Botanica Cachita’s Chango
By Jess Cote
The building at 831 Park Street was built in 1920. The building complex is classified as apartment and commercial with 16 separate units inside. Different families and businesses have moved in and out since 1920, but the Zion Park Associates, which is located at 80 Charter Oak, Hartford, is the current owner of the .230 acre building. There are 80 rooms total with 48 bedrooms on the upper three levels, and two storefronts facing Park Street on the ground floor. The length of the storefront is 33 feet, and currently Botánica Cachita’s Chango and the electronics store share the space. The dimensions of the entire building are 96 feet by 33 feet for all four floors and the basement. The four-story building has a wood frame and a brown brick exterior. The ground floor was altered in 1970 to make the dark green store fronts that are still present today. The building is well-kept, and since the building to the left is also made of the same brown bricks, and the building to the right is made of a slightly different red brick, the building blends into the scene nicely.
The building has housed a variety of people and businesses, including Louis M. Kojian, who died in April of 1943. He was one of the first people to live in the building, and was of Armenian heritage. At that point, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos had not formed a solid community nor gained the majority of the population in Frog Hollow, so non-Hispanics were still living in the apartments on Park (which is rare today.) The same building was also once home to Traub’s Paint and Supply store, from the late 1920s until the late 1960s. The owner, Traub, was president of the Park Street Business Men’s Association, and worked with the other men in the progressive association to attract people from the suburbs to the stores on Park. They were worried about the slow progress of the markets on Park, and wanted more customers to improve the economic situation that they found the area in. They sold everything from fertilizer to garden hoses to paint3. The building switched owners in 1983, which caused the relocation of the Emanuel Synagogue Thrift Shop which had been there for three years, and all of the residents of the building. Since the owner switch created such a problem, especially for the residents, relocation benefits were offered to any residents who had lived in the building (with addresses 831 to 837 Park) from April 15, 1981 to September 21, 1983. The building was officially sold to its current owner, Zion Park Associates, on March 16th, 1983.
The building is situated on the south side of the road about 20 feet off of Park Street. There is a sidewalk in front of the building, and nearby is a Chinese food restaurant, a small supermercado, discount clothing stores, and a small bookstore selling books written in Spanish. The section of Park in front of the store is quite busy with a steady flow of traffic. People drive through rather quickly, but most drivers will stop if people need to cross the street. Children ride bikes throughout the day, families walk around with their children, and the lifestyle here is more relaxed than on the average road in Hartford. The building is toward the top of Park, and most customers walk from the city bus stop or a parking lot nearby since parking directly on Park is a hassle.
This distinct, laid-back feel exists because most of the people that live or work on Park are first or second generation citizens of Latin America or the Caribbean. The street is not seen as strictly a place of business or eating, or a means to get to a different part of the city, but rather a place to spend time with friends and family, and be a part of the community. As Suzanne Keller states in chapter one of “Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality,” a true community should have a shared identity. There must be a “sense of belonging, and a shared destiny, past or future.” For those living on Park, especially the large number of Puerto Ricans, their knowledge and memories of the Latin American community are still embedded in their souls and they express this by spending time outside in the open space with friends and neighbors, instead of being closed up in their personal spaces like many other Americans.
The main attraction of the current building is Botánica Cachita’s Chango. The view through the store’s windows and single door is altered by a metal grid to protect the goods inside. Still, though, the store gives off a welcoming feel. The single front door holds the sign for store hours and a classic red “open” sign. The door simply pulls open, and the inside room is small, about 15 feet by 20 feet, and packed with objects. At first glance it seems cluttered, but on a closer look it appears that everything is extremely organized. The floor is made of a light-colored tile, and the shelves lining the walls are constructed of wood. Glass counters with shelving line the three sides (not including the entrance side) of the room, and a glass counter island also sits in the middle of the store, causing the customers to go left or right upon walking in the room. There is a large storage room holding more products through a doorway on the right, and a smaller storage room directly in the back behind a set of swinging saloon doors. The room gives off a very earthy feel and a warm, inviting combination of smells.
Botánica Cachita’s Chango is a small seller of religious goods for Park Street and the Hartford community. It is set up to satisfy a wide variety of religious beliefs. Goods are imported from all over the world, including Japan, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Customers come into the store in search of remedies for their poor health, spiritual problems, monetary issues, and general stress. A range of Hispanics, including Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans, and also Haitians, Americans, and Asians find themselves looking through the objects in the store to calm their insecurities and doubts and give them good luck with a love interest, a job, or everyday life. Many college students from nearby colleges University of Hartford, University of Connecticut, and Trinity College also come in search of something that might help them do well on their next exam.
Since the type of customer that enters the store is so varied, most employees are at least proficiently bilingual. There is a small steady flow of customers each day (although some hours might bring no one) and the current owner and his wife are very easy-going and prepared to help their customers. Their idea is not to criticize medicine or the sciences, but more to offer goods that can assist what cannot be altered by science alone; these objects are for the spiritual and religious side of life, and there are no claims that they actually work. It is up to the customer to have faith in his own religion or beliefs. Everyone is welcome too; people raised in white families who have lived here for generations speaking only English are more than welcome to walk in, ask questions, and buy something, and Puerto Ricans that moved here only years ago are also more than welcome to purchase anything and ask for advice. In fact, the staff are generous with their ideas and offer their own thoughts whenever a customer needs help.
On the left side of the store, the walls are completely covered in candles. These come in different colors and shapes for different burning purposes. The front bookcases are filled with water-based oils similar to products used for aromatherapy. The right side of the store is filled with an assortment of trinkets, anything from disco balls to metal bowls. The glass counters are filled with a collection of cards, beads, herbs, talismans and perfumes, all with distinct religious meanings. One perfume was labeled “Success” right on the jar, and others have “Steady Work” and “Amor” written on labels with corresponding pictures. Amulets are organized in sections of what they can bring, such as love, money, or luck. There is a section of small books, including a Spanish Bible and a tarot card reader written in English.
On top of the shelves, above all of the trinkets, oils, herbs, and other objects, sit rows upon rows of statues. Some are only a few inches high, while others hit the ceiling at a few feet in height. They line the left, front, and right sides of the store. The figures on the left are all representative of the Catholic faith, and so are mostly statues of Mary, Jesus, and the saints. The figures on top of the front wall (across from the entrance) and along the right wall represent a mixture of African, Indian, and Asian religions, including Buddhism and Islam. The idea of the setup is to organize the figures into their respective religions, but also to show that there might be a correlation between religions at some point. There is no discrimination on race or religion; whatever a customer wants, he can buy without questions or explanations.
Botánica Cachita’s Chango, technically filed under the business name Botánica Chango Associates, was originally managed by José Correa, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1968. He opened the store shortly after moving to Hartford, and had success with the building and “attributes it all to his patron saint- St. Barbara, known as “Chango” in the Afro-Cuban religious world.” The business has since passed through a second owner, and is currently under its third ownership and in its third location. The current owner decided to purchase the business simply out of interest. He felt that he knew enough about the religious goods and trinkets, their meanings, the different religions involved, and that he could learn from it as well. He also took control of the store to keep it alive though; he thinks that the store provides the Park Street and Hartford community with something that they need. Without the religious and spiritual objects available, he believes that people would not be as happy with themselves, their lives, or the possible opportunities that lie ahead. As much as he wants to make a profit, he is also trying to benefit the community at large.