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Herbs, Tea, and Prayer Cards: Neighborhood Botánicas Play a Healing Role During COVID

Latinx heritage month prayer cards and herbs.

Amelia Manley / Verywell

When Gloria Arvizu was a young girl growing up in southern Arizona, she remembers her mother reaching for rue—an aromatic and medicinal herb—to soothe the pain from her occasional earache. 

At 72, Arvizu still believes in the healing power of the medicinal plants her mother and grandmother used throughout their lives. At her local botánica, she often finds something that can alleviate a minor cut or a tooth infection. “I have a lot of faith in herbs,” she tells Verywell.

Botánicas, also known as yerberías, are shops with a history of flourishing in Latinx communities selling a variety of herbs, as well as religious candles and other products meant for physical and spiritual healing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the stores have seen an uptick in business as people turn to them for relief. If not necessarily for a COVID-19 cure, some people turn to botánicas for remedies that may keep the virus at bay.

But last September, after news reports that people were seeking alternative remedies to prevent or treat COVID, a federal health agency issued an advisory discouraging the public from doing so. 

“Some of these purported remedies include herbal therapies, teas, essential oils, tinctures, and silver products such as colloidal silver,” the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health said in a press release. “There is no scientific evidence that any of these alternative remedies can prevent or cure COVID-19. In fact, some of them may not be safe to consume.” 

Pandemic or not, people in Latin America and the Caribbean have used medicinal plants to prevent or treat ailments for centuries. As these communities have migrated to the United States, botánicas have become fixtures in many neighborhoods.

A Look Inside a Botánica

At a botánica in Tucson, Arizona, store owner Elvira Hernandez chatted with customers who steadily streamed in and out of her store on a recent day in August. A good number of customers come looking for remedies to strengthen their immune system these days—because of the coronavirus, she tells Verywell.

Hernandez then rushed into a room behind the counter for a private consultation with two women who walked into the store, past shelves replete with multicolor candles, saints, and deities. 

Oftentimes botánicas provide the services of a faith healer— called a curandera or curandero—who offers consultations, Michelle González Maldonado, dean of The University of Scranton’s College of Arts and Sciences in Pennsylvania, who has studied religion and culture in the Caribbean, tells Verywell. 

What is Curanderismo ("the healing")?

Curanderismo is an existing healing system that draws from Aztecan, Mayan, and Incan cultures.

“In many Latino and Latina communities, the botánica is not only a religious supply store,” she says. “It’s also a site for healing and is a place that individuals will go to not necessarily as a rejection of what we call traditional or Western medicine, but as a complement to it.”

Culture Complementing Modern Medicine

That is true for Arvizu, who frequents botánicas but also places her trust in modern medicine. She stocks up on herbal remedies, but consults a doctor when she deems it necessary. She was at Hernandez’s botánica to buy yerba mansa, an herb used for cuts, abrasions, burns, and gastrointestinal ailments. It wasn’t in stock, so Arvizu walked out with several prayer cards instead.

Maria Paredes, 60, a longtime Tucson resident, stepped into the botánica in search of an herbal infusion that would help her sleep better, which she prefers over sleeping pills. Like Arvizu, she grew up in a home where medicinal plants were bountiful. 

“I remember that if I had a headache, or if my stomach hurt, I would drink chamomile tea, or basil and spearmint tea, and then I would be fine,” she tells Verywell.

Her use of herbs doesn’t mean she doesn’t believe in medicine, Paredes says. She’s under the care of a doctor and is vaccinated against COVID. “But when gastritis hits or when I can’t sleep, I rely on my home remedies,” she says.

Additionally, for the uninsured and others who may lack access to health care, botánicas may be their only resource. These products may be the sole treatment option they can afford, Maldonado notes. 

But physical ailments are not the only reason Latinxs flock to botánicas. Some also seek solace from spiritual practices such as curanderismo and santería. 

What Is Santería?

A pantheistic Afro-Cuban folk religion developed from the beliefs and customs of the Yoruba people that incorporated some elements of the Catholic religion.

“Often individuals will go visit a curandero or curandera because they feel that their illness either A, is spiritual in origin and therefore needs to be treated by a faith healer, or B, is a combination of spiritual ailment that is manifesting itself physically,” Maldonado says.

“When we're talking about spiritual healing, it's not only looking at the physical manifestations of illness on the body, but also the spiritual, the emotional, the communal, the familial,” she adds. “And so those are a little bit broader ways of understanding illness, so it may not cure the physical ailment; but it may improve it and help it heal psychologically, spiritually, for the individual and their family or community.”

Arvizu has a pending medical appointment where she’ll likely get vaccinated against COVID-19. Still, she plans to keep using her herbal remedies. “They’re very useful,” she says.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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