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USC Off the Beaten Path: The Search for Spirituality

Botanicas: Merchants of Miracles

Countless small shops cater to believers with oils, candles and spiritual objects — and one company in particular fills the need
By Rocio Zamora, July 24, 2007

Countless small shops cater to believers with oils, candles and spiritual objects — and one company in particular fills the need.

Image: Botanicas 480
"Trabajo" ("Work") candles at the Indio botanica factory in Texas.
Photo: Rocio Zamora

When Evette Ortiz's mother was arrested, the young woman didn't rely solely on the American justice system to set her free. Instead, Ortiz lit a white candle, wrote her mother's name on a piece of paper and put it under a clear glass of water. She placed a picture of her mother facing the candle as she recited the "Just Justice" prayer printed on the back.

This ritual is meant to bring good luck to a person of your choosing, and if you ask Ortiz, it helped get her mother out of jail.

"I put the vela with agua and my mom came out the next day," Ortiz says. "So, yeah, it does work."

For generations, Latinos have been visiting botanicas when looking to solve the problems of everyday life. In these modest storefronts, hidden among strip malls and indoor swap meets, people find the candles, colognes, incense and soaps needed for their spiritual rituals—rituals rooted in what is known as Folk Catholicism.

But don't let these humble storefronts fool you; behind them lies a booming business.

No one knows this better than Ortiz, who works packaging the very items she purchases for Indio Products Inc., one of the largest manufacturers of candles incense and oils in the country. There are around 400 to 500 botanicas in Southern California at any given time, according to Patrick Polk, a folklorist at UCLA who has studied the subject for more than 10 years. And suppliers like Indio are making huge profits stocking them.

"When I first started out back in 1987, our [annual] sales were $780,000," says Martin Mayer, president of Indio Products. "In 20 years we [grew] to $12 million."

That's no small feat considering Indio generally wholesales its candles for anywhere from $1 to $3 each.

Between Indio's wholesale operations and retail stores in Los Angeles and Dallas (where its manufacturing plant is located), the company has seen its sales increase by 10 to 15 percent each month in the last four years, according to Mayer.

With virtually no major competition, the company expects to keep growing.

"[We've started] manufacturing through the maquiladora program in Tijuana," Mayer says. "And we will export the candles out through NAFTA to botanicas and religious stores throughout the Midwest, East Coast—all over the place."

Indio's president is a candle expert, having remained in the business ever since a relative asked him to be in charge of ordering mystical candles for their pharmacy in Chicago more than 40 years ago.

"[Mayer] represents what is a definite trend in the magic business in the United States, in the supernatural, in the spiritual merchandising," says Polk. "Which is, it tends to be run by Jewish Americans who came in as herbalists and then developed into creating and merchandising all the materials for esoteric practices."

"Demand has grown mostly due to the immigration in the United States," says Bill Gershon, Indio's vice president. "There are more Latino immigrants now bringing their old ways into the country." And from the looks of it, the demand for these spiritual products isn't about to diminish anytime soon, especially now that these alternative faiths are making their way into the mainstream.

"One of the best examples of the crossover is if you go to major supermarkets now like Ralph's or Vons and you go into their ethnic section, you see candles for San Simon, for San Judas," Polk says. "And you really wouldn't have seen that ten years ago."

When botanicas first opened in Los Angeles in the 1950s, products were mostly geared toward people of African and Cuban ancestry. Now African saints with names like Elegua and Oshun sit along side Latin American folk saints like Mexico's Santisima Muerte, and Jesus Malverde, as well as Guatemala's San Simon.

But people in the business were also quick to refute the stereotype that it's mainly gullible immigrants visiting these shops.

"They look down on [botanicas] as places where ignorant people go," says Charles Guelperin, a santero priest and owner of Botanica El Congo Manuel in Los Angeles. "Well, funny enough, [my customers are] senators, judges, lawyers, doctors, professors, priests of other traditions, and students from almost every university in California."
That's because people generally have the same worries, needs and wants, no matter what their financial situation.

"The three things everyone is looking for is luck, love and money," says Richard Fava, general manager of Indio's distribution facility in Dallas. "And most of these candles, they reflect that in some way."
Among Indio's most successful candles are Reversible, which is used to reverse a hex or a stroke of bad luck, and Road Opener, which is said to open new doors of opportunity.

The humor of some titles isn't lost on consumers.

"Oh yeah, like this title," Ortiz says with a smile, as she led us to one of her favorites: "Look—Make Opposing Lawyer Stupid Oil."

With Indio's 7,000 different candles, oils, soaps, sprays and incense promising anything from a future husband to a winning lottery ticket, some people might question the effectiveness of the mass-produced items. Especially since makers admit the products have no magical powers whatsoever.

"Our wax is a by-product of oil, it comes from Exxon," Fava says of the candles Indio manufactures. "Color means a lot, but no, there's nothing in the wax itself."

Some small botanica owners who buy from Indio say that while the company's assembly-line products are more affordable, they lack the spiritual depth that comes from making items like soaps and baths from scratch.

