At Papa Jim’s Botanica on South Flores, visitors are greeted by the pungent smell of incense and a statue of St. Jude standing tall over a small bowl of burning sage or copal resin. Nearby is a small box of “peticiones,” poignant requests for help written on small squares of paper.
This is the realm of the saints and black magic, of the earnest prayer and the evil eye and the never-ending war between good and bad energies.
The shop sells a broad range of medicinal herbs, oils, teas and incenses, as well as occult and sacred items.
One incense promises a peaceful home. A powder vows protection from envy. A shiny voodoo ball will foil a curse.
On a long wall of candles, there is one to meet almost every need, from faded love to fixing a bad boss.
Not surprisingly, there is also merchandise to cope with the darkest curse of all — the coronavirus pandemic now raging in its sixth month.
“We’re selling a lot of herbs for respiratory needs, anything that has to do with coughing and pulmonary infections. Also items for anxiety and to help you sleep,” Yuly Garcia, 34, the store manager, told the San Antonio Express-News.
In these stressful times, some people also seek emotional and spiritual relief in card readings and cleansing, as well as visits to curanderos (healers) and a range of spiritual counselors.
Customers of all ages are seeking folk cures for the mysterious virus. Business has increased at Papa Jim’s, and Garcia said she’s seeing young people who typically would not be drawn to traditional remedies.
“These are people who cannot afford to go to a doctor. They are not sick themselves, but they may have a family member who is sick, or they may be unemployed,” she said.
“People need to believe in something, and when the government doesn’t give them a lot of help, they turn to faith. I think that is the only thing that will get us through this.”
For breathing problems, there is “gordolobo,” an herb sold in a small bag, as well as eucalyptus. Both are used in teas.
To steady frayed nerves, there is seven blossoms tea, as well as a special elixir that combines eucalyptus with green tea, chamomile and dandelion juice.
Also selling well is the religious candle featuring San Roque, the patron saint of invalids and those suffering from contagious diseases.
At least 20 of these shops are doing business in the open in San Antonio. More operate below the radar from people’s homes.
A few blocks to the north on South Flores is the Botanica Los Misterios, easily identified by the large mural of Selena on an outside wall.
Inside, the tiny space is dominated by large statues of St. Jude, St. Francis and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Los Misterios offers a broad range of personal services, from “love attraction rituals” to cowrie shell readings to “chakra balancing.”
The shop, owned by Jonathan and Pauline Coronilla, was closed to walk-in business during the early months of the pandemic but served customers outside and by phone.
“We were busier in that time than ever before. I think a lot of people turned to botanicas because of faith and job problems. When they were shut in, a lot of people were lonely,” said Pauline, 42, who refers to herself as a “New Age guru.”
These days, business remains brisk, although the small botanica sees only one visitor at a time and requires each to wear a mask.
“We’ve done curbside and over the phone. Some people don’t want to leave their home,” she said. One of the botanica’s more popular services is “candle spells.”
“With a candle, you add ingredients including herbs, oils and seeds. It all depends on what a person’s needs are. Each candle is a remedy to lift a person up,” she said. “It’s a concoction of things. We make holes down into the wax so the powders and oils go all the way to the bottom. Just the right amount keeps the candle going for seven days.”
One recent morning, David, 46, a trim health care worker who is a regular customer, stopped by for a consultation with Jonathan.
“I’m here for answers. We come here for hope and guidance. People are losing their jobs. When will the COVID end?” he asked. “I’ve had the COVID already. It’s very depressing working from home.”
As he was leaving, David, who declined to reveal his last name, said the visit had lifted his spirits.
“I feel good. There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
George Garcia, 48, a fourth-generation curandero, makes house calls as far away as Floresville and Austin. He said that soon after the pandemic hit, he noticed a change in his clients’ needs.
“Before, it was usually ‘Bring my love back,’ or ‘Someone is doing a brujeria (witchcraft) on me. Can you come and cleanse my house?’” he said.
“Now, with the COVID, it’s more about money. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reversals, like ‘Someone put a spell on me to not have money. Can you reverse it?’” he added.
Other clients are suffering from a spiritual crisis because COVID-19 has cost them a job or their love life or even worse.
“People are giving up. They say, ‘I don’t believe in Jesus no more. Why is he doing this or that?’ Someone in their family dies, and they are trying to blame it on Jesus,” he said.
Recently, he got a call from a client who was on the brink of suicide. She had lost her husband to COVID-19 and was in desperate financial straits.
“She asked me how much? It brought me to tears. I said, ‘Just give me for the gas,’” he said.
Janet Zenteno, 53, who owns the Botanica Eshu Aniki on West Commerce, which leans toward African-derived rituals, sees the same pattern.
“A year ago, it was ‘My husband is having an affair.’ Now it’s about putting food on the table and ‘What will happen to my family if something happens to me,’” she said.
Zenteno said she counsels clients on unproven ways to resist the virus — by raising their body temperature and boosting their immune systems.
She recommends drinking lots of hot teas made from eucalyptus, peppermint and gordolobo and taking lots of vitamin C.
Recently, Zenteno had her own COVID-19-related crisis. She was reading cowrie shells for a client and asked whether there had been a death in the family recently.
“She said, ‘Oh yes, my mother passed away yesterday of the COVID,’” recalled Zenteno, who was seated just a few feet from the woman.
“I asked, ‘Why are you out?’” and she said. “I’m asymptomatic.’ And I said, ‘Darling, you need to leave my place.’”