The New Brujas
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The New Brujas

The opening chapter from Lorraine Monteagut’s forthcoming book, Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color.

The New Brujas

The opening chapter from Lorraine Monteagut’s forthcoming book, Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color.

BY THE TIME Sabel Santa arrived in Carolina, Puerto Rico, a municipality east of San Juan, she was mute. She was two years old. Her family was perplexed because she had just begun to speak her first full sentences of English in the United States, where she was born. They tried coaxing her into talking again, to no avail. Sabel would not speak.

It was 1987, the same year King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía of Spain visited Puerto Rico to plan the commemorative event for the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Just before their public appearance, five bombs went off on different areas of the island. One of the bombs caused property damage to the Bank of Boston, a couple miles from Sabel’s grandmother’s house in Villa Carolina.

Sabel’s mother had left her father behind at the military base where he was stationed. Her grandmother took Sabel and her mother in, and they were once again an unbroken matriarchy. Sabel had the brown skin of her mother’s line, her inheritance from the West Africans who were brought forcefully to the island in the 1500s.

Her grandmother was an eccentric woman. She didn’t go to church like the other ladies in the barrio. She sensed when people were on their way over. She talked to plants. The objects in her kitchen were all enchanted to her, and she put her nurturing energy into everything she cooked, which would sustain the bodies of her descendants. For a while, she was Sabel’s best friend. With her grandmother, she didn’t need to speak. They communicated without words. Her grandmother would fix her eyes on Sabel, and Sabel understood and would nod or shake her head.

Sabel intently observed the world around her, new to her but old to her family. The buildings with their flat roofs and wrought-iron geometric patterns. The patron saint festivals for San Fernando, yet another Spanish king. Her neighbors, shouting and dancing and fighting and loving. A thrumming of magic barely perceptible, whispering.

Months went by, and Sabel began to speak again.

In Spanish.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, there were isolated bombings on the island and on the mainland to protest Puerto Rico’s status as a commonwealth under the United States. Most resulted in no injuries or casualties, but they were a constant reminder of the people’s unrest in a land that had been colonized by Spanish powers since the late fifteenth century, before the United States invaded during the Spanish-American War in the late 1800s.

There were other forms of resistance. Brujería was first documented on the island in the 1500s, as a response to the colonizers’ religion and as a method of keeping Indigenous and African traditions alive.

There were other forms of resistance. Brujería was first documented on the island in the 1500s, as a response to the colonizers’ religion and as a method of keeping Indigenous and African traditions alive.

Providing private modes of healing and dissent, brujas and brujos stepped in to help the people when governments and mainstream medicine fell short. These were not always peaceful practices. They were responses to violence and oppression and often required sacrifices, so they were easily denounced by the Catholic Church and the government as devil worship. Many descendants of these traditions were successfully converted to Christianity and condemned their own ancestry, and the stigma lives on today. But since brujería wasn’t a religion with established institutions or hierarchy, its grassroots rituals were difficult to identify and stamp out. 

Brujería survived in the shadows.

Next door to Sabel’s grandmother lived a so-called bruja, and though Sabel’s grandmother was clearly an intuitive herself, she forbade Sabel from visiting. But Sabel couldn’t help herself from getting close. She was fascinated by the decapitated birds hanging outside her neighbor’s door. What could they be for? What else was inside?

Somehow she knew that there was more to the “witch” than her grandmother said, that these people who lived just apart from the rest of them and made strange sacrifices were not necessarily evil. The way of the bruja was a current that flowed under everything on the island, beneath the Spanish names and customs—something far older, full of mystery, misunderstood.

Sabel began collecting occult objects of her own, crystals and spell books and tarot cards, and she created her own rituals. When she was thirteen, Hurricane Georges hit Puerto Rico, and Sabel energetically absorbed the force of the wind and the rain, believing it to be her magical initiation.

Somehow she knew that there was more to the “witch” than her grandmother said, that these people who lived just apart from the rest of them and made strange sacrifices were not necessarily evil.

