Meet Organizer and Herbalist Suhaly Bautista-Carolina

Suhaly Bautista-Carolina is an organizer, educator, herbalist, and visual artist. Born in New York City to AfroDominican parents, her work is rooted in harnessing and documenting the collective power of community. Before joining the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) as the Director of Public Programs, Suhaly served as the Engagement & Education Manager at the public art nonprofit, Creative Time. She is the founder of the Afrofuturism book club, Black Magic and has worked in various capacities with organizations such as The Laundromat Project, Artspace, FOKUS, The Walls-Ortiz Gallery and The Brooklyn Children's Museum.

Photo Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine

Tell us about your journey to founding Moon Mother Apothecary -- have you always been interested in plant medicine? 
Plants and plant medicine have always been constants in my life. As a child, I didn’t know our traditional AfroCaribbean and AfroDominican healing practices as “plant medicine,” but the universe made sure to bring me full circle to my starting point. I remember growing up, it was common for all 4 burners in my mother’s kitchen to be going at all times: rice and pollo guisao’ (stew chicken) on the two front burners, and beans plus a mysterious boiling pot of plants or peels on the two back burners. No one named it for us then, but we trusted my mother’s inherited plant wisdom. This was my introduction to the medicine of plants. 

I was born in New York City and raised by an AfroKisqueyan mother. I am told I gravitated naturally to the elements. I loved the beach, was fascinated by the sky, and I could appreciate every living thing in the bustling city around me. I could extract the natural world from the noise, more importantly. I watch the ways my daughter does this now. I feel like no one was ever expecting me to be interested in plants, but the apartment I grew up in was flanked by two major NYC city parks, so in a way these parks became my backyard, and I still know them like the back of my hand.

I came around to my formal study of plant medicine about 8 years ago, when my wife was suffering from debilitating, paralyzing migraines. Western doctors prescribed her a series of seizure medications, each one accompanied by its own individual laundry list of side effects. I started searching for another way. I studied on my own for a few years before enrolling in the Sacred Vibes Spiritual Herbalism Apprenticeship program, and in 2018, after the birth of our daughter, Luna, I started making and sharing herbal medicines under the name Moon Mother Apothecary. I’ve been on this journey ever since, learning and growing, sharing and receiving, dreaming, and deepening my practice alongside my community, my family, and brilliant, visionary collaborators and friends.

Your work is deeply rooted in community and activism - where do you find that work intersecting with your practice as a spiritual herbalist? 
They are one and the same, truly. I view my work (across all sectors) as the most authentic reflection of my personal truths. In everything I choose to enter into, I am guided by a commitment to deep and true relationship-building, sincere care for people, respect for the natural world around me, and moving in accordance with the universal laws. So the work is not necessarily guided by the sector (as I straddle both the art world and the herbalism/healing world), but instead by being in continuous practice with these core principles. 

The medicine I create is informed by the specific needs of my community: my family, my friends, my wife, my daughter, my mother, and my purpose is to respond to our unique challenges and opportunities, our life cycles, and our future trajectories. That is truly my greatest form of activism, co-creating the future that we’ve* been written out of and ensuring we continue to steward, care for, and learn from the very land that nourishes us, offers us medicine, and keeps us living and thriving. 

*We= BIPOC, LGBTQAI folk, GNC and GNB folk

I am also deeply committed to decolonizing medicine, to re-introducing my community to the traditional, ancestral wisdom we are sometimes ripped away from as a result of migration, erasure, colonialism, and other oppressive and violent systems rooted in violence and the abuse of power. This too, is a form of activism: returning to ourselves, creating spaces of agency for folks to enter into their own healing, so that when clients/participants/spirits who open themselves to my offerings walk away, they leave with much more than the plant medicine.

How do you see community organizing, shifting, and evolving in our current landscape?
The natural world around us continues to be our greatest teacher: the cosmos, the ocean, the plants. They are, at all times, each revealing everything we need to know and understand about living in more synchronous coordination with our planet. In the past year alone, I have witnessed many ways in which movement work has leaned into biomimicry, taking a page from nature’s book, emulating systems of nature to solve the complex issues of the human condition. One of my favorite principles from adrienne maree brown’s, “Emergent Strategy: Organizing for Social Justice,” is “small is good, small is all.” This principle has always been central to effective community organizing. Visioning, strategizing, and executing at the smallest scale can often inspire replicable models that in the best case scenario, set off little fires everywhere (the good kind of fires). When people who are working towards a shared goal can come together, focus their attention, energy, skills, and resources on achieving one, clear goal, the possibilities are limitless. I have been privileged enough to be part of some of these initiatives alongside other organizers and herbalists who are operating at small scales to affect change within our spheres of influence. It’s a proven model. When I reflect on the enormous efficiency and impact of neighborhood-based mutual aid networks across New York City alone, just from March to the present moment, it restores my faith in what can happen when we approach transformative change block by block, versus starting with the whole, wide world. “The large is a reflection of the small.” 

