Karen Estremo’s the Dragon and the Rose Is the Hub for OC Pagans

Karen Estremo. Photo by John Gilhooley

A full moon beams as if a soft gemstone above Grovemont Square in Santa Ana. Hidden in the business plaza, next to the Dragon and the Rose, an occult store offering Wiccan, pagan and metaphysical wares, is a humble altar, atop of which sit goblets filled with wine and cider in preparation for an autumn-equinox ritual.

Adelaida “Addie” Velasquez takes a bundle of sage and waves its purifying smoke around store owner Karen Estremo’s outstretched arms. “Welcome and blessed be,” the two exchange after a slight bow in reverence of each other.

Velasquez then turns to those gathered for the occasion. A black shawl drapes over the shoulders of the high priestess’ lavender dress, and a floral crown rests on her long, curly, black locks. She greets the circle with “Welcome to our Mabon celebration.”

Mabon is one of eight Wiccan sabbats, festivals honoring seasons pagans dub the “turning of the wheel.” The equality of night and day is marked during Mabon; traditionally, it’s also a time of thanksgiving, in which the second harvest is celebrated, harking back to paganism’s rural roots. Velasquez creates a sacred circle, dotting the grounds with a saltwater mixture to represent earth and water.

Emily Hanscom, a fellow priestess, follows with an incense stick representing air and fire. “Hand and hand, we cast a circle,” the gathered each recite.

Next, Velasquez invokes Greek deities with a voice that booms with conviction. Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, is called, followed by Dionysus, god of winemaking. “I spilled the wine,” Velasquez suddenly exclaims.

“Dionysus demanded it,” a voice jokes.

The ritual then focuses on a black cauldron. The circle—young and old, mostly women, but all inclusive—anoints Mabon tea lights and places them into the cauldron one at a time. “They look so beautiful,” Velasquez says, bending to look at the flickering flames. In the spirt of Mabon, all take turns professing gratitude for occasions in life such as a recent marriage, new home and just another waking day.

Deities are bid farewell, and the flames of the candles marking the four corners are extinguished. “Cheers to all of you,” Velasquez says. “Cheers to all the gods. Happy Mabon!”

“When do we howl at the moon?” a woman anxiously interjects.

The circle comes together to cry out in unison.

Much like the celebratory gathering outside the Dragon and the Rose, the pagan community in Orange County is small, but growing. Nationally, about 734,000 people identify as Wiccan or pagan, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey. Wicca is just one modern form of paganism, religions with roots that date back millennia before Christianity became the dominant faith across Europe. These days, there’s little in the way of formal institutions in OC aside from the local council of the national Covenant of the Goddess, college clubs and the Goddess Temple in Irvine. Wiccans much prefer covens and circles; they join together with other likeminded people for annual Pagan Pride celebrations in Long Beach.

In this religious constellation, the Dragon and the Rose plays on outsized role. “That store is the heartbeat of the pagan community in Orange County!” says Candy Eaton, a high priestess. “They’re there to serve.”

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Karen Estremo in the Dragon and the Rose. Photo by John Gilhooley

The pagan path chose Estremo in many ways.

“Guess what, I’m a Wiccan!” Estremo’s daughter, Arielle Rose Estremo, revealed one day after school.

“I don’t know what that is!” Estremo responded to the then-14-year-old’s declaration, clearly caught off-guard. “No, sweetie, you’re an Episcopalian.”

The two discussed religion at length. Estremo had raised her family in the Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange, and Arielle had been involved with its youth group. “I can be both,” the high-schooler contended.

Motherly instincts kicked in. The more Estremo resisted, the more alluring Wicca would become; besides, it was probably just a teenage phase, right? But Estremo gave Arielle a parting task: She had to get an Episcopalian priest to give her dual religiosity a stamp of approval. The first call lasted about 45 minutes before the priest abruptly ended the conversation. Arielle found a more receptive priest the second time around; she gave her blessing, relaying that Arielle was a traveler who’d find her path to the divine.

Starting upon that path, Arielle befriended James Kendrick at Orange High School’s Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corp (JROTC) program, which she had enrolled in following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He recalls the freshman being the tallest, most outspoken person in class. “She also had one of the biggest hearts of anybody I ever knew,” he says. Arielle asked her new friend about religion one day. “My religious views are kind of Christian and kind of old paganism,” Kendrick says of his syncretism of Polynesian polytheism and Scottish Presbyterianism. “Arielle, being the very curious person that she was, wanted to know more.”