At the same time, one thousand miles away in Florida, another thirteen-year-old was getting ready for the same storm. I pushed my furniture to the middle of my room and tucked my prized possessions into the closet that held all of my secrets. I remembered Hurricane Andrew and how I’d been too little to save my things when parts of the roof flew off and the windows all broke and the carpets flooded. I should’ve been scared. I’d never admit it, because I knew what a hurricane could do—how it could take your home or your loved ones in a blink—but the truth was, I was always excited when a storm was on its way.

Each storm feels like an inheritance. Before a storm hits, the barometric pressure plummets, and the air feels both full and empty. The skies become an otherworldly green grey, and the wind assumes a harsh whisper. Then comes a trance of water and wind, hands of gods mixing everything together, strengthening the undercurrents. The past emerges to the present, and they become one, and you can remember things long forgotten, things maybe you’d never been taught but somehow you carry, like how to keep possessions light and when to run or when to hunker down. Like how to rebuild after the storm, that emissary of nostalgia carrying the tears and sweat of our ancestors hundreds of miles to rain down on us.

Brujas hold this reverence for hurricanes. Maybe it’s because they follow the trajectory of a great ancestral migration, originating from the coast of Africa, running through the Caribbean, some dying down, some gaining strength, before settling in the United States. Hurricanes are a reminder to keep moving, to find higher ground, to survive.

Sabel’s story hums between binaries: Black and White. Spanish and English. The occult and Catholicism. Colonized and colonizer. Her in-betweenness is her special mark. The bruja contains all these identities, allowing Sabel a fluid movement between them.


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WHEN WE MOVED to our new home in the suburbs of West Kendall, Florida, I started to have the alligator dreams. In the dreams I am dressed in white, walking barefoot across a vast swamp. I’m trying to make it to a shoreline a few feet out of reach, but it keeps moving of its own volition. Along the way, I step on the heads and bodies of stonelike gators. The water is opaque milk, and there is a penetrating fog. If I’m slow and intentional with my steps, the gators remain stone. If I hesitate in fear, they start to move and snap at me. In some dreams, panic takes over, and I freeze on one of the gator heads, eternally encircled by the reptilian force of the swamp. In others, I slip and fall into the water, and I’m torn limb from limb.

I still have the dreams, though I haven’t lived in West Kendall in nearly twenty years. It is the closest thing I have to a homeland, this unincorporated part of Miami-Dade County. Abutting the eastern border of the Everglades, West Kendall is named for the European merchant who bought it in the late 1800s. Ours was the first house in our development, Sunny View Homes, the helm of the area’s suburban boom in the 1990s.

I was nine when we moved there. I was a tomboy, with knobby knees and a nose like a bird’s beak. The grown-ups, mostly South and Central American and Caribbean immigrants like us, stood on the foundations of homes that would bear the broad strokes of the Spanish Colonial style, what they’d collectively decided was the mark of progress. They reviewed their cookie-cutter plans, pointing here and there.

I perched on the roof and followed the sun as it set on the interminable marsh, clouds towering milky pink and yellow on the horizon. All around were U-pick strawberry fields, rows and rows stretching west to the swamplands. I ignorantly thought the Everglades a wilderness. I didn’t know it had long been home to nomadic migrant workers and Miccosukee.

Then more neighbors came, and mazes of stucco houses all the same, and the strawberries were paved over. Our suburb became indistinguishable from all the others. It was sunny, but in a bad way. Without the swamp to absorb the light, the roof view turned to a blinding whiteness, the beam of an alien ship keeping everything in suspension. Barred from nature, I craved relics of the old Florida of my imagination. I was so close to it, to Big Cypress and the ancient alligators and the collective memory of the Seminoles who knew every mangrove, every dome. I might as well have been a world away.

There were two Floridas, one humming, trapped under the weight of the other.

