Book Title: Botánicas: Sacred Spaces of Healing and Devotion in Urban America
Book Author: Joseph M. Murphy
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Pub Date: February 5, 2015
Paperback, 212 pages
(Preface and acknowledgments, a note on the text, introduction, 145 color photographs, glossary, bibliography, index. $40.00 hardcover.)
Botánicas on my Coffee Table : Book Review of Botánicas: Sacred Spaces of Healing and Devotion in Urban America by Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz
June marked the two-year anniversary of my wedding and to celebrate I had a party. At the garden wedding ceremony my family watched us walk down the aisle, waited for us to read our vows, and witnessed us eat grass, honey, lime, then get washed by the wings of doves. Yes, doves. The priestess held the two white birds by their feet while their wings uncontrollably brushed the wind, our fronts and our backs. We spun against their whisking feathers. On the third spin they were released to fly off into the sky. The audience of family and friends cooed and giggled. The two doves subsequently returned and planted themselves on branches throughout the remainder of the wedding and reception.
Our wedding was not traditional. During the reception we were asked by many, “Did you get the doves at a pet store?” Or nudged, “live doves, all of these adornments, it must have been expensive!” We mostly smiled and shrugged. I assumed everyone knew live poultry shops sold doves for $5 each, if you go to the one beside the botánica. When I mentioned this to my aunt, across the reception dinner table, she asked, “What’s a botánica?”
In an inarticulate way, two years ago, I told my aunt that botánicas are places where you buy herbs, candles, and other artifacts to pray with and furnish altars. Although this was true, I had no connection to the history of these humble storefront iconic spaces. As a practitioner of what I sometimes call ancestor workshop, spritism, brujeria, espiritismo, I would visit botánicas in every major city to simply find a new trinket, stone, oil, or listen to the shopkeeper’s advice. It took the flap of a dove’s wing at my ritualistic wedding for me to realize that everyone, in fact, did not know about these indigenous healing practices nor the spiritualties, African-derived saints, and places in our communities where these practices are furnished: botánicas.
To begin my journey of finding resources for my family on these practices and healing rituals, I sought books. But the vast range was over-complicated with primary texts meant for practitioners. Being a librarian, I easily found texts on religious ceremonies and rituals unlike the Christian norm. An overwhelming majority of books I found focused Yoruba culture and its derivative practices: Santería /Ocha, Lucumi, and Spiritism. There was also often a tone in indoctrination. I needed to find a book for the “lay-person” but without the jargon that often pushed them away. I asked myself, how does the average person interact with this other realm of ceremony and ritual? And the answer was clear – they don’t. Most people are actively avoiding the botánica. Engagement would require an invitation, a hand-holding, a point of relating, a story to unfold.
Botánicas: Sacred Spaces of Healing and Devotion in Urban America is written by a practitioner, Joseph M. Murphy. It is the book that I’ve been searching for. Murphy does the work of introducing this community of worshipers, those that practice spiritual work, to the rest of the country. With informal language that any family member can connect to he introduces this world as “largely latino, mostly women, often immigrant” (134). These sacred spaces are either invisible or a challenge for the average consumer who often walks by the storefront unknowing, and sometimes fearful.
My wife’s Puerto Rican family from the Bronx was very familiar with the rituals associated with our non-traditional wedding. My primarily Christian Jamaican and Guatemalan family was more aware than I suspected, but more so wary. Those with familiarity of burning incense, pouring libations, or laying an ancestral plate on the wedding altar were also slightly concerned that I was involved in dark magic, or worse, we were luring them to participate in such witchcraft. I wanted to share this knowing, without implying conversion. If my family understood my practice in healing spiritism and its rituals, they would embrace the doves, the altars, and perhaps even, visit a botánica.
Although Joseph M. Murphy doesn’t detail his own spiritual practice, he pays great attention to detail around the multiple practitioners that utilize botánicas. His one-of-a-kind text on his ten-year exploration acts as a map in time and space, charting the first botánica in Harlem, NY founded in 1942 to shops around the country that he visited while writing the book. With multiple first hand accounts, Murphy talks about tarot card readings he received, and healing circles he participated in while interviewing these botánica shopkeepers.
As she shuffled the deck of cartas espanolas, she said prayers in Lucumi and Congo, the ritual languages of the two Afro-Cuban traditions into which she is initiated. She asked me to cut the deck into three stacks, and she laid out the cards in rows from each of the stacks sequentially. I had framed a somewhat impersonal question about the hope for success of this book, but Maria’s diagnostic questions quickly became personal indeed. (57)
Murphy shares interactions with shopkeepers and displays high quality colored photographs taken while documenting his journey. He then describes in generous detail the orishas referenced in the image. The initial view of a photograph will reveal a statue of a woman holding a flower, but after the description, the image is revealed to be an orisha with adornments telling a story of pilgrimage from destruction to salvation. For the shrine on the cover image, Murphy describes:
Here is a shrine of Ochun/Caridad at Botánica Yemeya y Chango in Washington. She holds a cross in her right hand and cradles her child in her left. She wears a fine metal crown encircled by a star-studded nimbus as befits the queen of heaven and woman of the apocalypse (Revelation 12:1). (Murphy, 85).
From the image and the description, it is clear that the statue uses a prototype of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Murphy, however, unveils the overlapping parts of Latin Caribbean spiritual influence, transforming the statue into an altar for the orisha Ochún.
As told in her official story from seventh-century Cuba, she stands atop waves as the three Juans in the rowboat below her gaze upward in awe. The figure is nearly half-sized, set above eye level, and dominates a cover niche and much of the store. Any Cuban would recognize her as La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, but here at the botánica, she is overbrimming with symbols of Ochun, the orisha of royalty, cool water, and riches. First the color of the golden-yellow canopy is a ‘primary signifier of Ochun. (85)
Ochún is often adorned with yellow flowers, as this is the color that represents her beauty and powers in love and fertility. 145 color photographs are interspersed throughout the book. The reader becomes a part of a museum exhibition curated by Murphy. One is taught how to see, learning this new language of spiritual connection.
Murphy’s sharing approach to his practices acts as a tool to introduce ritual practices without intimidating the reader. In Botánicas storytelling is the method for describing ritual. Murphy’s stories and ability to use his own experience make this non-fiction narrative half-textbook and half-memoir.
After reading it, I knew it was meant to be in the hands of my mother.
Before I could hand it off, my wife grabbed it first. She used the book to decorate our coffee table. “Look at the Ochun statue on the cover,” she squealed. It was true. As she placed the book vertically atop the table, the fanned leaves revealed full-page portraits of store clerks, flowers at the base of statues, and door openings. The inside book jacket alone was a mosaic (similar to our wedding décor), of business cards of botánicas. Never before had she seen such a well-curated text of her spiritual identity matched with a colorful exterior and glossy pages. The enlarged and accurate depictions of the orisha she studied in secret and behind closed doors all of her life were suddenly “out of the [religious-healing spirituality-indigenous] closet.” Without even reading the text, Botánicas was by default the only of its kind, substantiating her espiritismo cultural identity.
Botánicas: Sacred Spaces of Healing and Devotion in Urban America sat on my coffee table. It waited there til my anniversary party, then was slid to my mother, who passed it to my aunt, and I have an inkling that they newly appreciated the doves.