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Netflix’s Siempre Bruja centers a powerful black witch, for once

The new fictional series shows that black witches can be human, powerful, and the stars of their own stories.

Siempre Bruja stars Angely Gaviria
Siempre Bruja stars Angely Gaviria as Carmen Eguiluz, a powerful Afro-Colombian witch.

As her friend lies comatose in a hospital bed, Carmen Eguiluz orders the young woman to wake up, her voice louder with each command. Eyes closed and face clenched, Carmen rises toward the ceiling, hovering in the air until her incantation rouses her friend. The other visitors in the room look on in stunned silence: They’ve never witnessed such a scene before. And while viewers of Netflix’s new series Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) have surely seen lots of cinematic magic, watching a black woman perform it may be a novel experience for them too.

Witchcraft is a well that Hollywood keeps returning to, whether it’s for movies or TV shows. Last month, news broke that Anne Hathaway would star in a remake of 1990’s The Witches. The fall television season saw the debuts of The CW’s Charmed reboot and Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. On FX’s American Horror Story, Sarah Paulson and her coven returned to battle the Antichrist in Apocalypse. Except for Charmed, however, none of these vehicles star women of color as leads.

With Dago García (Pedro el escamoso, El Paseo) as executive producer, Siempre Bruja stands out for centering, and humanizing, a black witch. Inspired by Isidora Chacón’s 2015 novel Yo, Bruja, the series kicks off in 17th-century Cartagena, Colombia, with an enslaved Carmen (Angely Gaviria) time-traveling to the city in the present to avoid being burned at the stake for practicing magic. The hoverboards, mobile phones, and cars of the modern world baffle her, but she doesn’t plan to stick around for long.

The 19-year-old witch is in 2019 Cartagena to fulfill a promise to Aldemar (Luis Fernando Hoyos), the wizard who gave her the time-bending spell. In exchange for him helping her escape to the future, she’s agreed to deliver an enchanted stone to a witch working as a college professor. Although Carmen gets the job done, the professor disappears before performing the ritual that will send her back to 1646. Despite the threat to her own life in the past, Carmen desperately wants to return to save her boyfriend Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa), who was shot by his father for trying to stop her would-be execution. Cristóbal’s parents own Carmen, and his mother accused the enslaved woman of bewitching him.

This is a complicated start to a show that’s equal parts fantasy and telenovela. But Siempre Bruja is unique in that the black witch doesn’t sow discord or merely exist on the margins; she’s the main attraction — the most powerful witch in a long line of them. Actress Angely Gaviria deftly inhabits the role of Carmen, and she’s surrounded by a capable cast of supporting characters who, for the most part, aren’t threatened by her practice of brujeria. Filmed in lush locations around Colombia, Siempre Bruja reframes Hollywood’s often limited takes on the occult in which the heroines are white, magic is alienating, and witchcraft clashes with other faith traditions.

Siempre Bruja’s Carmen departs from Hollywood’s depictions of black witches

Carmen Eguiluz is one of the most complicated black witches to grace the screen. She’s a young woman, still growing accustomed to her powers, but she’s also formidable. She has a strong sense of integrity but sometimes interferes in other people’s lives in ways that worsen their problems. In short, Carmen may be a powerful witch, but she’s still a human being. Many of the black witches in Hollywood who’ve preceded her, however, haven’t been quite so three-dimensional. They’re either on the sidelines, helping white witches fulfill their destinies, or evil voodoo queens straight from central casting.

Dinah Stevens (Adina Porter), a voodoo priestess on American Horror Story: Apocalypse is an example of this trope. Wicked and self-serving, she’s willing to do the Antichrist’s bidding, despite his mission to destroy the world. Although Prudence Night (Tati Gabrielle) of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is given far more complexity than Dinah, she spends several episodes being a mean girl for the hell of it. And neither Prudence nor Dinah is as powerful as the white woman she challenges.

Discussing the (mis)representation of black witches in popular culture in 2017, Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “The lack of powerful black witches in film and TV is a symptom of a larger problem that has existed in America since its very beginning: the fear of black women’s autonomy and prowess.”

Carmen Eguiluz (Angely Gaviria) levitating in Netlfix’s Siempre Bruja.
Carmen Eguiluz (Angely Gaviria) levitates as she sleeps in Netlfix’s Siempre Bruja.

Siempre Bruja shifts this pattern by making Carmen Eguiluz extraordinary but imperfect. It’s thrilling to see her exert her power by literally scaring the piss out of her friend’s toxic ex or levitating in a scene that recalls 1996’s The Craft. Rochelle, the black witch in that classic, needs her friends to levitate, but Carmen does so on her own — simply by sleeping. In addition to The Craft, you’ll see hints of 1992’s Like Water for Chocolate during a lunch scene and 2006’s The Lake House as letters are exchanged in Siempre Bruja.

Witchcraft looks different through a nonwhite, non-American lens

Produced by Colombia’s Caracol TV and created by Ana María Parra (Cuando Vivas Conmigo, La Nocturna), Siempre Bruja sets itself apart from white American productions about witchcraft in that most characters embrace Carmen’s magical abilities. They aren’t put off because she’s a witch. The opposite happens in shows like the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, about a teenage witch of the same name. When Sabrina’s friends find out she practices magic, they’re unsettled by her ties to the occult and unsure how to behave around her. Her boyfriend, Harvey, struggles with having a witch girlfriend, and magic ultimately separates the couple.

Compare Harvey’s discomfort with witchcraft to how Galvin, an Afro-Latino scientist on the Charmed reboot, reacts when he discovers his girlfriend Macy is a witch. Because his culture has already exposed him to brujeria — his family members have told him about the occult — Galvin takes the news about Macy in stride. The Siempre Bruja characters have similar reactions upon discovering Carmen’s powers.

“Carmen, are we going to do a ritual?” a friend inquires as she prepares them to do just that. When Carmen asks her friends if they’re afraid to proceed with the ceremony, they don’t hesitate to move forward with it, as they’ve been raised in a culture where belief in the inexplicable isn’t foreign to them.

Angely Gaviria stars in Netflix’s Siempre Bruja.
Angely Gaviria stars as Carmen Eguiluz on Netflix’s Siempre Bruja.
Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix

Though not all of the characters believe in God — one is an avowed atheist — they live in a Latin American country heavily influenced by Roman Catholic beliefs, including the belief in miracles. Accordingly, each character, even the nonbelievers, kneels before the Virgin of Candelaria during a festival in her honor and begs her for help. Mingled with this Catholicism are the traditions of the enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. The Virgin of Candelaria has dark skin, and her festival takes place in a black neighborhood where dancers perform traditional West African choreography in tribute to her. This is the neighborhood where Carmen was born and where her ancestors were persecuted for their blackness and magical abilities alike.

But Christianity and magic aren’t opposing forces for Carmen. She carries a picture of the Virgin with her and prays before her, just as her friends do. This sort of syncretism, familiar to many Christians of color, appears far too little in standard Hollywood fare about witchcraft. Magic inevitably looks different when shown through a lens that’s not white and American.

Angely Gaviria and the ensemble cast are the strengths of this show

Angely Gaviria is, by far, the main reason to watch Siempre Bruja. Last seen in the boxing biopic Pambelé, about Colombian fighter Antonio Cervantes, Gaviria shines onscreen. Her Carmen is vulnerable, optimistic, headstrong, and flawed. As she takes in her new 21st-century surroundings, the wonderment, and sometimes fear, in her eyes is palpable. But when a spell gone wrong brings out Carmen’s passive-aggressive nature, Gaviria capably plays that side of the character, too.

As Kathia Woods of Remezcla put it: “One of the reasons we are rooting for Carmen is because of Angely’s performance.”

