Oak Cliff's Chango Botanica Believes Its Folk Remedies Are Good For What Ails You. But What's Ailing The Botanica May Have No Cure.
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.
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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."
Although Chango remains the oldest and largest botánica in the city, there has been a huge boon in these shops, with nearly two dozen listed in the Yellow Pages, and many more populating the city's bazaars, mercados and flea markets. On West Davis alone, amid the taquerías, bridal shops and tire shops, there are another half-dozen, as if Chango's formidable presence had given birth to them. They thrive because the Hispanic community is growing, because the old ways make immigrants more comfortable in new and unfamiliar surroundings, and because botánicas remain a first line of defense against myriad ailments for those immigrants too frightened or poor to seek out more modern heath care—at least until they have no choice but to do so.
Aside from herbs and teas that deal with physical afflictions, botánicas offer potions and lotions that deal with affairs of the heart and amulets and candles that deal with matters of the spirit.
"You can't take out the religious element from the botánicas," says Northern Arizona University anthropology professor Robert Trotter, who has researched curanderismo, Mexican-American folk medicine. "But, if you were to do so, there would be a huge overlap between what they carry and many of the supplements and products sold at, say, a GNC or someplace like Whole Foods."
What you won't find at Whole Foods is Pancho Diaz, Chango's owner and folk healer whose patients believe that he has the power to purge them of their afflictions through a limpia, a cleansing ritual thought to bring body, mind and spirit into alignment. But soon you may not find him at Chango, because even though the store is doing better than ever, its continued existence is threatened. Pancho, for one, has fallen ill, diagnosed with cancer of the white blood cells and weakened by a lifelong enjoyment of tobacco. And even though Jorge, after much deliberation, has decided to continue the business, the city's proposed gentrification plans for Oak Cliff, which include running a trolley down West Davis Street and building condos for young urbanites to inhabit, may drive out the immigrants upon whose patronage Chango depends.
"Imagine one day you're driving and you don't see that lighthouse of beautiful saints from multiple faiths and beliefs, and you ask yourself, 'What happened?'" Jorge says. "We are a fixture in this community and so is every other business on West Davis. It's sad to see even one tire shop disappear. And if a tire shop can make me feel that way, think about Chango Botánica."
With a lit cigar between his lips and a fresh cup of espresso at his feet, El Negro sits in the center of Chango, resting on a wooden chair with a straw hat on his knee. The statue's hair is painted salt-and-pepper only a shade darker than Pancho's. El Negro is surrounded by an altar of burning candles, incense and vases filled with flowers, some fresh, others long withered. And if you ask Pancho who owns the shop, he will point to the statue.
El Negro is the physical manifestation of Pancho's primary spirit guide, who in 1977 told Pancho—or so he says—to open a botánica in Oak Cliff. For this alone, El Negro gets coffee and a cigar daily. But the spirit, says Pancho, has been by his side since he was a 12-year-old boy in Havana, Cuba.
"Like some kids have an imaginary friend," Jorge explains. "He would see El Negro walking beside him. And when he would dream, El Negro would always be talking to him. He was never alone."
But El Negro was just one of many apparitions who visited Pancho from the time he was six, he says. "I'd see people talking to me, they would appear and disappear." He would tell his mother and others, but they just thought he was crazy. That is, until he met a "mulatto healer, Raphael," who told him he had a gift and took him through a cleansing ritual. Over time, Pancho says he taught himself how to control the voices, letting them in or shutting them out as he wished.
When he fled communist Cuba in 1967, El Negro made the trip with him, Pancho says, first to Spain, and a year later to Dallas where his aunt lived. He worked as a waiter at the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff, putting in long hours, sometimes 16 hours a day. But he still had time to sell candles and some religious articles out of his home, where he also acted as a curandero.
He bought his candles a case at a time, competing with folk healers working out of their homes, and other shops that sold spiritual supplies to the steadily growing Hispanic and already established African-American communities. And when he slipped in the hotel while serving coffee, injuring his ankle, he took it as a sign. "When the spirit wants you to do something," he says with a shrug, "you go with it."
So at El Negro's insistence, he opened a small shop, just down the street from its current location. He named it Chango, a saint in Santería (an Afro-Caribbean religion), who spoke with fire from his mouth and was known for his magical powers.
Pancho's wife Juanita was skeptical about the venture—she was a strict Roman Catholic and her husband's spirit world seemed something pagan and unholy. "I thought it was a crazy idea, and everybody [including her parents] told him it was a crazy idea," she says.