How can visual art build community?
Artists are superheroes. I’m biased, of course, as an artist and as an arts administrator who works with living, community-based and socially-engaged artists, but I’ve always seen artists as humans with extra sauce, extra magic. No one has articulated it better than Toni Morrison however, who famously said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Artists hold up the proverbial mirror. They show us who we are, they illuminate the ugliest and most beautiful parts of ourselves, our societies, our communities, and the world. They bring us together, not always with an articulated call to action, though many times actions are inspired by art and artists. Sometimes, they even offer us solutions, ways out of the most dreadful realities we are living. Most importantly for me, artists inspire us to dream. They color our movements, and they become healers (knowingly or not) by creating art that offers us emotional and spiritual reprieve, spaces of beauty, contemplation, and release.

You have a daughter, Luna -- what has motherhood revealed to you? 
The irony of motherhood is that it has both asked of me to be fully present, and also to be fully engaged in the future. I have simultaneously been in a deeper practice of being present in each moment with Luna, but also in ensuring that those moments are filled with memories and offerings that she can stretch forward into her own future, the one where I am not physically present. There is the revelation also then, and consequently, of my own life, death, and ancestry, and thus a stronger sense of responsibility for building a present that honors our Eggun, that centers joy and abundance, and that models what being in community can mean. I am called to live in a way that may someday inspire her, not knowing whether it’s what I’m brewing on the back burner that she holds onto. It doesn’t mean I always get any of it right. Making mistakes is part of being human, but motherhood has taught me to own up to those mistakes, to apologize when I cause pain, hurt, or damage (to Luna and to others), and to shift my behaviors when I recognize they’re harmful, while I’m still on this earthly plane so that I am modeling the great possibility of change to the little person who is watching and studying me every minute of the day. 

Becoming a mother has also deepened my fascination with and devotion to Afrofuturism, which is another major influence in my work and practice. Luna inspires me to consider my legacy, to consider what else is possible beyond what I offer myself, which is sometimes shortsighted. She asks me to be present and true, to move through the world as my most authentic self. She is my reflection, my mirror, and through her I am seeing all of the possibilities in the universe for the first time.

Who do you look up to?
My community, my people. I am blessed to be in community with brilliant, committed, inspiring beings. So, I’m more in the practice (and privilege) of looking beside me, rather than up to my role models. My inspirations are all around me. I’m motivated both by those who walk with me in this earthly realm, and also by those in the spirit realm, my ancestors, my Eggun, and of course our generous plant allies all around us.

"Most importantly for me, artists inspire us to dream. They color our movements, and they become healers (knowingly or not) by creating art that offers us emotional and spiritual reprieve, spaces of beauty, contemplation, and release."

What does your evening routine look like?
We have a really beautiful bedtime routine in my home that we have cultivated over the years and strengthened during the pandemic. 

5 drops of lavender essential oils across our sheets (5 is my Life Path number, so it’s always the number, 5)

Lavender flower satchels beneath our pillows

A weighted eye mask

Moon Mother Apothecary Lemon Balm nervous system glycerite

Moon Mother Apothecary “Dreams” tea with a spoonful of local honey

Moon Mother Apothecary “Dreams” oil with lavender and chamomile 

Gossamer Dusk Sleep Tincture

Dau Butter on our hands and feet

Earthseedholistic’s “Free Your Mind” Oil

Are there any herbs you find yourself returning to in the process of healing? 
I recently sat down with Malia Wollan for her New York Times Magazine column, “Tip,” to share a recipe for how to make a love potion, so love and heart-healing is very present for me and my people these days. I’ve been turning to Hawthorne and Rose for trauma, grief, love, and heart-healing, Lemon Balm to support the nervous system, Lavender for protection and to call in rest, and Nettles and Oatstraw for nourishment from depletion and overworking. These plants have each been trusted allies over the years, and I have called forth their infinite wisdom and medicine, especially during these present times of overwhelming stress and uncertainty.

Daily rituals that keep you grounded?
Visiting my altar for prayer, anointment, and meditation, lighting a white candle, and serving fresh water and coffee to my ancestors of light.

Our morning visit to the home apothecary, where we take our vitamins, syrups, and plant medicines as a family to nourish us for the day.

Watering our “plantitas,” as Luna calls them. We have over 40 houseplants in our very small, Brooklyn apartment, so it takes time, but it’s a practice that keeps us in divine, right relationship with the living, plant world, so we move through this ritual with love and reverence.

Organizations and small businesses you support in NYC?
WordUp Community Bookstore/Librería Comunitaria
The Lit Bar
Playground Coffee Shop
Anwaar Co.
Teranga
Sugar Hill Creamery
La Finca del Sur
Sacred Vibes Apothecary
Martine’s Dream
Natty Garden
BLK MKT Vintage
Ode to Babel

Favorite books?
Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler
Ancestors, Kamau Brathwaite
Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
The January Children, Safia Elhillo
Harlem is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes Pitts
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown
Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo

I am forever student of herbs, of herbalism, of plants, and of this precious earth. There will always be more to know than I can know and I am so grateful to be a student of this work. I approach my work with sincere humility and a baseline understanding that collective wisdom is the greatest wisdom there is. When we combine our knowledge, we know and understand more than we ever could on our own.

"All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” - Octavia E. Butler

Opening Photo Credit: Elena Mudd