Monday, March 24, 2008

Sand and Shells

The opening case for the exhibit is the only case you see from the main lobby of the museum. I knew I wanted the case to call you, to make you feel drawn towards something. I used the exhibit icon, a Brazilian portrait of The Goddess of the Sea, Yemaya, Iemanja, as the back drop. I then filled the case with white sand, and covered the sand in sea shells and small statues of some of the principle saints. In this picture you see Our Lady of Regla perched on a large sea shell. The case was also filled with white flowers.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


The exhibit opened last night and we hosted 253 guests at the Mathers. Sancocho did a beautiful job drumming, filling the space with an energy so charged of life that people were getting chills. Many people took time to read through the labels in the exhibit, which was difficult because of the crowds. I really appreciated the comments I received from those that braved the crowds, thank you. There were people from town, people from campus, family friends, family, friends, my teachers and colleagues, almost the entire museum staff (!), so many different people came together, enjoyed the night together, in the exhibit. It was beautiful.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Exhibit Opening

Dear Friends,

It is with great pleasure, pride, and excitement that I announce the opening of "Botánica: A Pharmacy for the Soul"

This is an invitation to attend the opening reception on March 21, 2008 from 5:30-7:30pm. I would be honored to host you at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures for some Puerto Rican food and drumming by Sancocho!

As many of you know, I have been working diligently on this exhibition for the past year and a half. Each item in the exhibit was collected, cataloged and then prepared for exhibition with the help of my grandmother, Jerusalén Morales-Diaz. Please come celebrate the opening of this exhibition with us!

In Botánica: A Pharmacy for the Soul, curator Selina Morales has recreated a botánica based on the one her Puerto Rican grandmother owned from 1985-1991. Using memory, stories from her family, and recent ethnographic fieldwork in botánicas in New York and New Jersey, she offers you the feeling of a botánica, the stories from her family’s botánica, and the particular experience of her grandmother, Jerusalen Morales-Díaz. Collectively, the objects in this exhibit tell a meaningful story of family, community, individuality, creativity, and faith.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Outside the botánica, inside the exhibit

We decided to create storefront windows, concrete walls, even neighboring buildings. I hope that the outside of the botánica enhances your experience of the inside. In addition to having the opportunity to create simple, but beautiful window displays, the outside of the store will help you (the visitor) experience the store. It is my hope that the contrast of colors, textures, and light from outside to inside, will replicate (at least on a small scale) some of the feelings of the botánica aesthetic. Botánicas are colorful, they are cluttered, my grandmothers was extremely clean and crisp, but in addition, botánicas have a very spiritual feeling. I hope that you feel this when you enter the exhibit.

Here are some photos of the outside of the exhibit. The artwork here is on the outside wall of the exhibit, it is by Dan Maron.

Constructing the Exhibit

We began by taking out the last exhibit and repainting everything white!

While painting the insides of cases, new walls began to appear! Quickly, the botánica began to take shape. (The wall frame on the left was erected where the ladder was standing in the previous picture, and the one on the right is the new entrance to the botánica).

Here is the entry way covered in particle board (waiting for a fresh coat of "Glamor Cow" paint).

Building doorways and walls, painting EVERYTHING and of course, preparing cases to hold the collection. I installed this case with the help of Mark Price (who did the majority of the construction for the exhibit). Mark installed the pegboard here, and I put in the tracks for the glass shelves.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

POAET Conversations

On Friday I had the opportunity to present some of my summer research at the POAET Conversations, organized by Comparative Literature at IUB. I gave a paper entitled "The Nostalgic Landscapes of the Botánica". I found people were very excited about my work, encouraging me to keep myself in it. I struggle with how much of myself to include in my ethnography, I find that each time I present my work, people are excited by my presence within it. Perhaps I am tired of this angle, or insecure of how I fit into my own research, but the presentation was yet another affirmation that I am on the right track. My work should appeal to the public, no?
Another issue that came up was that of ethics in fieldwork. My colleague Joe asked if there were ethical issues that arose for me while studying with my own family. Of course there are. Our relationships and roles seep into each interview, but being aware of them is the first step. Charles Briggs offers some good insight into the dynamics of an interview in Learning How to Ask.
Other great questions helped me see how people hear what I am saying and process it with or against what they already know about Caribbean spiritual traditions. Santería is often a stumbling block for me and for others, as many of these traditions (for some reason) seem like Santería to an outsider. It was apparent in questions posed to me that people were using what they knew about Santería as a jumping off point for processing my paper. While that was frustrating in some ways, it also helped me see how to better organize my work vis-a-vis popular understandings of folk religion or healing in the Caribbean.

