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Jennifer Givhan: Becoming the Bruja My Ancestors Needed


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When I was a little girl, I made potions from my mother’s perfumes and lotions, much to her chagrin. The rose scent of those first potions still infuses my magickal sensibilities. My mother and I were both sexually abused as little girls. We grew up and stayed in toxic relationships with boys/men. My mother’s Catholicism and deeply rooted faith in its spiritual tenets saved her, quite literally. A Spirit appeared to her in a closet where she was hiding from her abuser and told her that he would keep her safe, and her faith has in many ways; shortly after that experience, my mother garnered the courage to scream her lungs out and use her gritona power to scare her abuser into never violating her again.

My brujería is an amalgamation of the nascent inklings of the witchy, surreal world that appeared to me in my earliest memories comingled with the deep-seated faith of my mother, which manifests itself through Catholicism, yes, along with a sense of ritual and the sacred. I’m often asked why I call myself La Bruja since, for some Latinx folks, calling myself a bruja and invoking brujería in my writing carries a negative connotation that stems from the Spanish colonizers’ interpretation of ancient spiritual practices. But a new generation of brujas, myself included, are overturning stereotypical portrayals in literature, and pushing back against what it means to be a witchy woman of color in the United States and Latin America. Powerful, talented women with supernatural abilities are not new to Latinx literature; take, for example, Isabel Allende’s HOUSE OF SPIRITS or Laura Esquivel’s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, both of which were foundational to my own blend of magical realism. But novels like Desideria Mesa’s BINDLE PUNK BRUJA and my RIVER WOMAN, RIVER DEMON (both of which are Most Anticipated Crime Books of Fall 2022) are reclaiming the term bruja. And not just in literature, but there’s a cultural shift in attitudes toward brujería as brujxs push back and destigmatize. So what does it mean to be a bruja and write a thriller from this perspective?

Brujas have been cast as the villains for too long. Just as witchy women now are hexing the patriarchy and becoming more mainstream, Latinas and women of color too are turning the tables on what brujería is capable of accomplishing within the horror/thriller genres and the larger social and cultural landscape. The protective folk magick of my novel is based on the actual practices of people of color, including my familial practices. It resists stereotypes even as it embraces many classic elements of psychological thrillers and magical realism. Even the Charmed reboot, which has so many amazing elements, tends to focus on mainstream Wicca as the central magick, even though the protagonists are strong BIPOC/Latinas. My novel looks toward the magick of people of color—brujería, curanderismo, hoodoo—even as it shares many commonalities with Wicca and other Western pagan practices and beliefs.

Just as witchy women now are hexing the patriarchy and becoming more mainstream, Latinas and women of color too are turning the tables on what brujería is capable of accomplishing within the horror/thriller genres and the larger social and cultural landscape.

The protagonist of my new novel, Eva Santiago Moon, is a budding Chicana bruja—whose bruja mother died in childbirth, so Eva was raised by her conservative and well-meaning sister Alba, who isn’t interested in their cultural roots of brujería but instead nurtures her family in the kitchen with traditional comida. Eva is a strong, independent Latina mother deeply invested in her culture and its spiritual power but is mired in self-doubt and plagued by trauma-induced ghosts. While many psychological thrillers focus on rich, white women, Eva is Chicana, lives in the Southwest, and is the mother of biracial children. This story focuses on the holistic spiritual, and magickal (written with the “k” to denote a specific spiritual path) practices of BIPOC people embodied through Eva and her husband, Jericho. She is a woman who has lost her way and hopes to find it, a mother struggling to care for her family while maintaining her self-worth during a terrifying murder investigation.

I’ve found that folks of color, particularly Latinx and indigenous communities, are often marginalized and overlooked in the media and literature (although I’m excited to see much more representation in the witching communities with the rise of brujería in the mainstream). We’ve been told to believe that darkness within ourselves, any manifestation of shadow, is our enemy, but Eva’s dark path as a bruja is the dark night of the soul (la noche oscura del alma) that leads her to deep truths and understanding that will embolden and strengthen her if she can trust herself. We need to listen to our inner voice and our ancestors’ wisdom and not let ourselves be gaslit or steered off course by society or those with skewed or selfish agendas. Eva comes to understand that she is the spell. Her magick is not external but internal—she’s had it all along.

The inspiration for this story came from my childhood memories and PTSD, as well as a harrowing experience with a narcissistic abuser who had me all twisted up. As a practicing bruja who has healed both personal and ancestral trauma in myself and my family through brujería, I wanted to share the tools and practices that have strengthened and buoyed me in an accessible way. There are many wonderful nonfiction books on magical practices and witchcraft, but I’ve found that my magic is within my imagination, so I wrote a novel.

