She dwells among the chic bistros, clothing boutiques, and nightclubs of Adams Morgan.
Bathed in fluorescent light and a shower of glittering stars, her round ebony face stares from a shop window on 18th Street NW. She is resplendent in blue-and-white raiment, crowned by a gold headdress. In her arms, she cradles a tousle-haired baby.
This statue of a black Madonna and her pale infant son has been turning heads—including that of a bikini-clad mannequin next door—since appearing in a storefront last month. To many passers-by, she remains as enigmatic as the words emblazoned on the marquee above: Yemaya & Chango Botanica.
But followers of Santería know that the statue represents Yemaya, mother of saints and goddess of water, and her adopted son, Chango, god of thunder, fire, and lightning. They are well acquainted with her appetite for melons, ducks, turtles, and hens, and know that Chango is partial to apples, bananas, and roosters.
Any grocery store can provide this menu, but there are many other ways to please these orishas, as saints are known in Santería (Spanish for “way of the saints”), a 200-year-old Afro-Cuban religion that combines Yoruban and Catholic beliefs. The proper practice of its rites requires all sorts of herbs and powders—a host of esoteric, specially prepared potions that can only be found at botanicas like Yemaya & Chango.
Though the D.C. area boasts several botanicas, Yemaya & Chango is more like a Santería superstore, stocking row after row of such hard-to-find items as sun-dried possum, formerly available only at botanicas in New York and Miami. A boon for local devotees—where else in town can you get a good deal on a pierced plaster tongue?—it’s also a Saints R Us jammed with the sort of spiritual knickknacks that inspire new agers to reach for their credit cards: exotic assembly-line crafts; all-natural soaps; feel-good potpourris for the soul; $500 porcelain tureens.
The commercialization of religion is never pretty, especially a fringe faith angling for the mainstream, but Yemaya & Chango Botanica pulls it off with undeniable flair. Stepping out from Santería’s still-secretive subculture, it struts like a voodoo Hard Rock Cafe: respectfully adorned with the hammers of the gods but definitely tourist-friendly.
“There are many people that aren’t into the religion that really like the store,” says botanica manager Andres Chavarria. “They can find many things here, not necessarily for Santería. They practice tarot cards; they use colognes, incense, perfumes, oils. So it’s not necessary that it be just for Santería, but we have plenty of stuff for that because we’re into it.”
A 27-year-old Salvadoran, Chavarria is a santero, or priest, who works directly with the orishas to fix people’s problems—love pains, hexes, financial woes, whatever. He performs readings, usually seashell divinations, to find a specific orisha who will help the customer.
But Chavarria doesn’t rely on Santería’s spiritual pull alone; this santero doubles as a salesman. He even keeps snazzy business cards next to the cash register: On the Yemaya-blue card is the motto: “Simple enough there has been no other place like it. See for yourself.” It also includes a job description, “Advisor & Santería: Spiritual Consultants, Shell Game, Religious Articles,” above a product checklist, “Candles, Ointments, Perfumes, Herbs, Incense, Images.”
It’s an impressive presentation: The only thing missing is an e-mail address.
Chavarria is selling a brand of Santería even a dilettante can love, but not everyone’s buying.A few blocks away, another botanica offers its Santerían wares the old-fashioned way.
Hidden above a jewelry store on a scummy block of Columbia Road NW, Botanica San Lazaro has been quietly serving the local religious community for years. A narrow, rickety staircase leads to the small second-floor shop, which is advertised by a faded painted sign. The place is dark, musty, and bereft of customers; rows of votary candles and incense gather dust, awaiting the next saint’s holiday.
The elderly Cuban proprietor sits near a closed side door tacked with a hand-written warning: “No pase por favor.” In Spanish, he explains that he can’t give out information about Santería or the botanica.
His tight-lipped reticence toward a stranger is neither haughty nor impolite; it is in keeping with the subversive, syncretic origins of Santería, the shadow faith forged by African slaves in 19th-century Cuba. Exiled in the New World, these slaves from what is now Nigeria managed to continue worshiping their Yoruban deities in the guise of Catholic saints forced on them by their Spanish captors; they kneeled piously at the altars of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus but secretly paid tribute to their own Yemaya and Chango.
In the past century, Santería—ruled by the same Yoruba gods as Haiti’s Vodou and Brazil’s Candomblé—has spread throughout the U.S., the Caribbean, and Latin America. It commonly makes headlines only for its ritualistic animal sacrifices: The orishas are hungry gods, and they especially like the taste of meat—chickens, goats, rams, possum. A few years ago, American santeros won a Supreme Court decision and some measure of legitimacy when their right to perform sacrifices was upheld. As a result of that fight, the religion retains something of a bloodstained public image.
Chavarria wants to improve his faith’s reputation: “We put this store here to tell people that Santería isn’t bad. It’s something that if you pay attention to it, it will help you a lot. The orishas don’t do bad things—they love you and want to help you.” Chavarria hopes to introduce Santería to those who’ve never heard of it, much less learned how to pronounce its name. Likewise, he wants his botanica to serve as a convenience center for D.C. devotees. After all, earthly salvation is great, but it’d be nice to move some product.
