When Juan Carides had a run of bad luck three years ago, he paid $500 for a series of three spiritual rituals, including ones in which he was rubbed-down with red meat and a live white dove to draw out bad energy.
In doing so, he patronized a specialized store in Adams Morgan, Botanica Yemaya y Chango, one of a handful of such "botanicas" in the Washington area at the time. The religious supply and herb shops have long been staples in cities like Miami and New York with large Hispanic populations, specializing in items and services for African-based faiths, including Santeria and Yoruba.
"I had a car accident and trouble looking for work," said Carides, who now works part time in a botanica. "After [the rituals] everything came in order: I found a job, got an apartment, I got a car and my partner came back into my life."
The religious ceremonies at times call for the sacrifice of chickens or goats, which has made it controversial. In fact, a local Florida ordinance banning animal sacrifices went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was ruled unconstitutional. So some botanicas are identifiable only by painted window signs. One shop owner declined to give his name because he said the religion is "supposed to be a secret."
But in the last two years, the number of botanicas in the Washington area has grown markedly, with at least 10 now scattered from the District to the suburbs. The traditional Hispanic clientele is changing as well. The stores have begun attracting customers of varying ethnic backgrounds, particularly African Americans who want to acquaint hemselves with native African religions.
"This is no secret anymore," said Andre Echevarria, who has owned the Adams Morgan botanica for 10 years. He said he did market research to find where the Hispanic communities were before settling on his location.
"Businesses grow when they provide something the community needs," Echevarria said. "For years we were the only [botanica], but I like the competition and there's more than enough business to go around."
Santeria, a mix of Catholicism and the African Yoruba religion, originated after slaves were brought to the Americas and forced to worship as Catholics, according to books on religion. They hid their Yoruba faith -- ascribing Catholic saint identities to their native orishas, or gods. Eventually, the melding of the two faiths produced Santeria. The religion first was practiced in Cuba, but spread throughout Latin America, with different versions practiced in varying countries. In Brazil, for example, it is known as Macumba. Voodoo, practiced in Haiti, has similarities to Santeria.
The colorful stores offer a range of herbs, novena candles(colored candles in heavy glass jars), oils, incense, books and altar statues. Altars to various Orishas decorate the stores -- burning candles and baskets of money sit at their base. The aroma of incense wafts through the air, accompanying the rhythmic beat of drums blaring from a boom box.
Joseph Murphy, a professor of comparative religion at Georgetown University, has studied Santeria for nearly 30 years. He said the name comes from botanicals, or herbs, often used as medicines, which he said was the original basis of the shops.
"There are frequent stories of doctors being unable to cure things that the spirits were effective at," Murphy said, noting that Georgetown held a conference where medical doctors and traditional healers came together to discuss treatment for suffering patients.
Most shop owners, who include natives of Jamaica, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, say about half the business in their stores comes from the sale of retail items.
Melinda Hernandez, who owns the Botanica San Francisco de Asis, in the District, said 90 percent of her revenue is from the spiritual work she does, including readings. Readings can be done with shells -- which are tossed on a mat and analyzed -- cards or bowls of water. Seances are sometimes held in private rooms within store confines.
Some supplies -- herbs and dried sticks -- are imported from Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Brazil. The shops also sell mass-produced items like candles and incense. Often, those products bring in the non-believers.
Candles, one of the most popular items in the shops, are often made by larger candle companies. One popular brand is Eternalux, which produces novena candles -- some decorated with English or Spanish writing and pictures of saints.
Although candles sell for about $3 each, they make up a large portion of the day-to-day sales. For an extra fee -- up to $25 -- some shops dress candles individually for customers, adding oils and powders.
"We have a weekly money base that comes in from candles and other supplies, including baths, floor washings and items for new initiates into the religion," said Ceasar Leceau, a practitioner of Santeria and an employee at Echevarria's shop. The average sale at the shop is $10 to $15, he said.
Echevarria, who is Salvadoran, said he opened his shop 10 years ago with $10,000 he made when he sold a small limousine service in New York. He started the business out of his apartment, where he prepared herbs for his friends. He identified a market niche when he went in search of a botanica to buy the herbs. While the shops were numerous in New York, he recalled, there was only one -- since closed -- in the District at the time.
His Adams Morgan shop on 18th Street NW attracts tourists as well as traditional clientele. In the window is a life-size statue of Yemaya, a black Madonna-like figure holding a white baby, a scene that often piques the interest of passersby.
Echevarria said sales in his shop total as much as $5,000 a month. He said he has run newspaper ads and holds free classes for those interested in the religion, many of whom are students from Georgetown and Howard Universities.
Owners of some other botanicas in the area said their monthly sales range from $2,000 to $4,000.
Libia Arias, who owns Botanica San Joaquin in Arlington, said she opened her shop six years ago after her husband established himself in the area reading palms and tarot cards. "People were constantly knocking on my door and looking for suggestions on how to take care of whatever advice [my husband] gave them," Arias said. "So we decided to open the botanica and offer merchandise."
Maria Encarnacion worked at the store her nephew owned on Georgia Avenue. The shop, which opened two years ago, closed last week to relocate. Business isn't bad, but things have gotten tougher with competition, she said.
"They saw there was only a few and now everyone wants a part of the business," she said. "It has hurt business -- there are less people coming." Encarnacion said she has owned a botanica in her native Dominican Republic for 14 years.
Shop owners say the demographics of botanica customers now include all races and faiths. Leceua attributed an increase in African Americans shoppers to an effort to reconnect with their roots.
"They want to remove the slave connotations -- strip it of its Catholic influence and make it more African," Leceau said. In the Deep South a voodoo-related faith, loosely referred to as "roots," "hoodoo" or "Conjure Man," is an African American adaptation.
Staff researcher Carmen Chapin contributed to this report.