Sonia Gastelum is the owner of Botanica Orula #2 – a shop on Main Street, in South Los Angeles, which specializes in Santería.
Gastelum was born in El Salvador and brought to the United States by her parents when she was one year old. Many members of her family practice Santería and have been initiated as santeros – priests and priestesses – in the religion.
“I have four children and two brothers," said Gastelum. "All of my children are santeros and one of my brothers is a santero. I have 10 grandchildren and two of them are santeros. My mom is initiated, one of my cousins is initiated, and she has four or five grandchildren, and they’re initiated too.”
Santería, or “Way of the Saints,” is a system of beliefs that combines elements of the Yoruba religion, a West African tradition, with Roman Catholicism and Native American traditions. The religion is composed of intricate practices which include communication with spirits, spiritual readings, sacred drumming and animal sacrifices.
Gastelum has been into the religion since she was approximately 13 years old and was initiated as a santera, or priestess of Santería, 22 years ago. According to Gastelum, the initiation of a santero is a yearlong process, which includes cleansing rituals, prayer and animal sacrifices.
Botanica Orula is Gastelum’s second shop, which opened in November 2010 - the first location is in Lynwood. The shop specializes in supplies for those who practice Santería, but Gastelum said she also carries items for people of other spiritual backgrounds.
The shop is amply supplied with candles, scented oils, different kinds of incense, strands of beads, herbal mixtures and religious figurines – each item serving a specific spiritual or religious need. Gastelum makes many of the items she carries – she does all of her own beadwork, grows a lot of her own herbs to make her own oils and sews much of the ceremonial garb.
Gastelum says that many people don’t understand her religion and that there are a lot of negative assumptions about it because of the animal sacrifices, which are central to its practice. She enjoys the opportunity to educate people who come into her shop in search of spiritual guidance.
“You don’t have to be initiated in our religion. I’m here to help somebody," says the priestess. "We’re open to anybody who needs help – whether they have money or don’t have money.”