Miami is not Guanabacoa, of course. But it sometimes smells, sounds and occasionally — squinting and from a distance — even looks like the Havana neighborhood known for Afro-Cuban religious practices.
Statues of Orishas, the gods of the Yoruba religion, and the objects used to venerate them have been sold in Miami shops known as botánicas since Cuban exiles began arriving.
The name botánica, which in other places could refer to the sale of plants, herbs or garden supplies, in this case refers to shops that sell statues, candles, beads, salves, stamps, salts and other religious items.
In fact Miami is quite probably the city with the most botánicas per square mile in the world because there are no such shops in Cuba, not like the ones here where the colors and variety easily attract tourists and their cameras.
The botánicas multiplied with every wave of Cubans that arrived in South Florida. And today, like any other flourishing businesses, they reflect the diversity of the city’s religious beliefs, traditions, complexities and cultures.
They are no longer a unique expression of Cubania, but rather a mix of items from many Latin American countries and beliefs that in the end have the same goals: ward off evil and bring good luck, a job, money and love.
That’s how herbs with names like rompe saragüey and abrecamino, so well known that they were mentioned in songs by Celia Cruz and Hector Lavoe, came to share shelves with statues of Buddha, gods from Africa, India and Peru, and esoteric items like pyramids and crystals.
The world is a botánica
Along Calle Ocho at 17th Avenue, the smell of incense wafts out of one botánica. From the outside, it looks like any other store. But step inside and the tiny, cramped shop might well contain a whole world, like a Jorge Luis Borges story.
In the center of the shop, smaller than many Miami gardens, is an altar to Babalu Ayé, known as San Lazaro to Catholics, with his purple mantle and crutches. Thousands of Cubans make a pilgrimage every Dec. 17 to his church in Havana to give thanks or beg favors from the protector of the infirm.
San Lazaro is a favorite of Miami botánicas and holds the place of honor in the the M&N Variedades Store, owned by Peru-born José Zevallos and named after his sons Mickey and Nick.
After arriving in Miami in 1988, Zevallos started out selling flowers and plastic plants. But Cuban clients were always asking for cascarilla, a white powder made from eggshells, holy water and the prayers used in Yoruba rituals.
That’s how his shop turned into a botánica that sold items needed for the practice of Afro-Cuban religions. But as more and more Nicaraguans and other Central Americans settled in Little Havana, he expanded his offerings.
“Today I have a variety of clients who want to perform the rituals they know and to follow the traditions of their country,” said Zevallos, whose clients now include South Americans, Mexicans and Caribbean natives, not only from Little Havana but from Doral and even Homestead.
“I have one Venezuelan client who comes from Doral, saying that I have the most products from her country,” Zevallos said. One of his most popular products is Cuerno de Ciervo, or deer horn, an ammonium solution used by Venezuelans to ward off evil.
His selections of candles and bath salts have names like Leche de la mujer amada, or milk of a woman loved, a popular Venezuelan perfume for love seekers. He also sells Destrancadera, or Barrier Breaker, to clear the way for everything from love to money.
Antonio Arango, a Colombian who has lived in Little Havana for many years, went in looking for alum stone, a mineral used in cosmetics and natural medicine. He takes it as painkiller.
“This is a medicine used by the peasants in Colombia,” Arango said.
A native of Medellín, Arango said he trusts popular knowledge when it comes to herbs and their medicinal properties. As he walks around Zevallo’s shop, he points out the ones he knows: Jamaican Flower for diabetes, Valerian for sleeping and Eucalyptus for energy.
“This is a place where you can learn a lot from people,” said Zevallos, adding that he gets information from his clients and then uses it when it comes time to buy products for his shelves.
“The city has been evolving, and the business shows that. We’ve started to bring products from Peru, from Colombia,” he said, adding that nevertheless the majority of his clients are still Cubans.
The images he sells also reflect diversity. On his shelves, next to the Yoruba deities, sit Ganesh, a Hindu god that is represented as an elephant and brings luck and prosperity. Beside Ganesh stands Ekeko, a god from the highlands of Peru that is covered in fruit and represents abundance. Devotees put money in Ekeko’s altars to avoid poverty.
Zevallos also has figures of La Santa Muerte, venerated by Mexicans, and José Gregorio, the poor people’s doctor venerated by Venezuelans. Similarly dressed but sitting is the figure of San Simon or Maximón, venerated by Guatemalans.
The shelves also hold candles and stamps for San Martin de Porres, a Dominican brother from Peru considered to be the first black saint of the Americas, and Santa Marta the Dominator, venerated by Dominicans hoping for the return of loved ones.
The Santa Marta stamp recommends lighting one red and one white candle each day, writing down the names of the person praying and the person wanted, adding sugar, honey and cinnamon, praying a novena and then leaving the remainder of the candle in a pretty place.
“Everything is based on faith,” Zevallos said when asked what he tells clients who want to know if his products really work. “It’s the person’s belief that can make it come true. We try to provide what they need to make their rituals work.”
For Juan Manuel Casanova, a babalawo (priest) and hypnotherapist, the tendency to blend beliefs from different sources is perfectly compatible with his Yoruba religion.
“It’s a religion of vibrations, of frequencies, of resonance,” Casanova said. “You get in touch with the Orisha when you enter its frequency. That’s done through the stones that each saint has. Cuba doesn’t have a lot of quartz, but when you observe any stone from different angles, you begin to see the way to connect with whatever you want, in this case the Orishas.”
Casanova said it’s all the same force, but with different names and attributes.
“It’s the quantum principle of being connected,” he said. “The market is reflecting that trend.”
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH