“Money and morality may not grab headlines the way sex and death do, but they go to the heart of what it means to be an American. These ideas take powerful shape in ‘Botánica Los Angeles,’ which presents a slice of life in an immigrant nation’s attempt to answer big questions about the pursuit of happiness and every citizen’s right to interpret it howsoever he or she sees fit.”
Los Angeles Times, September 2004
Best described as an ever-evolving combination of spiritual center, religious supply house, and alternative healthcare facility, the botánica is fast becoming a key feature of the sacred, social, and visual landscape of Los Angeles. Generally associated with folk Catholicism and other Latin American religious traditions, the hundreds of botánicas in Southern California are sites of spirit-infused artistry, ceremonial activity, and community building, especially among Latinos. Botánica Los Angeles explored these fascinating venues and their role in transmitting, transforming, and critiquing traditional faiths.
Spend some time driving around the City of Angels, and one quickly realizes that material expressions of spiritual belief are integral to our urban landscape. Cathedrals, temples, churches, and shrines dot the metropolitan grid, placing religious imagery at the most important nodes of residential and commercial activity. A closer look — at the names and facades of businesses, on the dashboards of the vehicles of fellow commuters, dangling from driver’s key chains, or on mantles in private homes — reveals that our lives are replete with religious art, icons, holy images, and other visual components of faith, some strictly orthodox and others fantastically idiosyncratic.
But where do all the guardian angels, broken-tusked Ganeshas, beatific saints, smiling Buddhas, concerned Madonnas, Gaeas, mezuzahs, crucifixes, crescent moons, Stars of David, peaceful doves, happy cats, saint candles, Jesus fish, pentagrams, Conquering Lions of Judah, mystic pyramids, golden pagodas, and the whole host of other spiritually evocative images widely displayed throughout the region come from?
In Los Angeles, botánicas are rapidly becoming one of the most familiar purveyors of these sacramental items, as well as critical in supporting and shaping the ways numerous residents envision and interact with the sacred in everyday life. Patronized here by an only-in-LA clientele that ranges from recent Latin American immigrants to Goth teenagers from the San Fernando Valley, these somewhat mysterious locales — part religious supply house, part spiritual center, and part alternative healthcare facility — are the focus of the exhibition ‘Botánica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels.’
Generally associated with folk Catholicism and other Latin American religious traditions, the hundreds of botánicas in Los Angeles are sites of spirit-infused artistry, ceremonial activity, and community building, especially among Latinos. Central to all of these activities is the use of religious imagery and visual arts practices — especially shrine building and altar making — as a means of expressing notions of the divine. ‘Botánica Los Angeles’ explores these fascinating venues, the objects in them, and their role in transmitting, transforming, and critiquing traditional faiths.
The exhibition opens with an eye-catching recreation of a typical botánica: chock-full of sacred objects characteristically offered for sale, including candles, incense, religious sculptures of saints and buddhas, curative potions, shrines, chromolithographs, and more. A large cast figure of a Native American, complete with feathered war bonnet, sits cross-legged near statues of Saint Jude, the patron of the hopeless; San Simón, the Guatemalan trickster saint; and Jesús Malverde, the martyred Robin Hood of the U.S./Mexico borderland. Off to the side is a table and chairs at which a practitioner might provide his/her services.
The exhibition continues with the following series of elaborate altars/shrines created by local practitioners that showcase both the diversity and continuity among botánicas in Los Angeles:
Created by husband and wife Felipe and Valeria García Villamil, this shrine/throne features a large beaded gourd, several beaded canes, a beaded canteen, and a decorated shoulder bag. It is dedicated to Elegba, a divinity (oricha) recognized by practitioners of Afro-Cuban Santería. Trickster and divine messenger, Elegba facilitates communication between humans and the gods and for this reason is always the first to be invoked in ceremonies. He is also the oricha who controls luck and destiny.
Shrine for Manuel and Francisca
Designed by Charles Guelperin, an Argentina-born practitioner of Espiritismo, Santería and El Palo Mayombé, this installation is dedicated to Guelperin’s primary spirit guide Manuel, a deceased African king, and his consort Francisca. Featuring nearly life-sized statues of the two spirit guides seated in front of their palenque (forest house), this altar mirrors those constructed on special occasions at Guelperin’s home as a means of celebrating and honoring Manuel’s supernatural aid.
Puerto Rican Mesa Blanca Altar
Using their family’s Puerto Rican-style Espiritismo altar as a model, Ysamur Flores-Peña and Dorothy L. Flores fashion a table altar featuring Catholic holy icons, representations of African, Native American, and East Asian spiritual entities, and an assortment of spirit-invoking candles, perfumes, and flowers. Highlighted in this installation are Madamas, spirits of deceased African slaves generally represented by black dolls and thought to especially nurturing and protective.
Altars for Ochun/Michaela/Irak
Sonia Gastelum, owner of Botánica Orula in Lynwood, is both a santera and an espiritista. In her practice, Gastelum recognizes several otherworldly beings whose presence she routinely feels, affecting her personality, shaping her character, and directing her behavior. For the exhibition, she has constructed altars featuring images and sacred objects representing three of the spirits with whom she most often works: an ethereal female Gypsy (gitana) named Irak who guides Gastelum when she is reading the Tarot cards for clients, an African spirit named Michaela who is her primary spiritual guide, and Ochún, the Santería goddess of love, desire and sensuality.
San Simón Shrine
A spiritist (espiritista) and folk healer (curandero) from Zamayac Sochiltepeques in Guatemala, Carlos Arana Figueroa Martínez is devoted to San Simón, the unofficial patron saint of Guatemala who is popularly described as a wealthy European visitor to Guatemala who provided food, medicine, and other goods to the indigenous Maya and was miraculously transformed into a saint. This shrine features representations of the saint, who is typically shown as a light-complexioned adult seated in a chair with a cane or staff in his right hand. Normally he wears a wide-brimmed, black hat and white shirt, black suit, shoes or boots, and a red tie. A sly figure that reportedly has a drinking problem, San Simón is often invoked for treatment of addiction, assistance with immigration and other legal matters, and for matters of love and marital relationships.
This exhibition was guest curated by Patrick A. Polk, visiting assistant professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures.
Support for Botánica Los Angeles is provided by the Donald B. Cordry Memorial Fund, Jim and Jeanne Pieper, Monica Salinas, the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum.