Religious store in South LA dedicated to Spirits and Saints above

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image Sonia Gastelum in her Botanica Orula #2 (Photo by Kira Brekke)

Sonia Gastelum’s Botanica Orula #2 is a small yet amply decorated store located in the depths of South Central on Main Street. The compact store is dedicated to the religion Santeria.

“It’s from Africa and Cuba, it’s Afro-Cuban,” Gastelum said. “We believe in Saints and we believe in spirits.”

Santeria, or “Way of the Saints” in Spanish, is dedicated to devotees building powerful relationships with mortal spirits called Orishas. Gastelum began practicing 35 years ago and has since become a high priest.

“We do a lot of ceremonies here too, spiritual, spiritual cleaning,” Gastelum said.

Gastelum opened her first Botanica in the Lynwood neighborhood of Los Angeles ten years ago. This shop in South Central was opened just last year.

“When [customers] come in here, they ask me what is this store about? Because, they’re not familiar with the store and I tell them, this has to do with things of the religion and everything. They start asking me, ‘What do you see in me? What do you think,” Gastelum said.

There is nothing fortune-telling about Santeria; but Sonia says many customers come in seeking guidance.

Some studies report that nearly a million people practice Santeria in the United States alone; but, an accurate number is hard to know for sure due to the stigmas of practicing. One reason being that animal sacrifices are central to the religion.

“We sacrifice but we don’t make them suffer,” Gastelum said. “A lot of people these days, they’re not explaining it and they’re not understanding it. They hear the word “Santeria” and they think it’s devilish or something, but it isn’t.

UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh says that state constitutions provide different levels of protection to religious practices. Volokh says that California is one of the states that provides more protection.

“The questions that would have to be raised is exactly what she is doing, exactly what the relevant laws are,” Volokh said. “There are laws in California regulating the killing of animals. Some are aimed at preventing to unnecessarily cruel deaths for the animals. Some are aimed at protecting hygiene. But, it may very well be that what she is doing is perfectly consistent with those laws.

imageWithout thinking about legality of Santeria, Gastelum’s store decorations are quite impressive. The walls are filled with a grand array of colorful aromatic candles. She also carries hundreds of other religious paraphernalia, including: statues, crosses, soaps, oils, clothing, and more.

“Well the inspiration that I get because everything you see here, like the skirts, I make them, and we use them in our religion,” Gastelum said.

The store’s surrounding community is known to be drug and gang ridden. So much so that Gastelum’s first week open began with a shooting outside her front window. Since then Gastelum says her days are safe and she has made a point of encouraging others to accept faith.

“In my house, we think we’re not here to do bad to nobody,” Gastelum said. “You know, we’re here to help out a person; not to harm them in any kind of way.”

The religion has been passed down from generation to generation with the help from story telling and what Gastelum calls her godchildren.

“I have about 500 godchildren,” Gastelum said. “Because every time you’re initiated, you have a godmother, and that godmother is supposed to guide you in the religion and show you things and how it’s supposed to go, you know. If I have that gift that I was initiated, I should use it for good, not for bad.”

As Gastelum sits behind her counter each and every day making much of the store’s merchandise, nearly 20 customers walk in daily hoping to be better themselves and reach the spirits above. While some may frown upon Santeria, Sonia Gastelum seems quite happy.

South Central school faces hurdles in proposed move

imageOn the corner of 38th and Broadway in South Los Angeles sits a small charter high school with a big agenda on its hands. After six years in the same building, the warehouse-turned campus plans to move to downtown LA in the fall. But as Kira Brekke reports, the school has a lot of problems to tackle because it leaves South LA.

Jessica Davis has been an advisor at the Film and Theatre Arts Charter High school, or FTA, for the past six years. She says she has really fallen in love with the school’s alternative agenda.

“I feel so blessed to work in this environment,” Davis said.

The school is unique in that there are no class schedules, no bells, and the school is dedicated to their project based learning curriculum, which means, no tests. Also, two days per week the almost 150 students are sent to internships of their choice all over Los Angeles.

The alternative environment is why their potential move to downtown Los Angeles is both exciting and scary for Advisor Jessica.

“When they first told me we were moving to downtown, my heart sank because I was like, ‘No we have this very special thing in this community,’” Davis said. “But the truth is, it’s not possible for us to exist in this neighborhood anymore.”

FTA is in the final negotiating stages of moving to a new building on Wilshire Blvd. in Downtown Los Angeles. Director Steve Bachrach says the school no longer has the resources and space it needs to grow.

“There’s nothing around us. It’s not fertile ground for our model,” Bachrach said.

The people I spoke with seem pretty excited for the move; but, this doesn’t go without worries.

Former student Pedro Torres says he is scared the 5-mile move is going to be a real culture shock for the students.

