Brujas: A Conversation in Reclamation and Commodification

There used to be a time when to be a called Bruja was received with a negative connotation. Brujas were never mainstream or even an acceptable self-identity to lay claim. Many afro-centric and indigenous religious and spiritual practices were hidden from dominant (read European) society. To practice anything other than Christianity meant persecution, beatings, and death.

Growing up I often sat in on Bembe’s (a drumming ceremony in celebration of the Orishas). Guerrero’s and Madama’s were hidden in corners and entryways throughout our home to ward off bad energy and keep an eye on our sanctuary. As a little girl, I would haphazardly steal candy from the altar where Mami would serve her saints. I grew up in the religion of Lucumi or Regla de Ocha and one thing I have always carried with me was the respect and secrecy of a religion many are too prejudiced to understand. So in protection, we kept it hidden.

With the popularity of social media and a newfound interest in everything associated with being witchy, Brujas have become the thing to ascribe to. For some, especially elders who have carried the burden and blessings, claiming Bruja without the foundation of sacred practice is frowned upon. For others, especially a younger generation becoming more in tuned with self-identity and cultural cognizance, Bruja is a powerful way of reclaiming feminist ideals, denouncing patriarchal views, and reclaiming parts of their spirituality that are reliant on the embodiment of self-care and wellness.

With respect to their religions and practices, I spoke with 5 different practitioners from different spiritual journeys to discuss their views on being a Bruja.

 

peggy robles 2

Peggy Robles-Avarado

Please explain your role as a healer/practitioner.

I am a priestess in Lucumi and Palo who heals myself and others through mediumship, poetry and performance. As a practitioner I stem from elders who value tradition, community and lineage. Not all practitioners are healers and not all healers are necessarily practitioners. For some, working the spirit may be very personal while for others it is their destiny to help people in the development of their cuadros espirituales. My role as a healer is both personal and public. On the personal side, I have learned to communicate with my Egun, Orisha and my Prenda and take part in ceremonies and misas to bridge the spirit world to present day. If I choose to consult someone outside of my immediate family, I do not take it lightly and confer with my elders on the best ways to approach a situation. To consult someone is read their intimate calligraphy, sometimes it is to console them, to voice a warning, or confirm what their spirit guides have already told them. It is a transfer of energy to hold someone’s deepest thoughts and desires in your center for a moment. It is not merely a commodity exchange, although it could be for some. For me, it is an introspective look into the interior life of a person and their transcendental journey. It is a conversation within dimensions past to present; a liminal space opened between the seeker and the medium. This offering of a medium’s energy should be valued.

In the public realm, I use ritual, creative writing and performance to foster community with a special focus on women. Here I become healer thorough the creation of art. Art can be a ladder to the spirit world and in many of my workshops writing has triggered participants in both positive and negative ways. Here I am called to heal; I must decide the best approach, particularly when dealing with a person in distress. It is important for me not to have anyone leave a workshop feeling depleted. Even during the most raw and grueling sessions, where ancestral trauma has surfaced, I have been able to call the person’s spirit back to a place of safety. It is my role as facilitator to lead the writing session but it is also my role as medium and priestess to acknowledge when the energy in the room has shifted, what is palpable, speaking, and in need of being addressed. The best instructors know how to read the room and the body before reacting.

Do you identify as a bruja? Why/why not?

The process of naming is sacred and evolutionary. I identify as a priestess, a threshold, a vessel, a magic maker and medium. I honor the term Bruja and all who have been persecuted as a result of being labeled a Bruja. All the women whose suffered at the hands of forced conversions, scalding witching stools, silencing defamation and rejection. Women like my Abuela and Bisabuela who were shunned for being natural healers and seers. I have been endearingly called a Bruja since I began mediumship and I don’t take offense to the term nor do I reject it but it’s not a label I readily affix now that the term is being popularized and commodified. All the names I carry have been given to me by women: my natal mother, my spiritual mothers, healing elders and those monikers are the ones I keep close, some hidden.

What does Bruja mean to you?

This definition I recently developed as part of my performance studies thesis work at Pratt Institute examining La Bruja as a figure in popular performances of poetry and underground hip hop in The Bronx.

