House of Spirits
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.
"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."
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 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."
"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."
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.
"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.
"I look at this business like the cartoon character Linus with his security blanket," he says. "A lot of people have to have this stuff in order for their lives to go right. Some of them can't go a week without having a cleansing. And it works for them because they have faith in it, because it comes from within. People come here because they believe."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.