By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Most of us live in a world ruled by science and mathematics, a world without magic or spirits, where things that can't be seen, known or explained don't exist. For many, the act of lighting a candle or burning incense paired with saying a few lines from some ancient prayer does little more than provide a warm, peaceful glow. So the idea that taking a ritual bath or drinking herbal tea can ward off the evil spirits making you sick may seem, well, foreign. But scattered throughout Dallas and much of the Southwest are retail establishments known as botánicas (translated, plant stores) that thrive on making the impossible possible. Whether the problem is of a physical or spiritual nature or one of love, luck or misfortune, these shops, catering to predominantly Spanish-speaking immigrants, sell a solution. Only catch is, their folk remedies, often a blend of Catholic, Caribbean and Latin-American spiritual practices, don't come with any guarantees. Oh, and you have to believe in their power for them to work.
Luis and Liz Garcia had put aside their beliefs, searching instead last fall for ways to stem the bleeding from their family-owned painting company in Dallas. At first they wrote off the two-month slump in business as a sign of hard economic times, but after a string of canceled jobs and word that their competitors were doing just fine, the couple began thinking that something more sinister might be at work. It wouldn't be the first time. In the summer of 1998, after six strong years in business, profits began to crater and the Garcias believed it was because of brujería—witchcraft.
While cleaning out the bed of one of their trucks, Luis and his cousin stumbled across a foul-smelling brown paper bag, which was filled with the skeletal remains of four dead mice and a handful of dried herbs. Luis didn't know what to make of the sack, but his cousin told him that the bag was bad—muy mal—and he needed to go to a botánica to drive away the evil that was haunting him. A family friend recommended Chango Botánica in Oak Cliff, and its folk healer (curandero) Francisco "Pancho" Diaz.
Three days later, they went to Chango, pulling up to the West Davis Street storefront, which remains relatively unchanged to this day. Displayed in its windows, somewhat hauntingly, are six-foot statues of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe standing side-by-side with Mexico's popular folk saint, La Santisma Muerte—Holy Death. These and other life-sized statues, meant for home altars, sell for around $3,000, but they can be purchased in miniature for a car dashboard starting at around $3.
Inside the free-standing brick-and-concrete building are shelves stacked with a rainbow of colored oils, colognes, lotions and candles—each labeled to designate matters over which they supposedly hold sway such as "Health," "Better Business" and "Bingo." Hooks on the wall hold small plastic bags filled with herbs, roots and other plants and mineral ingredients believed to have curative, even magical properties.
Inside they also met Pancho Diaz, a smallish man dressed, as he is every day, in a self-imposed uniform of black slacks and a short-sleeved white shirt. He told the couple there was a "negative presence" about them, and since the sack was left in a company truck, they were dealing with a "direct attack" on their business.
"Basically, he said, 'If you don't believe, then you just ignore the problems and just keep going as is,'" Liz recalls. But finding the dead mice just as their business was dying seemed too big a coincidence to ignore. Pancho told them to thoroughly clean out the bed of the truck and then light the three candles he sold them: One candle would remove the evil; one would open their path, clearing away blockages keeping them from a better future; and another would bring prosperity to the business. And while lighting each candle, the couple should recite in prayer, "In the name of our Lord."
A week after burning the candles in their home, Luis and Liz maintain, things began to change. "We started getting a lot of repeat calls from customers who we'd done work for in the past. It's really remarkable the way things turned around, and they actually got better than before."
So more than a decade later, with debts piling up and business falling off again, the Garcias grew convinced that evil forces were conspiring against them. "We realized that we were letting it happen—again—without doing anything about it," Liz says today. "So I went to Chango." Only this time, it took two weeks for business to take a turn for the better.
"It's trivial at times to hear what others might think of the store, such as 'weird, scary, Hell, the Devil's den, voodoo,'" says Pancho's son Jorge, who at 31 towers over his father as he works beside him in the shop. "But there is an energy in the store...Maybe people come back because they found a fortress of refuge where they can relax and can catch their breath after an exhausting sprint."