For a price that can sink as low as a Philadelphia subway token, they treat troubles in an old-world style of herbal healing and seashell readings that even some professional counselors concede can be as effective as a pricey visit to a psychologist with degrees and diplomas.
"Their role is a combination of adviser, doctor, business consultant, family counselor, therapist," said Dino Morales, a Kensington psychotherapist who gets frequent referrals from Santeria priests. "It's your roots. It's the last place to go when everything is going wrong and nobody else can do anything."
"It's cultural," he said. "If people have faith, sometimes it will help them to develop faith in a treatment."
This is a neighborhood of exotic religions, of hexes, herbal healings and mysterious cures attributed to Catholic saints who are also African gods. Chief among them is Santeria, a secretive religion with roots to the Yoruba tribe in West Africa that came to Cuba aboard slave ships and in the New World blended with the Catholic religion of the Spanish ruling class. The result is a mix of Yoruba magic and Catholic tradition in which believers pray for favors from patron saints with chants, candles, fruit offerings and occasional animal sacrifices.
So it is to the spirits that people turn with problems often dumped in the armchairs of analysts. Cheating husbands. Runaway wives. Frail health. Arrests. Bad luck. Business failures. Nightmares.
These are the mundane vexes of life that the poor and the middle class bring through the doors of El Arte Espiritual, a cramped botanica at 2905 N. Fifth St. that has stood 22 years in the crowded shopping strip.
The botanicas, which number three in North Philadelphia with a fourth on the way, are the hub in this spiritual network that caters primarily to Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia. It is here where a customer can find a Santeria priest or track down an espiritualista for a fortune reading.
The owners make referrals, but also offer their own homespun advice, fill herbal prescriptions, advise soothing baths and diplomatically wrap purchases in plain paper bags for those customers who choose to keep their practices secret.
Juan Bautista, the obliging 32-year-old manager of El Arte, even thanks his more secretive customers with the polite line - "Thanks for shopping at Thriftway."
The shelves of the cramped shop are lined with thick candles devoted to special intentions - a guardian candle to light in celebration of the birth of a baby, a lottery candle with a secret number buried deep in the wax, a justice candle to pray for a lenient court sentence.
Italian-made statues of the blue-robed Virgin Mary and the leprous beggar patron saint of Cuba, Lazarus, gaze dolefully at an assortment of pastel- colored bath potions for a painful range of emotional and physical ailments. There are love baths for the loveless, such as a pink jar of "Ven Conmiga" - Come With Me - with instructions that advise the customer to wash in the bath treatment or scrub the floors.
"We get everything here," said Bautista. "Love problems, man problems, even problems with bad manhood. . . . All races and religions come - Baptists, Catholics. We get a couple nuts. I send them to the doctor."
Occasionally, Bautista also plays the role of court counselor. This is his prescription for justice: "You would take a court candle. Light the candle. Say the prayer of choice. Sprinkle cascara sagrada (sacred bark) around the bed at night. Play with a piece of the bark while in court. And ask for what you want.
"So far I'm six out of six."
Bautista grins at the memory and leans on a worn wooden counter, nearly knocking over a tall can of air freshener labeled "Go Away Evil."
Still, not all of the believers in this spiritual network place a lot of stock or faith in the candles and potions sold by the botanicas. There is a certain amount of rivalry and debate about the quality and authenticity of the goods sold by the botanicas.
"A spiritualist would use some of those herbs. A real Santero would never touch commercially prepared products," said Andres I. Perez y Mena, a Rutgers University assistant professor in Puerto Rican studies and the author of a book on New York's network of botanicas - Speaking With the Dead in the South Bronx.
Still the Santeria priests are adaptable, blending the old-world magical practices of the Yoruba tribe with high-tech modern methods and '80s-style concerns.
Santeria priest Gainza carries a beeper and an American Express card, and delivers his white-robed initiates by white limousine for the simple religious ceremony that takes place among the clumps of pineapples and bananas in Reading Terminal Market.
