Medical experts and shop owners in South Los Angeles said Thursday they expect Latinos to continue seeking herbal remedies at local "botánicas," despite potentially greater access to traditional health care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Noel Chavez, an associate professor of community health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the new law will increase access to affordable medical care for “a certain portion” of Latinos throughout the country, but that it should not be looked at as a cure-all.
“Those who are not documented will still have problems,” Chavez said. “The cost of care will continue to be a problem for a number of people.”
Chavez said she expects many in the Latino community to continue visiting stores known as botánicas, which sell medicinal herbs, religious amulets and other products (e.g. incense, perfume) used for healing remedies derived from a number of different religious traditions including Roman Catholicism, Santería and Yoruba. Healers are traditionally known as “curanderos,” or “santeros” in the more Santería-oriented botánicas.
“Alternative medicine is still part of the cultural norm, and I think people will continue to use both systems,” Chavez said.
A 2008 Pew study found that 1 in 4 Latinos in the United States lack a regular health care provider due mainly to personal choice, but other reasons included the high cost of care, a lack of health insurance and a desire for self-treatment without visiting a doctor.
While a percentage of botánica patrons do purchase items unrelated to physical ailments, research has concluded that a majority do.
Chavez co-authored a 2001 study that concluded 71 percent of botánica customers at one Chicago-area botánica were seeking treatment for non-folk illnesses such as asthma, back pain, constipation, cough, intestinal/stomach problems, menopause symptoms and nervous system problems, among others.
After evaluating the overall experience, Chavez’ study concluded that "the botánica is not only a culturally-appropriate health care resource but can be a complement or alternative to conventional health care.”
Eva Hernandez-Thomas is a mental health counselor at Healthcare Alternative Systems in Chicago and works primarily with recent immigrants from Latin American countries. She said nearly all her clients have access to either cheap or free medical care, yet they still turn to herbal remedies for ailments such as high fever, headaches and stomach aches.
She agreed with Chavez that botánicas are indeed a viable supplement for many Latinos seeking treatment, and added that curanderos often present a more “spiritual” and “emotional” type of healing that patients can’t get in a hospital or doctor’s office.
“The curandero gives you more time, and when you have more time you understand better and you form a stronger link with that individual,” Hernandez-Thomas said.
But she said problems arise when Latinos are afraid to tell their doctors about the herbal remedies they are taking out of embarrassment and a belief that they will be told to stop. She encouraged all botánica customers to also visit a medical professional to discuss how alternative remedies might conflict with their condition and any prescription medications. Hernandez-Thomas is especially concerned that diabetics who drink aloe vera mixed with sugar and pregnant women who drink chamomile tea are not receiving proper medical advice.
“I say if you talk to them with respect and ask for clarification, they will respond to you the same way,” Hernandez-Thomas said.
Jose Antonio Moreno, 40, is the owner and curandero of Botánica Ochun y Yemaya on the corner of Central Avenue and Washington Boulevard. He said many of his customers are poor immigrants, some undocumented, who either lack health coverage or can't afford to see a doctor. Moreno praised the Supreme Court's ruling, but said he doesn’t expect business to drop off after the health care law goes into effect because his shop serves an important role in the community for people who want a “substitute for a pill.”
Moreno added that he thinks many Latino immigrants will fall through the cracks of the law and continue to go without being seen by a doctor.
“A lot of people will not know about the health care (law) because of lack of information, and a lot of people are scared or just too afraid to ask,” he said. “Especially the ones who don’t speak English, or are from indigenous backgrounds. They really won’t go.”
Jose de Calazan Brito Cordero has been running Botánica Coral on the corner of Washington Boulevard and Western Avenue since 1993. Originally from Cuba, Cordero said he’s been a practicing santero for 25 years, and that his treatments are a mixture of remedies born of Santería, Yoruba and Native American practices.
“Some people go to a doctor and they don’t find anything. They come back to a santero and sometimes it’s spiritual things they need,” he said, using his godson, Douglas Recinos, as an interpreter.
Recinos, who also works at the store, said he expects many of the more religious customers to come back regularly, but admitted others might not.
“There’s some people that will leave," Recinos said. "It’s a balance."