The message is precise, concise, and urgent like a Cold War telegram: “Sian saw a spider web. If you have white candles, please light for her protection.”
As Adriana Rojas opens her botanica midmorning on a Thursday, her phone jingles with alarm to let her know she has received a text. Rojas checks her screen. The message could be a local spiritual wildfire to put out or an international SOS.
The globalization of communications means that isolated religious experts in the smaller religions have bigger markets, more expertise and support at their finger-tips than ever before.
Rojas responds as coolly as though she were confirming dinner plans. “Okay,” she texts.
Laying her phone down on the glass counter, the Bushwick witch pauses to straighten the bottles stocked on industrial metal shelves. There is a relaxed, deliberate orderliness in her manner. She then strolls to the back of the store and pulls aside the long, dark blue curtain that separates the back room from the rest of the space. Behind the curtain is a closet-sized sanctuary with a cluttered card table in one corner and overcrowded altars in the other three.
One of the altars is shepherded by a three-foot high statue of Death, a hooded figure wielding a scythe. Rojas affixes two white candles to a paper plate and, after lighting them, places them at the base of this altar. She expects their flames to continue through the next day and night. Disaster relief is on its way to Sian. Mission accomplished, Rojas returns to the front of the store.
There she spiritually prepares for the day’s business. Lighting some incense, she then declares the store open and settles herself behind the glass counter to wait for her first customer.
Rojas is the owner of the Las Tres Reynas (“The Three Queens”), a botanica off Bushwick’s main stretch Myrtle Avenue. The Colombian priestess is not the Halloween caricature of a large-nosed, pimpled crone who brews unmentionable ingredients into smoking potions. Though Rojas does conduct spells and ceremonies for clients who are willing to pay for the more potent magic, the quotidian tools of her trade are her candles, her charm, and her cell phone.
The candles are the batons with which Rojas conducts the spirits to alleviate a client’s problem. As she works the candles for clients, she also gives them practical advice to assist with their situation.
If a problem is very difficult, Rojas may call her “spiritual family,” a network of advisors who communicate directions to her from Colombia. Yet, Rojas has never met her spiritual family, who she only knows to be “70, 80, 100 years old, older and wiser.” She texts with them every day about her work.
As she waits for business to pick up this morning, Rojas’s fingers move in an easy dance across her smartphone screen to check the progress of her clients. Then, she receives an urgent international SOS just before noon.
Spiritual battle at High Noon
“Cheret has chest pains. She claimed recertification of her case. Sit and do the same thing.”
One of the members of Rojas’ spiritual family is a public official in Colombia. As the public functionary prepared to renew her credentials, she sensed that she was under attack from someone who wanted to block her recertification. Physical symptoms from her body told her that a rival was working against her. The father of the spiritual family asked Rojas to sit and meditate on Cheret’s success, because envisioning the future would make it happen. He then told her to light a candle to ensure that Cheret’s case would go successfully.
“Do the clearance for Cheret. Do the clearance for yourself,” he urges.
Now, Rojas withdraws again to the back room of the shop. On the table she places a glass-encased votive candle with a picture of a mournful Jesus Christ printed above the title “Justo Juez” (“Just Judge,” which often is lit during court cases). With a long match she lights the wick. By taking quickly, the flame signals encouraging news.
She sends a confirmation text to her “father.”
His response is a terse encouragement, “The results will be a success.”
Becoming a witch
“A scientist!” “A teacher!” “A ballerina!” might be the expected answer when you ask little girls what they want to be when they grow up. “A witch!” is not usually among the options. But, laughs 51-year-old Rojas, “I always knew I wanted to be a chef or a witch.”
Rojas received her first clue in Colombia that she had special powers when she was four years old. She recalls the time that she fell out of a 3rd story window. Her parents rushed her to the hospital to check for broken bones but were surprised to find that their little girl was completely unharmed. Rojas now believes that her safety was ensured because she had special spiritual protection even at that young age.
As she grew older, Rojas learned more about the Catholic tradition of her parents. She also learned as much as she could about Santeria and Palo, the sibling off-springs of Nigerian and Congolese religions mixed with Catholicism. Palo emphasizes more the dark side of the spiritual world. When she was fifteen, her family moved from Colombia to Little Italy.
Thirty-six years ago, Little Italy had a lot more Chinese and Italian Catholics than today. The mixed neighborhood poured out many varieties of religion. Consequently, Rojas’s protean spirituality ballooned in this neighborhood ecology. All through high school she was curious about the saints. “I always had my little things. I always prayed.”
In 1997 she dropped out of college to marry a businessman from Chicago. While living in the Midwest, she picked up the entrepreneurial skills that would help her establish her own store.
Alone, she moved back to Queens a few years later. Remembering her childhood aspiration, she decided to open the botanica in 2004. She named her newborn shop Botanica Santeria and Magic, a straightforward name that hinted at the all-encompassing spiritual values of the shop.
Two years after opening the botanica, Rojas was introduced to her current network. A tall, fiery 24-year-old woman entered the botanica and demanded that Rojas investigate the death of her mother. The woman’s mother had been a regular at the shop for years before dying unexpectedly.
In a dream the mother’s spirit told the daughter, who was pregnant with a daughter of her own, to return to the botanica and ask for Rojas’s help. Rojas consulted her candles to find out what had happened to the mother.
In a subdued, dramatic voice, Rojas recounts the horror of finding out that the mother had been murdered. Moreover, Rojas discovered that the same spirits that had killed the mother were after the young woman and her unborn child. Rojas fought against the malignant spirits with her candles and protected the young woman.
In gratitude, the young woman, who Rojas refers to as her “daughter,” introduced Rojas to a network of older witches and priests in Colombia. Now like family, she communicates with them every day, both to talk shop and about personal matters.
Final spiritual battles of the day
At three o’clock her biological daughter stops by the botanica to drop off her toddler son. He is asleep in his stroller and Rojas parks him in the middle of the shop floor. She snaps a picture on her phone and sends it to one of the older ladies in the Colombian network.
A few moments later her phone chirps.
“He’s very handsome,” her spiritual aunt replies.
Then, as if an afterthought, the aunt reminds Rojas of the candles which she had lit for a contentious couple.
“Do me a favor, look at the red candle, see a heart?” her aunt writes. “Prepare a yellow candle, they are arguing all over.”
Two hours later her spiritual father follows up, “Daughter, did you do the candles?” The spiritual equilibrium must be precarious.
Rojas diligently peeks into the backroom. The two white candles are a quarter shorter and drips steadily into a pool of wax.
However, the Justo Juez candle is on the verge of drowning in its own wax. It needs some help.
Using a wooden pencil that has cartoon skulls printed on it, Rojas digs the soft wax out from around the wick and deposits it on the tabletop. For three minutes she alternates prodding the wax and pausing to observe if the candle is able to burn. Finally, she is satisfied that it will last the night.
Rojas does not know how much longer she will be in the botanica business.
“I need to find a rich man, one who accepts what I do,” she half-jokes.
She is also considering a combination of her botanica with her love of cooking by setting up a kitchen in the back of her store near the altars. Sacred fires for holy food?
Finally, after a day of international magical intrigue, she closes up shop and returns home.
A witch’s work is never finished
She first showers to shed the sweat of the day’s battles. Then, she goes to bed.
At 2:26 in the morning her phone alerts her again. Rojas rolls over to check what spiritual emergency needs to be addressed.
It is her spiritual father. An international SOS? Rojas wonders.
Instead, the witching text reassures her that her work is done and that she can rest quietly, “I believe everything will work to your success,” he types.