A bell sound goes off when you enter La Internacional pharmacy at 2481 Mission Street. Julieta Olivero, the attendant from Nicaragua, stands behind the counter helping a young Latina woman with the new chlorophyll pouches she just purchased. Chlorophyll, it turns out, is a natural way to treat constipation.
“You have to take one one hour before you eat,” Olivero tells her customer. Olivero knows exactly how and for what you should take all the different products sold at La Internacional. This is an impressive feat given that La Internacional sells all kinds of food supplements and healing herbs that can treat all from headaches and stomachaches to sore muscles and skin infections.
La Internacional calls itself a “farmacia latina” and has been in the Mission for more than 40 years meeting the health needs of the Latino community. Like many other Latino businesses in the Mission, sales have fallen recently, but the demand for the medicinal herbs, that they bring from Canada, remains.
“Sales have gone down by 30 percent,” said Noel Martinez, the owner of La Internacional. He believes that the main reason behind the drop in sales is the new Muni lane on Mission Street. He says that since it was built, a little over a year ago, delivery trucks have had major issues supplying his store and the reduced car traffic has led to a drop in the number of customers.
His bulwark against a drop in business at the pharmacy is a steady clientele at La Taza, a Latino cafe that opened in 1997 with a growing evening business, that sits right next to La Internacional.
“It was good to diversify,” said Martinez as the drop in sales at the farmacia can be counteracted by the success of the restaurant.
The customers at La Taza, many of whom are locals, are also different from the customers of the farmacia.
“People from all over Latin America buy here,” Olivero said about the customers of La Internacional. At La Taza it is more mixed, both Latinos and newer members of the Mission community eat there. Good coffee and food are commodities that cross cultures while the pharmacies products are clearly aimed at Latinos.
It sells products that transport you back to Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. “Ricitos de Oro,” or goldilocks and Tio Nacho shampoos, Broncolin cough drops and Moco de Gorila gel are all products that you can find in any Mexican supermarket or farmacia and seeing it on the shelf in La Internacional immediately creates a sense of nostalgia.
To add even more of a Latino flavor, in one corner of the store is a whole section dedicated to figurines of santos, religious figures one prays to with who believes in their power to perform miracles.
“This place is very blessed with all these santos around,” said a viejito who walked into the store.
Faith, the owners know, stands equal to science and medicine in the minds of many Latinos. This might be a reflection of the deep belief that Latin Americans have in the natural remedies that have worked for them for generations. Try convincing a Mexican that chochitos, small pills made of water, sugar and herbs that melt in your mouth and taste quite good, for example, don’t work for healing illnesses or ailments.
It could of course also be an expression of the practicality of us Latinos, whereby faith in God and a belief that one’s health and life are in His hands is accompanied by an understanding that giving oneself a hand with medicine can only help.