Under a banner proclaiming “Grand Opening,” shoppers enter Yemaya & Chango Botanica to a very nonmystical security chime more suggestive of a busy Radio Shack than a roomful of underground religion. Next to the door sits a black kettle full of tools and iron implements, an offering to the warrior orisha, Oggun. Like the window statue of Yemaya and Chango, it’s not for sale, but a stack of shopping baskets nearby (“For Your Convenience”) makes it clear that just about everything else is.
No longer cloaked in secrecy, Santería is open for browsing.
Though apparently abiding the “way of the saints,” Yemaya & Chango betrays a firm grasp of marketing techniques. The spacious boutique breathes big-bucks investment; fluorescent and track lighting keep the place bright and airy. The drumming of Santería ritual music drifts softly from a stereo. The ever-burning incense hasn’t yet smothered the factory-fresh smell of the new, thick, wall-to-wall carpet—its deep blue another nod to Yemaya’s favorite color.
Not to say that the botanica is completely cheery: Visitors nearly trip over the life-size statues of an old couple seated to face the front counter. The painted ceramic figures, named Francisco and Maria, seem eerily real; their stern gazes seem to follow customers around the room, if not casting spells then at least watching for shoplifters. Like the orishas, the couple appreciates monetary offerings: Last week, a woman handed her toddler a dollar bill to give as an offering to the statue of Maria. The boy surveyed the old hag’s wrinkled, mean-looking face and hesitated. “It’s my money!” he finally shouted. His mother, not wanting to disrespect the gods, made him toss the dollar into Maria’s stone lap, already brimming with crumpled dinero.
Miniature statues—Catholic and Yoruban icons side-by-side—stare from shelves, enough dashboard saints to stock a rush-hour traffic jam. Candles, palm oils, and ointments are available in all but bulk sizes. A book rack displays the standard texts: Introduction to Seashell Divination. Rituals and Spells of Santería. King Tut Dream Book. Seven Prayers of Tobacco (which explains how to “read” cigar ashes).
There’s also an entire section of perfumes, aerosol air fresheners, and powders used to ward off bad spirits. Most have disclaimers in tiny print: “The alleged powers of this product are limited only by your personal faith.” For the recently dumped, there’s even a “Come Back To Me” scent that’s supposed to rekindle the flame of romance.
But the hottest-selling fragrance so far has been the “Go Away Evil” cologne. It’s $3 a bottle and the same shade as Brut aftershave.
Deeper into the store, the sale items are more selective and geared for devotees: Rare herbs and roots shipped from Miami stay fresh in a refrigerator; horse tails—used for purification—hang from hooks; long Brazilian-made steel machetes gleam wickedly from buckets; shredded fish and other unidentifiable mixtures in plugged vials and dried animal carcasses await sacrifice to a hungry orisha. Just a week after the botanica opened, says Chavarria, a santero traveled all the way from North Carolina to buy a sun-dried possum for $45. (The possum is prized by an important orisha named Eleggua.)
Before, the santero would have had to go all the way to Miami.
Santeros aren’t the only ones making regular visits to Yemaya & Chango Botanica; it has become a one-stop store for the jinxed, befuddled, or cosmically bummed out.
“This is a pharmacy,” says Chavarria. “A doctor’s office for spiritual and material problems. If you are bothered, if you are depressed, and you don’t know how to get out of a problem, you come here.”
Most customers come for help with money and romance worries and other everyday troubles; others have more pressing needs.
Five years ago, Chavarria had a “big problem” that pointed him toward Santería’s salvation. Then living in New York, he fell seriously ill with a violent fever he couldn’t shake, but doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him. A friend sent him to a santero, who said someone had put a bad spell on him. Chavarria says that with help from his patron orishas, Chango and Yemaya, he got better.
Soon after, he was initiated as a santero, which didn’t please his strict Catholic parents, and still doesn’t: “They say Santería isn’t right. They think we’re doing wrong things,” he says. “They believe you’ve got to go to church and pray to God. But see, if you have a problem, and pray to God, God is not going to pay attention when you’re talking to him—you have to learn how to deal with the spirits.”
A short, earnest man, Chavarria bears knife scars on his wrist, souvenirs from a career as a nightclub manager. Though he will talk openly for hours about the mysteries of Santería, he refuses to be photographed. He says his orishas have told him not to be photographed for a period of at least three years. He claims a recent snapshot of him came out blank.
Chavarria dresses in white from his baseball cap to his sneakers, and explains his affinity for the color by saying he has made a deal with the father of saints, Obatala, whose color is white and symbolizes purity. Likewise, shop assistant and Chavarria’s “godson” Frank Leon is also decked out in white; he is undergoing an initiation supervised by his boss.
Raised in a tough section of Brooklyn, the 24-year-old Leon is a former cocaine addict trying to turn his life around. As with Chavarria, the Catholic Church didn’t work for him: “I would pray for God to help me, but I still felt like crap,” he says. “I still had all my problems and I didn’t have anything resolved.” At first, he was skeptical about Santería: “I thought it was all mumbo jumbo and witchcraft.” But since his initiation, he says the orishas helped him quit drugs, a feat that several stints in rehab clinics couldn’t accomplish. (In addition, Leon recently discovered he comes from a long line of Puerto Rican santeros on his father’s side of the family.)
Despite the botanica’s obvious commercial aspirations, the men say the store’s mission remains helping orishas do their work. “Respect the orishas, love the orishas,” Chavarria tells his new apprentice, “and they will love and help you.”