La Bruja is a hybrid; the keeper of ancient healing practices reciting ballads in art spaces. She is outsider and oddity, Madonna and whore all in the same stanza. She walks in the light and darkness of our barrios and is embodied in the performances of the omnipotent and divine feminine. She is called to and conjured in performers rooted in the Afro- Caribbean spiritual systems of Lucumi and Palo and is fluent in poetry, song lyrics, son de calle and Spanglish. She is what New York City based women of color feel and what they know.

How do you feel about the buzz surrounding the word bruja? Would you consider it a reclamation of spiritual identity? The decolonization of ancestral tradition or the commodification of ritualistic practices?

I posit that the recent reclamation of the term Bruja stems from a feeling of precariousness; an uncertainty conflated by the following: social injustices, unstable job security and health care, discrimination of people of color, disparaging remarks made by our political leaders against immigrants and women. These conditions foster uncertainty, fear and feelings of powerlessness that create the need for healers, artists and activists to rise to action.

Botánicas and mediums, often referred to as Brujas, have traditionally served communities of color seeking remedies for what ails them by addressing medical, spiritual and social needs. Artists and activists provide communal spaces for outcry and creativity. There is a commodity exchange; a service occurs and the medium/ artist/ activist is paid in some way.

When people, regardless of gender, decide to call themselves Bruja it is to embrace the other, the dark-side, the historically rejected and oppressed figure and simultaneously they call on their natural gifts to conjure a better reality. It may be the beginning of a spiritual awakening. People develop their spirit in various ways and at different times during their lives. These performances of everyday life of La Bruja can be a reclamation of identity as resistance to social ethos that categorize specific target groups that they are part of as marginalized. They can be viewed as the foraging of a connection to an ancestral past but I question- is this the case with companies that want consumers to buy their $25 dollar t- shirts with the word Bruja emblazoned on the front?

With the results of the latest election I witnessed a rise in social media sites that featured Brujas performing spells against government leaders, podcasts of Brujas offering recipes to ancient herbal baths and numerous sites offering merchandise branding buyers with a Bruja logo on everything from tank tops to socks. Who is being healed here? Where do those profits go?

My concern then turns to the praxis of internet based Brujas who offer confusing and conflicting advice contrary to what my elders have taught me. Naming yourself Bruja is one thing, but offering to heal people and hold space for them during times of distress without proper training or tools is irresponsible. If you claim to be something then manifest it, learn your craft.

Are there nuances between brujas, curanderas and healers? What is the transparency? Who gets to claim it?

Defining the term Bruja varies by region. In the west coast much of the scholarly research surrounding the term Brujas is correlated with Curanderas and a reclamation of femininity outside of or in spite of the Madonna-whore theory. On the east coast, Brujas are tied to Afro- Cuban spiritual practices of Espiritismo, Lucumi and Palo. One variation I have noted is that some practitioners, scholars and artists still honor the Euro-centric binary of good and evil- classifying La Bruja as the mother of hexes and performer of curses while distancing her from the iconic figure of the Curandera as a well- intentioned healer.

If we replace these rigid opposing views with the Yoruba belief, as described by Lucumi practitioner and anthropologist John Mason, that there is no concept of good or evil but rather forces that are constructive and destructive, the Bruja is then similar to the Curandera. Both Bruja and Curandera seek a balance of such forces in order to heal. They both embody Mary and Mary Magdalene, both carriers of light and dark, both conjurers. Claiming the title of Bruja is solely up to the healer.

 


 

Keka Araujo

Keka Araujo

Please explain your role as a healer/practitioner.

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a healer although I do things to make my family and friends better like cook for them or lay hands on them. It’s just something that I think comes naturally to children of Yemayá. She’s a natural witch. I struggle with titles. It just is and I just am.

Do you identify as a bruja? Why/why not?

See that’s tricky because it seems like everybody is a Bruja now without being “magical” or even really having an understanding of what they’re doing or dealing with. I guess to answer the question yes, I’m a bruja but even if I don’t say it you’ll know.

What does Bruja mean to you?

Bruja means understanding that you’re a part of something bigger. It’s really NOT about you. It means having a purpose and a role in facilitating whatever needs to be done for the greater good or bad if I’m keeping it 100.