Here is an excerpt from the paper:

For this ongoing research project, I am interested in the words and images that evoke the idea of Africa or African. A brief examination of pre-packaged baños sold in many botánicas in New York City shows how illustrations of African people, landscapes and architecture are part of the assemblage of a botánica. I believe these packages communicate their effectiveness through an appeal to a common sacred homeland. Drawing on the work of Raquel Romberg (2003, 2007), Anthony Smith (1991) and my own ethnographic interviews, ongoing research will examine how imagined landscapes of Africa and the Afro-Latino concept of El Monte are utilized in botánicas. Examining the illustrations on the packaging for these baños we encounter a landscape, which, I argue, commodifies the notion of a sacred land while simultaneously fortifying relationships based on the recognition of this land.

See the entire paper here:
Professor Jason Jackson published a shout out to my presentation as well as to Terri Klassen, a colleague who studied quilts this past summer, on his website

Monday, November 26, 2007

In this picture I am setting up a display of my objects for my F131 (Folklore in the United States) students. They came to see my materials and wrote wonderful response papers dealing with tradition and variation in the material culture of the botanica.

Working in the Artifact Processing Room

Here I am cataloging a crystal ball in the Artifact Processing Room at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Jerusalén Morales-Diaz

My Beautiful Grandmother.

Lecture at the International Center

Tonight at 7pm I gave a talk about my project at the International Center at IUB. The talk was sponsored by La Casa. I introduced my grandmother as a healer from Puerto Rico. I then talked about how she defines herself as an espiritista because of her belief that there is a metaphysical aspect to life, that there are spirits or souls that we can interact with in order to manipulate the world. This is her definition of herself, not necesarily of other espiritistas.

I continued to narrate her life history in order to situate her as a healer in the context of the Bronx in the 60's-90's and in the mountains of Puerto Rico more recently, exemplifying her identification with both urban and rural healing methods. In January the Program of African Expressive Traditions (POAET) will publish online an article I have written about Jerusalén's engagement in urban and rural healing methods.

I also introduced my exhibit to the audience. It was very nice to step back and reflect on the process. The audience asked many wonderful questions ranging from how I am dealing with the curatorial process at the Mathers to specifics about the power of Jerusalén's prayers.
My friend and colleague Gabrielle Berlinger asked a very important question.

How does my grandmother feel about the fact that the objects (specifically the statues) are going to be stored in a museum?
I have run into this issue in my museum studies course, in conversations with another colleague Suzanne Inglesby as we catalog together in the basement of the Mathers and in considering the Mathers own collection.
If these objects can be considered ritual objects and are considered (at the very least by Jerusalén and myself) to be imbued with powers

1. Should they be in the museum? Why not! Jerusalén helped me collect these objects with the intension to place them into a museum collection.

2. What does it mean for these specific items, these statues, to be placed in the collection considering that they are imbued with spiritual energy, and considering that they are susceptible to other energies? The nature of these objects means that energy will ebb and flow in and out of them. They will hold both positive and negative energies during their lifetimes. For their display in my exhibit they have been imbued with positive energy from Jerusalén as well as from myself. Jerusalén tells me this energy will help the audience enjoy the exhibit, it will pass along a good vibration. If they are displayed again, it is written in the collection notes, that the items need to be blessed or re-energized.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Collecting

This project is important within the fields of Folklore and Museum Studies as it brings together Folklore field work methodologies and the process of building a collection for a museum.

Using my training as a Folklorist I was able to make decisions about how to collect objects and am challenged with decisions of how to display those objects in such a way that they can communicate to an audience who has varied levels of exposure to the culture I am presenting.

For my collection I decided to collaborate with my grandmother, a cultural expert, as she has an important role in the culture I am working with. As a proprietor of a botánica, I asked her to select items for the exhibit that she would put in her own botánica. I did not ask her to select the most expensive or the most beautiful items. This way, my collection reflects her aesthetic values, which I learned have less to do with outer beauty than inner beauty. The statues we chose, for example, were chosen because they were sending off good vibrations to Lela. She selected them because of their energy.

Other items I selected were items suggested to me by proprietors of botánicas who insisted that specific items (statues or types of incense) are essential for my display.

