In hard times, a Mexican market sells good fortune

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — When business at her butcher shop dried up, Maria Ruiz found salvation not in a government loan or the words of her local Catholic priest, but in an eight-ounce can of aerosol spray.

Not just any can. First, she traveled more than an hour by bus and subway to the Mercado Sonora, known as Mexico City’s “witchcraft market.” Then she wound her way past pinatas and five-foot candles, live roosters and lucha libre masks to stall number 362, in Sonora’s chaotic center.

“I need something for luck,” she told the man behind the cluttered counter.

“Any type of luck?” he asked.

“For my business,” Ruiz said, as the vendor showed her a green “Get Money” candle, some Santa Muerte “prosperity” incense and amulet pouches filled with tiny, fake dollar bills. After much haggling and deliberation, she paid a little less than $3 for a shiny orange can of American Indian brand “money spray for your house or business.”

“I feel like things are already improving,” Ruiz said with a smile.

As the country remains stuck in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, more and more Mexicans like Ruiz are turning to unorthodox remedies for their money woes. Feeling abandoned by the government and disillusioned with the Catholic Church, they look to magic powders, potions, soaps and lotions for a helping hand in life.

“Love and money. Love and money, that’s what people want,” said Jesus Jimenez, a veteran Sonora vendor. “But lately it’s been mostly money.”

“In the past year we’ve definitely sold more,” he said, smoking a cigarette near a narrow stall packed full of healing crystals, Santa Muerte figurines and good luck amulets. “With things as bad as they are now in Mexico, people come here more often.”

And things are definitely bad in Mexico. Its economy contracted more than 7 percent last year, making the country one of the hardest hit by the global recession. Poverty is on the rise for the first time since the mid-1990s. According to a recent government survey, 44.2 percent of Mexicans now live in poverty, 10.5 percent of them in extreme poverty.

In this light, it’s little mystery that the Sonora market is doing such brisk business.

Large bottles of “Pay Me Pronto” or “Attract a Client” lotions run 20 pesos, or about $1.50. Cans of “good business” spray cost about twice as much, while packets of “prosperity powder” — some allegedly containing beetle dust — are less than a dollar.

Very few of the items list where they were made, and when they do, it’s a simple “Made in Mexico” or the doubly unlikely “All Natural from Venezuela.” Meanwhile, many of the lotions and powders look interchangeable. In fact, arrive at Sonora at the right hour and you can catch vendors pasting on their labels, seemingly at random.

But if their origins are a mystery, so too are the instructions.

“Honestly, I have no idea how to use them,” laughed Maria Canales, a teenage vendor slouched in front of a pharmacy-like stall of brightly colored bottles and candles.

“If you’re starting a new business, you pour this lotion in front of the door,” explained an older Sonora vendor who gave her name only as Carmen. “But if you need more money, pour this lotion on a towel and rub it all over your body after a bath.”

“It definitely helps a little,” she added.

In a country beaten down by broad economic forces, Sonora’s potions and powders are a way for average Mexicans to regain a sense of control over their beleaguered lives. But their growing popularity is also a sign of a larger shift here in Mexico, where traditional centers of power — the Church and the government — have lost their hold.

Not everyone is happy about the trend, least of all the Catholic Church.

“Nowadays, when people have any type of economic trouble, problems with their love life or health concerns they turn to schemes for recovering their money, job or partner that offer fast and easy results,” said Father Jose de Jesus Aguilar, a spokesman for the Bishopric of Mexico.

“These objects themselves aren’t good or evil,” he said of the countless items peddled at Sonora. “But what can be evil is the attitude of the person using them, and their belief in things that really can’t change their lives and will ultimately leave them disappointed.”

Religion has never been a simple matter in Mexico. Catholicism and indigenous religions often overlap, as in a pair of rabbit feet stamped with the face of a saint, or the country’s lavish and macabre Day of the Dead celebrations. But with the rise of the black market and the growth of the internet, Mexicans now have more ways to pray — or sin — than ever before.

Nonetheless, Aguilar insists magic amulets are less of a threat to the Church than a drain on the nation’s poor.

“There are lots of people who, in their eagerness or naivety, fall into the hands of con artists who take all their money,” he said.

Church critics, meanwhile, point out that the Archdiocese of Mexico’s headquarters also features a window full of books, candles and figurines for sale.

Ultimately, even the “quick and easy” road to salvation decried by the Church is not always so quick or easy.

“You have to know exactly what you’re doing,” said Maria Ruiz, holding up her can of aerosol spray and examining the fine print.

“Who knows?” she wondered. “If you use it wrong, you might end up without a job altogether.”