Compared to the average mainstream American citizen, Utahns are viewed as being pretty superstitious. After all, this is a state where three out of five people subscribe to a theology which teaches that God lives on a planet called Kolob, and the actual devil is the reason kids play hooky or sniff Endust for fun. On the other hand, it’s hard to miss the fact we’ve signed up to host the Winter Olympics in 2002 – two years after the apocalypse is scheduled to occur. We play it both ways.
During the last few years there has been a large influx of immigration into the state. I know of one apartment building whose tenants are all Ukrainian (in fact, they’re also all related). There are immigrants from Laos, Guatemala, St. Petersburg, Mexico City, Chile, Damam, Finland – if you go into the LDS Art and History Museum, you’ll see the primary reason: LDS missionaries. There’s a portrait of David O. McKay, former LDS Church President, painted on a Japanese scroll, in samurai digs. There’s a tole-painted Swiss cabinet which chronicles the life of Joseph Smith, and a hand-tied rug made of goat hair, made by an Albanian family, which depicts different LDS Temples from around the world.
However, Utah is also has a burgeoning population of illegal aliens, who were not brought here by the Church. They have their own neighborhood on the west side of town, complete with video stores that stock Mexican wrestling movies and “Cannonball Run” dubbed in Spanish, Mexican bakeries, and impromptu swap meets that take place on the road meridans. While some immigrants meld their culture with LDS ideals, these folks are so raw, so organic, it’s hard for me to imagine them mixing with the bake ‘n’ serve culture that’s the norm here. I live in a neighborhood that’s primarily Mexican, and when I walk home from work, past the houses, it’s like another city, with an atmosphere that feels thick and old and alien. It saturates the neighborhood – it’s in the curtains as they blow out the windows, and the strange little glass animals on the sills, and the yellowish light that emanates out of the doors and windowpanes.
But my neighborhood is also full of bikers and working-class folks who were born here. They don’t quite fit in to the above-ground culture either, but if you go very far west, you will find a part of town where no one speaks English at all. You will see dessicated old Chinese ladies, carrying home bags of groceries, dressed in proper coats and gloves and dainty little shoes, and lots of little kids on bikes, shouting at each other in Spanish.
This is where, miracle of miracles, a botanica has sprung up.
If you don’t know what a botanica is, it’s a shop that sells Hand of Power 7-Day charm candles, Sacred Herb Money-Attracting Spray and little plastic bags of Angelica root. There are tons of them in New Orleans; hoodoo shops, full of Marie Laveau voodoo dolls and velvet pouches of blessed black-eyed peas. It’s palpable magic for underdogs, as far south from the look-don’t-touch, brown carpet, ‘Nilla Wafer, Jesus Wants Me as His Sunbeam Sunday School scene as you can get.
There was once an illegal botanica in Salt Lake, located near the baseball field, just a room in a beat-up office building with a sing that said “Botanica,” taped to the window. It’d been ransacked, and looked like it had shut down quickly, a long time ago. But now there is another one near Jordan Park, a small, white cement building painted with Jesuses and Virgin Marys, all in primary colors. It’s well-stocked, too. The first set of shelves are full of ritual bath oils and magic room sprays, designed to attract new love interests, dissolve debts, or deflect the evil eye (“Run devils! Run Disturbs! Run Enemy!”) There are also several shelves of jelly-jar candles, designed to enhance the power of your zodiac sign, to secure the help of St. Martin of Caballero if you are a truckdriver, or win in Court (regardless of whether you’re the plaintiff or the defendant.) There are ” package amulets” Virgin Marys that plug in, light up and rotate; framed, metallic portraits of St. Michael the Archangel, tiny first Communion dresses, disco clothes for men and women, and a whole wall full of herbs. The TV plays Mexican soap operas and some game show that always offers some kind of drink mix similar to Qwik as a prize, and every time someone wins, the entire audience stands up to sing the jingle for the drink mix.
The proprietor of the shop does not just sell supplies for the practice of Santeria or Hoodoo – he keeps altars himself. There is on to Buddha (the fat one with the giant ears), St. Martin of Padua, and a “mammy” statue with a turban and gold hoop earrings that would outrage anyone who has gone to grad school or made a regular practice of listening to NPR. They are surrounded with burning candles, flowers, candy, dishes of pennies, and strangely enough, smaller statues of other deities. He doesn’t worry about throwing culture in the blender — the more that’s in there, the better. It’s the antinomian practice of making it up as you go along, which is a benefit to living below the radar of mainstream American culture. You tell the story of your life in descriptive, rather than prescriptive grammar.
So what is a botanica? I guess it’s repository of palpable animal magnetism, a place to buy products to trap those strange radioactive vibrations that wiggling out of the crust of the earth or warbling around in the sky – luck, money, beauty, the faith of your spouse, staying out of the path of the law. It’s wax and beans and shiny rocks and Yoruba deities in saints’ clothing. But we all have our versions of this stuff. Cosmetics, cars, bestselling books. Amway. Lotto. Chromium picolinate. Argyle ties, slug bait. Tax-deductible donations, nightlights, positive affirmations. So whether we know it or not, we all play it both ways. It’s what people do; hopefully, maybe, perhaps between the cheerful vanilla tide of Jazz fans and wardhouse picnics, the small houses and small churches on the west side of town and their offerings to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, we will keep the devil and his multitudes at bay.
At least, until the Olympics come to town.