Thursday, January 21, 2010

jasmine, limon, cedar and San Gabriel

Don Roberto sat me down one afternoon and gave me a tour of his cardboard box. It was packed snug with more than 80 types of incense. He sells packets of 10 sticks for $1.00. As he handed me a stick from each bundle, he instructed me to “inhale deeply.” I nodded obediently and readied myself for the endless stream of odors to tickle my nostrils. First came the different types of flowers (rose, violet, lavender, jasmine), herbs and leaves (mint, patchouli, eucalyptus), fruits (coconut, pineapple, kiwi, strawberry, mango, lemon), wood (pine, sandalwood, cedar), “dessert” scents (cinnamon, vanilla, honey, almonds) and “illicit” scents (cannabis, opium). Then he introduced distinctly Latin American scents named after different saints and religious icons: San Miguel, San Pedro, San Judas, San Gabriel, “Mother Maria,” “Divine Son,” “Baby Jesus” (which smelled of baby powder). I asked Don Roberto how different saints become associated with certain smells-he didn’t have a definite answer, only that “there are people who know these things.” Then I noticed that they were manufactured in India. Don Roberto assured me that there are Ecuadorians and other Latinos in India helping with the process…

Perhaps most interesting are the scents that bring different types of luck. Don Roberto showed me scents that attract good fortune, money, cars, a husband, children, and houses. I couldn’t believe, it but there was even a scent specifically for sex workers to “attract clients!” (a sultry combination of jasmine and amber…) Don Roberto explained that sex workers keep it burning in the brothels or at home at the end of the day (for those women who work on the street). I still wondered who was making these scents and how these Indian manufacturers developed the perfect scent to “attract clients.” (When did they first develop it anyway? Who tipped them off that such a market exists? How on earth did they come up with that particular scent?) I’m sure all the scents they export to Latin America are also distributed locally as well so presumably a market exists for incense for sex workers in India as well. Or perhaps the “Ecuadorians” and “other Latinos” helping with the manufacturing in India came up with the idea. Perhaps it’s a testament to the place sex work holds in Latin America? That it’s viewed as a legitimate job like any other? Don Roberto showed me that hairdressers have their own scent to attract clients, so why shouldn’t sex workers have one too? … Although after talking with a few of sex workers I work with, I’m not sure it’s such a hit, none of them had ever purchased it.

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