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In hard times, a Mexican market sells good fortune

Disillusioned with the government and Catholic Church, Mexicans are turning to unorthodox remedies.

A man shows off his amulets in Mexico City, March 15, 2004. In a country beaten down by broad economic forces, more Mexicans are turning to magic powders, potions, soaps and lotions for a helping hand in life. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

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.