Years went by, and I could feel the hormones making space inside of me—for what, I didn’t know. I pressed my face to the heat of the pavement to listen for the old magic beyond the burning of my ear. Nature became synonymous with the past. I didn’t want to grow up and forget the swamp. If I could somehow channel it, I might spare myself an adolescence of suburban mundanity. When I smelled a storm coming, I sat ready on the roof, my arms to the sky, half pretending I controlled the thunder, half hoping lightning would strike me and I’d get powers.

My little brothers shared a room where they created an insular world, so I explored on my own. My closet was your ordinary preteen confessional, the walls covered in posters my mom wouldn’t like out in the open. Alien-like as he was, with breasts and a bony bump where genitals would be, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals album cover was particularly offensive to conservative sensibilities. Nothing was a solid line—not gender, not species, not genre. I excused the violence he portrayed as “artistic,” unaware of the real abuse he inflicted. He made me feel like I could be anything, love anyone. Behind the posters were the names of crushes and symbols I’d made up as placeholders for words I didn’t yet have. I could only write them in total confinement, doors fully shut. Though they pressed me to the wall, I was safe in my altar of clothes and cracked light, away from the overexposed photograph that was my waking life.

But then the fear would wear off, and I’d start experimenting again, chanting made up words into the air, inviting spirits to speak with me.

Darkness called in a richness of forms I wished I could unsee. One scared me to the core: a shadow that materialized into a witch in the corner of my room, all static and dark matted hair like the girl from The Ring. If I let my guard down, she would advance. Once, she got all the way to my chest and clawed to get in, and I felt myself coming untethered from my body.

Panic became a familiar visitor. Over time, I learned how to keep the shadow in her corner with my willpower. When she appeared, I had the weird feeling that I’d asked for this, like it was a wild offshoot of my imagination that had grown a will of its own. My terror pushed away any wish of magic, and when the sun rose, I was happy to look out my window onto the boring street with the boring little houses all the same. But then the fear would wear off, and I’d start experimenting again, chanting made up words into the air, inviting spirits to speak with me.

I didn’t yet know that this mundane existence my family had created was the product of careful decisions to separate us from the worlds of chaos from which we’d come. I didn’t know that I was opening a door my ancestors had intentionally closed, that the strange shadow in my corner would continue to grow in strength.

My parents were born in Colombia and Cuba, which didn’t set me apart from the other kids at school, who were mostly children of immigrants themselves. But I had a sense that there were secrets my family wouldn’t tell me, and for some reason, I was afraid to ask. Besides some old photos, they brought no heirlooms that I could use to access family memory. To them, progress was a constant newness, the cold and hard aesthetic of Miami in the early 1990s: glass walls, marble floors, granite countertops. Even our decorations were marble, like the little eggs my parents placed on pedestals around the house. We weren’t allowed to play with them, but sometimes I would sneak them into my palm, feeling their weight as I warmed them, imagining I might one day hatch a baby alligator made of alabaster.

We’d routinely throw out perfectly good stuff to make room for new stuff. I think of all those shards of recyclable material in the landfill. Maybe now, decades later, they’re finally escaping their temporary prison and returning to the earth. What if the shadow I see is energy, old memory, trapped like the tons of our things that can’t decompose, contained as they are in all that plastic? Can I undo whatever curse is holding it in place and set it free?

As a teen I swung on an accelerating pendulum of fear and ennui. That’s when I decided I would absorb the shadow and become a witch myself—one sweaty morning, paralyzed in my bed, overwhelmed by my changing body. Being a witch was the solution to all my problems.

As a teen I swung on an accelerating pendulum of fear and ennui. That’s when I decided I would absorb the shadow and become a witch myself—one sweaty morning, paralyzed in my bed, overwhelmed by my changing body. Being a witch was the solution to all my problems.

I’d once and for all refuse the sterile life around me, the endless big-box consumerism and the nine-to-fives. I’d learn the skills I needed to face the shadows, like Sailor Moon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I escaped my awkward reality through the fantasies of pop “occulture.” To my excitement, the witch had arisen as an icon of goth and grunge subcultures in the late ’90s. Suddenly, being a witch was just the right degree of taboo for a rebellious teen. The witch was the only aesthetic that fit my in-betweenness, and like a whole subset of girls of my generation, I dressed like the witches from shows like Charmed and movies like The Craft. Dog collars and baby tees. Flowy skirts with combat boots. I wanted to get deeper than superficial experimentation, but I wasn’t sure where to turn for spiritual guidance.

