New York City’s Botanicas Contain Some Unexpected Surprises

    We did some spiritual shopping to learn more about these neighborhood gems

    by · October 18, 2016

    Illustrated by Liz Riccardi.

    The following feature appears in the October 2016 issue of NYLON.

    In a dimly lit basement office, the air dense with burning incense, a man named Charlie Olmeda is seated at a large desk littered with spiritual statuettes, preparing to tell me my destiny. Just upstairs, aisles of colorful candles and bath bottles with intriguingly specific labels—“Fast Money Blessing,” “Jinx Removal,” “Love Spell”—fill this Brooklyn corner store dubbed Botanica El Phoenix. From the outside, you might mistake it for your average bodega, but inside it’s packed to the gills with Santeria supplies, amulets, oils, perfumes, Roman Catholic goods, and other products used for religious or magical purposes, often as a form of folk medicine.

    The whole experience feels both unusual and oddly familiar. For the uninitiated, botanica shops are largely found in Latino communities, especially Caribbean ones. My traditional Hispanic family on my mother’s side has been in New Mexico for generations, and I spent a large chunk of my childhood growing up in Santa Fe, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a shaman. Back home, Our Lady of Guadalupe can be spotted not just in churches, but everywhere from the hoods of cars to tattoo parlors, and nearly every longstanding landmark is haunted. So, when Olmeda spreads out his tarot cards, my old-school spiritual family is the first thing he somehow knows to ask about. I can tell things are about to get interesting.

    Olmeda comes from a long line of clairvoyants. “My mother and my grandmother, once they open up their mouths, write it down because they are so precise in what they say it’s scary,” he says. His maternal grandmother foresaw his brother’s death during the Vietnam War down to the exact location and time. His paternal grandmother was a healer with such strong abilities that when the police department in San Juan, Puerto Rico, couldn’t solve a murder, they’d take her to the scene of the crime, where she’d hold her hand over it and describe the perpetrator, giving a name and location.

    When Olmeda was around 14 years old, he realized he had inherited the gift. “I was freaking out, but I was told that it runs in the family, so accept it—you’re not going crazy,” he says with a chuckle. Growing up in Puerto Rico, there were botanicas everywhere. “It’s the culture,” he says, “but it’s the same principle here. When you find Puerto Ricans, you’re going to find botanicas, the same way if you find a bunch of Italians there’s going to be a pizzeria nearby.” His family opened up their shop in 1973 in Park Slope, and in 2008 it moved to its current Carroll Gardens location.

    Word about Olmeda has spread around the world. “I’ve never been to Kazakhstan, but there’s a person there who got really, really ill,” he says. “The doctors could find nothing wrong with her. Her mother had a friend over here. She called up, I told them what to do, and within two days the lady got back on her feet. And that’s how I got customers from Kazakhstan. I have people from practically all over the place.”

    Click through the gallery to read the rest of this feature.

    Illustrated by Liz Riccardi.

    Clients come to him for everything from spiritual cleansings in which he recites a powerful prayer that was written in the dark ages to combat the bubonic plague, to the reversal of an impotency spell that was cast by an ex-girlfriend, to the removal of the evil eye from children. When customers come in for tarot readings, he simply asks for their first name and nothing else, knowing that his readings will typically answer any questions they have.

    Despite hearing stories of local ghosts and whisperings of cursed neighbors since I was young, I’ve remained something of a skeptic. Possibly sensing my reservations, Olmeda offers to do a reading for me. Within minutes, he’s mentioning family secrets and personal details about my life that aren’t Google-able. I start to see why people across the globe will pay for the long-distance phone calls.

    It turns out there’s more than one way to predict someone’s future. Original Products Botanica, located on a bustling street in the Bronx, offers a variety of consultations. Chris Ochun, aka Crystal Truth, runs the spiritual center. The third-generation psychic is a Santeria priest who fills his staff with readers from different cultures and backgrounds. “We cater to just about every type of religious system,” Ochun says. They offer tarot card readings, water gazing (“I look through the water and I can spiritually travel through it, like a movie scene, and then I dictate things that I see,” explains Ochun), and shell divination, which involves interpreting cowrie shells.

    Since the mid-1960s, the botanica has been serving anyone looking for a little help. Now run by cousins Steve Amateau and Jason Mizrahi—the latter’s dad founded it—the core is still the same. Most products fall into one of three categories of issues for which people seek assistance: money, love, and protection. “It’s a wide range of who you’re going to see and what their need is,” Amateau says. “Everybody’s different, so you just try to help them however you can.”

