By Ian Malakoff and Carol Correa de best
Within the Puerto Rican community there exists strong traces and ties to the belief system and elements of the African Traditional religions. Many people practice what is called Santeria, Regla de Osha and Palo. Within a ten-minute drive to northwest Hartford from the Trinity College Campus, at 167 Albany Avenue is a semi-isolated, quiet building that houses the necessary items needed to practice religious rituals. As you open the door to walk into La Botanica Orula, a one-roomed, clustered boutique, a myriad of incense-like smells assail the olfactory senses. The conversations taking place are in Spanish between friends: the Cuban owner Dona Amalia who was behind the counter and two other women sitting in front of her. Another Spanish speaking man walked in behind me and immediately joined in on the conversation. All is relaxed and curious. As eyes wander around the crowded store, filled to the ceiling with cylinder candles, statues of the Virgin Mary, traditional African Santos, porcelain lamps, all colors of beaded necklaces that are said to protect its owner, incenses, purses, perfume, plants, herbs and bongo drums, a sense of over visual stimulation can make an unfamiliar person to the Botanica uneasy. La Botanica Orula represents more than a place of commerce, for it is a place that “provides an anchor and a meaning” to the prevalent Puerto Rican population that exists in the city of Hartford. This is a place were people come for advice on matters of spirituality, family, love, money and leave with ancient remedies passed down through generations. La Botanica is the pharmacy where a practitioner can pick up much needed items that are hard to find in mainstream stores and for the believer it is a sort of Doctor’s office where a spiritual ailment may be diagnosed and advice dispensed.
For two decades in Clay Hill La Botanica Orula occupies one of two storefronts at the bottom of a three-story building, which totals 16,269 square feet. Checks Cashed, where people who live paycheck to paycheck who do not have bank accounts or mobility can cash in their earnings without going to a bank, is to its left. The two stories above the stores consist of three, two-bedroom apartments and two, four-bedroom apartments. The entire building was built in 1910 at a total value of $336,700 (the building was built for $302,600 and the land, 11,900 square feet or 0.27 acres, was bought for $32,700). In 2008, the building was valued at $584,100. Moreover, there is a concrete foundation below the basement, and the walls consist of a sturdy wood frame with a plastered inner layer and brick outer layer in order to withstand fires. From the outside, the green wood window frames and the limestone trim on the corners and on top of the windows are the only visible non-brick parts of the building, and the flat roof is primarily tar and gravel. In general, the building seems to be in solid condition, yet the City of Hartford rates its physical condition as “AV – Average.”
The building is located on the intersection of Albany Avenue, a crowded, two-lane road, and Chestnut Street, which leads to many apartment complexes. Looking at the building from Albany Avenue, there is an identical building directly to its right and then an empty lot. Across the street is another apartment complex with a vacant storefront as well as the famous Puerto Rican restaurant Aqui Me Quedo II. A myriad amount of people walk along the sidewalks, but not many enter the stores around, they all seem to be walking towards the residences where they probably live.
The store is on its original site, and its dimensions are approximately 30 feet by 10 feet. The floor is tiled and is covered mostly with plastic shelves filled with a variety of objects. There are two touching glass counters: a longer one that lies parallel and close to the right wall and a smaller one that lies parallel to the back wall. In the back part of the store is a small, cozy room where the owner performs spiritual palm readings.
Dona Amalia opened this store twenty-one years ago as a private ownership. She had always dreamed of owning her own spiritual reading and accessory store, and after saving enough money, she was able to make her dream come true. She has never had any problems with her neighbors, and she says many of her friends in the area visit her frequently. The owner also prides herself on selling Virgin Mary statues and traditional African religion idols/Santos. Moreover, she explained how her store has an appreciation for all religions and not just Christianity, the dominant religion in the area.
In their book, The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Perspective, Anthony M. Orum and Xiangming Chen describe “a place” as a location where people live and work and where strong and intimate connections exist. However, they continue to say that this concept of “place” only becomes significant when connections through identity, community, the past and the future, and a sense of being comfortable exist. Evidently, La Botanica Orula is a concrete example of this concept of “place” where these four connections exist. For the past twenty-one years, it has acted as a symbol of the prevalent Puerto Rican community present in Hartford and has served as a reminder of their origin and their identity. From the store’s name,
Orula is the Orisha/African Deity of divination and his authority in these matters are complete. Orula is the Orisha chosen by Olofi to be the supreme diviner.
to the continuing Spanish conversations, La Botanica Orula is more than a boutique, for it is a place that welcomes the Puerto Rican and incoming Spanish migrant/immigrant population of Hartford with open arms to come and share their ailments and be comfortable with who they are and where they come from.