How do you feel about the buzz surrounding the word bruja? Would you consider it a reclamation of spiritual identity? The decolonization of ancestral tradition or the commodification of ritualistic practices?

*rolls my eyes*  I’m low key annoyed that it has become “a thing”. Like people, black people were and are still murdered over this. There are those who are sincerely who they are and are reconnecting and then there are those selling fuckery on IG, FB and in groups but that’s with anything though. As far as decolonizing ancestral tradition, I think it’s still very much colonizado. Anytime I see Orishas in white face for instance. There is indeed a colonized mentality behind that bullshit. There is NO debate. Orisha, Lwa, etc. ARE BLACK. The influx of white practitioners draws side eyes too but the bigger side eye goes to the folks who let them in.

Are there nuances between brujas, curanderas, healers? What is the transparency? Who gets to claim it?

I think those nuances are tied to culture and ethnicity. For example, I would NEVER call myself a curandera because it’s very indigenous to me and I’m not indigenous in any way. Bruja is a little different. For me, it describes anyone not white who lives this life whether they’re born into or discover that they have a gift.


 

Mia Roman

Mia Roman

Please explain your role as a healer/practitioner.

I consider myself a practicing Medicine Woman, Curandera, and Spiritualist that facilitates the healing and spiritual process. After years of study and inherited rituals, lessons, and practices I am confident to say “SOY, I AM” a partner in the process. In that role, I utilize traditional modalities passed down to me from my Ancestors and previous generations like my Great Grandmother, Grandmother, and Mother. To complement those traditional remedies and modalities I also studied Eastern / Alternative and Holistic medicine practices. It’s a combination of things that include natural/Earth medicine, spirituality, energy, nutrition, ritual, education, awareness, trust, and respect. And of course being available, present and accountable to the process. After years of study and practice, I was initiated as a Medicine Woman in the Mayan and Toltec tradition and blessed with a Mayan and Taino medicine name, Wakia Yari (Taino) which means Precious Jewel and XochiyolL (Mayan Nahuatl) or Heart of Gentle Flower which together translate to Precious Jewel of Gentle Flower.

Healing is the process of bringing together aspects of one’s self, body-mind-spirit, at deeper levels of inner knowing. Healing is an art, whether it is through conventional Western or Eastern alternative medicine. As a Healing Partner, it is my responsibility to build trust, comfort and a connection. There is a resonance that comes from empathy, identification, and loving compassion which is something that is developed and built over time creating a deeper communication.

Do you identify as Bruja? Why/why not?

Do I identify as Bruja? YESSSS! Soy Bruja! And I am not insulted when I am referred to as one. Pa Que Sepa! Ever since I was a little girl I knew I was witchery, special, Bruja magic like my Mom, Abuelas and those before. I felt at home and a natural with the modalities and traditions. Going to Bembes with Mommy and dancing, drumming, music, remedios, rituals, customs, and tools of the trade. I can identify in the most secure and comfortable way, without shame, with pride, and with a great knowing that it is deeply rooted in me and can never be taken away. In the process, I have learned to heal and help myself during challenging times. The confidence of a knowing that Spirit got my back and I have the best intentions for myself took me right over obstacles that once seemed like boulders.

Before I was born my mother visited an Espiritista and she read la baraja/card for Mom. During that reading, they told her that she would have a Daughter that would be a very powerful medium/Bruja. As a child, I knew I was special and protected by something very strong. This has come to me in many ways and I have a profound respect for it.

In 2013 My Wela Dora transitioned, it broke me to pieces and while Mommy and I cleaned out her personal belongings we found a letter that my Wela had in a purse from her Mother, my Great Grandmother. My mother was looking at the handwriting of her dear Abuela on old rice paper. In beautiful penmanship and written in Spanish, my Great Grandmother explains to my Wela that she will need to further protect herself from evil intentions/spells and provides a recipe that was to be followed to its last drop. We read it together, Mami and me. I even smelled it and could not believe that after so many years my grandmother kept this letter and the recipe never changed. The ingredients are still obtainable today. It just confirmed our lineage of brujas was intergenerational.