Many times museums do not know much about items in their collection. Often scholars or collectors donate their collections to museums, but provide little information beyond the place of purchase. Sometimes museums know nothing at all about an object besides what you can tell from looking at it. My collection is accompanied by photographs, my own field notes, as well as recordings of Lela talking about most of the items. While this is a rare situation, it is ideal as the collection will now be preserved with contextualizing and supporting materials.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Out to the field

My summer went by quickly. With Lela, my mother, Titi Betsy, David and Daniel at my side, I collected items for the exhibit. I was suprised at first at how this became a family event, but now that I think back on it, of course it did. Lela and I were in charge, we had an exhibit to curate, but Titi, David, Daniel and Mom were just interested in what we were up to.

Titi took Lela and I on a tour of the botánicas in Jersey City. In one day we visited about 8 botánicas. Lela purchased a number of items for herself, perfumes and potions she could not get in Puerto Rico. The three of us were on a hunt for a large poster of Yemaya that we see in so many botánicas. We only found digital reprints of her.

On this day I did not buy anything for the exhibit, I was looking to see how different botánicas display their items.

Another day David and Daniel accompanied Lela and me to Original Products. This is the warehouse where Lela bought most of her statues and candles in the 80's. We spent a few hours exploring the store, taking photographs of people making the statues, and loading up on one of every spray can they sold.

My mother and I returned to Original Products later in the summer to take more photographs and to make a few more purchases.

Throughout my four weeks in New York City this summer I visited and took notes on botánicas throughout the city. My collection is a reflection of the varied items I saw.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Community Events

I have grown very interested in exploring the community events which took place behind La Botánica in the back room. As Titi Betsy mentioned below, she had her bridal shower in La Botánica, I had my 5th birthday party there (as did my brother Ariel), Passover and many other family celebrations were held behind the shelves of luck candles and money sprays. For a few years my father invited the entire community surrounding 149th street near 3rd Avenue to enjoy animal shows in the back space. Over 100 people would fill the back room, entering through the doors to the botánica, walking past the thick smells of incense and rows of statues into his large office space. One year my father purchased hundreds of gifts from Oriental Trading Company to give out to the public. This space was a community space. Somewhere people felt welcomed. Below are pictures of several community members at the animal shows .

Community Members.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

From an interview with Juan Garcia 2007

"Every time we'd go there, every summer, 'cause I would only go there for summers, we would get a little Florida Water Bath, a little one where she would put the water on your head and snap all around you, saying stuff reciting stuff in Spanish."

Friday, June 8, 2007

Memorias from my mother, Sara Morales

"Lela would make one particular baño (healing bath) from seven waters.
Florida water
Holy water
Ocean water
River water
I don't remember the rest of the waters.

When you were little, we would go to our weekend house in Woodstock. Dad and I loved to have our Bustelo coffee first thing in the morning. It was an essential part of our ritual for unwinding in the country. We would sit at the counter at the large kitchen window sipping our coffee, breathing in the fresh country air, noticing a deer or two in the woods. We always brought a gallon of water from our kitchen faucet in the Bronx. This water was essential for making our perfect cup of early morning coffee.
In returning to the Bronx we would always fill our gallon container with river water from the river on Mink Hollow Road. Lela would use it in her seven water baths."

Monday, May 14, 2007

I think of snake skins

From a 2003 interview with my brother, Pedro Elias Morales, he and I are pictured here (to the right) playing behind the counter at La Botánica Jardines.

"I usually think of making necklaces, for Lela. And I think of snake skins cause when we’d get them from my snake or we would find them we would give them to her and she’d hang them up next to the necklaces. "

Friday, April 27, 2007

An Affirmation of Life

From a 2003 interview with my father, Pedro Morales, about the customers and the consultas (consultations):

"But in some of the sessions that my mother would have, your grandmother, you know people would come with every kind of thing. Mothers would bring sick children, those things were for free, people would come who wanted to change their luck and those things were charged, and most of the time people had psychological problems or wanted some type of elixir or potion or bath or something to help them heal. I always thought it was a good thing when human beings seek healing --that it's because life is worth living. So, to them and to the person who is the healer, it’s the most proactive type of affirmation there is, and it’s really significant. A lot of people don’t see it that way, they see it as just another kooky engagement or indulgence in a kooky world, and in fact if you put them all together, no matter what religion it is, they all boil down to the same thing, that is an affirmation of life. "

And somehow they all became family...

From a 2003 interview with my Titi, Betsy Rivera:

"The best thing was the number of different people that would come through those doors, and somehow they all became family, and I think you can remember that. There were people who would come and hang out for the entire Saturday with us, and help us sell and help us do this, and help us stock and whatever we needed to do and then there were people who would come every week just as regular customers.

