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November 17, 2013

CEPEDA: A cure-all for the human spirit

Anyone living in a community with a large Latin American population knows the local botanica.

It’s part surrogate doctor’s office, part mystical goods shop — what The New York Times once called “a veritable Home Depot of spirituality.”

A botanica is where traditionalist Hispanics go when they need the sort of help that a medical doctor can’t provide. Or when they can’t afford to see one.

I always seem to stumble into the shop in my neighborhood shortly after the first snow, right when winter previews all its harsh glory. I look for a nice, soothing candle or something. Invariably, I lose myself while perusing all the magical charms and get hustled out empty-handed at closing time.

Several years ago, I left a botanica on Chicago’s south side with a mysterious plant that was supposed to symbolize my spirit and provide a cleansing effect for my cluttered life.

“Take good care of it,” said the curandera — this is the feminine noun for “healer” in Spanish — “you are supposed to grow it.”

Not surprisingly, I proceeded to ignore it.

My husband, who this year made it his mission to revive the long-neglected plant, reminded me about its mystical history once he saw his efforts bear fruit.

Then last week, a white flower rose up from the mass of revitalized green leaves and slowly opened up like an angel spreading its wings.

Serendipitously, the first snow had just fallen, so I naturally slid down the block to my local botanica for an expert assessment of my plant.

But first, a little color.

A glass case filled with colorful saint cards, playing cards from Spain for divination and a wide selection of sacred stones caught my attention. Sitting on top was a gallon jug of ajo macho, or male garlic, supposedly good for guarding against evil spirits, breaking the effects of the evil eye and/or warding off the envy of others.

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