Photo by John Gilhooley

With a few high school friends, Kendrick and Arielle formed a small coven. The group turned to Barnes & Noble and Hot Topic to find books on the subject. Once reared in the basics of rituals, the coven headed to Hart Park in Orange, Santiago Park in Santa Ana and the Newport Dunes for observances of full moons and Wiccan sabbats such as Mabon. “Is this goat- or human-sacrifice night?” Estremo remebers teasing her daughter. “I figured they all watched The Craft too many times.”

The coven didn’t last past high school; by graduation, only Arielle and Kendrick remained. The friendship continued, as did Arielle’s commitment to Wicca. “She embraced it and was not afraid at all to demonstrate and be proud of what she was,” Kendrick says. “She would find whatever book she could, anywhere she could, even stealing my collection of books!”

After graduation, Arielle enlisted in the Army. She attended pagan “earthbound” services while undergoing basic training. But military life didn’t work out for her, and after an honorable discharge, Arielle returned home and found a new coven of sorts in Club Xile, a Goth nightspot in Garden Grove. She became a street-team volunteer promoting the venue.

Along with a group of friends, Arielle headed to a Hollywood nightclub on May 15, 2008, to spread the word about Club Xile. On the way home the next morning, a drunk driver heading the wrong way on the freeway slammed head-on into Arielle’s car; the collision claimed the 20-year-old’s life.

A photo of Arielle Rose Estremo sits in her mother’s store, which was inspired by Arielle’s interests. Photo by John Gilhooley

Around 6:30 a.m., Estremo received the devastating news from a friend of Arielle’s by phone. Panicked, she tuned the television to a local news channel, which showed the scene near the Slauson Avenue exit in Commerce that had closed the 5 freeway for hours. News cameras zoomed in on a folded-up silver Sentra. Estremo recognized her daughter’s car. Reality began to seep in, and she sat in disbelief.

“I was completely out of myself,” Estremo says. “This can’t possibly be happening again?” Fifteen years prior, before the family moved to OC, she lost her 19-month-old son, Kenyon, when he drowned in a backyard pool.

Estremo called the California Highway Patrol in a frantic attempt to confirm what happened to her daughter. The agency noted that the crash led to three fatalities, but told her only the coroner’s office could provide the identities of the victims. In the meantime, Estremo called some of Arielle’s friends, reaching one at the hospital who could verify everything.

She rushed upstairs to get dressed to go to the hospital, but when she came back down, a representative from the coroner’s office was waiting.

“When Arielle died, it blew the doors off the hinges on everything I believed,” she says.

By noon, ABC7 reported Arielle’s death alongside that of 20-year-old Chauncey Reid, a friend and passenger in the Sentra. The wrong-way driver, 27-year-old Steven Quintero, also died in the crash. Officials awaited toxicology tests to determine if drugs and alcohol played a role. After the headlines disappeared, Estremo learned Quintero had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit.

Trinity Episcopal Church hosted Arielle’s funeral services five days after the crash. Afterward, Estremo sorted through her daughter’s belongings. When she had moved out of the house, Arielle left behind a few things, including a bookcase with a cupboard full of literature on Wicca and paganism. But Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner stood out to Estremo; she read it to better understand her daughter’s beliefs. “This all resonates,” Estremo thought to herself. “It makes more sense than anything else I ever read in terms of my life experience and my experience of the world.”

In her grief, Estremo sought a way to pay tribute to Arielle and her Wiccan beliefs, but the idea to open the Dragon and the Rose didn’t come right away. Estremo first took in Hugh Robbins, a young man Arielle had met in the Goth scene and with whom, in her mother’s words, Arielle became “completely twitterpated.” The high priestess in Robbins’ coven wanted to partner in starting a pagan supplies store. Having already run a successful catering business, Estremo bankrolled the plan. The Pentacle came into being after all involved found a unit in the back of an industrial building off Edinger Avenue in Santa Ana.

But the business relationship soured after just a few months.

Estremo decided to keep the space, renaming it the Dragon and the Rose after Arielle’s middle name and Robbins’ fascination with dragons. It reopened eleven months after Arielle’s death. “This will be able to be of service to all her people—all the little pagans, all the little Gothlings, all the little weirdos like her,” Estremo thought.

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Addie Velasquez with Karen Estremo and a feline friend. Photo by John Gilhooley

A pair of Cal State Fullerton students peruse the Dragon and the Rose one afternoon. Estremo fills mason jars with stones while waiting to transfer the shop’s impressive array of crystals into a new display case. Sally, the in-house black cat, curls up in a corner. One side of a wall is outfitted with baggies filled with herbs for ritual magick. The others offer tarot decks, candles, wands, sage and incense. The Dragon and the Rose’s book collection started humbly with a handful of selections from Arielle and Kendrick’s personal stash, but now the store’s bookcases are stacked with titles new and old.

“We like to say that we have everything for the practice of alternative paths,” Estremo says.

The Dragon and the Rose outgrew its first location long ago. When Estremo found an available space at Grovemont Square last January, she took the opportunity, but not without pause. “This was a huge leap of faith for us,” she says. With a larger space came higher rent, but the shop was ready. “Within our first four days, we made the rent,” she says.

The good fortune also afforded Estremo the confidence to open an annex when an additional unit became available. It features a small meditation room with a portrait of the Buddha hanging overhead. Other rooms are used for massage appointments or reiki sessions. A mural of the tree of life with the words “as above, so below” adorns the wall of a narrow corridor where meetings and small yoga classes are sometimes held. ‘We’re growing a lot,” Estremo says. “We got busy enough that we could actually hire other people.”

Velasquez, who is now the store manager, recalls walking into the Dragon and the Rose’s old location while a senior in high school. “My friend was looking for a tarot deck,” she says. “We came in and met Karen. She talked about how she was teaching classes.” Formal training in crystals, herbal magick and ritual observance proved alluring, only Velasquez didn’t have any money. Estremo waved the cost in exchange for occasional help around the shop.

Addie Velasquez. Photo by John Gilhooley

She became an ordained high priestess about three years ago, but the relationship between Velasquez and Estremo goes beyond teacher and apprentice. “[Karen] took me in when I was on the verge of being homeless,” Velasquez says. “She created this stability and unconditional support.”

Velasquez also helped fill a void in Estremo’s life. To celebrate Velasquez’s 21st birthday, Estremo took her out for a celebratory shot of Jameson at a local Irish pub, a rite of passage denied to her when Arielle died just days after her 20th birthday. “I’m young, Honduran, born and raised in Santa Ana,” Velasquez points out. “Karen’s kind of the exact opposite of that. I don’t know how that worked out, but it did.”

Because it does, the duo helped turn the Dragon and the Rose into the hub of OC’s larger pagan community. “I would rather have [Arielle] and not have done any of this good in the world if I had a choice, but I didn’t have a choice,” Estremo says. “Looking back on what we’ve done in the last 10 years and what my intention was with regard to doing something in Arielle’s memory, I think she’d be really proud.”

Eaton, a proud witch as evidenced by the silver pentacle pendent (the encircled, five-pointed star wrongly associated with Satanism) dangling from her necklace, has been Wiccan for 30 years. She recalls what OC paganism looked like in 1996, long before the Dragon and the Rose and even Pagan Pride Day existed. The community barely felt comfortable enough to start shedding its “keep it safe, keep it secret” ethos given stereotypes perpetuated by churches for centuries and, later, Hollywood.

The popularity of the internet and social media started turning the tide. Pagan Pride Day LA/OC began in 1999 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach. “People were starting to come out of the broom closets much more than they ever did before,” Eaton says. “All of a sudden, people started owning their practice.” She found work at the Gift Goddess, a metaphysical, witchy store in San Juan Capistrano, for a couple of years during her 20s. Around that time, she also got involved in the Craft Connection, a since-disbanded pagan group that met once a month and observed rituals in Laguna Hills. A drum circle held at the Gift Goddess is where Eaton discovered her passion for percussion.

She met Estremo in 2010 and now holds drum circles every third Saturday at the Dragon and the Rose. “Karen’s fully authentic,” Eaton says, adding about Velasquez, “I’ve watched Addie come from being a baby witch to this beautiful priestess that she is now.”

