Upon entering Botanica La Milagrosa, one is struck by how distant the interior of
the shop seems to be from the realm of the ordinary. The stifling vapors of automobile
exhaust and the stench of garbage is left on the street outside. The Hispanic barrio
(neighborhood) where the botanica (religious/natural remedy supply store) is located
is indeed like an island to itself within the cosmopolitan city of Chicago. This little
area is reminiscent of a marketplace that could be in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Cuba, but
with the distinctive architecture of New York; only this is really just a run-down
section of South Chicago where the Latino immigrants happened to settle.
Inside the botanica the air is infused with pungent aromas from numerous per-
fumes, incenses, and scented oils, punctuated with the sharp medicinal smell that
wafts in from the pharmaceutical section of the store where prescriptions are filled
and folk medicines are made. The shelves and display cases are brimming to the ceiling
with an incredible assortment of herbs, soaps, charms, and a vast array of colorful
candles in glass bearing the titles: 'Lover Come Back,' 'Jinx Removal,' 'Tapa Boca/Shut
Your Mouth,' and 'House Money Blessing'--to name a few. Next to these curios are
Catholic rosaries, Bibles, prayer books, scapulars, Nativity scenes, religious medals
and a plethora of brightly-painted plaster saint statues of important saints of Catholic
and Latino piety: the tanned Our Lady of Charity of Cuba, the dark Lady of Regla, lame
and infirm St. Lazarus on his crutches, and regal St. Barbara with crown, tower and
sword. These are not only Catholic saints; they are the public faces of the mysterious
spirits from primordial Africa, the orishas, who are the emissaries of God. The Lady
of Regla is the Catholic face of Yemaya, lovely mother of the seas and of life itself.
St. Lazarus represents Babaluaye, the orisha of disease and healing. St. Barbara is
Chango, the great king and owner of thunder dressed in the guise of a woman.
Our Lady of Charity is the orisha Ochun, the owner of rivers and lakes, who rules
over matters of love and money.
"Do you have a saint?" the pleasantly plump counter lady asks a patron sweetly
in Spanish. She smiles at her aleyo (outsider) visitors, who are trying not to gawk
at the botanica regulars who are stocking up on their religious supplies: scented
herbal sprays, soaps, oils and incense; beaded necklaces in the specific colors of the
Afro-Cuban orishas (gods); statues; iron caldrons, metallic crowns, rattles, herbal
preparations and fetishes. The wares of the botanica hardly look like religious
supplies to some, but more like "...some kind of hoodoo, voodoo, witchcraft, mumbo-
jumbo stuff..." to quote one of the more outspoken aleyo visitors, who left the store
without buying anything.
The regulars who do believe in the religious veracity of the goods contained in
the botanica burst out in peals of laughter after those obvious 'Bible-belt' refugees
left with their narrow-minded views. This turn of events brought on an in-depth
conversation between the two female proprietors of the botanica with those re-
maining in the store. Of course everyone in the store at this point were either
santeras (priests) or devotees of a religion called Santeria, or more simply 'The
Religion.' "Ay, girl, that aleyo was asking for trouble mouthing off like that!
They better be careful going around insulting the Religion in this neighborhood.
Other places around here--they ain't so nice as us!" a dark-skinned African-
American santera wearing bright yellow, traditional African garb playfully
exclaimed. In that same instant the shelf near the front door with cement Eleggua
heads began shaking, which brought on more laughter from the assortment of
clientele. "They got Legba's attention already;" stated Milagrosa's other female
owner, "and these ain't even woke up yet." The slight, white-haired co-owner
proceeded to explain to two wide-eyed new comers into Santeria how the Eleggua's
in the botanica are just cement shells inlaid with cowrie shell eyes, nose, and a
mouth; and that a male priest or a babalawo (high-priest) has to fill the Eleggua
with an assortment of herbs and other ingredients along with an intricate ceremony
to 'wake' him up. The fair-skinned Latina went on to say, "Receiving your Eleggua
is one of the most important steps on the path to making santo. Taking care of
Eleggua is an awesome responsibility and not everyone who follows this path is
called to receive Eleggua and Warriors (powerful male orishas). Some who receive
Warriors go on to become priests in the religion--but many don't." "Why can't a
santera prepare an Eleggua?" inquired one of the Anglo new-comers. "Because,
" explained another patron, "Eleggua and Warriors must be made with male
energy; this is why you never believe any santera who tells you she can give
you Warriors only a male santero or a Babalawo can give them. You understand
this?" The blue-eyed blond nodded with a blank stare, "Yes."
As the sultry Fall afternoon passed by in the cool, air-conditioned atmosphere of
the other-worldly La Milagrosa, curiousity seekers and serious consumers came and
went. This botanica was not only an outlet for spiritual supplies, but it served as a
sort of 'town-hall' for the growing numbers of Santeria devotees and practioners in
Chicago and the out-lying areas. "We get so many customers from way out of town
that we have a parking space blocked off out in front of the store just for them." the
petite co-owner said in a heavy Spanish accent. "Be sure to take a business card
0with you. We do mail order too."
Closing time was approaching and several last-minute customers rushed in to
buy a few bottles of Florida water (cologne which attracts spirits) and pick up
prescriptions from the pharmacy. A young boy who looked to be about ten years old
began sweeping the few areas of uncovered ancient yellowed linoleum in the botanica.
The owners gathered various mysterious-looking articles in brown paper shopping bags
to take with them in preparation for a religious ceremony taking place that night. The
cash register was closed out and the daily business was tallied by the white-haired
proprietress. She looked very pleased as she viewed the receipts; La Milagrosa had
evidently been blessed with a profitable day. "It's time to lock up." she said cheerfully
in Spanish. With that said, the remaining hard-core patrons, friends, employees and
owners left the botanica.
A little silver bell tinkled when the front door was shut and locked down for the
night. Several lights remained on inside La Milagrosa for security reasons, and perhaps
to brighten the long night ahead for the many saints standing sentry on the shelves.
If you looked in the window quickly, for an instant, you could swear a plaster arm moved
in blessing, or a crystal eye glimmered with life. A quick wink from St. Barbara, and
it's all part of the human imagination.
written by "Yemoja Nina"