House of Spirits

Martín Ramirez has a cure for what ails you.

Inside, Mexican soap operas drone from a TV behind the counter, green parrots squawk from large cages beside the front door, votive candles flicker beneath a portrait of the Mother of Charity in the back, and a fluffy tabby slinks through the aisles. And everywhere, from floor to ceiling, are lotions, potions, shampoos, oils, soaps, trinkets, rosaries, religious statues and shrines to various deities, including a black Buddha surrounded by dollar bills, a bottle of Bacardi rum, a red lollipop and miniature elephants.

"It's to help my business grow," Martín says of the shrine. "Buddhas like toys, incense, food and money. You have to have offerings like that. If you believe in that stuff, you have to go all the way."

And he does.

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

Martín travels to Mexico three times a year, buying about $60,000 worth of merchandise each trip. In addition to spiritual goods, he offers tortilla griddles, red-chile pods, Mexican chewing gum, tamale husks, Tweety Bird piggy banks, birds' nests, Spanish-language magazines, walking canes, acoustic guitars, Nativity scenes, baptismal invitations, long-distance telephone cards and ceramic submarine sandwiches with red jalapeños on top.

"I do a little bit of everything, and I sell a little bit of everything," says Martín, who's also a notary public. "After twenty years, I know what people want."

Although Martín is the only curandero in his family, he is not the only healer. His brother-in-law, Mariso Gonzalez, is a Santería advisor; his sister, Maria de los Angeles Ramirez, is training to be one. His brother, Julian, is a sobador chiropractor and masseur. And his remaining siblings, Rito, Xochltle and Jacinto, are budding herbalists.

"It's something that has always been in our family," Rito says. "The curanderismo comes from the Mexican side, and the merchant part comes from the Spanish side. They both come together in the store."

But not necessarily Martín's store. His sister Maria owns her own herb and spiritual supply shop at 3773 Federal Boulevard, Botánica y Yerbería Yemaya, which is second in size only to Martín's. Like her older brother, Maria packages her own remedios and carries an array of religious statuettes, soaps and oils. And like Martín, she's a notary public but has also broadened her business to include accounting and tax returns. And where Martín learned remedios from their grandfather, Maria learned them from their grandmother.

"You never complained about a stomachache to her," Maria recalls. "She'd make you chew on all those herbs raw."

For reasons neither wants to discuss in detail, Maria and Martín keep their businesses strictly separate. He stays on his side of town, and she stays on hers -- not unlike their grandparents in Mexico -- and they rarely cross paths. But every so often they refer customers back and forth.

"It's not a big deal," says Rito, who works at Maria's shop with his other siblings. "There's enough business for everyone."

At Martín's shop, the front door opens, wind chimes tinkle, and in walks a middle-aged man complaining of a nasty cough. Martín gives him a small brown package of herbs called té pulmonar. A moment later, a rumpled woman leans against the counter and says something in Spanish about bad luck. Martín recommends a cleansing solution. A few more minutes pass, a few more customers arrive.

"To work one of these stores, you have to work at least eleven hours a day, seven days a week," says Martín, whose shop is open from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. "If I stayed open until midnight, they would come."

Nine out of ten of them are from Mexico, he says. But more and more often, Martín serves customers from Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Which is why he also stocks supplies used in voodoo, wicca and the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería, now spreading through Denver and the rest of the West ("Sacrifice Zone," September 2, 1999). "We have stuff for almost every kind of cult there is," Martín says. "Except for devil worshipers. And what you see here is not even 10 percent of what I have in stock. All together, I have about $1.5 million worth of stuff."

He stands before a glass display case filled with seven-day bath treatments.

"These are used to get rid of negativity, jealousy, envy, hatred and bad luck," he explains. "This one is called 'Tie Your Man.' It's to keep your man from messing around. You can use it for women, too. It comes with everything you need: amulets, a piece of rope, metal, a doll."

Martín shuffles toward another case and points toward bottles of bright-blue liquid.

"These are cleansings," he says. "When you go to court, if you use them, they will help your case."

Most of the treatments are imported from Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, although a few come from California. They include detailed instructions in English and Spanish and often elaborate illustrations, too.

"That's Colonia Garrapata," Martín says, selecting a small orange box with a picture of a bug. "That's a love spell. To keep someone stuck to you like a tick sticks to a cow. And the one with the garlic is called ajomacho. Where Jesus was crucified, there were male garlics growing, and when Jesus's blood dripped on them, they bloomed. So whenever you use this, it's like asking Jesus for a favor."

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