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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.

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.”