Florida entrepreneurs Vicky and Gabriel Baeza Hasbun opened a Santeria shop in Bradenton two years ago. They say they’re getting interest from people who might not normally be inclined to warm to an alternative religion
BRADENTON – Tucked away amid a nondescript strip mall off Tamiami Trail is an equally unpretentious storefront barely visible from the road. But according to the eclectic fare advertised in Spanish and English on the picture window, this place would appear to have a monopoly on a highly specialized local niche market.
Offerings range from powders and books to readings and initiations, the store is called Botanica, generically defined as a shop that sells “traditional remedies” and other items associated with religion or spirituality. Accordingly, say Vicky and Gabriel Baeza Hasbun, the wife-husband team that owns and operates Botanica, its location here at 5225 14th St. West is neither accidental nor arbitrary.
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Invoking an ancient cosmology that predates Christianity and mutated through Catholicism’s taboos, the entrepreneurs picked this address based on a complex system of numbers dispensed by deities, or orishas. And since opening Botanica’s doors in 2017, the Baeza Hasbuns say the orishas got it right.
“At first I thought we’re only gonna have Cubans and Mexicans and Venezuelans coming in to get candles and stuff like that,” says Gabriel Baeza Hasbun. “But that was completely wrong. All kinds of people are coming in – African Americans, white Americans, a lot of Hispanic people, Haitians. And they want to know about the orishas, the history of the religion, and how it can improve their lives.”
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The object of so much curiosity is Santeria, an animist tradition which migrated out of Africa and into the New World with the Spanish slave trade. On the walls and shelves at Botanica, Santeria’s current incarnation is so literally colorful, there is no visual center of gravity here.
Kaleidoscope of color
The inventory includes packets of spices and herbs, healing oils, kaleidoscopic beaded necklaces, aerosol cans, reliquaries, polished rocks and sea shells, potpourri, lucky charms, medallions, decorative spangled scarves. They compete with statues embellished with familiar features, Christian crosses, sainted halos and sacred crowns. They share space with replicas of Native Americans, and even a few Buddhas.
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But there are other characters, largely African, which are mysteries to the uninitiated. These are the orishas. One display called the Seven African Powers aligns the most significant figures in single file: Orula, Ogun, Chango, Obatala, Yemaya, Elegua and Ochun. But this is just the beginning.
“There are 404 orishas altogether – I have myself close to 30 orishas,” says Gabriel who, along with Vicky, is a Santeria priest, or santero. “They each have certain powers, and I would say their main power is to strengthen the health of a human being. That’s number one.”
In the back room, away from the retail space and behind closed door, one finds Santeria’s most controversial and Hollywoodized feature. Resting on the floor, surrounded by a circle of small burning votive candles, is a shallow bowl containing a mixture of ritual potions and sacrificial chicken blood offered in tribute to the orishas.
And yes – the Baeza Hasbuns have been contacted by police. Several times.
“I tell them I’m an American citizen. I have a right to practice a religion I believe in,” says Gabriel. “I don’t have to say anything else, because they look up the law and they apologize. It’s just a matter of having to educate people.”
First established in the United States as the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye by priest Ernesto Pichardo of Hialeah in 1973, Santeria endured years of courtroom battles to legalize animal sacrifice.
1993, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice as a legitimate religious sacrament. Twelve years later, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added Santeria to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Natives of Venezuela, the Baeza Hasbuns are local dental professionals who decided to spread the word about Santeria after having life-altering encounters. Gabriel says he gave up drinking and other self-defeating behaviors that plagued his first marriage. Vicky credits the orisha Yemaya, Santeria’s mother of all living things, for giving her the family she always wanted – even though the conversion startled her Catholic mother.
It was a shock for her,” Vicky says. “She knew a little about it but not everything. She now accepts it. But she doesn’t practice.”
Known as Lukumi among the Yoruba people of west Africa, Santeria was the name that Catholic Spanish slavers attached to the puzzling ritual behaviors of their human chattel after arriving in the New World.
“The Yoruba people actually swallowed the stones and the shells of their guardian angels when they were getting caught, so they had their orishas in their stomachs when they were on the ships,” says Gabriel. “At some point they retrieved their orishas when they got to the Americas, but it was prohibited because the Spanish wanted them to become Catholics.”
The Yoruba and their descendants masked the old ways by concealing their orisha stones inside Catholic icons, making sacrifices in a show of ostensible submission to the new realities. Gabriel points to a statue of St. Barbara, a martyred saint whose fearlessness mirrored that of the powerful orisha Chango. Their relationship evolved over the centuries and today, both are revered and inseparable.
“That’s why you see the Catholic figures in the store,” he says. “St. Anthony is compared to Elegua, you see St. Michael as Ogun, you see the Virgin of the Charity of Copper as being Ochun. That’s how they were able to hide and protect their religion.”
Array of solutions
Visitors to Botanica will also confront an array of solutions with disparate if not downright contradictory labels. From “Jinx Remover” and “Gruesome Death” to “Abundance,” “Steady Work” and “Marriage Union,” the shelves appeal to seemingly infinite challenges and possibilities. Just make sure you get the applications in the right chronological order.
“The first thing you want to do is repel the bad things, like if you want to beat the bottle,” says Gabriel. “So you push away all of that first, and once that’s done, then you can switch to attracting different positive energies. It’s like squeezing the sponge to get rid of the bad stuff, and when it opens back up, you want to load it with positive things so the aura of the person shines through.”
Just how many local adherents Santeria counts is hard to say. Gabriel says maybe 200, and there are at least two major traditions – African and Cuban. The Yoruba legacy in Haiti is called vodou, or voodoo.
Visitors to Botanica can go as deep or as tentatively into the culture as they want. Spellcasting, readings, drum parties, spirit possession and trance-talking not unlike traditions found in Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity – Gabriel Baeza Hasbun says guests are free to explore.
“For me, I wasn’t looking for the people who knew the secrets. I was looking for my orisha,” he says, “and I found it. I found happiness with Santeria. And I found fulfillment.”
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network via the Florida Wire. The Florida Wire, which runs across digital, print and video platforms, curates and distributes Florida-focused stories. For more Florida stories, visit here, and to support local media throughout the state of Florida, consider subscribing to your local paper.