Omar dispenses powerful advice and objects at Botánica Orisha Locumi, 893 Broadway. These stores are as much church as storefront for followers of Santería.
Photos by Devvon Simpson for BushwickBK | Click to view slideshow>>

Brooklyn has long been called the City of Churches, but houses of faith can come in unexpected guises here. The lines between commercial and religious space, folk practice and church doctrine are seldom less clear than in Bushwick’s many botánicas, dealers in ritual goods and services and laboratories of religious syncretism.

Botánica Orisha Locumi is the largest of several botánicas under the tracks on Broadway, standing out among the commercial strip’s chicken joints and nail salons. In the window, tribal chiefs rub shoulders with canonized skeletons and Hindu idols. The signs bemuse passers-by with esoteric wording in a Yoruba dialect of West Africa, but neither the proprietors nor customers are Yoruba. So what’s going on here?

Adherents of Santería and related spiritual practices understand what it’s all about, and for them the emporium is more than a shop. It’s a community hub, a place for readings and consultations, and while many believers are also churchgoing Catholics, this is another church of sorts, an alternative space where experimentation is welcome.

Santería, or La Regla Lucumí, is only one of the many Caribbean and Latin American religious traditions that developed out of the Atlantic slave trade, when slaves who nominally converted to Catholicism preserved their deities and rituals by identifying West African orishas — deities — with particular saints. This process of religious mixing, or syncretism, began out of a need for cultural survival, but centuries later in more tolerant times, practitioners continue to explore the symbolic intersections of disparate cosmos. 

Inside the botánica. (Devvon Simpson/BushwickBK)
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The resident santero, or priest, at Botánica Orisha Locumi is Rudy Guardiola. He’s run several botánicas in Brooklyn and in Virginia over the years. Omar, who is in his twenties and has been working for Rudy since he was eleven, keeps the place running smoothly while learning the ropes. They’re loud, energetic and candid, not at all the wizened fortune-tellers we might have been expecting. "I have a long way to go to be a santero like Rudy," Omar confides while cleaning the shelves of statues. "You have to learn a book like this by heart," he says, indicating five inches of thickness, "before you can even start. It takes a lifetime." His adopted father has been a practitioner for 35 years.

Like many of New York’s Santeríans they are Puerto Rican, but visitors to the shop fit the whole range of Brooklyn types. "Puerto Rican, black, white, Mexican, Italian, everyone," Omar says of their customers. "Anybody who feels the draw." Indeed, the shop is rarely empty. The line between the front and back of counter is as porous as every other boundary here, and visitors wander to the back for consultas or just to hang out. An overstuffed couch in the front welcomes those who just want to come in and talk about everyday life and the powers that influence it. Omar discusses the details of preparing offerings and hands out fliers for an upcoming tambor, a ritual celebration of the orisha patriarch Obatalá, that will take place in the basement. In these events, Rudy takes on the person of Obatalá while in a trance state. 

Santería is not exactly condoned by the Church and it keeps as low a profile as ever, only raising outside attention when alarmist tales of animal sacrifice appear in the media. There is a cage full of pigeons in the rear of the botánica, but these are for a different purpose. "We use them to cleanse people," Omar explains. "You get all the negative energy in the pigeon and let it fly away." He also raises chickens and turtles, but only for the good energy they bestow in life, he says.

There’s much more on offer here, from fresh, wild-picked herbs whose names and uses are known only to santeros, to baths, colognes, and floor washes clearly labeled for non-initiates, promising luck, love, and safety. "Wash with it and rinse it off," Omar explains of the baths, "but you have to air dry. Don’t use a towel. You feel light afterwards, like everything’s been lifted off your shoulders." For the new year, they’ve mixed up a fresh batch of 21 Divisions, an infusion of 21 wild plants stewed under prayers from three Santeros. "We all use this and start the new year clean." 

Many products relate to one of the seven major orishas. These include Eleggua, guardian of roadways and doorways, who among others is associated with St. Martin de Porres, a Peruvian saint whose mother was a freed slave. Another important figure is Changó, a cigar-smoking symbol of power and male vitality whose double is, paradoxically, St. Barbara. Changó himself doesn’t have an imposing church in Bushwick, but he is represented in an eye-catching mural on the botánica wall. 

The traditions may be centuries old but they are hardly set in stone, and like most botánicas the experimentation is ongoing here. Eleggua shares the threshold with a statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu doorkeeper. The small contingent of Eastern deities residing here also includes Krishna and Budai. Also coming from outside the pantheon of orishas are Mexico’s skeletal Santa Muerte and the Guatemalan folk saint Maximón, both of whom may have roots among ancient Mesoamerican deities. 

This rich array of spiritual imagery lines the shelves along one wall, where Omar is taking the statues down, one by one, and cleaning them with a floral-smelling mixture. "I wash them with Holy Water," he says, referring not to water sanctified by a priest but to a particular type of ritual cologne from among the selection of bath oils. "Just to keep them fresh and clean." It’s gestures like this that make the difference between commerce and devotion, and make botanicás more than just shops. "It’s not necessary," he says, "but it’s respectful. It’s the little things."