Brokenhearted? Have a Heart Condition? A Botánica May Offer a Cure

The New York Botanical Garden, along with Columbia University and local botánicas — long associated with Santeria and other similar religions from the Caribbean,  teamed up together to explore how a botánica can function as a health care option in The Bronx.

Feet in 2 Worlds recently featured an article on the subject and briefly spoke about the subject:

A spiritual celebration at a South Bronx botanica. Photo: Camila Osorio

“It’s late on a July evening.  About a hundred people are crowded into a botánica in the South Bronx.  Shelves along the walls are filled with potions and dry herbs to cure problems ranging from kidney disease to “how to get your marriage to work.”  A group of drummers leads the crowd in songs that celebrate Anaisa, the Dominican name for Santa Ana, Mary’s mother in the story of Jesus.

People in the store dance, drink beer, and eat empanadas.

In one corner there’s a small altar with a statue of Anaisa holding a snake around her neck. It’s surrounded by burning candles and offerings of tobacco. There’s also a statue of Buddha that greets customers at the store’s entrance. A large Star of David decorates the ceiling.

“What’s interesting about botánicas is that they pick up all the elements of the religious practices by the community,” says Juan Carlos Bisonó, owner of the Botánica San Elías.

Many Latinos, the uninsured as well as those with insurance, use botanicas as an alternative means to address emotional and physical health problems.

“Here,” he says, “we follow the 21 Division.”  It’s a religion from the Dominican Republic that includes saints not acknowledged by the Catholic Church. “When slaves were brought to America, they couldn’t follow their own religions, and they had to use the figurines of Catholic saints. But behind those deities, they adored others. For example, in the 21 Division we call [Mary’s mother] Anaisa,” says Bisonó.”

Changó, on the left, is an important saint in Santería, a religious practice common in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and parts of Haiti. San Lázaro, on the right, another important saint in the Dominican Republic, receives offerings of money in exchange for favors at this botanica. Photo: Camila Osorio

The article also goes on to quote Ina Vandebroek, PhD, an ethnomedical researcher at NYBG in saying:

“The botanicas don’t only serve health, but people’s well being,” explains Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the New York Botanical Garden who has studied botánicas for years. “They correspond well with the definition offered by the World Health Organization that defines health not only as the state where there is absence of disease, but as the state where there is complete physical, emotional and social wellbeing. And that’s what botánicas do,” she says.

Vandebroek has found that botanicas in New York City carry plants recommended for thousands of conditions, most of them emotional — people who feel lonely and want to find a partner, or people who feel they have bad luck at work.

In her research, Vandebroek also discovered that many women go to botanicas to cure infertility problems, even though there is very little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of the remedies.

Since botanicas are considered vendors of religious articles, very few doctors or scientists take them seriously. Vandebroek has created a training workshop for doctors who are concerned about the medical treatment some of their patients find in botanicas.

“I talk to them about the plants, talk to them about toxicity, use of plants, effects and cultural uses of plants. And I get positive reactions from doctors. I tell them, ‘It doesn’t matter what you and I believe. What matters is what the patient believes’,” she said.”

During the research, they concluded:

“Cultural ties, strong beliefs and faith appear to be the primary reason why people access the botánica. Many of the clients have been raised around and are familiar with traditional medicine. The botánica is a place where they can find religious products and inaccessible plants, while receiving help and advice from community members.

It is important that conventional health care providers understand this approach to health, especially due to disparities in the health care people receive according to ethnicity and income level. An enhanced understanding of traditional medicine can lead to better patient-provider communication, as well as a more culturally sensitive and appropriate approach to health care.”

Read the rest of the story and listen to the audio clips via Brokenhearted? Have a Heart Condition? A Botanica May Offer a Cure | Feet in 2 Worlds.

To learn more about the work that Dr. Vandebroek, NYBG, and Columbia University have done on the subject, check out the PDF poster of their research and findings.

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.