The Symbol of the botánica

The symbol of the botánicaI go by many names, irokó, mamá ungundu, silk cotton, but here I am the ceiba tree. I come in many different forms, I am a saint, I am a medicine, I am a canoe, but here I am a symbol. I have lived a long and influential life, from the great floods sent down by the mighty Ọlọrun, to the hanging of Cuauhtémoc from my very own branches, to the Spanish surrender outside of Santiago de Chile. Here I am diffracted, as part of me has been washed away by the great floods, as I depict the mighty rains that fell upon me those many years ago. Now I rest, helpless, as Doña[1] Geno desperately tries to rescue her beloved place from the clutches of suited men.

Though here in the botánica[2] I am only a painting, I am of high importance to everyone inside. To Doña Geno, not only am I a symbol of her beloved Puerto Rico, but also that of strength, of safety, of prosperity. I look around and I see my fellow plants, “la yerba santa, para la garganta, caisimón pa la hinchazón, abre camino pa tu destino, y la ruda pa’l que estornuda.”[3] The Aloe vera, considered by the Ancient Egyptians to be the plant of immortality, watches on, ready to give youth to whomever she is applied to. Across from me, there is the yerba santa, a native of Mesoamerica, ready to cure and protect the next customer that walks into the shop. And next to the door, perhaps the most popular of all our products are our candles, ready to act as guardians of the spirit and religion. I also have the privilege of observing the familiar faces around the botánica. There is Anamu, an erratic and disorganised person, but still a strong and extremely kind woman, who is loved by all of the plants here in the botánica. And then there is Millie, who is sacrificing her dreams and desires to help out. I sense that in some ways she has lost touch with her roots, with her family, with her identity, but I know that she cares about her mother and grandmother, and all of us here in the botánica.

La botánica attracts many people. Those who seek medical remedies, those who need spiritual aid, and those who simply want to stay in tune. La botánica is more than just plants, candles, and medical ailments. La botánica is a place where everyone can feel safe, where they can feel no shame for their past, where their lives can change, and their spirit can rest. La botánica is a health centre, where the Latino community can receive aid that they would not get from the government. La botánica is a community, where people of similar backgrounds and cultures can interact without fear of discrimination. La botánica is also a frontline, in the battle against prejudice and racism that its customers face every day. Though I am just a painting, I watch Doña Geno interacting, practising Santería to remedy other’s problems. But her future is uncertain. Every day the telephone rings, and every day I hear the same voice, asking when this space can be sold. Rent prices rise, new populations arrive, and it is becoming more difficult for our botánica to survive. The first on our block closed last year, the second last month, and I watch, hopeless, as Doña Geno tries hard to maintain her life.

The Latino community face many prejudices here in New York. Not only do they try to remove our culture, and our language, and our identities, but now they are trying to take our businesses. I am revered by many as a symbol of power, and yet I am powerless in stopping the discrimination, repatriation and racism in this country. As a community, however, we are strong. We will continue to fight to protect our homes and our businesses, and one day, there will be peace and prosperity for all Latinos. I go by many names, but here I am the ceiba tree. I come in many different forms, but here in the botánica, I am a symbol—one of strength, of prosperity—of the Boricua.[4]

[1] Mrs. Given as a mark of respect
[2] Dispensaries of medicinal herb and religious goods
[3] Lyrics from the song “El yerbero moderno,” composed by Néstor Milí Bustillo and sang by Celia Cruz
[4] People from Puerto Rican by birth or descent

“The ceiba was the only tree that survived the Flood. All the creatures and people that took shelter under it survived, and that’s how the earth was replenished with life. Relics and amulets are buried at the ceiba’s foot. You must never cross its shadow without asking for permission.”

Dolores Prida (2000 [1991]), “Botánica” in Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology

Ceiba pentandraCeiba pentandra

Family: Malvaceae.
Commonly known as: Ceiba Tree, Silk Cotton Tree.
Native to: Tropical and subtropical areas of the Americas (from Mexico and the Caribbean to N Argentina) and tropical West Africa.
Main properties: Thermogenic, diuretic, purgative and tonic.
Appears in: “Botánica” in Puro Teatro: A Latina Anthology by Dolores Prida by Dolores Prida, (2000 [1991]).


Callum HathawayCallum Hathaway

Studies: Spanish and Latin American Studies.
Commonly known as: Callum.
Birthplace: England.
Interested in: Seeing the different ways in which Latino/a American cultures view plants and their role in the world. These views are often very different to those held by Western/European cultures, and so they challenge my own beliefs about plants and nature in general.
Favourite plant: Prickly pear, as they are very resilient and thrive in warm weather environments, like me.