokens, sachets of herbs, and galangal root, oils, cigars, and charms. Many of the objects here are purchased independently, but items such as candles and despojos are commonly prescribed via readings, with specific instructions for use. Cleansings, or limpiezas, take many forms. They may be performed during a consultation, often with the use of eggs, herbs, fruit, and oils, or directed for use at home. Cleansing baths can purify both the home and the individual from negative forces. Outdoors, cleansings are often performed in rivers, or in other bodies of water. Though some cleansing rituals in African-based traditional religions involve live animal sacrifice, it’s a practice that is commonly misunderstood, and blown out of proportion by non-believers and a sensation-seeking press. José tells me that the pigeons he uses in cleansing rituals fly free after they have played their part.
In addition to smaller statues and figures, there are larger shrines here. St. Michael takes a prominent position. "Destroyer of demons," he is petitioned for protection against evil, or to undo negative spirits. Offerings are given at all shrines, and they come in many forms; money and food are common gifts. On one visit, I find bottles of Dominican Country Club soda at Saint Michael's feet, and a bamboo basket full of fat red apples nearby. The apples still bear their supermarket price stickers. Altars are also set up in private homes, and initiates have a special connection to specific orishas, who guide and protect them.
The figures on the floor - muñequitas or muñecas de trapo (dolls and fabric dolls), catch my attention. José tells me later that they're placed there for a reason. Representing African ancestors, they remain close to the earth. The ancestors can communicate through them, and they can offer protection. Other African and Native American figures act as spirit guides. I ask José if the ancestors speak to people directly through him, and he recalls a covert visit to a client who was critically ill in hospital, and unresponsive to modern medicine. With a nurse tactfully turning her back on the healing ceremony, the voice of St. Lazarus (Babalú-Ayé, the orisha connected to healing) spoke to the patient. The man made a full recovery.
Candle work plays an important part in the faiths observed here. Before use, candles are dressed with oils, appropriate to their general purpose, and to the specifics of a personal situation. Common colors used in matters of love - commitment, communication, passion, for example - are pink, red, yellow or orange. In petitions of love, a candle might be dressed as an offering to Oshun, an orisha especially connected to love. José prepares particular oils with herbs and essences, and for Oshun, cinnamon, which is a strong love attraction, is always used. Honey is important too, as Oshun is known for her sweet tooth. Honey jars or pots are traditional in matters of love, and a written petition is added to a jar containing honey and other ingredients. The honey must be tasted by the petitioner first to make sure it is safe, as Oshun was once poisoned by honey. The dressed candle is placed and lit on top of the pot. At other times petitions might be placed directly under a candle. A candle in a glass that burns clearly is a positive sign, while one that clouds the glass in darkness indicates the negative.
I watch clients up at the counter carefully writing out petitions - first putting down a target name (repeated several times), superimposed by their own name, and then a list of their wishes. The preparation of candles is a slow and careful process too. When all is complete the candles are wrapped up in parcels of paper, ready to be taken home. Lined up on the shelves the candles, in their different hues of pink and green and red and blue, are a color code to human needs and divine answers. All our frailties, material requirements and desires are catered to here. The Steady Work candle pictures a muscled arm, sleeve rolled-up, wielding a mallet, and around it the many varieties of honest labor are spelled out plain: plumber, teacher, butcher, dressmaker, factory worker, gardener. Some candles declare their purpose baldly - of breaking bad luck, bringing money, finding love, or keeping quiet. The Shut Up candle warns against a loose tongue, perhaps a reflection of the air of secrecy that still permeates these faiths. I'm struck by the candles' beauty, with their glasses etched with guiding saints or orishas: St. Raphael, San Martin Caballero, San Pancracio, La Diosa del Mar, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, the Divino Niño ("Yo reinaré" " - "I will reign."), Santisma Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre , the Patroness of Cuba, who is syncretized with Oshun, Chango Macho - syncretized with St. Barbara. Some of the candles temper their curative promises with the word "alleged," but it's a token gesture, entirely disregarded.
I ask José about the smaller, figure candles which come in red, white and black, and are molded in the likeness of the first man and woman. The white ones, he says, are cleansing candles, the red are used in matters of love and the black are connected to protection, repelling the negative, dealing with issues of separation & in the case of black/red combined candles, reversing or redirecting spells. He shrugs as he talked about the darker powers of black candles - "If it helps people to believe, then ..." - but I sense, perhaps, a slight evasion.
At the far end of the room, there's a shrine to James, and his portrait is garlanded with flowers.
Behind the counter, the consulting room.
Even outsiders can feel a pull toward the world offered here, even if the ancient traditions of the countries they come from hover only faintly in the shadows of consciousness. Here in the botánica, traditions, community and the laws of the natural world are blessedly bright, alive, and active. I'm grateful to José for giving up his time to share something of the nature of his work with me. I've learned a lot, but of course my lot is only a very little. But what I have learned certainly counters the negative stereotypes surrounding these faiths. José's work promotes self-awareness, spiritual balance, and oneness with nature. José himself is welcoming, calm, reflective, and humble of spirit. I'm aware that I've only been given a partial, simplified view of the work that goes on here, and that a protective stance is instinctive, especially in the presence of strangers. That's unsurprising given the long history of nurturing and keeping safe traditions that have faced institutionalized opposition and retribution. An act of faith is a political act too, and this one is defiant of dogma, respectful of the planet, and attendant to the needs of its many followers, regardless of color, background or income. If you look at it this way, you can see a system that's progressive - a negation of received discourse. The system of faith here doesn’t rule out engagement for the good in the 'rational' world - it can also nourish and support it. If you wish to believe it, the power here is potent.
All photographs © Larry Racioppo.
Visit One More Folded Sunset for Part Two of this post, in which Jose talks about the long journey that brought him to this industrial corner of Sunset Park, and stay tuned for more posts in our Third Avenue series.