The African History Behind Latino Botánicas

A report by Georgina Gonzalez for NBC New York.

Walking through the streets of East Harlem or the Bronx, you’re bound to run across a few brightly colored stores, often adorned with statues and idols in their windows.

In these stores, shoppers can often find crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary alongside African idols and candles that promise good luck and fortune.

You might also hear Spanish being spoken by the customers who flock inside and peruse the bottles and ointments on the shelves.

These stores, botánicas as they are known in Spanish, are all over New York City. While there aren’t any official statistics describing how many botánicas exists within the city, many can be found in Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods.

Botánicas sell religious and spiritual goods such as amulets, candles and herbs that can be used in holy practices. Customers go to these stores when they need spiritual guidance or healing. They are usually met by shopkeepers who can guide them. Although their clientele has become increasingly varied, traditionally the botánica has served the Caribbean Latino community.

These colorful stores are rooted in the Afro-Latino diaspora. J. Lorand Matory, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University told NBC New York “whereas the importation of African captives to the U.S. sharply declined at the turn of the 19th century, it continued well into the middle of the 19th century to places like Cuba and Brazil. So, there was a continual renewal of African captives and African culture in Cuba and Brazil.”

Given the relatively late end to slavery and its structure in Caribbean countries, people who were enslaved in the Caribbean were able to cling onto some of their African culture and religion in a way that was impossible for those in the United States.

Botánicas are in many ways temples…They’re where many people go seeking comfort and intervention.

J. Lorand Matory, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University

Afro-Latinos then continued to practice their religions, alongside Christianity, and soon their culture was infused into the fabric of Caribbean identity. When Latinos from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba then began immigrating to the United States, they brought these aspects of their culture along with them.

“It was Caribbean Latinos who are culturally and ancestrally profoundly influenced by Africa, who founded these establishments, whose spiritual wisdom is the basis of the botánica,” said Matory.

“Botánicas are in many ways temples,” he went on to add. “They’re where many people go seeking comfort and intervention.”

Even though these specialty stores exist on the West Coast, in Florida and throughout the world, they’ve become a staple in the cityscape of the Big Apple — and continue to stand as a tangible tribute to an important part of Afro-Latino history.

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