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A Bronx Botánica Opens its Doors in Bloomington, Indiana

By Gabrielle Berlinger

With the arrival of the vernal equinox, “Botánica: A Pharmacy for the Soul” opened its doors to the public this past Friday at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures in Bloomington, Indiana. This exhibition, the Masters Project of doctoral student in folklore Selina Morales, is the culmination of her years of her research into different dimensions of space, constructions of identity, cultural materials, and systems of belief that are produced in the botánica, a store that sells items necessary for practicing a variety of Afro-Caribbean religions. In the gallery at the back of the Museum’s first floor, Selina recreated the botánica that her Puerto Rican grandmother, Jerusalén Morales-Díaz, owned and ran in New York City from 1985 to 1991. Selina draws on memories, family stories, and her ethnographic fieldwork in New York, New Jersey, and Puerto Rico to contextualize and communicate the experience of Jerusalén as proprietor of the botánica.

1. A visitor examines the baños, or baths, that hang on the pegboard display.

During the two-hour opening, over 250 people entered the exhibition and stepped into a botánica, guided by the Morales family’s memories. The front door of the store, flanked by recreated city brick walls tagged with graffiti, opens into a main room where photographs of Jerusalén’s family and clients in the botánica are displayed behind and on top of the proprietor’s counter. The walls of the room alternately display cases with altars to deities of the Afro-Caribbean religions, and objects sold for ritual practice. Colorful candles line one wall from floor to ceiling, while another is covered in pegboard from which pouches of bath salt, beaded necklaces, and other religious materials hang. The items’ vibrant colors set against the store’s white walls jump out and draw visitors in to read the contextualizing labels that quote Jerusalén, Selina, and other family members explaining the meaning of these objects and this space. A semi-enclosed room behind the counter area recreates the private area in which Jerusalén would consult clients who visited her botánica for healing and advice.

2. A visitor examines the wall of candles.

This opening day was a momentous event for many people. It celebrated Selina’s long-term research, material collection, and exhibition curation, and introduced a rich case study of Afro-Caribbean religious belief, material culture, and practice that the Bloomington public may now engage in mind and body, through memory, sight, sound, smell, and touch.

Both of Selina’s grandmothers and one grandfather, her aunt, and her brother were all in attendance for the opening. A steady stream of family, friends, and new visitors toured the exhibition, spooned clean large platters of hot Puerto Rican food (Pernil [roast pork], arroz con gandules [rice with pigeon peas], yucca con mojo [yucca with garlic-olive oil sauce], and crackers with guava paste and white cheese), and enjoyed the music of Sancocho, an Afro-Caribbean drum group, that entertained in the adjoining room.

3. A view of the main room from behind the proprietor’s counter.

Selina deserves great congratulations on the opening of such an impressive exhibition that has created a space in which the community may consider notions of healing, family, love, creativity, and spirituality. Her beautiful creation makes all of us – her family, friends, and colleagues – proud to share in her life’s work and in the work of folklore.

For more on the exhibition, see Selina Morales’ blog:

Thanks to Gabi Berlinger for this great guest post. Selina’s exhibition is wonderful and the lively, crowded, fun opening was Bloomington’s museum event of the year. Congratulations to Selina and to the Mathers Museum staff on a job well done–Jason.

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