A wiry former chef, Gainza, 32, came to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba and settled in Philadelphia, forming his own house of saints two years ago across from a storefront Pentecostal church and abandoned rowhouses splashed with graffiti.
In those two years, Gainza estimates, he has sponsored more than 300 initiates, who are called godchildren, into Santeria. They call him regularly or stop by his house for $10 readings told with the toss of shiny, peach cowrie shells.
Gainza, who holds no other job, said that in his role as a padrino - the godfather - he is expected to be available to help his godchildren.
One morning last week, his day began early with a visit from a Cuban businessman dressed in a conservative suit who had commuted 45 minutes from his suburban home to consult Gainza. Through the rest of the day, his pager blinked with telephone numbers and he left a lunch with two visitors, saying that he had to prepare dinner that night for some of his godchildren.
The people who come to him for advice constitute a United Nations of Philadelphia, natives of Puerto Rico, the United States, Panama, Cuba, Ecuador, Italy, Colombia and El Salvador.
Their problems are just as universal.
"They come to talk to the saints," said Gainza. "People who no have a wife. She abandoned them. Todas las cosas (Everything). My husband go. My wife go. My child stay in the street selling drugs. I don't like it."
The issue of drugs presents a modern problem for the ancient religion. Gainza says he is irked that drug dealers come to him with no faith and the smug notion that their money will buy the gods' protection. He says his initiates are required to abstain from drug use.
Ordinarily, the Santeria priests are secretive about their religious practices and healing methods, but there has been a movement among some priests in New York to be more open, to allay fears about the mysterious religion.
Gainza is so open that he envisions opening a Yoruba temple in Philadelphia where the religious ceremonies practiced now in his narrow living room could take place.
Two weeks ago, his living room was draped with bolts of blue lace and white satin that shaped a makeshift throne for a man and a woman who were initiated into the religion. Three drummers beat the rhythms of a Yoruba chant, while nearly 150 people crushed into the living room, swaying to the words, repeating a Yoruba chorus.
Richard Reyes, 26, wore the white costume and glittering sequined crown that are the colors of his patron saint - Obatala, the African god of purity who is also known in the Catholic religion as La Virgen de las Mercedes.
The crown covered his shaved head. For seven days, Reyes stayed in the house of his godfather, sleeping on the floor and not moving without assistance to mark his newborn status in Santeria. For the next three months, he will not eat from a table and he will stay away from crowds. His clothes will remain white for a whole year.
"People think we're devil worshipers, but we're not," Reyes said. "I'm a Catholic. I don't think there's a problem. Whenever I do anything I always ask in the name of God first."
He also invoked the name of God at the end of the seven-day initiation ritual. About noon, when St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church was open to worshipers, he walked up toward the altar and lay prostrate before the embalmed body of St. John Neumann, while elderly parishioners looked up from their rosaries and gawked at the figure in white.
When he talks about what drew him to Santeria, Reyes describes blessings - the missing child who was found after the grandmother went to a Santero for advice, the millionaires he said made their money after joining, the chubby cousin who a year ago was suffering from an illness that stripped her weight to nearly 100 pounds.
Maribel Santiago, 21, who is still planning her initiation, said the same benefits came to her mother, Margarita, who at her initiation two weeks ago, wore the sky-blue dress, peacock fan and crown of her patron, Yemaya, La Virgen de Regla.
"It helps you in life. Like the health. My mother always sat at home, smoking. She had trouble breathing. Now she gets around."
Morales, the Kensington psychologist, said he also had seen signs of improvement in some patients who turned to Santeria when nothing else resolved their troubles.
But he usually advises his patients to take care whom they choose to consult. Some Santeros are more interested in money than the religion, he said. His knowledge is based on years of dealing with the priests, some of whom have made patient referrals, some of whom have lingered in his office.
"Santeros need support too," Morales said. "They get depressed."