I wrangled my few friends into a coven. (It really takes off if you mimic a fictional one and each choose a character.) We sat in circles and chanted our poems as spells. We concocted smelly potions that we sprayed onto the lockers of the girls we didn’t like. We hexed the exes who broke our hearts and reserved the nicer-smelling potions for love spells. And we had crystals, of course. Each kind of crystal imbued us with different powers, we said. We didn’t care to find out if this gorgeous pyrite that increases intelligence might have come from a mine letting loose millions of gallons of acid into drinking water.

We were just girls. We were the children of immigrants. I was the whitest of them all, which I got from the relentless Spanish genes on my father’s Cuban side. I was called gringa and mona. My Colombian cousins on my mother’s side were darker and gorgeous, with deep, dark eyes and thick hair. My skin felt so thin in comparison to theirs, which never burned. Two of their mothers, my favorite aunts, were inseparable, and I thought them Amazonian goddesses. 

For a time, they shared a master bedroom from which they reigned the house like a pair of queens.

I could live in the curve of their hips, the forest of their hair. They told me I was beautiful for my light skin and green eyes and that these things would take me far. That’s what I had to do, they said—get ahead for the family. But I felt small and exposed next to them, like a snail without its shell. Looking White did help me assimilate to American life faster than my cousins. White was new, a passport. Over time, Spanglish was the most I could muster of my mother tongue.

Now, I see Spanglish as a spellwork of sorts, a rejection of two colonizer languages in favor of something in between, something my own.

One night, my mother and aunts took me to Catholic mass where people dropped to the floor with the Holy Spirit. After, at a house nearby, they made me stay outside as they consulted someone dressed all in white. They appeared with something wrapped in burlap (and covered in blood?) and they told me not to tell anyone where we’d been. In my family, brujas were associated with dark magic and openly shunned, so they were sought in secret.

I held on to the word bruja because it was more right than the witch I associated with paganism, but I didn’t identify with it openly because my practice wasn’t the brujería that seemed to equally scare and attract my family.

Years later, I drove around town in search of brujas myself, but nobody had “witch” just written on their doors, so I had to be satisfied with the esoteric book shops run by older White ladies whose histories and homelands were so different from mine. They wore loose, flowing clothes and kept cabinets of herbs I’d never heard of and displayed books and books about Wicca.

I built my magic on my own. I read all the books I could find, science and new age ones alike. Learning about the force of an alligator’s bite felt the same as learning about the planets of astrology. I held on to the word bruja because it was more right than the witch I associated with paganism, but I didn’t identify with it openly because my practice wasn’t the brujería that seemed to equally scare and attract my family.

As an initiation of sorts, I carved the word into my closet of secrets: B R U J A. 

I didn’t know it, but I was one of thousands of dormant little witches all over the country, and years later, we would start to show ourselves.

From the forthcoming book Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color © Lorraine Monteagut, Ph.D. Printed with permission from the publisher, Chicago Review Press.

Brujas arrives on October 5. You can pre-order your copy via Ofrenda’s Bookshop.

Top image credit: istock.com/Tatyana Antusenok (adapted).

From the forthcoming book Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color © Lorraine Monteagut, Ph.D. Printed with permission from the publisher, Chicago Review Press.

Brujas arrives on October 5. You can pre-order your copy via Ofrenda’s Bookshop.

Top image credit: istock.com/Tatyana Antusenok (adapted).

From the forthcoming book Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color © Lorraine Monteagut, Ph.D. Printed with permission from the publisher, Chicago Review Press.

Brujas arrives on October 5. You can pre-order your copy via Ofrenda’s Bookshop.

Top image credit: istock.com/Tatyana Antusenok (adapted).



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