"The old man, yeah we used to call him abuelo, he was a very effective business partner for Lela because he would go and whenever Lela would have to do the blessings with the pigeons he would go to the vivero, where they would kill the chickens and the pigeons and the pigs and stuff, he’d go the the vivero and bring back a fresh white pigeon for her to do her blessings with.

"So he would hang out with us and spend the day --he was a dancer and he’d go to the social club, the senior citizen club, he’d go there and hang out and then on his way home-- he would stop and see us and anything that Mom needed he would go and buy, like the pigeons…he passed away.

"Always dressed to the nines. That was very PR. My grandfather was always dressed, you know how it is in Puerto Rico everyone has to be dressed, but that had to be one of the toques, the touches, that reminded me so much of PR was that old man, but he was fun, we’d talk for hours, just filling the void."

Memorias From Titi Betsy

(Ariel and Omar)

"As things come to mind

Dont forget Yin and Yang (the cats)
I had my bridal shower there;
Titi yvette used to dress the windows according to the seasons. One time she painted a nativity secene, very beautiful.

s :
Carmen la de Tito (Tio Tito's mom), Good luck and love
Carmen la de Benny, Good luck and love
Carmen Iglesia, who had some spirits and loved to hang out. She was the cook for the local church.
Carmen Pajarito, Luck and love and would come to the botánica with her parakeets

El penny de la suerte! Cost $1.00 and they sold like wildfire

Marian's favorite customer "one-purple-candle-please" this was a black man who drove a Manitoba delivery truck and every friday, sure as clockwork, he would come in and ask for one purple candle. At first no one knew what he was saying, but Marian who knew little English at the time, figured it out. From then on he was Marian's customer, he would park the truck and his candle was at the counter by the time he got to the door!

Los baños de la suerte for Christmas and New Year's a set of 3 baths to be taken on Christmas eve, Christmas day and NewYear's eve. "

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Passover at the Botánica

What spells out my identity more than
"Passover at the Botánica"?
I sent my family and friends a link to my blog yesterday and some of them began to post on it.
My grandparents (Bubbe and Grandpa Roy) posted that they remember having a Passover Seder in the botánica. Bubbe emailed me late last night saying she dug up some old photos of Seder in the botánica and I am about 5 years old in them.Here is a photo of the Seder table, Bubbe is sitting next to my Titi Betsy (to her right) and a picture of my Aunt Felice with Great Gradma Jean at the botánica.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Funding Update

I have received enough funding to get through the summer on a tight budget. In addition to the grant from Oberlin College, I have secured funds from the Graduate and Professional Student Organization, The Project on African Expressive Tradition in the Comparative Literature Department, and The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies all from Indiana University, Bloomington.

Audio Tour

The audio component of the exhibit will be recorded this summer when I travel to New York City and Puerto Rico. The stories I record will show how people recall and retell their experiences of living within a community space. I have chosen to use the stories of my family as my tíos, tías, brothers, cousins, my grandparents, my mother and my father have an incredible ability to paint pictures with words. This is how we remember. When we get together the air is thick with narratives, stories which contribute to our shared past. There are only six surviving pictures of our botánica, even though, as a family, we spent six days a week in the store for a decade.

I will edit these recordings into a Podcast which will be available on the Mathers' website as well as within the museum on mp3 players. Walking through the exhibit with the podcast playing will enhance the exhibit as visitors will be able to listen to the stories evoked from the material culture.

The exhibit: Jardines de Jerusalén

“Jardines de Jerusalén,” will have two major components: exhibit cases and an audio tour. The two largest exhibit cases will be recreations of my grandmother’s storefront windows. Other cases will be interactive, filled with material culture such as statues of saints, candles, love potions, and herbs. Visitors will be able to touch and smell the pieces of the exhibit as they pass through. The replica of the store windows will enter the museum’s permanent collections, and the items in the interactive cases will enter an education collection, which will be available for classroom visits and activities

Over the school year 2007-2008, while physically creating the exhibit cases of “Jardines,” I will develop a classroom enrichment kit for the education department of the museum. The kit I create will join the active cycle of education kits circulating through the city of Bloomington. My exhibit will be the first at the Mathers to focus on Puerto Rican culture and I am proud to contribute to the education of elementary school children about a culture with which they have little contact.