What does Bruja mean to me? It’s having a special connection with spirit. A calling, an inheritance, vision, la mancha, spiritual energy. It means to understand, respect and know the magic, to preserve the rituals and traditions of our Ancestors. It means feeling rooted in history, culture and being of service with the gifts bestowed upon me. I am accountable to the higher guides that protect me and so in prayer, meditation and silence I am grateful. It means having altars, candles, ceremonies, loving and respecting Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, Atabey and living my truth and magic.

How do you feel about the buzz surrounding the word bruja? Would you consider it a reclamation of spiritual identity? The decolonization of ancestral tradition or the commodification of ritualistic practices?

I have seen the word Bruja being used very liberally, like an accessory, a fad, a new dress for the season. Some using it as a commodity, abusing ritualistic practices to pray while taking advantage of those that are looking for healing, faith, advice and consult. If they only knew, con el Poder de la Bruja y Espiritu no se juega! I am not discounting Bruja claims, just making an observation. I think those that are using it as a commodity and promoting false claims need healing themselves. So let’s send them all love and light for their awakening!!

Are there nuances between brujas, curanderas, healers? What is the transparency? Who gets to claim it?

I don’t know if there is any reclamation of Spiritual identity in Bruja evolution, I do believe that many go through a Spiritual identity crisis and through that journey of identifying spirituality they discover Brujas are deeply rooted in history and Ancestral lineage. As one starts to excavate through the many layers of spirituality and Bruja-ism they become more aware of the entangled struggles that Brujas went through in the name of Spirituality, healing, espiritismo, curandismo and tradition. I believe that there is a decolonization of ancestral tradition to some extent and that it is being challenged every day. It is truly up to the Brujas to maintain the freedom to practice, defend, preserve, teach, and share through any means possible. There is a stigma about Brujas, the magic, practice, traditions, rituals etc. We cannot allow that to stop us from teaching and sharing the practices of our Ancestors. A tree without roots is nothing but dry wood. We come from the Earth and we shall go back to the Earth for healing.

There are nuances between Brujas, Curanderas, and Healers but if we gathered as one and worked together we would be unstoppable. There would be less illness, less crime, more love, more healing, more understanding and acceptance, more unity. Where one falls short the other can lift. We all have our specialties, our own magic. Some are messengers between the human and spirit world, where others are people of knowledge. What we need is more spiritual activism, creating change, interdependence, determination, and understanding. The transparency is in the living, the lifestyle, the activism, the empathy, the work, the embrace, and relationship.

Spirituality is rising up, so be kind to your Bruja because you never know when you may need to call on her.


 

true rodriguez

True Rodriguez

Please explain your role as a healer/practioner.

I was born an espiritista, meaning that I have the ability to communicate with those who’ve crossed over. My great-grandmother was also a spiritist. My role is to assist others in finding peace of mind through the guidance of their ancestors.

Do you identify as a bruja? Why/why not?

I do identify as a Bruja because what I am able to do is nothing less than magical. Growing up witches had all the magic, they could heal or hurt, save or destroy- who didn’t want that? As I grew older I learned the responsibility of what was handed down to me, the tradition and the culture and that’s when I realized that, while witches were magical, their first job was to protect the magic itself. My magic is in my ancestors and it is my job to protect and elevate them.

What does Bruja mean to you?

A Bruja is a magical woman beyond definition. She is compassion and strength. She is no fucks given but each one earned.

How do you feel about the buzz surrounding the word bruja? Would you consider it a reclamation of spiritual identity? The decolonization of ancestral tradition or the commodification of ritualistic practices?

Initially, I was happy that the word “Bruja” was buzzing around. So many have had to practice their faith behind closed doors, the ability to claim your identity proudly in public was a beautiful shift for us. It is powerful to see Latinas, Afro-Latina’s especially, embrace a part of themselves that had been buried for so long. We don’t have to hide anymore. But then things started to blur, people began to widen the definition of Bruja and in turn diminish practices that are revered by many. Yes, a Santera is a bruja but not all brujas are Santeros. Making yourself an herb bath, getting a reading, and burning sage at home doesn’t make you a spiritist, it means you’re a consumer, a patient. If you are ill and go to a doctor and get some medicine for your headache, does it mean that you’re a doctor because you blindly suggested the same to a friend or used the medication again when you had another headache? No, it was just self-care. I believe the same goes for espiritismo. Just because you know what bath works for what, or what crystal to carry doesn’t make one an espirititsa. You’re practicing the magic of it so you are a in a sense.  Religious practices have always been commodified within religion (Jesus ain’t flip them tables for nothing) and by outsiders. This is the least strange part of it. People have been selling relief in unblessed colorful beads for centuries, that hasn’t changed.