"If you only want to pay $2.50, that's what you will be getting: two dollars and fifty cents worth of good luck," Guelperin says. "Now I give baths to my clients that cost $100, but they are made out of 121 herbs that we prepare according to the rites of Santeria."

For Guelperin the real religious experience happens at the back of the botanica, where the Argentina native has his office. Here he talks with customers at length before providing them with anything from a limpia to a reading.

"This is the place where a lot of people find communion with their customs and beliefs," the santero priest says. "They come to a botanica, in many occasions like they would go to a church, or a doctor, or a marital counselor, or a priest for confession."

Although Guelperin may not relate to the items Indio provides, he acknowledges that other people do, and so he stocks his shelves with products from Indio and other manufacturers in order to keep himself in business.

"People walk in [saying], 'Give me an herb, give me a candle, give me an oil,' because somebody told them, because a neighbor told them, because Walter Mercado on TV told them," says Guelperin. "To me it's all water and soap, just the wrap is different."

Just don't try telling that to customers like Julia Allano.
"I seek out veladoras because they're magical and I've seen results," says Allano, a native of Central America. "I have a lot of faith in San Antonio, St. Anthony. I ask him for protection, love, to have peace in my household; everything I need to have my family well."

Believers in the candles' powers don't seem to mind that the manufacturers do not use or believe in the products they sell.

"It depends more on the belief of each individual," says Johana Aguilar, a practitioner of folk Catholicism and an Indio employee. "Our family raised us to believe in saints and, well, everyone has their own opinions."

"I don't care who baked my communion wafer as long as you know for me it reinforces the idea of transubstantiation, right?" Polk says. "It's all about me using it and a priest giving it to me, not who cooked it somewhere and packaged it."

Most of Indio's packaging takes place in their Texas plant. Tables, each specifically designed to hold more than 3,000 veladoras at a time, dominate the factory floor. With the help of various machines Indio's predominantly Latino workers take turns imprinting glass, inserting wicks, pouring wax, and adding the necessary colors before packing candles in cases of 12.

"We are working at maximum capacity," Fava says. "Which for us right now is about 2,600 cases a day."

Next door, Ortiz coordinates another group of Latinas, as they fill and label small bottles of oil and package herbal baths and powders. She and co-worker Sonia are busy making Vesta Powder, a mixture of powdered sugar and potassium nitrate that causes a mini explosion when lit. According to the instructions, the act of setting the powder on fire helps drive away evil and "gain spiritual strength."

"Right now I'm just guessing," Ortiz says as she adds more powdered sugar into a large aluminum bowl. "I don't know how much quantity I'm putting in here."

"But it's the right amount," Sonia says. "She always gets it right."
When the mixture is the right shade of pale yellow they take it to the parking lot for a test. After three attempts the little mound of powder fails to catch on fire.

"It needs more potassium nitrate," Ortiz explains.

This begins to feel more like a science project than a spiritual recipe.

Once Ortiz is happy with the new batch it's back to the parking lot for a second try.

Success.

The powder ignites into a roaring flame before dying down, leaving a pile of ashes on the pavement.

For Ortiz, seeing how the powders, candles, and other spiritual items are produced has not affected her belief. In fact, she attributes her recent promotion to her using another of Indio's products: Pajaro Macua Cologne, which is said to attract good spirits.

"In order to have a business you don't have to believe in it," Ortiz explains. "[The owner] knows that other people believe in it, so that's enough."

Perhaps it all comes down to the power of positive thinking—believing something will happen because you are open to the possibility of it happening.

"If people want to walk into a botanica and buy 300 candles that [promise] good luck and coincidentally the person has good luck…so be it," Guelperin says. "Because maybe it was, who am I to say it wasn't?"

For industry leader Indio, it all boils down to business.
"I look at it as a product people want and need," Fava says. "Any product that there's a demand for, I don't have a problem manufacturing."

The fact is most religions use merchandise as a way of expressing their faith.

"Anytime you're dealing with a spiritual practice that has certainly hundreds of thousands, if not more, the material components of it are going to end up being produced and distributed in mass quantities," Polk says. "If you look at the rosaries, votive candles, medallions, holy cards, those are being produced somewhere by the millions and someone is making multimillions of dollars creating those for the Catholic Church. Same thing for Buddhism, same thing for Hinduism."

While it's impossible for Mayer to include all these religious products in his line, you will find a wide variety of saints and candles from various religious inclinations.

This array of saints will come in handy now that his company has joined the World Wide Web. Indio's bilingual website gives people all over the world access to their products from the comfort of their home, whether that be in the Caribbean, London, or Taiwan.

When it comes to the U.S. Indio has got almost every state covered.

"Who would've ever thought there would be a botanica in Kansas, Idaho, Salt Lake City, Oregon," Mayer says. "There's not in North Dakota or South Dakota… yet."

Opposing lawyers in North and South Dakota beware.


Hear Alison Brody's radio report on the growing popularity of botanicas in the United States
Take a tour of a Texas factory where workers create the products for the fast-growing botanica market

Charles Guelperin gives a tour of his Los Angeles-area botanica shop and talks about the faith — both for his customers and himself...

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