Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion born out of Cuban slave culture in the early sixteenth century. It mixes traditional aspects of the Yoruba religion of old Nigeria with Catholic elements, making it a “syncretic” religion. In essence, Santeria exists due to a need for the slaves of Cuba, who were living in an extremely trying cultural climate at the time, to preserve their heritage and customs from their homes in Africa.
Fast forward to the 1950s, as the descendants of those slaves began to stream into the Bronx, particularly the Bronx River area and the South Bronx, which is why places like Sundial Herbal Product exist. A big part of Santeria is the use of traditional herbs, religious memorabilia and incensed potions as remedies for anything from physical ailment to emotional disposition. Owned and operated by Baba Rahsan Abdul Hakim, or “Pops Baba” as he is known by close friends, Sundial is what one customer calls a “nutritional oasis” in the health food desert that characterizes the rest of the Bronx. Sundial is a botanica-type of emporium for all the mind, body and soul remedies, catering primarily to Latino and Caribbean immigrants.
Hakim is his family’s designated healer — a bush doctor in the most traditional sense. Starting at the age of eight, he began the tradition of making the tonics and medicines that line Sundial’s unvarnished wooden shelves. Hakim learned from the best: his great-great-grandfather, also the family healer — who was a direct descendant of the Koromantee Tribe — and his grandfather, Charles Williams, who was instrumental to the introduction of several important plants to Jamaica as well as the developer of the largest botanical government in the Caribbean.
Sundial carries a number of products that are especially rare in the United States, such as sorrel, a sort of spiced Jamaican iced tea traditionally consumed around Christmas or New Years. Also stocked are Koromantee Corkscrew Bitters, which are used in everything from weight loss remedies to “Sundial African Man Back Tonic,” which carries the perhaps intentionally-vague promise of restoring one’s manhood.
It appears as if the stigma surrounding things such as holistic medicine, bush doctors and the like is being roundly ignored by the Bronx. Since its inception in the 1970s, Sundial has all but become a local landmark, with Pops Baba appearing regularly on local television. He has a program on AM radio that broadcasts for an hour every Friday morning and he even published a book in 1985 titled, “Basic Herbs for Health and Healing”.
Sundial is far from the only Bronx business centered around Santeria’s herbal healers. La 21 Division Botanica on the Grand Concourse was founded in 1996 and carries a wide variety of folk remedies recognizable to those familiar with Afro-Cuban culture. This botanica features an entire section dedicated to potted plants, as well as the requisite religious figurines, healing potions and votive candles. They also provide religious consultations in a secluded back room. These consultations are for anyone and allow even those who don’t belong to a particular faith to partake in the practices of a given religion. What does that mean? Customers are consulted via a number of different divinatory techniques, including Spanish cards, tarot cards and cowry shells, depending on that particular customer’s faith.
One of the more visible botanicas is Original Products, known to many Fordham students simply as “the Santeria store.” Located on the corner of Webster and East 189th street, Original Products has been in operation since its founding in 1959 by Turkish immigrants and touts itself as the “premier source for all your Spiritual, New Age and Occult products.” In addition to Santeria, Original Products also caters to voodoo and Wicca crowds and claims to be the largest botanica on the East Coast. The building itself used to be an A&P supermarket. While its ground floor serves as the establishment’s primary retail area, many of the original products of Original Products are made by staff members in the store’s basement. The building’s second floor is rented out to the Pagan Center of New York, that holds witchcraft rituals officiated by the Bronx’s resident Wiccan high priestess, Lady Rhea. Original Products turns an approximate $3 million annual profit, helped in no small part by their biggest customer, a distributer in Holland who buys at least one forty-foot container of goods per year.
New York City’s botanicas, specifically those found in the Bronx, are the subject of an ongoing study by Dr. Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist from the New York Botanical Gardens. Her goal is to provide a comprehensive list of the uses, potential dangers and health benefits of the extreme variety of merchandise offered at places like Sundial Herbal Product, La 21 Division Botanica and Original Products. Her work would provide medical advice that is both culturally aware and effective to the Bronx community and the larger population who use medicinal herbs. The study is expected to be published later this year.