When Catholicism gained its foothold in Latin America and the Southwest United States, those who practiced what we might call folk magick were considered witches (brujas, in Spanish) and feared as such. Patriarchal leaders feared women’s power, matriarchal knowledge, wisdom, and empowerment. They feared our Ancestors’ innate spiritual wisdom, rooted in self, family, nature, and Spirit—a wisdom that sought answers within rather than through any state-sanctioned religion. Over time, that fear spread, and we grew to fear ourselves.

My practice of brujería is a cobbling together of traditions from my Catholic upbringing, my wild Spirit and rebellious nature, and my proclivity toward and interest in science, including cosmology and theoretical physics as well as plants and herbs. I also weave in the symbolism and iconography of my indigenous Ancestors in Mexico, as well as my reconnection with my indigenous origins in New Mexico and southern Arizona and Texas, where my maternal grandparents all have roots. At my home altar, I light candles for my antepasados (ancestors), La Virgen (Mother Mary), and her indigenous counterpart, Tonatzin, as well as Mexica goddesses like Coatlicue, who represents both creation and destruction, and Tlazolteotl, one of my favorite mother goddesses of divine love who takes in “filth” such as shame and purifies it. From this context, I reclaim the term bruja and the ritual of writing, which is how my magick most clearly presents itself—as a form of healing, manifesting, empowering, and overcoming.  People are often drawn to me to help guide them through their personal and intergenerational trauma through writing, where they start healing themselves and allowing Spirit to flow onto the page and through their hearts.

A connection to the Spirit world, the intangible otherworldly and Ancestral voices have allowed me to listen and to write what I hear…

Brujería has been the key to my success as a writer, meaning it keeps me writing even when every bone in my body and every fiber of my mind protests. A connection to the Spirit world, the intangible otherworldly and Ancestral voices have allowed me to listen and to write what I hear, despite my sometimes debilitating chronic physical and mental illnesses; brujería helps me to quiet the trauma and the pain long enough to build entire worlds from thin air. If I’m down in the mud, Spirit gently shows me the stardust to scoop up and bring back with me to the page. The sacred that we honor also exists within us. We honor ourselves when we honor the sacred. When we honor the sacred, we claim our value and worth as inherent and undiminishable. We are the fire we light, the crystal we hold, the prayer we utter.

I’m not sure most white folks understand how we folks of color, and Latinx people in particular, often must reclaim our cultural and ancestral heritage. It was not handed down to us. It had to be shrouded in secrecy, sometimes beaten or ridiculed or mandated out of our Ancestors by violent colonizers. Our Ancestors were often forced to assimilate and, over time, practices were lost to families. So when individuals with spiritual/magickal gifts come along, there is no one to train them because their great, great-grandmothers were silenced. Mine died in childbirth, crossing the border to have her daughter in New Mexico.

My mama might well be a bruja too, although she’d probably be angry at me for suggesting so; she is now a Doctora of Nursing who went back to school in her thirties and earned her degrees while raising my two brothers and me. She has healing hands that turn hot to the touch when she’s laying hands, and they emit powerful restorative energy, which she chalks up to a spiritual gift from God—and I don’t doubt that’s true. Perhaps we use a different lexicon to describe the same thing.

Magick doesn’t discriminate. Of course, we must be respectful and not culturally appropriate others’ sacred practices, especially for commercial gain. But that which belongs to our heritage and our families—as brujería belongs to mine and hoodoo to my husband and children—we alchemically infuse into a flexible, personal practice. There’s no one right way to practice. That narrow, dogmatic thinking belongs to patriarchy and religion—not magick.

Early on my witching path, I asked another bruja how I could learn and if she had books to recommend, but she replied that she had several bruja teachers and a coven who showed her the path and didn’t know of any books. She said it in a tone of finality, closed conversation, no more questions asked. So I scoured the internet, the botánicas and apothecaries in my city and across the country, and found every witchy woman and bruja willing to open their practice, writing, and heart to me. I made my own familia/coven of like-minded spiritual women with natural proclivities for the otherworldly and attunement to the Spirits. Many of my bruja and witchy women friends are fellow writers and poets.

We studied tarot together; we cast spells. We banished ancestral and personal demons, like sexual trauma and the toxicity of misogynist relationships, and held each other through the heartaches and hard growth of finding our true selves through breakups, divorces, job losses, births, and moving across the country for one reason or another. And all the while, I was finding the little girl I always was—the one my mama saw and loved but couldn’t necessarily understand outside of her religious framework that had protected her when she was a little girl in need of a defensive shield and sword.

I was reclaiming the powerful warrior woman within myself, the nurturing mother I had always needed to heal my trauma, my mama’s, her mama’s, and hers—many generations back. And in so doing, healing the future and protecting my daughter so that she would never need to search far for her true source and strength. So that she would always know the great force and Ancestral power that resides within her.

I became my own bruja, then wrote a book for you all who need it.

Ask my daughter what she is, and she will tell you, proudly, a bruja. And she may even make you a rosewater concoction when she’s not writing her badass stories or slaying the patriarchy.

So it is. Blessed be.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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