Academic journal article Human Organization

Botánicas in America's Backyard: Uncovering the World of Latino Healers' Herb-Healing Practices in New York City

Academic journal article Human Organization

Botánicas in America's Backyard: Uncovering the World of Latino Healers' Herb-Healing Practices in New York City

Article excerpt

This article examines Latino healers' use and prescription of herbs and plants in New York City (NYC), focusing on botánicas (ethnic healing-religious stores) as main healing outlets serving a pan-ethnic population of Latino immigrants in the city. Botanicas provide a physical and a social space for the exchange of information and resources, as well as for the support of informal faith-healing networks on the basis of religious belonging (e.g., Santeria and Spiritism). Rather than conforming to discrete categories, plants and herbs reveal a poli-functionality in how they impact different aspects of clients' lives, ranging from getting back a loved one to recovering from a serious health condition. Healers' treatments, based on ritualistic cleansing, are pivotal to resolving Latinos' ailments rooted in sociosoma modes of causation that imply social relationships severed by sorcery, spirit intrusion, and stressful living circumstances. Most of the plants, herbs, and roots found at botánicas are believed to have both natural and supernatural healing properties, able to deal with the multi-dimensional aspects of disease and well-being. The article will finally discuss the implications of these findings from a research and policy perspective, particularly regarding the need for research models able to account for the role of spirituality and religiosity in Latinos' integrative systems of healing.

Key words: folk healers, immigrant health, alternative medicine, Latinos, botánicas, ethnomedicine, New York City.


Wherever you see a little bit of herbs, there you will find a remedy.

From El Monte, Cabrera 1983:83

(author's translation)

They (Latinos) are the ones who come here the most, and they are the ones that more or less share the same customs, no matter where they are from. Do you understand? We have almost the same problems, and we are Latinos, we understand each other much better ...and that's why.... We are Latinos!

Diogenes, male Santeria practitioner

Previous studies on the role of botánicas (religious-healing stores) have highlighted the existence of blossoming markets of healing in the United States, particularly with regards to Latinos' use of herbs and plants to treat a variety of physical and emotional ailments (see Polk 2004; Long 2001 ; Delgado and Santiago 1998). Innovative research has provided a unique contribution to our understanding of immigrants' folk-healing beliefs and practices, particularly for the handling of women's health conditions (see Reiff 2003; Balick et al. 2000). In addition, the increasing interest in the farming, circulation, and use of herbs and plants in cosmopolitan milieus has been supported by the globalization of former syncretic traditions, brought together by the amalgam of diverse healing systems across rural and urban areas (see Vandebroek et al. 2004; Romberg 2003). This is particularly relevant in the case of Latino immigrants who, once in the United States, tend to adapt their practices to what is both available and affordable in combination with the new knowledge they gain from their exposure to multicultural contexts, particularly in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (Viladrich 2006). It is precisely in these cities where botánicas have become the main suppliers of plants and herbs, offering specimens that are either locally produced or brought from Miami, the Caribbean, and South America (Ososki et al. 2002, Balick et al. 2000).

New York City (NYC) offers a unique cosmopolitan milieu for the study of immigrants' use of herbs and plants, particularly given the thriving religious concoctions drawn from diverse cultures and belief systems, from voodoo among Haitians (McCarthy Brown 1991) to Santeria among Cuban-Americans (Pasquali 1994). Studies of African religious systems have been pivotal in our understanding of spiritual practices as models of resistance and accommodation towards oppression (Singer and Baer 1995; Baer and Singer 1993), and in the construction of diaspora communities in the United States (see Fernández Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert 2003; Moreno Vega 2000; McCarthy Brown 1991; González-Whippler 1989). …

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