La Botánica

I was raised in a botánica in the South Bronx where I was constantly surrounded by material culture of the Caribbean. I spent my childhood organizing large glass candles on shelves (carefully arranged by colors), filling jars with myrrh and herbs, and stocking pale-pink rosaries. The proprietor of the shop was my grandmother, Jerusalén, a Puerto Rican Espiritista healer, who offered her spiritual services to the large Caribbean community of the Bronx. My grandmother worked for the community, curing a range of ailments from seriously sick children to people who just wanted to change their luck. A botánica is, in the words of my grandmother, “a pharmacy for the soul”; it is a store common in Caribbean and Latina communities in the United States including Puerto Rico, which sells ritual paraphernalia from all over the Caribbean.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Considering Clutter

The Botánica aesthetic is full, stimulating, and abundant. It reflects the idealized spiritual space, a space imagined as an overflow of cure and remedy and spirit and knowledge.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Oberlin Alumni Grant

I received a grant today, from my alma mater, Oberlin College, to fund part of my exhibit! At the very least I will be able to afford the recording equipment for my fieldwork this summer, hopefully including a video camera.
The exhibit is, officially, on.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Botánica LA

Having just finished reading Botánica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels, edited by Patrick A. Polk, I have some things to say.

Firstly, it is a beautiful book full of bright colors, detailed pictures of altars, store fronts, and personalized public spaces which reflect the provocative aesthetic that I call home. I loved flipping through the pages, recognizing the images from my childhood, and seeing how similarly and how differently these icons can be expressed in another city.

The writing of this book gave me some interesting thoughts. When Polk approaches the botánica for the first time, he takes the reader, the uninitiated reader, into the shop and at first glance proclaims it mysterious. The mysterious botánica. While I understand an initial reaction to the cluttered unfamiliar aesthetic, I would take the conversation beyond the fieldworker and point out that a large part of the appeal of such spaces to the community they serve is their familiarity. The very images that expressed mystery to Polk, or uncertainty to Romberg (in Witchcraft and Welfare, 2003) are the images that mean home, safety, and blessing to me and perhaps to the thousands of people who use botánicas. Has this publication frozen the image of mystery in the minds of all those whose only visit to a botánica will be within the pages of this book, the only book published about botánicas? I hope not. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to frame my exhibit within the stories of my family, so to communicate that an experience with spirits and saints and blood and bone, with limpios and baños can be a place where a family grows.

Secondly, I wonder about some small contradictions within the book. In Polk's second essay he takes the task of defining the most common traditions found within the botánica and practiced by its clients. His definition of espiritismo is based upon the following of Alan Kardec's texts. While its true that Kardec's work brought orthodox espiritismo to the island, and catalyzed a "craze" that has now turned into a vernacular practice, I can attest that not all espiritistas follow Kardec's words. In fact, not all espiritistas have heard of Kardec, let alone keep his books on their altars. This section of the essay makes no distinction between how people say they practice and how they actually practice. In a later essay by Claudia Hernández and Michael Owen Jones, a proprietor of a botánica explains, "Before being a santero, I am an espiritista. An espiritista is born an espiritista" (48). This quote, to me, shows that this practitioner is not identifying his practice with Kardec's books, but with an ability to interact with spirits. I am mindful not to impose any official doctrine on people who are labeling themselves based on ability, not based on their association with books from Europe. Can't this practice be defined by the people who practice it, instead of by the European who also believed in it? I am not denying Kardec's influence on the practice of Espiritismo, but I wonder how we can ever write about popular culture and really get it right. Everyone has their own practice.

In the same essay Polk shows four major categories of practice within a botánica. It seems to me that none of these are necessarily separated in practice. I grew up watching my grandmother practice all four of these mentioned practices (Palo, Espiritismo, Folk Catholicism, Curanderismo). I was taught these, with the exception of Palo, as one large practice, and I was taught to include all four of them as elements in my altar. As a folklorist, I find it imperative that information published about foreign topics be representative of how practitioners (in this case) see what they do. But, I understand the need, in the context of a museum catalog, to answer the straight forward question...what is this? For now I will suggest to teh public, go to my exhibit, then visit a botánica, ask the proprietor, "What do you do?" and then understanding their answer as something distinctly different from what the last one told you and what the next one will tell you.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Small steps

This week I called some of my family and told them about the exhibit. There was no jumping for joy as I imagined, but everyone was excited to hear what I am up to out here in the midwest. My Titi B said she would look out for interesting additions in her neighborhood in Jersey City and my mother reminded me that most botanica warehouses (at least the ones she went to with my grandmother, her mother-in-law) are owned by Jewish men. I think, in light of this reminder, that I will begin keeping a more detailed project journal so that I can come back to things like this when I am finished with the Jardines project.