Nevertheless, he devoted himself to the business, working long hours, even staying open on Sundays, which is unusual for a botánica. His commitment meant he missed out on many aspects of family life, not that his wife and three sons didn't know how to reach him. They could just call the shop, but, as his youngest son, Jorge, laments, "He never had time to come to our soccer games or things like that." When Jorge turned 18, he began working in the shop, not just to be closer to his father, he says, but because he could see the impact it had on the lives of its customers.
"I didn't understand when I was young, and it was kind of frustrating, but I'm over that now," Jorge says. "You can find a sense of peace here and in one conversation, you can change the perspective of an individual profoundly."
Though some botánicas cater to the devotees of a particular belief, Chango is a hybrid, one-stop spiritual shop. Pancho has an all-of-the-above philosophy about spiritual beliefs, and the stock on his shelves reflects as much. His inventory includes religious articles customarily associated with espiritismo (Latin American and Caribbean spiritism), Candomblé (Afro-Brazilian religion), curanderismo, Santería and Catholicism. You can even pick up a Buddha in various sizes.
"It's like stepping into another world," Liz Garcia says.
But at the epicenter of this world is Pancho, who on a recent visit was sitting behind an L-shaped desk in his back office, and sipping Café Bustello from a demitasse cup bearing a Cuban flag. His desk is littered with product catalogs from which he orders his spiritual supplies from places as far away as Italy and Spain. Pancho still speaks with a thick Cuban accent, and drifts between English and Spanish.
"One of the things that has always been popular is the candles—candles for everything," he says. "Since day one, it was candles and herbs." And the most popular candles are those that offer help with love, protection, health and money.
For $50, Pancho will consult with you privately, reading playing cards or cowrie shells or just communicating with the evil spirits who may be making your life miserable. He might recommend herbs to clear up the problem, or special incense, or a ritual cleansing where he removes the spirits and takes them onto himself. He calls on the universal creator and El Negro to protect him from these spirits, and afterward, cleanses himself with his own ritual bath.
If a client has a health issue that Pancho feels is too serious for him to treat, he will refer the person to his own physician, Dr. Javier Valadez, who's been practicing medicine in Oak Cliff since 1983. "I cater to a lot of people who are immigrants and oftentimes botánicas will be the first contact they make to get medical attention," Valadez says.
Dr. Valadez, in turn, sends patients—many of them from rural Mexico, and some of whom say they are possessed or hear voices—to Pancho after ruling out a physical cause.
"Pancho is a very reasonable guy," Valadez adds. "What he does is, in a lot of ways, like folk psychology."
Immigration lawyer Margaret Donnelly also refers her clients to Pancho. She saw the benefits of folk healing when she became involved in a community health care project in Venezuela. "I encountered two medical systems down there, one the modern Western kind of medicine where the residents of the community would go to the doctors to get their X-rays, their blood tests, their medication," she recalls. "But this community would also go to the curandero of the neighborhood to see if he knew plants they could take, or if they needed a spiritual cleansing with incense."
When she returned to Dallas in 1989, she paid Pancho a visit. "He's really what's called an esperitista, because he is knowledgeable across the board."
If a client has a troubled legal history—an immigrant whose green card never arrived or who experienced problems with embassy officials—she might send him to Chango. "Maybe somebody put a curse on them, or they just picked up some bad energy along the way," she says. "I'll tell them to go to Pancho and see what he says. And only then will I take their case."
Pancho is a man of few words, but when he does speak, there's a sincerity and sureness in his voice that causes people to take him at his word. "You need a place like Chango, just as much as you need a church," Liz Garcia says. "A place to receive some comfort in knowing that things are being solved."
On a busy Saturday afternoon in June, the small purple wind chime hanging over Chango's front door plinks loudly, announcing the arrival of customers. Gloria and Lisa (both requested their last names not be used) enter the shop wearing tank tops and flip-flops. The women, in their early 20s, make a beeline to the rear of the store where Chango displays its huge selection of novena candles. To get to these top-selling items, visitors must walk past other religious articles in the same way that grocery stores keep staples such as eggs and milk toward the back.
Both women speak English fluently, but when Gloria dials up a family member, she switches to a heavy Spanglish for help in finding just the right candle among the 300 varieties. There is a white candle for health, a purple one for "controlling" and another labeled "Just Judge" that's meant to sway a court decision in your favor. Shortly after hanging up, the women head to the front, with Gloria clutching a pink Chuparrosa (hummingbird) candle to her chest. Printed in blue lettering in English and Spanish is the novena's purpose: Ven a Mi (Come to Me).
When asked why she picked the hummingbird candle, Gloria explains that she's going to burn it for Lisa. The candle can strengthen a relationship, she says, bringing it honesty and truth. They explain that Lisa's boyfriend is upset with her, that the couple has jealousy issues. And, now, the relationship is in trouble.
"We'll write his name on a piece of paper and then light the candle," Gloria says. "It will make things better—no more fighting. He'll get over this, and they'll be closer."
As if expecting a skeptical reaction, they both fire back in near-perfect unison: "It works!"
"You just have to have faith," Lisa adds.
"Yeah, you just have to believe," Gloria says matter-of-factly. "When my boyfriend left after two years—over stupid stuff–I did some things." She pauses. "I'd rather not say what, exactly, but it worked." Her grin turns a bit devious. "He's back."
Shortly after they leave, a middle-aged father wearing a sun-bleached ball cap, jeans and work boots shuffles in. He looks tired, defeated even as he trudges up to Jorge, who is working the cash register. In Spanish, the man asks for some resin incense, which is usually burned to protect and cleanse a house, car or work area. "The incense acts like a fumigator on bugs when it comes to cleansing the vibration in the room," Jorge explains. Customers who buy it are usually convinced that there is a negative energy in their house, he says. Once the sweet fragrance and smoke from the incense flood the room, all the windows and doors are opened, and the bad spirits will be carried out with the smoke.
On one of the heavily stocked shelves, there's a row of bottles that read: Legitima Locion: Arraza Brujeria ("Legitimate Lotion" for sweeping away or "devastating" witchcraft.) Its label has a cartoon of a witch, a devil and a few ghosts all swirling around a faint outline of a classic red-horned devil. Jorge says there are those who believe its contents will remove or destroy witchcraft. "Say you know someone's doing work against you. Well, this lotion will break any bad or negative hex or spell that's been put on you by another person."
Jorge gives more credence to the "intent of the person doing the work" than to any label. "It's about faith," he explains. "It's about the power that one gives it, and what the person believes will happen."
A couple in their late 30s walks in the shop, whispering some words in Spanish between themselves. They both look cautious and a bit uneasy as they talk with Rosa Rojas, who's worked at Chango for the past decade. Pancho soon appears, as if he already knew they were there and why. A few quiet words are exchanged, and then Pancho leads the man to the back room, leaving the woman to wait out front.
Jorge explains that Pancho insists on privacy for his consultations, operating under a kind of physician-patient privilege. But on a recent occasion, the consultation spilled out of the back room and into the store room. "The guy was speaking, yelling in tongues," Jorge says of the 6-foot client. "[My father] told me to hold the guy down, and then he just touched his hand to the guy's forehead." The guy stopped resisting, Jorge says, his body went limp, and he soon left in good spirits.
"I know some of this sounds like Ghostbusters shit," he says. "And at times I can be a skeptic myself, to a point, but I've seen too much to rationally explain this away."
After the reading, Pancho might prescribe a blend of herbs to prepare a ritual bath, which Rojas hand-mixes from bulk bags in the back of the shop. Pancho does whatever he feels is necessary to heal, prescribing herbs, teas, lotions, candles—each ready for purchase—whether the ailment is physical, emotional, spiritual or all three.
It's the connection between the three that interests anthropologists such as Southern Methodist University's Robert Van Kemper. "Mexican folk medicine has a much better understanding of the connection between the body, mind and spirit than Western medicine," he says. Many of the cures utilized by these shops—chamomile, aloe vera, cod liver oil—are no different than the ones "our grandmothers used in the past...We may be worse off for not knowing about them."
Later, two women enter the shop and spend around 30 minutes pinballing between sections, picking up a candle, a prayer card and a small black bottle of cologne before heading to the register. The cologne is Siete Machos (Seven Male Animals), and Marta and Denise are buying it today because they're headed to the Choctaw casino across the Oklahoma border for an evening of gambling. Sprinkle on a few splashes of the musky cologne after a shower or bath, hit the blackjack tables and Lady Luck will be on your side.
But whether it's for luck, love or a bad cough, the merchandise comes with a catch: There are no guarantees. Many of the items stocked at Chango are manufactured by Indio Products, whose website bears a disclaimer: "All of the items in this catalog are sold as curios only...We make no claims nor guarantee any supernatural or magical qualities for any products."
Pancho has his own disclaimer: "If you go into a shop, and they tell you something's guaranteed to work...leave. The only person who can guarantee something is God," he says, pointing his index finger upward. "Not even the doctors can guarantee you everything."
