Prior to its release, the highly anticipated Netflix original series, Siempre Bruja, had Black and brown audiences feeling hopeful. The idea of finally being able to see African spiritual traditions represented on screen seemed promising. Unfortunately, the show’s central plot and main characters left much to desired, to say the least. Carmen, the story’s protagonist and only Black character (played by Angely Gaviria), finds herself traveling through time and fighting evil sorcerers in efforts to be reunited with the “love of her life,” Cristobál, a white slave owning aristocrat from the year 1646. Whew, a mess.
The show is based on the 2015 novel Yo, Bruja written by Isidora Chacón who is also credited for writing the show’s screenplay. Other credits include Maria Cervera, Juliana Barrera, and Dago García, none of whom are Black. The commodification of Black cultural narratives such as those depicted in Siempre Bruja is sad, but unfortunately nothing new to Hollywood. Black people have been the foundation of popular culture pretty much since the beginning of time.
What the series fails to acknowledge is that at its core brujería and the practice of African spiritual tradition is as an act of resistance against colonial rule and the established order (not a mechanism to backtrack into it as Carmen does in her quest to save her white master/lover).
Beyond the appropriation and very valid critiques of the plot and its underlying themes, Siempre Bruja opens a dialogue about the misconceptions and realities of brujería, santería, voodoo and what has popularly become known as “Black Magic.”
1) Healing Incantations and Conjure
“Conjure” is an established practice of brujería and other forms of Black magic that involves the invocation of spirits for the purposes of healing, protection, or self defense. In the first episode of the show, Carmen can be heard reciting incantations in the Anagó language of the Yoruba to protect herself from life threatening circumstances. The Anagó language is tied to cultural and religious traditions in Cuba and other Spanish-speaking nations of the diaspora. The persistence of magical traditions among African people, such as healing incantations and the use of conjure was an important, though rare, aspect of cultural autonomy during the period of enslavement.
2) White Clothing
Perhaps the most well-known element of African spiritual practice is the clothing worn during ceremony. Traditionally Iyabós, or those newly initiated into Santería, dress in white to represent the death and rebirth or their newly established spiritual being. More recently, white clothing has become the customary dress for attending santería/voodoo ceremonies as it is symbolic of purification and rejuvenation.
3) Ouija Boards
In Siempre Bruja, characters Carmen and Johnny Ki are shown invoking dead spirits using a ouija board. However, the use of ouija is not at all linked to African spiritual tradition. In other words... it’s some white people sh*t.
4) La Fiesta de la Candelaria
As depicted in the show, La Fiesta de la Candelaria is a major holiday celebrated in Cartagena and various locations in Latin America. During the festival large crowds gather in celebration of the Virgen de Candelaria, also known as La Morenita. The holiday is a fusion of African tradition and elements of Catholicism. African people were able to celebrate their own traditional deities of West Africa under the pretense of Roman Catholic saints and holidays that the Spanish colonists had enforced upon them. These types of celebrations show up in many different cultures. From Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The celebration of Black culture, community, and innovation through historically Catholic holidays is a vibrant and indispensable element of African spiritual tradition.
5) The Black Madonna
The image of the Black Madonna has been widely dispersed throughout many different cultures in many different parts of the world. The Black Madonna can be a shrine, statue, or painting that depicts the Virgin Mary and her baby Jesus with dark skin. In a theological sense, the Black Madonna represents “the queen of nature” and serves the purpose of guiding those who have lost track. In episode 7, Carmen is seen kneeling in prayer to The Black Madonna, in hopes that the religious symbol will grant her the strength to defeat her enemies.
Siempre Bruja is an important reminder that while representation is something to celebrate, it should not be understood as the end goal for Black liberation. Yes, seeing a dark skinned bruja on screen seems cool at first, but not when the narrative is written, directed and produced, by non-black creatives. The themes illustrated throughout the series are not only problematic, but also at times, historically inaccurate. For this reason it is essential that we, as Black people, continue to seek out ways to take creative control over our own stories and to protect the essence of our magic.