Lupe is consulting a customer at her shop, Botanica Los Sueños, in San Francisco’s Mission District. (Like other healers I interviewed, Lupe didn’t want her last name used in this story, saying it is bad luck.) She directs a young Latina woman to a wall lined with rows of colorful candles, each decorated with images of saints.
The customer picks out two candles with the words ‘success’ and ‘money’ written on them and takes them to the front counter. Then Lupe begins poking holes deep into the wax with a sharp pencil. She grabs a bottle of a nondescript essential oil, pours some into the candle, and begins turning the candle in circles while chanting prayers under her breath.
Lupe is a curandera, a traditional healer who treats the spiritual as well as physical ailment by using herbs, candles and rituals. Her shop is one of many botanicas in the neighborhood (there are also many botanicas in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, off of International Blvd., as well as others scattered around the Bay Area). Customers come to meet healers who use local and imported herbs to helping them make a mind-body connection.
Each corner of Botanica Los Sueños has an altar. Statues of saints are surrounded by lit candles, roses, but also offerings of sustenance: fresh fruit, bags of Mexican candy--sometimes a bottle of rum or tequila. Lupe says the food is an offering to the saints so they’ll grant the wishes of those who pray to them. She says customers bring fresh food each day to replenish the saints.
“People give offerings of fruits, flowers, and honey to sweeten the paths of those who believe in the saints,” said Lupe. “The flowers are for having a good life path, protection, health, money, love; it represents peace and tranquility among the family.”
One of the altars is for Santa Muerte (Spanish for ‘The Saint of Death’), a saint depicted by a skeleton dressed in colorful robes. The statue has a cigarette in it’s mouth and a wad of one dollar bills tucked into it’s arm. Lupe says many people follow Santa Muerte in the neighborhood, so her altar is always filled with offerings of all kinds.
Lupe says she learned how to be a curandera in Guanajuato, Mexico from her aunt, who was also healer. Her aunt taught her about medicinal use herbs, like pasote (Chenopodium ambrosioides L.), a wild herb that grows in the U.S. and Mexico. Lupe says pasote tea helps people with gassy stomachs.
“I’d watch my aunt. Someone would come to her with a broken foot, or a broken hand, and she would grind some herbs and mix them with an egg, and she’d rub it on their legs and they’d be cured,” Lupe said. “She was a healer, so I would watch her do her work and she’d always tell me, ‘Pay attention, because when you grow up you are going to be a great healer.’ So with this in my mind, I developed my skills. And I would help my own children when they were ill: with peppermint, with garlic, with chamomile, with lemon balm -- with medicinal plants.”
Lupe came to California 20 years ago with her five young children after her husband left the family. They were homeless and living in a park in San Francisco -- until Lupe found a job working as a nanny. In her spare time she studied up on longtime passion of traditional healing within her religion: Santería. Santería is syncretism of the Yorùbá religion, brought to the Caribbean by West African slaves during Spanish invasions, and Catholicism. Santería spread throughout many Latin American countries in the early 19th century, and eventually made it’s way to Latino communities here in the U.S.
“The tradition of Santeria is to help people who are sick,” Lupe said. “If a doctor can’t help them, then people have to look for help elsewhere -- with plants, with what one knows.”
The walls of Lupe’s shop are lined with rows and rows of prepackaged herbal blends. The packages have different labels, for different purposes: one is to bring in money, another is to keep away bad neighbors, another to bring love. Lupe says she buys the herbs wholesale from botanica companies based in Los Angeles, San Diego and New York.
Mercy is another local curandera who owns Botanica Santa Muerte, a few blocks away also in the Mission District. Mercy said she didn't want photos taken of her botanica because she didn't feel comfortable with it. She says she buys or gathers herbs each morning for her clients. Some she harvests in her backyard, others she finds growing wild. But she says it’s tough to find a lot of the medicinal plants she used back in El Salvador because its illegal to bring any plants or seeds into the U.S.
“For example if there’s infection in your stomach, or in your ovaries, there’s an herb I use called ‘chichipince (Hamelia patens).’ They don’t have it here, but it’s really good.”
Some herbs she can find here: like chamomile flowers, holy basil and a plant called ‘rue.’ Mercy says when a person has bad energy, they can use rue in a tea. She says rue has a lot of uses.
Mercy practices Palo -- a religion that came to the Caribbean from the Congo in Central Africa. Like Santeria, the religion is highly influenced by Roman Catholicism. Mercy says in Palo, the belief is that all plants can retain positive or negative energy from humans.
“Herbs are living things,” said Mercy. “If you talk to herbs and show them affection, it’s a little plant, it will grow into something beautiful. But if we forget about them, they dry up and die. An herb needs us to give it energy, because it is energy.”
Mercy says she does purification ceremonies to clear plants of negative energy before giving them to clients. She sprays the plants with ‘agua florida’ -- a liquid made with lavender, rose, orange flower, and other herbs -- or she cleanses them with a little bit of rum.
Mercy says most of her customers are Latinos of all ages. A lot of them don’t have health insurance, she says, so many avoid going to the doctor’s office. In California most undocumented immigrants are Latinos who don’t qualify for Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare). A large percentage of these Latinos are low-income, with have an employment rate two percent lower than the national average -- Mercy says many simply can’t afford pricey out-of-pocket doctor bills, so they come to her instead.
But Mercy clarifies that she’s a healer, not a doctor. So if someone has a disease like cancer, she sends them to the hospital.
“If it’s a normal illness, I can’t cure it. What I cure, for example, is when someone needs protection from a bad neighbor, or bad vibrations. At times people come and I ask them, ‘Have you been to the doctor?’ And they say, ‘Yes, I went. But they said there’s nothing wrong with me.’ But if they still feel bad, they come to me looking for a different kind of help.”