Patrons with financial problems flock to botanica shops

POMPANO BEACH — Lisa Massa smokes a cigar as she pours prosperity oil and honey into a candle jar behind the counter at Botanica St. Lazarus. She blows smoke into it for good luck and throws in a scrap of paper with a name on it.

The name belongs to a customer, a real estate agent having trouble selling homes. Although business is slow at most local botanicas, shop owners say money and work have replaced love and health as their customers’ top concerns. Hard times have led people to the shops to buy sprays, potions and talismans that promise to relieve financial stress.

“People don’t have jobs, don’t have money — they need help,” said Massa, who has prepared candles for 45 years. She reads cigar smoke to find out what ingredients will help with each person’s problem.

Other big sellers at her store: Fast Luck floor wash. Bring Me Money coffee candle. Mr. Money good luck spray.

Botanicas specialize in religious goods related to Santeria, Spiritism and other beliefs. Santeria is an ancient afro-Cuban religion that mixes Catholicism and traditional African Yoruba faith.

At most botanicas, people can meet with Santeria priests and other spiritual guides for help with modern day problems.

In the back of Botanica Juan in Lake Worth, Santeria priest Juan Vegueria reads rocks, shells and cigar smoke for customers in front of an altar to afro-Cuban deity Chango. Sometimes he prescribes herbal washes and soaps. Other times he offers simple advice. He says he’s been giving a lot more free readings now that people are strapped for money.

Katia Garcia, of West Palm Beach, credits Vegueria for her recent change in fortune. She lost her housekeeping job six months ago and then her bank notified her of a pending foreclosure on her house.

Garcia, 38, who was referred to the botanica by a friend, took Vegueria’s advice and cleaned her house floors with white lily, “open paths,” and “demolish everything” washes. Later, she won a severance package from her previous job and was told her home no longer faces foreclosure.

“Faith can move mountains,” she said, but “it’s not something that works from one day to the next.”

Nelson Hernandez, who owns El Viejo Lazaro botanica in Miami, agrees. No one should expect orishas, or Santeria deities, to overturn something as vast as the economic crisis, he said. Hernandez, who is also a master of Santeria ceremonies, reads cowrie shells in the back of his shop to see how the orishas can help his customers and what they should do in return.

Hernandez sells beads, clothing and statues used in different Santeria ceremonies. In another room, he stacks crates of chickens and doves to sell for more complex rituals. One of those rituals involves letting doves fly inside a house to rid it of bad energy, he said.

“The orisha can help when a path exists, but not if there isn’t one,” he said.