“A lot of these kids from south LA, they don’t know anything on the other side,” Torres said. “It’s just a different environment than they’re used to.”

It’s a short distance, but with downtown traffic, it could add an hour to the student’s daily trek. FTA says it will provide discounted bus passes for students who can’t afford the increase in transportation costs.

Despite the challenges students will face in adjusting to a new part of town, Bachrach thinks it will be a beneficial move.

Councilman Parks looking to better Neighborhood Councils

imageTen years ago the Neighborhood Council system began to try to make city call more responsive to all parts of the city. Volunteers from all over Los Angeles dedicate their own time to tackling problems in their neighborhoods. They are people like Iona Diggs, who is on Chair of the Voices of 90037. Diggs was recently interviewed by Journalist Melissa Leu.

“The reason I’m on there is because I’m dedicated to improving our neighborhood because I care,” Diggs said. “I care about where I live, I care about the people in the neighborhood.”

The councils were started to increase community participation in political processes, but they have faced problems. That’s why 8th district Councilmember Bernard Parks is hosting a series of five meetings throughout the city. Parks was recently named the chair of the Educations and Neighborhoods committee, which oversees neighborhood councils.

“As long as there are concerns out there about how well they spend money, and are the elections fair and was it truly stakeholders that were voting and elected the board members. If there are those outstanding issues, then that kind of gives an excuse for them to not be taken seriously,” said Dennis Gleason, Park’s Press Deputy. “So he’s really hoping that he’ll be able to strengthen the system to they can really have a stronger role in the LA city government.”

Sometimes neighborhood councils have a hard time simply functioning and getting enough people to the meetings. Linda Lucks is on the Board of Neighborhood Commissions and also President of the neighborhood council. She is hoping the meetings address these issues.

“It’s really hard for grassroots organization like neighborhood councils to function and to grow and to be affective. We need help in that regard and in my opinion, tightening up the rules. There needs to be some standardization and conformity to make it easier for people to function on the same page.”

In Los Angeles, 15 council members represent 4 million citizens, which breaks down to 250,000 people per councilmember. Because of this, 8th district Press Deputy Gleason says these neighborhood councils are essential.

“They really help people zero in on what’s important to the community and what needs to be paid attention to,” Gleason said.

John F. John formerly served on the Griffith Park Neighborhood council and has been active in other councils.

“It’s important for neighborhood activists to attend Councilmember Parks outreach meetings because he’s a new Chairman of this committee and we want to impress upon him the importance of neighborhood council,” John said.

Chair of the Voices Iona Diggs says her dedication keeps her going to the meetings.

“I’m committed to what I started and that’s in helping our neighbors,” Diggs said. “We are having problems getting people committed and out. We’re telling people, don’t you care about your neighborhood, don’t you care about the things in your neighborhood?”

After they get comments from the meetings, Parks says he will come up with motions to bring changes to the neighborhood council system.

Health care providers petitioning hospital costs

image$21 for a single dose of Ibuprofen. $86 for an Ace Bandage. These are the prices hospitals all over the state are allegedly charging patients. And unionized health care workers and community leaders are not happy. Joanna Powers is a licensed vocational nurse at Western Medical Anaheim.

“The health care system is out of control, it’s out of control and we have to band together to put a stop to it,” Powers said.

The SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West has collected over 250,000 signatures in just one month in favor of two proposed initiatives.

The union needs 1.7 million signatures to get on the November 2012 ballot. It if succeeds, non-profit hospitals will give five percent of their patient revenue to healthcare for the needy in exchange for not paying federal, state and local taxes. Additionally, hospitals all over the state will charge no more than 25% of the actual cost of providing health care.

Dave Regan, President of the SEIU-United Health Care Workers West, said that in California alone, hospitals charge an average of 460% more than the actual cost of providing care.

“$21 aspirin, $151 for eye drops, $127 for lotion,” Regan said. “The cost for hospital care is getting beyond the means of far too many people in this state and we as health care workers want to do something about that.”

imageSome might argue that such drastic cuts would affect patient safety and care. Joanna Powers disagrees.

“I think that the hospital will be able to function as usual. They just won’t be making that big of a profit margin and they need to share the cost. These people need treatment and the hospitals need to pick up their share,” Powers said.

Centinela Hospital is owned by Prime Health Care Services. The union says on average Centinela patients are charged 789 percent of the hospital’s cost.

A spokesperson for Prime Health Care Services referred our call to the California Hospital Association, which was not available to comment by air time.

Controlling health care costs has been on the political agenda both nationally and in California. Regan says it’s time something is done.

“People get bills that bankrupt them. Medical debt is the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the state of California,” Regan said.

Regan says that each day the union is adding 20,000 signatures to the petition and he is confident their initiative will appear on the November 20 ballot.