HIALEAH, FL. – She may not have a green face and long, thin nose – or ride a broom to get from place to place, but Marizel Almirall wants this to be very clear: she is very much a witch, a real witch.
Almirall, a mother of two who owns a “spiritual shop” with her husband in an industrial section of Hialeah, Fla., says her profession has gotten a bad rap through the years, making witches of all kinds go into hiding.
But, she said, she is real and she is proud – even if she is largely misunderstood.
"A lot of people practice magic and they are witches but they don't classify themselves as such because 'witch' has gotten such a bad name throughout the ages," Almirall said as Ingrid Michaelson's "Everybody Wants to be Loved" beckoned from the store's overhead speaker. "We had the 'cojones' to name the shop the 'Witch's Garden' — to basically educate," she added.
Amulets dangle over the counter of her cramped boutique as her two girls scurry about, giggling. Tucked away in the fourth floor of an office building, Almirall cheerfully rings up customers at the shop, where she and her husband provide “spirituality consultations" and community workshops on magic.
"Our whole family, we practice together. We are not in the closet. It is a way of life," she said firmly. "This shop is an extension of our family."
The shop is not quite a botanica store, which sell religious and spiritual artifacts. And while some people mistake her for someone who practices Santeria, she said she has no connection to the Afro Caribbean religion popular in this part of South Florida.
"We work a lot with herbs and with animal medicine," Almirall said, quickly adding that she does not believe in "animal sacrifices" like Santeria and other beliefs. "I am going to be honest with you, that is the only thing I don't connect with at all. I don't have any Santeria products.”
The Cuban-American calls her belief system “eclectic witchcraft” and says it is not a part of any organized religion, like Wicca, but an expansive form of her own inclusive spirituality that incorporates diverse ideas – and includes everything from Native American culture and South American Shamanism to African Voodoo and Buddhism.
"It is about being extremely open on your spiritual path. It is spirituality," said Almirall, who labels herself a healer. "We are all connected. We are all basically practicing the same thing. In my belief system, we are all supposed to unite and take care of one another and create, you know, a peaceful ambiance in this world,” she said.
And while many might believe Halloween would have a special significance to Almirall, she said it does not.
“I don't wait until Halloween to connect (with the dead) because that is what I do,” she said. “I am a medium, I am always connecting. But to a lot of people, that's when they honor their deceased ones."
She does, however, connect with the day after Halloween, known as Day of the Dead – though she thinks the day has become too commercialized in the United States. In places like Mexico, it has a more spiritual meaning.
“To me what you see in Mexico is what it is about. I want to see people in the cemetery with their families and sharing a meal, playing music,” she said. “But they don't do that here. Here it is all specialty shops."
Almirall said that from an early age she had the ability to connect with a spiritual side of life, including "seeing spirits" or ghosts that others could not.
"I was born like this," she said, adding that her grandmother and one of her daughters posses similar capabilities.
"We're both witches," Almirall's husband, Armando, said. But then he smiles and says "But she is the witch."
Almirall said when she was a teenager her abilities were not always welcome by other kids. When she was 13 or 14, "gangs of children" would chase her around school with crosses made out of sticks.
"Groups of … kids would chase me, reciting the Bible, because I was the ‘devil girl,’" She recounted recently. “I used to wear black and I would hypnotize people during lunch period and all that. They knew what I practiced. I was very open about my belief system."
Now 34 years old, Almirall has the freedom to practice her beliefs with her family, and with impunity.
"No one is going to tell me what I can believe in," Almirall said as she lights up incense and watches the smoke rise." So why not take it and educate people about it?"
Katherine Lepri contributed to this report.