Gaviria is joined by an ensemble cast with whom she has genuine chemistry. The wild-eyed Jhony Ki (Dylan Fuentes) emerges as the most charismatic character of the bunch. Fuentes offers comic relief in this role as Carmen’s friend, but he also shows a range of emotions — from anguish to regret to anxiety. As the wizard Aldemar, Luis Fernando Hoyos is a humorous cross between camp and venom. In contrast, Carmen’s professor Esteban (Sebastián Eslava) is more muted but, through furtive glances and quiet concern, reveals he knows more than he’s saying about the young witch.

The cast of Netflix’s Siempre Bruja.
The cast of Netflix’s second original Colombian series, Siempre Bruja.

The cast’s performance is enhanced by gorgeous setting and a pulsating musical soundtrack (featuring artists like Shari Short and Profetas) that make the highly plot-driven Siempre Bruja all the more lively. Beautifully shot in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Honda, Colombia, it’s hard not to feel transported to the country as Carmen dives into blue water, takes in the Caribbean greenery, and walks by Spanish colonial architecture. This is a series that engages the senses, whether Carmen is kneading dough, caressing her scorched feet, or mixing and matching the colorful prints in her 2019 wardrobe.

Siempre Bruja’s flaw is an ill-advised romance that undercuts Carmen’s power

While Siempre Bruja offers a take on witchcraft, rarely, if ever, seen stateside, Carmen’s willingness to revisit a time when she would be enslaved has outraged some viewers and critics. (But the show has its supporters too.) They argue that a romance between an enslaved woman and a slaveholder’s son romanticizes a system largely rooted in the sexual exploitation of black women. As property of the Aranoa family, Carmen could not have consented to a romance with any member of it. And the idea that she would be fixated on returning to the 1600s rather than relishing her freedom in the 21st century may give the impression that slavery wasn’t every bit an unbearable institution.

Likely sensing that Carmen’s relationship would upset some of their audience, Siempra Bruja’s showrunners take pains to make Cristóbal a hero. He’s willing to risk his life for Carmen and vows to free everyone his father holds in bondage. Cristóbal is not one of those white people, the series insists, but righteous, brave, and socially progressive, despite growing up in a family of slaveholding aristocrats. He’s framed in a way that skates perilously close to white savior.

Siempre Bruja likely could have avoided pushback by removing the slavery context from this romance altogether. Carmen and Cristóbal’s relationship also overlooks that enslaved people needed no catalyst other than slavery to fight for their lives — and many turned to folk magic to do so. West African spiritual traditions, labeled witchcraft by European colonizers, played pivotal roles in Denmark Vesey’s foiled 1822 slave rebellion in South Carolina, in the Haitian Revolution, and in Cartagena itself. There, in 1620, five enslaved Africans, four women and a man, were charged with practicing “diabolical witchcraft.” Siempre Bruja alludes to this history when Carmen visits a black neighborhood during the Festival of Candela and has visions of her persecuted ancestors, but the show doesn’t go much deeper than that.

Angely Gaviria and Lenard Vanderaa star in Netflix’s Siempre Bruja.
A slavery-era romance on Netflix’s Siempre Bruja has upset some fans.
Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix

Siempre Bruja also sidesteps the subject of race in the present completely. Carmen is mostly surrounded by white and mestizo Colombians in the 21st century. She and Daniel (Dubán Andrés Prado), the one black person in her contemporary circle, do not discuss their shared racial heritage, and an indigenous man, Cancahuimacu, serves as a spiritual guide and nothing more. While Afro-Colombians have taken to the streets in recent years to fight racism and demand equal rights in their country, Carmen’s dark skin is never the source of tension in her largely white 2019 environment. If the show gets a second season, it will hopefully improve its handling of race.

But even though Siempre Bruja — like Carmen herself — is an imperfect show, it remains a game changer. It has gifted us with perhaps the most sensational black witch to appear onscreen. As TV shows and films frequently marginalize black witches or exclude them entirely, Siempre Bruja boldly shines the spotlight on black girl magic. Hollywood has yet to produce a black witch as compelling, or commanding, as Carmen Eguiluz.