You don't practice Santeria? You ain't got no crystal ball? Actually, you don't need one -- instead, the botanicas that sell spell-casting Santeria charms specialize in candles, soaps, incense and body splashes, small tokens that perfume your home and body with musk while imbuing you with magic.
The folk religion arrived in Los Angeles from Central America, but its roots stretch back to Nigeria where it began as a mash-up of Catholicism and the occult. Santeria landed in the New World when slave ships docked in Cuba, and then migrated west in the 1950s when Cuban actresses like the rumba-dancing Ninón Sevilla became stars in Mexico City. (Hey, it's not much different than John Travolta spreading Scientology.)
If you've passed by a botanica, it can look cramped and intimidating, a jumble of colored candles screen-printed with specific requests (and skulls, lots of skulls). Some, like the Casino Jackpot or Do As I Say votives, are self-explanatory. For the Black Chicken or White Chili candles, you'll need a friendly clerk, who might offer to dress the candle with oils for extra magic.
The big concept is energy. Light a white magic candle and it will project your positive wishes into the universe. Want to clear obstacles from your path? Or someone cute to like you back? There's a candle for that, and it'll cost you no more than five bucks. But break that candle before it's lit, and it means bad energy is cock-blocking your good vibes. You're going to need a bigger votive.
Does it really work? Who knows. But the number of botanicas in Los Angeles means something stronger than a Money Drawing candle keeps them in business. And the rise of panic-inducing Huffington Post stories about sacrificial altars in Pasadena and the new, Santeria-inspired Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, set in Oxnard, means this mix of black, white and Christian voodoo is coming out of the flickering shadows.
Here are six shops where you can make magic just by striking a match.
BOTANICA SAN MARTIN
Like Jerry Springer, this mellow neighborhood spot specializes in love-gone-awry. Explain your romantic angst to the woman behind the counter, and she'll select the right red candle that can set things right. As a bonus, she'll tip you off to magic you can add at home -- say, carving you and your infatuation's names in the wax and sprinkling the wick with sugar and cinnamon. As for the shop's most ominous-sounding candle-- Your Lover Will Hate You -- that's to get your cheating husband to dump his mistress, or break up another couple so you can swoop in and console your crush. 9213 California Ave., South Gate; (323) 564-5383.
BOTANICA REINA DE MEXICO
Wind through the bottom level of El Mercado De Los Angeles and climb to the second story. There you'll find this ominous stall crammed with the usual votives begging for luck and love, and then ones that give you a cold, glassy chill. If you don't know what candle you want, the staff isn't eager to help. But if you know you're there to battle the police, dominate your enemies, and get snitches to stop snitching, there's a candle for that (and it's cheap). Shake off any bad vibes with a tequila at one of the three Mexican restaurants on the third floor. 3425 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights; (323) 263-8685.
Owner Estrella knows her stuff. In fact, she's often too busy consoling the cursed over the telephone to hang up and sell candles. But while listening to her murmur, "His name is Brian? And his birthday?" to the distressed, you'll have tons of time to browse her wares, which include a pegboard of powerful incense crystals that match the giant geode in the window and three dozen specialized aerosol sprays, including an all-purpose one that promises power controlling, health, peace, love, luck, money, happiness, protection and jinx removing. Can your Febreze do that? 4621 Melrose Ave., East Hollywood; (323) 667-1928.
BOTANICA DE LOS ANGELES
You could take a priest to this narrow storefront just south of MacArthur park. You might even meet one there. This botanica specializes in the powers of Christianity and its off-shoots, with the Virgin Mary standing shoulder-to-shoulder with unsanctioned, but no less significant folk saints like Guatemala's San Simon and the increasingly popular Santa Muerte, aka Holy Death. The latter, a lady skeleton with a scythe, looks scary. But it's the color of the wax in her candles that matters most: green means money, white means truth, blue means peace, red means love, and even the ultra-menacing black means protection from harm. Still, the Mexican government finds Santa Muerte frightening -- they've been destroying roadside shrines on their side of the U.S. border. 729 S. Alvarado, Westlake; (213) 351-0540.
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The candles in this welcoming, clinical shop are a couple bucks pricier than normal, but with good reason. Head clerk Pedro has been practicing spells for over 50 years. (He started when he was 10, hence his energy.) Explains Pedro, most candles carry no more magic than what the purchaser channels into it themselves. But he can dress them with extra magic for $5 more, which seems more than worth it to the people who file into his shop asking him to battle black magic curses. And Pedro alone insists on proper protocol, cautioning that his blessed candles must burn out on their own and the empty votive wrapped in a plastic bag before being disposed in the trash. 443 S. Atlantic Blvd.; East L.A.; (323) 261-0364.
FARMACIA Y BOTANICA MILLION DOLLAR
Talk about multipurpose. If you want to fight your haters, this corner shop in the thick of downtown carries more than just anti-envy candles -- it sells anti-envy bar soap and body wash. (And Pepto-Bismol if you also need a dose of that.) Too nervous to watch over your own candle? Light it and leave it in one of the crowded racks, where clerk Jesus is happy to keep an eye on the flames while taking tourists on a mini-tour of the shop. Be sure to visit the tucked-away altar where visitors leave tequila, Lindor truffles, photographs, earrings, and packages of cheese crackers. 301 S. Broadway, downtown; (213) 687-3688.