Bruja Meaning Explained | Teen Vogue
Actual witches speak on the practice that stems from Africa.
By Amber C. Snider
Illustration by Liz Coulbourn
In the colonial city of Trinidad, Cuba – a major port during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade – locals say the deep cobbled stone streets were paved with the bones of slaves. There’s a long, insidious history in this once-prosperous city that dates all the way back to the 16th century and a lingering eeriness can still be felt in the colorful Spanish-style walls on this isolated island.
I remember suddenly trembling as I looked around a popular restaurant to find its walls decorated in actual torture devices used during the slave trade. They weren’t tucked away in a museum, but on display, while people ate their arroz y frijoles. In the United States, we tend to cover up the shame of slavery, our history – but in Trinidad, history is laid bare for all to see. í
References to Santería and other forms of brujería can be found all throughout the world – including in pop culture. Queen Bey herself paid tribute to Oshun (or Ochún), the Orisha of sensuality and love, during the 2017 Grammys. Netflix’s Siempre Bruja (2019) depicts a young slave witch from the 17th century who time travels to present-day Colombia to save the man she loves. The video for Princess Nokia’s song “Brujas” off her album 1992 Deluxe begins with five women conducting what appears to be a watery ritual for Yemaya. And more recently, with Jidenna’s “Sufi Woman” video, West African witchcraft was on display.
Instagram has also had a big impact on modern brujería: the hashtags #bruja and #brujas have over a million posts combined, and some witches are now Insta-famous in their craft.
But even with these seemingly benign media depictions, brujas are often reduced to stereotypes and still conjure a sense of fear in many people.
So what exactly is a bruja/o/x? Simply put, “bruja” means “witch” in Spanish. Over many centuries, brujería in Latin America has become a deeply personalized practice with roots in several spiritual lineages, including Yoruba, Macumba, Vodou, and more. But one interesting thing I’ve encountered when talking to some practicing modern witches is both a total embrace of the word “bruja” and also a reluctance to use it all together. It goes back to this idea of belonging and acceptance within magical communities and shows how self-identity can carry a lot of weight – especially with people of mixed racial backgrounds.
Since Latin America was colonized by Europeans beginning in the 15th century – leaving a desecrated Indigenous culture in its wake – some native healing medicine and magical traditions syncretized with the Roman Catholic Church and this led to a kind of hybridity in contemporary spirituality. In Mexico, for instance, the annual celebration of honoring the dead during Día de los Muertos has origins in Aztec culture but also takes place on All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day on the Catholic calendar. In Santería, an Afro-Latinx religion with Yoruba roots, Yemaya (considered the Mother of All and Queen of the Sea) is one of the most beloved Orisha in Cuba – and in iconography, her image is closely tied the Virgin Mary.
For Los Angeles-based brujo Curly Velasquez, whose family comes from El Salvadorian Indigenous lineage, modern traditions like Wicca, founded in the early to mid 20th century in England, weren’t really for him. He calls himself an “energy manifestor.” For him, and many other witches, prayers are just another word for spells. “For Latin folk, we pray heavy, we light a lot of candles, we burn a lot of different things. We do tiny things to get back at people – to bind people – and this isn’t for everybody, but these are things typical of my culture,” Curly says. “We burn copal in honor of the spirits. We use the elements of water, fire, earth.”
For mixed BIPOC people (especially those with Latin roots living in the United States), the word “bruja” or “brujo” carries a different connotation.
Jesse Sandoval Gomez, Mexican-American energy and sound healer, believes we’re beyond outdated or ambiguous terms like bruja or brujo. “I think it’s easy for people to attach that word to anybody who is witchy. I consider myself an intuitive – someone who is tapped into a lineage of things that pertain to witchcraft from a young age.”
“In the direction that we’re going [as a culture], it’s just going to be so ambiguous that I don’t think it’ll matter. We’re at a point in history (and the earth’s history) where words like bruja, witch, or even witchcraft have a lot of stigma behind it. Historically a lot of us just intuitively know it’s time to kind of move past it,” says Gomez.
“It really comes down to this combination of all practices at this point – because we’re kind of in a big melting pot of culture at this point. The same thing happens within magical communities: shamanism, wizardry, witchcraft, all these different terms that are just describing their own sovereign approach to magic and the art of bringing this forward. I don’t think there really is a word [to describe what we do] anymore. We’re all just tapping into so many different parts of the spectrum at this point that there’s no way it couldn’t be ambiguous at this point,” says Gomez.
According to Curly, El Salvador, like much of Latin America, holds many of its roots in a mixture of Catholic, Santería, and Indigenous folk magic. You don’t have to join a coven or be in a part of organized religion to be a bruja/o, and it often means developing your own way of doing things.
As a spiritual culture, Curly says that Latinx people tend to honor the feminine. As a queer brujo (or brujx), Curly never felt comfortable praying to a white man. “I’m not praying to a white man. No white man has ever given me an opportunity – but women have. Women in my life have always been the ones who’ve been there for me. Black women, Latin women, Asian women, White women – they’re the ones who’ve pushed for me,” he says.
Brujería, however, can still be a source of fear for many, which Velasquez attributes to colonialism. “We’ve always been a very superstitious culture, but when we were colonized and told we couldn’t [pray to our spirits] because we would go to hell, I think it scared us. It made us afraid, not only of spirits, but of ourselves. But now I think there’s a lot of people coming out more [as bruja/os] because I think because we’re evolving, people are more accepting.”
Magic as a form of resistance
For São Paulo-based Wiccan Priestess Marília de Abreu, witchcraft means following a coherent path that links our inner nature to the hidden forces of nature, while tuning into the cycles and spiritual language of the world. She started the Wicca Cia das Bruxas in 1998 and has been practicing her Craft in Brazil. Witchcraft came to São Paulo by way of its Indigenous peoples, European immigrants, enslaved Africans, as well as through Cuban Santería, among other traditions.
“I believe magic is a part of life,” Abreu says.“The difference is between triggering it without awareness and consciously using it with intention. In fact, a witch’s path is the pursuit of wisdom to how to use it consciously, but magic is present in everything.”
She says brujería in Brazil was also used as a form of resistance and self-identity. “The colonizers found Indigenous magic here and later with slavery, African magic. The natives were aware of native medicinal herbs for diseases that the colonizer had no medicine for. For the black people who came as slaves, their magic was also a form of resistance and a way of maintaining their ancestral cultural roots,” Abreu says. “Pai de Santo (Father of Saint) [the male priest in Afro-Brazilian religions] was indeed the father of many slaves and represented the link with the entities of his origin. ”
Another bruja, Carmen Regina Casella, who practices and teaches stregheria (a form of spiritual self-defense) says the essence of witchcraft goes beyond geographical boundaries. “As witches, our homeland is the spirit. Magic has no ‘color,’ but has guidance on other levels … it does not cling to human duality,” she says.
“[The colonizers] tried both to end man’s spiritual connection to the earth and to exterminate anyone who used magic practices for healing and relief … and to condemn any practice that was not institutional and accepted by the ruling church-state. Only the Pope would represent ‘divine’ power on earth. Well, it didn’t work out and we are here, with all the colors of the rainbow,” Carmen says.
In short, brujería isn’t a fantastical or fairytale-like practice, but a conscious, intention-based one. It may be shrouded in mystery, but it’s mainly about tapping into a deeper language of the universe.
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Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity.