One of the places I go whenever I am in a new place is the market, a holdover of sorts from my days as a street rat in Baybay, a small town tucked between the seas and the mountain. The market was and still is the nerve center of my town for various reasons. Money gets shuffled in exchange for products, gossip hops around like flies, friends meet for coffee or beer. Every market does have a persona. It can be downright in-your-face with aggressive vendors hawking their wares or as cozy as a walk on the beach. The transaction, though primarily economic, assumes a personal and even filial tone, quite unlike the distance one experiences with vending machines and cash registers.
In the world of kids however, the marketplace is transformed into a whole different planet. The markets for us were sources of playthings–a pirate chest for everything good and wonderful. We collected empty cigarette packs as paper money, each brand or color denoting a corresponding value. Kids back in the day would fold these neatly between the fingers, or press inside a book or a wallet, to make it crisp to the touch. How do we use it? As money, of course. There is nothing as real as those tobacco-stained papers and, to many, those were even more valuable than the real thing. Indeed, they were very scarce that sometimes kids kept these in a treasure chest for the next cigarette money season.
Bottle caps. Yes, we scavenged for them too. We gathered these near eateries and, oftentimes, the owner collected the caps in a plastic cup and hands them out like candies. We used these tin caps in a game called taksi. A square box is drawn on the ground where the caps are put. About five meters away, a line is set where players throw another cap to dislodge the “bets” (i.e., the caps) out of the square box. The cap that one uses for throwing, the mano, is the most cherished item of the entire pile. Kids go to great lengths for the mano. They would polish them until the color is erased and left with a distinctive shine, like the silver of a knight’s sword. Sometimes, kids would sneak in the church and secretly dump the cap fast in holy water to imbue it with some preternatural power, somehow wishing that an angel would guide the mano and hit everything like crazy. And well, as a kid, I did include my mano in my evening prayers too.
I can go on and on with what children do with bottle caps. They can also be flattened like minute shields with two button holes at the center. In these holes a string is passed through them, sort of like a belt that turns the shield faster and faster when stretched. The edges of the shield have to be razor sharp so that it can cut through cleanly your opponent’s string. The game is really like a kitefight, the only difference is your “weapon” is right in front of your chest spinning.
In other markets, such as this one in La Plaza del Mercado, the same intimacy can still be felt despite being situated right at the heart of Rio Piedras, a busy business and academic district. Relaxed and personalized, one can sense that the customers and the vendors have been transacting for years, if not for generations. There is this feeling of familiarity amidst the assortment of goods. Not only because the vendor knows the customer but also because the goods purchased resonate something deeply personal and cultural for the local residents.
Take for example the Botanica. Medicinal herbs, potions, and religious icons are dispensed here for the believers. While statues of Catholic saints are on display, you can also find an eclectic assortment of religious artifacts on Buddhism, Vodou, Hinduism, Santeria, and New Age religions. According to Beloz and Chavez (2005):
Most Latin American (Latino) immigrants to the United States participate in the dominant health care system. [...] Oftentimes, while utilizing this health care system, they continue to use their own culturally appropriate health care practices [...] In curanderismo, santeria, and espiritismo, the practitioners assess the patient and, depending on diagnosis, prepares a healing remedy or a variety of healing remedies. A remedy is any combination of medicinal herbs, religious amulets, and/or other products used for the prevention, treatment, or palliation of folk and somatic illnesses. It is usually administered by the practitioner and may involve several sessions. In other cases, a curandero, espiritista, or santero will provide his/her client with a list of herbs and/or religious amulets needed for the remedy. The client will go to the botánica with this “shopping list,” purchase the product(s), and return to the healer for preparation and administration of the remedy. If the remedy is to be administered over a long period of time, he/she may be instructed to administer the remedy at home.
There is much syncretism in these botanicas. jrank.org has this to say:
Botánicas that serve customers of the Santería religion offer articles pertaining to ceremonial rituals. Santería traces its beginning to the Yoruba people of precolonial Nigeria and Benin who were brought as slaves to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. During their settlement in the Caribbean, the practitioners of Santería incorporated Catholicism for survival, as the open expression of native religious practices was prohibited. In the Yoruba belief system, the traditional orishas (gods) were associated with a specific health condition. For example, the orish Chango is associated with violent death. In the New World, Chango became Saint Barbara, the patron saint of those who died violently. Santeria botánicas tend to carry items of the orish and the clothing worn by practitioners during services. Other ritual merchandise includes ceremonial masks, elekes (beaded necklaces), drums, and other traditional musical instruments.
Going to these stalls is equivalent to a crash course in cultural education. The story of commodity exchange goes beyond the shuffling of cash. What I find elegant in visiting these places is the opportunity to observe spaces where capitalism gets indigenized, localized, and perhaps even subverted: right at the heart of the money economy.
Gomez-Beloz A, & Chavez N (2001). The botánica as a culturally appropriate health care option for Latinos. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 7 (5), 537-46 PMID: 11719946