House of Spirits

Martín Ramirez has a cure for what ails you.

He has dozens of magic candles, too, including a red one with a drawing of a gagged woman and the words "Shut Your Mouth" on the front. "You dress it with oils, say certain prayers, and it helps keep the gossip down," Martín explains.

Or a candle showing a man and woman glowering at one another. "This is a break-up candle," he says. "When you like someone else's woman and you want her to break up. If you want to attract her to you, use this."

Combined with amulets, charms and prayers, candles can be very potent, Martín explains. And, of course, he has the amulets and charms, too, both prepackaged and ready for assembly.

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

"The people who use these things ask for certain formulas, so we have to have everything for them," he says. "Dried bats. Dried hummingbirds. Dried rattlesnakes. Rattlesnake is very powerful. One of the best things. You crush it up and eat it, and it will help with anemia, acne, cirrhosis of the liver, hemorrhoids and allergies."

Martín unfolds a scrap of notebook paper.

"Like this," he says. "This is a prescription. They want patchouli oil, carnation oil, rosemary oil, mint oil, cinnamon oil, jasmine oil, money oil, love oil and some gardenia perfume. The way this looks to me now, they want to get rid of negativity. They want a money spell, too, like they're going gambling. And they want a love spell."

The botánica also supplies cures for more physical ailments: herbs that soothe sore throats, herbs that aid digestion, herbs that reduce blood sugar. The shop has herbs pre-packaged in Mexico, herbs drying in a storage room upstairs or prepared under their brand, La Michoacana, so named because Maria is a native of Michoacán, Mexico. Between them, Martín and Maria know the healing properties of dozens of herbs. They also keep reference books, catalogues and thick binders of prayer cards and saints. When a middle-aged woman approaches the counter complaining of stomach pain, Martín hands her a small package of special tea.

"In Mexico, we believe that when people get mad a lot and don't let it out, that their stomach acid raises," he explains. "When you get pissed off, that acid eats away your stomach lining. If you don't neutralize it, you're going to get all bloated or even get an ulcer. I gave her a combination of herbs to help with that."

But most customers already know what they want. They've been referred to Martín by Mexican doctors, other curanderos or family members who have used remedios for generations. During the cold-and-flu season, he has "teas for coughs, teas for fevers, teas for colds, teas for all kinds of things." Among the most popular is osha.

"It's a natural antibiotic," Martín says. "It kills infections like crazy. You can chew on it or make tea. If you take a piece of it and put it in your pocket for three days, you can also go through a pit of rattlesnakes and they won't bother you. They smell the root and think you're one of them."

Although Martín will dispense herbs to anyone asking for his help, he only practices curanderismo for longtime clients: He doesn't want people to think he's using his gifts to push his shop's products. So when someone asks for spiritual help - such as the gay man who slapped a photo on the counter and asked if his boyfriend was cheating -- Martín refers them to other curanderos, people he respects.

"A lot of people out there are nothing but ripoffs," he says. "Some of them will take you for thousands of dollars if you let them. But real curanderos accept only what people are willing to give them as donations. In Mexico, they brought you a chicken as payment. And if they gave you a little pig, you took that, too. If someone wants a lot of money, that should tell you something."

Martín takes other precautions to keep his business aboveboard. Although curanderismo has its dark side, like any other spiritual practice, he steers clear of black magic. Devil worshipers are shown the door. No one under eighteen is allowed in the store. All imported herbs are inspected at the border by federal agents, and Martín's La Michoacana remedios are checked regularly by state agriculture officials. The shop has a million-dollar insurance policy. And if someone arrives at his counter with a serious illness, Martín sends him to a physician.

"People will bring in friends who say, 'What do you mean, love oil? What are you going to do -- put it all over his dick?'" Martín chuckles. "But you can come over here and spend a $1.39 on an herb to control your sugar diabetes for two weeks, or you can go to your doctor and spend $150 for a prescription. I know this works, because I've seen results. And in this country, you can worship what you want. The devil. The sky. A rock. As long as we've got that freedom, no one can mess with you.

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