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Botánicas of Boston and Community Healing Centers

-Martin Epson

The use of herbal therapies by mainstream patient populations has been documented by Eisenberg et. al in national studies of Americans' uses of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Indeed, of the versions of CAM studied, the use of herbal medicine ranked second in relation to the other therapies. Yet such studies also acknowledge that their findings do not provide "a sufficiently large database to provide precise estimates of the patterns of alternative therapy use among African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or other minority groups." The Eisenberg team encourages the development of parallel studies, "modified to include therapies unique to minority populations and translated when appropriate," to make it possible to compare patterns across ethnic groups.

The very populations referred to constitute a majority of the patient groups at Boston Medical Center. Anecdotal comments from the Pediatrics clinical staff suggest widespread use of herbal therapies in these communities, along with other culturally-based practices. Yet again, families rarely discuss their use of such therapies with clinicians. Visits throughout the communities of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain quickly reveal the pervasive presence of a category of healing centers where herbs and other culturally specific CAM therapies are sold. These centers, or botánicas, are generally connected with the traditions of espiritismo and/or santería. The clientele of the botánicas includes African Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, Brazilians, and some of the African immigrant groups (particularly those from West Africa).

Despite the popularity of these healing centers in the communities they serve, biomedical clinicians generally have little knowledge about the kinds of therapies dispensed by the botánicas. This study will first map the locations and sizes of the botánicas of Boston. It will then catalogue the herbal products sold, along with other products related to CAM therapies. Finally, based on published sources on herbs used in some of the African Diasporic traditions, it will compare the data found in Boston with data related to countries of origin, to determine patterns of transmission of knowledge and practice.



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