House of Spirits

Martín Ramirez has a cure for what ails you.

Not too long ago, a customer walked into Martín Ramirez's botánica complaining that he couldn't have sex. And he'd tried, the man explained. A lot.

So Martín asked him for a personal object, and the man handed over a watch. Martín rubbed the trinket in his hands, closed his eyes and concentrated. A few seconds later he saw a doll with hair from the man's armpits and pubic area buried in a basement.

The man had just gotten a divorce, and Martín figured that the ex-wife had put a hex on him -- where it counts. Martín told the customer what he'd seen, where he'd seen it and how to destroy it.

Martín Ramirez has a notion for potions.
John Johnston
Martín Ramirez has a notion for potions.

"But don't touch it," Martín cautioned, "or you'll pass out."

The man went home, found the doll, touched it anyway, and promptly passed out. A few days later, after burning the doll according to Martín's strict instructions, the man returned to the botánica with a smile.

And fifty bucks.

Martín is a curandero, a folk healer, the Mexican equivalent of a Native American medicine man. For more than twenty years, he has helped cure everything from hemorrhoids to hangovers to broken hearts, using little more than herbs, prayers and a psychic ability he calls the don.

What he practices has been practiced for centuries, often in secret, and usually outside the bounds of mainstream religions and medicine. But now, with the popularity of alternative medicine, the spread of the new-age movement and the flow of immigrants from Central America, Cuba, South America and the Caribbean, curanderos advertise on the Internet, milagro candles sell at Safeway, and botánicas anchor strip malls.

"It's like the gays," Martín explains. "In the old days, it was kept quiet. But now it's out of the closet."

Nowhere is that more apparent than at Martín's shop, Botánica y Yerbería Caridad del Cobre, at 3501 Lawrence Street. For a dozen years, this botánica has been the Wal-Mart of the spiritual fringe. Martín and his wife, Maria, prepare herbal remedios, supply smaller retailers throughout the city and distribute spiritual products statewide. Business has been so good that they've even bought out two competitors.

"We're a spiritual drugstore, is what it comes down to," Martín says. "There are only three places in town where you can buy these things, and I'm the biggest. So if you believe in this stuff, sooner or later you're going to end up here."

At age five, Martín performed his first limpia.

She was a younger woman, Martín recalls, slowly withering away, who appeared at his grandfather's home in Mexico. Her husband had placed a spell on her to keep her faithful; instead, she'd become gravely ill. Martín and his grandfather, a curandero, gave her an herbal detoxifying tea, recited a series of prayers and passed an egg over her body to absorb the negative energies.

"We saw her three months later and she was fine," Martín says. "After that, I wanted to learn how to be a curandero."

Martín is now 47 years old. He's a big man with a wide nose, sleepy eyes and a relaxed manner. He leans his thick forearms on the glass counter and speaks in a slow, raspy voice. He's originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, where both sets of grandparents owned grocery stores around the corner from each other in the village of Jeraz. They mainly sold eggs, dry goods and produce, but they also carried small supplies of religious figurines and remedios. On occasion, they even offered healing advice. One grandfather, Julian Ramirez, had a gift of visions; one grandmother, Elojia Alvarado, was an herbalist from Yucatán.

Although they were competitors, the two families got along fine -- until Rito Ramirez eloped with Manuela Alvarado, who was only thirteen. Afterward, the Alvarados distanced themselves from the Ramirez family, and Rito and Manuelo, along with a growing family that included Martín, headed north to Juarez and eventually across the border. Rito worked as a bracero in the agricultural fields of New Mexico, Arizona, California and Colorado. In 1961 the family finally settled in Denver and launched a series of businesses, including a Mexican import venture, two Mexican restaurants and a small Mexican market in lower downtown.

After graduating from high school, Martín worked for Coca-Cola and later joined in the family businesses. Always, he practiced curanderismo, sometimes in the back room in the market. But he had so many clients and so many spiritual supplies that in 1982, he and Maria decided to open their own botánica, two doors from the market on Larimer Street. He soon outgrew that spot, too, however, and bought his current building, which had previously housed a mortuary, printing shop and plumbing supply, six years later.

Today Martín's botánica rises above a bustling street corner a half-dozen blocks from Curtis Park, beside a string of low-slung apartments and an auto repair shop. It's a two-story tan brick building with red trim, large windows and Aztec murals depicting El Herberio and La Limpia on the sides. Neighborhood kids -- gang members included -- are so spooked by its appearance that they won't even tag it with graffiti. They call Martín the "voodoo man."

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