At 70, Pancho's mind, spirit and work ethic remain strong but his body, ravaged by years of smoking, is weak. Last summer, he lost nearly 30 pounds, and Dr. Valdez grew concerned enough to run some tests. Initial lab results confirmed he had a blood cancer, and a round of chemo further weakened his 90-pound frame. Against doctor's and Juanita's orders, he returned to Chango, working every day. "He was supposed to be at home resting and taking care of himself," Juanita says, but he said that he "drew strength" from the shop.
Then on March 17, he collapsed at home. He was rushed to Baylor Medical. The diagnosis: pneumonia. Pancho slipped into a coma for about a week, and remained in ICU for a week and a half. "The doctors told us to bring in any out-of-town relatives, because it may be the last time they'd ever see him," Jorge recalls. His middle son, Franco, flew in from Los Angeles, as the family began to consider whether Chango Botanica would have a future without Pancho Diaz.
To preserve the status quo, Jorge moved into the shop so he could "better look after my father and his kingdom," he says. Pancho had always wanted the shop to survive him and believed Jorge was the son he could depend on to continue the family business. Regulars at Chango were already familiar with Jorge, but he remained somewhat conflicted about his own future. Although he believed in the work his father was doing, he also saw the toll it took on him and remained uncertain about whether he could make the same commitment. He gave serious thought to returning to college to study psychology, which, if he finally settled down with the shop, would influence his approach to healing. "You have to remove what's not allowing people to move forward in their lives—whatever's blocking them," he says.
The store, however, would be owned by his mother, who always had ambivalent feelings about the more spiritual aspects of the business. Franco grew concerned she might get angry at Jorge and decide to sell Chango. And after one argument with his mother, Jorge left for days, trying to figure out what he really wanted.
"I don't want to think that she'd sell it, but it's something that we're worried about," Jorge says. "She's always been a bit skeptical of the store and some of what my father does here."
At the same time the family was in crisis, the shop faced external pressures that endangered its existence. In May before a packed house at City Hall, the Dallas City Plan Commission was considering whether to approve the Bishop Davis Land Use & Zoning Study, which could change the character of Chango's North Oak Cliff neighborhood, transforming it into highly urbanized, pedestrian-friendly development, much like West Village or Mockingbird Station.
Juanita and Jorge attended the meeting, waiting nearly four hours before being given a chance to speak about how the Hispanic community had been left out of the conversation regarding the zoning change. Juanita spoke first, followed by Jorge, who only decided to say something after listening to 30 or so people voice their concerns.
"Some of you may be familiar with my father's shop on West Davis—the one with all the statues in the windows," he told commission members, speaking without notes or preparation. But there are many small businesses out there, he said, mom-and-pop shops that are being left out of the planning. New "bicycle racks are great," he said, but Oak Cliff shouldn't push out the repair shops, the tire shops and used car lots that serve the Hispanic community. "Most Hispanics don't ride bicycles, we drive beat-up old cars."
City staff was recommending the study be approved and it seemed like a foregone conclusion. Jorge's off-the-cuff speech, however, inspired one commission member to say that his words were "the most honest and moving" he had heard during the meeting. In deference to the vocal opposition, the commission voted to delay approval for two weeks to get more feedback from Oak Cliff's Hispanic community.
Rick Garza, who chaired the 12-person steering committee that put together the proposed rezoning plan, organized a Carnival De Informacion to meet with the community and clear up any misunderstandings. But Garza doesn't believe that gentrification will change the character of the community. "No businesses will be forced out," he says. "When this happens you just won't be able to come in and open, say, a new tire shop...because that's not really urban."
But Art Garcia, another steering committee member, has become a vocal critic of the project. "There aren't any businesses being zoned out specifically," he says. "However, there are businesses that will eventually be squeezed out as the area changes and property taxes start rising and the rents on these businesses increase."
Even though the City Plan Commission passed the zoning change two weeks later, Garcia collected enough signatures to delay the full City Council's consideration of the proposal until August 11. But the postponement may just be buying time to stave off the inevitable.
Jorge, engaged by his activism, has recommitted himself to the community and the shop. And that now seems fine with his mother. "I think Jorge will take over," she says. "I'm not planning to be there, so I will leave that to Jorge. I know that he wants to keep the tradition going. He's just not ready to lose Pancho."
But that too may be postponed. In early July, the Diaz family learned that Pancho's cancer was in remission. "We went to the cancer doctor today. It's under control," Juanita beams. "He won't need more chemo, his blood count is OK, so he's out of the woods."
Dr. Valadez was surprised and pleased, asking the family what kind of candles they had been burning. But Pancho says he knows who is responsible for his "milagro"—his miracle—later pointing to the altar at the center of his shop and the recently lit cigar perched between the statue's lips. "Es El Negro."
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