    People might come in looking for oils or candles for their altar. The botanica creates specially carved candles dedicated to particular situations, such as a chakra-balancing one—say a prayer when you light it and it will help realign your energies. It also offers stones, which have been used since ancient times for energy work (think amethyst for calming power). Then there are recipes for spiritual baths, which can be blended to help with a specific issue. Simply pray over the liquid and then pour it over you from the neck down. “That’s to exorcise the energy in your body and in your system,” explains Ochun. “Our bodies are like forces of energy. They have a lot of energy within them, so sometimes we either need to calm them down or raise their vibrations. That’s what the baths are for.” Most of the products are made downstairs in the basement, while all of the candles come directly from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. “We have [employees] that have been here for 10, 20, 30, 40 years, so they’re knowledgeable,” Amateau says.

    “Knowing I have the ability to change somebody with a good direction is what inspires me,” says Ochun. “I try to have [everyone who works with me] inspire people with the best of their abilities and utilize the different materials that we have here, like candles, to give people a focus. Basically you’re using an item to generate your vision so you can transfer that energy into something good. The miracles happen within your own hands.” And he wants others to be able to do it, too. Every Saturday, Ochun leads a spiritual development class at the shop. Filled with hands-on exercises, it teaches people how to enhance their psychic abilities.

    To send me on my spiritual journey, Ochun lets me choose a hand-carved candle, encouraging me to pick whatever speaks to me. The green ones with dollar signs feel obvious, so I choose a pretty yellow candle with a peacock in glitter, partially because I like the mystery of it. (And admittedly, because I like the design, too, which Ochun jokingly calls me out on.) “This is considered sweet honey; you can use it to sweeten up any part of your life. We add rose petals and a little bit of lavender to give the energy of the spirit,” he says, advising me to pray to whatever I want when I light it, and suggesting I add a bit of sandalwood to balance out energies, while an employee carves my name into it. I haven’t decided what needs some sweetening in my life yet, but Ochun assures me, “The power of prayer is within the candle and yourself.”

    Illustrated by Liz Riccardi.

    Candles are also a staple at Justo Botanica, whose plain, no frills sensibility and warm shopkeepers remind me of many of the dusty religious shops found in New Mexico. Everything inside feels deeply personal, from the handwritten labels on the products to the wares themselves, which were made by the store’s previous owner, Jorge Vargas, whose own Puerto Rican-born parents first opened the shop. After Jorge passed away in March, his daughters Jeanabel and Ivelisse Vargas took over, but the place is still very much his.

    “My father grew up with the whole practice, so that’s how he was very knowledgeable,” says Jeanabel. “People came for him; he was the consultant doing spiritual readings, he blessed everything. My dad was like a psychologist who didn’t go to school for it. After hearing so many people who came and trusted him with their stories and really profound things, he learned a lot about people.”

    Thanks to her father, several generations of families continue to shop at Justo Botanica, along with newer customers in Manhattan’s continually evolving Spanish Harlem neighborhood. He taught his daughters how everything in the store worked by passing along the rituals. “When I needed clarity, he would give me the candle Saint Claire—a white candle, white’s for clarity—and I’d do a bath to cleanse myself,” Jeanabel explains.

    Similarly, the Vargas sisters help customers find the right path, whether it’s a candle, bath, or reading. “Once you have a practice, it’s a continual ritual every day, so you always want to light your candles for whatever it is that you’re specifically looking for,” Jeanabel says. “It’s very therapeutic when you sit next to these candles, and the special thing is how the flame flickers—it’s just so different compared to any other candle. Sometimes it means a presence.”

    I opt for a destiny reading with Melissa Nieves, who works by channeling Saint Barbara—she passes along messages and advice through Nieves about your future, offering spiritual guidance. Nieves asks my name, writes it on a piece of plain white paper, and starts shading in the page with her pencil. As Saint Barbara connects with her, she jots down key phrases and draws small pictures as they come, predicting what life has in store for me and ending my session with a quick tarot card reading. Since my power colors are red and black, she says I should light red candles.

    “There really is a connection when you find the right candles,” Jeanabel adds. “People just want hope, especially with everything going on in the world. And the beauty of this practice is that it doesn’t discriminate; it’s open to anyone.” Even, perhaps, those of us who are just warming up to it.

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    Last updated: 2016-10-17T15:40:32-04:00
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