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Patrick Polk, Botánica Los Angeles

  • By Ajay Singh, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Nov 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Winnie the Pooh sits on a shelf next to the smiling Buddha, overlooking a colorful poster depicting the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha. Across the room is an assortment of bottled liquids labeled variously as “Peaceful Home Bath and Floor Wash,” “Adam and Eve Lovers’ Attraction” and “Powerful Indian Court Case.”

These are just a few of the eye-catching artifacts featured in a rare exhibition, “Botánica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels,” under way at the Fowler Museum through Feb. 27, 2005.

A botánica, from the root word “botany,” is usually a small store anywhere in the United States where herbs, candles, potions, altar statues, books, incense sticks and numerous other folkloric sundries are sold for just about everything from sanctifying homes and offices to summoning gods and goddesses.

Part spiritual center, part religious supply house and part alternative healthcare facility, botánicas are related to a broad array of multicultural and spiritual traditions. These range from Catholicism to Afro-Cuban Santeria, which is derived from the African Yoruba religion and has its origins in the days of slavery in America. Most people nationwide who patronize botánicas, however, are Latinos seeking herbal cures or advice on how to deal with all manner of problems.

“There’s probably a botánica run by somebody from every country in Latin America,” said Patrick Polk, a visiting professor at the Department of World Arts and Cultures and the exhibition curator. “This exhibition is a manifestation of how folk religions and folk art come together, and how artistic creativity becomes central to people’s rituals and identities.”

One of the more intriguing displays centers on half a dozen busts of a mustachioed, middle-aged man dressed in white. This is Jesús Malverde, a legendary Robin Hood-like bandit, also known as the “border-crossing saint.” Devotees pray to him for various existential concerns, including illegal forays across the U.S.-Mexico border and issues concerning immigration and naturalization.

Botánicas dot Southern California’s landscape, yet for many, they remain curiously invisible. And even when people step into a botánica, they can feel unwelcome, especially if they appear to be prying. Polk, for example, often has to convince botánica owners that he’s not a reporter, police officer, missionary or health inspector — just a folklorist who’s been studying botánicas for the past two decades.

During that period, the number of botánicas nationwide has skyrocketed, Polk said. Up until the 1980s, there were no more than several dozen in Southern California; now there are at least 400, thanks to the steadily rising Latino population.

“One key thing about botánicas is that they’re a frontline, street-level triage for health care for people without health insurance,” explained Polk. But the growth of botánicas also “fits right into America’s capitalist system in the sense that it’s always business first and then faith.”

A surprising number of whites also visit these storefronts of faith and healing. “They aren’t necessarily dropouts from Catholicism or mainstream Christianity,” Polk explained. “In general, they’re folks who come looking for something that’s not what they grew up with — a practice that’s exotic, more appealing, more open, especially for women and gays, and has higher ritual involvement.”

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