Photo by John Gilhooley

Velasquez is coming into her own at a pivotal time in the community. “There is an increasing interest in witchcraft, for sure,” she says. “The clusterfuck that the country sort of is right now is kind of fueling things, as well as popular culture like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

The #MeToo movement is also piquing interest in the craft, she believes, with many women searching to heal their traumas.

With the Dragon and the Rose as important as ever, the Honduran high priestess may also guide it into the future. “I see myself continuing to stay with the shop, helping it grow and maybe even have a bigger space so that we can offer more to the community,” Velasquez says. “Something Karen and I talked about over the years was whenever she’s ready to step down from the shop, she’d hand the keys over to me.”

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Karen Estremo. Photo by John Gilhooley

“We are gathered here this night to celebrate Samhain, the final harvest,” Estremo says outside the Dragon and the Rose. “This is a time when the veil between the world of men and the world of spirits is the thinnest, a time when we can commune more easily with those we have loved and lost.” Fifty people gather on the eve of Halloween for one of the most important pagan holidays, which has also been called “Witches New Year.” At the center of tables set up for dining rests an altar with a framed portrait of Arielle from the shop.

Estremo rings a bell, and conversations quiet. She holds a lit candle and recites the names of deceased loved ones, starting with Arielle. The candle is then passed to all in the circle who do the same. Next comes time for the Silent Supper. Pagans line up to pile their plates with offerings from the potluck buffet. When everyone has taken a seat, Estremo rings a bell three times. Only crickets chirping join the shifting sounds of people eating in quietude. After the ritual dinner, Estremo, Robbins and Hanscom join together to sing “The Parting Glass,” a traditional song popular in Ireland and Scotland about death from the perspective of the dead.

“Good night, and joy be with you all,” the trio sings.

Even though the lines between life and death blur greatly during Samhain, Estremo believes she has received messages from beyond at other times that set her on a trying spiritual journey. A suggestion first came from a friend of Arielle’s who called Estremo to pass along a message he says he got from her deceased daughter. “You need to forgive him,” the friend said. Estremo had no clue what that meant or who it pertained to, but the refrain resurfaced verbatim about a year later during a psychic faire at the shop.

Photo by John Gilhooley

A psychic sat down with Estremo and relayed the same message. This time, she pressed for an answer; she didn’t like the one she got: Steven Quintero, the driver who had killed her daughter. Estremo protested. “This is a gift from her to you,” the psychic said. “You need to do this.”

“How do you forgive somebody who’s not here?” Estremo asked herself. “What are the mechanics of that?”

She began thinking about the fatal accident and how her initial fears centered on Arielle causing the carnage, taking two lives with her. “She didn’t drive on the freeway much,” Estremo says. “Dealing with her dead would be enough, but that she caused two others [to die]? I don’t think I could do that.” It suddenly dawned on Estremo that such fears were Quintero’s mother’s reality. She began piecing together what happened that night from people in the know to form a fragmented narrative in which Quintero celebrated closing his first big business deal by drinking too much before taking the wheel.

“He made a mistake,” Estremo says. “I thought about his mother and how much pain she must be in, like me, only more because her son caused this tragedy.”

She sat down with her thoughts. The crash had allowed anger to take hold of her, and she struggled for months with the notion of letting it go. Estremo penned a letter to Quintero’s mother, wishing her peace. “About two weeks later,” Estremo says, “I get this card from her, and she wrote this beautiful response.”

The two mothers helped to lift each other’s pain.

Though it has been a decade since she lost her daughter, it still seems so sudden. “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t appreciate her when I had her,” Estremo says. “I would cheerfully trade everything to have her back. In the meantime, I’ve got Addie. She is my other daughter, and Hugh is my other son.”

And then there’s the Dragon and the Rose, where Arielle takes on an afterlife through the store. “Every time I go in, there’s Arielle’s pictures on the wall,” Kendrick says.

Its presence seems as unlikely as anything else. “We started this?” he asks. “This group of outcast kids being in Orange County? It literally is the mecca of the pagan community.”

6 Replies to “Karen Estremo’s the Dragon and the Rose Is the Hub for OC Pagans”

  1. HI, I like to visit your store can you please have your address in Orange County I been looking for some help and good advice. Thank you

  2. Karen is an amazing human. This article moved me to tears and then to joy for my friend. She has touched so many people, myself included. Thank you, for sharing her (and Arielle’s) story in such a respectful and beautiful manner.

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