Are there nuances between brujas- curanderas, healers? What is the transparency? Who gets to claim it?

The nuance is in the practice. I think anyone can be a bruja because magic is universal and attainable. Curanderas, healers, santeros, espiritistas, they dedicate years and decades to their craft. They study, as much as any occupation, and are constantly learning. They are in constant service. These titles aren’t to be used flippantly, like Bruja, they are to be earned through sacrifice, ritual, and apprenticeship.


Ramona Ledesma

Please explain your role as healer/practitioner

I believe everyone is a healer in their own right. Artists, poets, herbalists. To me, they are all healers because they have a connection with a world beyond this one. It’s imagination, it’s in the metaphor, in the capacity to know that beauty exists even in the less fortunate of circumstances. To me, that’s alchemy, magic, and power. And because healing is a non-linear process, whether your brujeria involves words, painting or plants I think that healing encompasses a lot of things and therefore, it should consider a variety of mediums. My medium is imagery (through painting) and I also work with dolls from my native town in Mexico. My practice takes on art therapy modalities and to that extent, I use these dolls as healing dolls with the work that I do around self-image and eating disorder awareness.

Do you identify as a bruja? Why/why not?

I grew up around healers and women who used herbs and who had a lot of knowledge about the world of plants. Growing up, these were the brujas, the curanderas that one will go to when ailments of the body and heart appeared. So Bruja is a term I hold highly and respect profoundly. Personally, I haven’t always claimed that word and it has to do with how I came to understand who gets to be called that. But I’ve had to understand the meaning of healing to know that I am a healer and to recognize it in others. I’m more comfortable with that term.

What does Bruja mean to you?

Bruja, I believe, is one of those reclaimed words, much like “maricon”, “joto” or “bitch.” I think that each generation understands it differently. If I drop that word to any of my Christian or Catholic relatives, for instance, they’ll freak out.

The women that I grew up knowing as brujas, were sought out for their wisdom and healing but also extremely marginalized by society, even by those who came to see them. I think colonialism and religion have played a big role in how this knowledge and several medicines have been forgotten or dismissed – and on that same token, our medicine women, and men. An example of this is Maria Sabina, a healer from Oaxaca, who used mushrooms and shortly after was being exploited by American anthropologists and rock stars like the Beatles who were more interested in the hallucinogen aspects of the medicine.

Most of society has no idea who Maria Sabina was unless they research. She was indeed a Bruja and her magic has transcended her time on earth. Pop culture has a way of taking what it wants and forgetting the roots. Anyone who has had “shrooms” should look deeper into the medicine behind that intention. It was never intended for recreation but in doses, for spiritual healing. Recently, there seems to be a movement of younger folks claiming that word. Most of them seem to have something in common with the women I grew up knowing: the reclamation of our ancestry and our ancestors and a respect for those healing methods and I believe that’s beautiful. Perhaps that’s where the similarity lies.

How do you feel about the buzz surrounding the word bruja? Would you consider it a reclamation of spiritual identity? The decolonization of ancestral tradition or the commodification of ritualistic practices?

I can see how both things can happen. I find it problematic for hipsters to build altars for Dia de Los Muertos or use sage and palo santo without any research and or connection to the sources of that medicine. But for folks of color, I think it means a little more than that. For a lot of the folks that I know who are doing healing work, it signifies a reclamation of our people’s ways, a connection to our ancestry and a sense of belonging.

Are there nuances between brujas- curanderas, healers? What is the transparency? Who gets to claim it?

To me, curanderas, healers, and brujas are all the same. They are synonyms and yet each term holding a unique emotional connection to the person hearing them. To someone with a different experience than mine, those could be completely different things. In my own healing journey, I’ve been moved by Instagram brujas who take to social media to deliver their metaphysical or psychic messages as well as the abuelitas who use herbs and eggs to cleanse and heal. I believe that the underlying work of a Bruja, Curandera or Healer is to connect with Spirit through the world of beauty. And that can mean different things to different people.