Renee Wells sees colorful displays in the windows of botánicas—the multipurpose, pan-religious spiritual supply stores that dot the landscape of Latino Los Angeles—all over the San Fernando Valley, but rarely enters.
On Sunday, Wells, 66, was one of dozens of students, museum patrons and spiritualism enthusiasts who listened to a panel discussion at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History on the practices and traditions of the priests and priestesses who offer their services from the storefront shops.
The discussion was part of the museum’s exhibit, “Botánica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels.” The show, which runs through Feb. 27, features a walk-through recreation of a typical L.A. botánica, complete with curative lotions, candles, oils, sculptures of saints and religious figures of all stripes, from Native American icons to Catholic martyrs.
In recent years, botánicas have attracted the attention of academics and researchers interested in the shops’ curious mix of spiritual traditions such as Santeria, Mesa Blanca and Palo.
“We look at it as a mark of the changing demographics,” Patrick Polk, a UCLA folklore professor who curated the exhibit, said of the growing presence of botánicas in Los Angeles. “Southern California and Los Angeles have always been the site of some of the greatest spiritual and religious experimentation. Beyond the Latino component, [botánicas] are an entry point to new faiths.”
There are hundreds of botánica shops in Southern California, Polk said. The shops cater to a predominantly immigrant Latino clientele who seek out spiritists’ help with health, marital and financial problems. The services offered include tarot card readings and seances.