Breaking Down la Brujería: Is it that Dark?

Breaking Down la Brujería: Is it that Dark?

Written by Caroline Gracia

Image by Fran Mckenzie

Growing up I was fascinated by my dad’s tales about Colombia in the 70s and 80s. He would share with us stories about old folklore and urban legends. My dad, a firm believer of the unknown, contrasts my mom, who I see as an unyielding follower of facts. I am a combination of the two; the extensive discussions with my parents at dinner, coupled with my dual mindset, are the sources of my quest to understand the roots and origins of Colombian brujería.

Firstly, Colombian brujería and curanderismo have evolved from globalization; the ancient practices have been influenced by the stylistic elements of Voodooism and Christianity. Voodooism emerged as a fusion blended with Christian and Muslim elements by which survivors-turned-slaves rebelled against the imperial Spanish empire. Haitian migration into Colombia began in a timely manner at the dawn of Gran Colombia’s entrance into the political realm in the mid-nineteenth century (by virtue of the Haitian-Gran Colombian War). From voodooism and the actions of European missionaries developed an evolved Incan tradition of brujería and el curanderismo.

Additionally, the work of curanderos is based on the medicinal properties of many herbs. Brujas are spiritual practitioners that specialize in extrasensory perception. The first manifestation of la brujería in Incan tradition was issued by Spanish author, Polo de Ondegardo, in the 15th century. The negative stereotype with which la brujería is branded first stemmed from European (particularly Spanish) accounts of indigenous tradition. A classic fusion of the 15th-century European witch hunt and an ensuing, cinematic dark image of the witch envisioned Andean sorcerers to be elderly women who were able to shape-shift and fly. 

Today, the concept of la brujería appears to the unaccustomed outsider to be a taboo and dark practice. It is often thrust into the same category as man-made dark magic practices such as the Ouija Board. It is a hush-hush topic that is often met with gasps when it is brought up at the table. The popular image of witch folklore may connote a sickly-looking person accompanied by black cats, who may even be a part of a satanic ritual-practicing cult.

Despite the influence it retains, la brujería in Colombia is an independent entity from the Catholic Church. Recent associations with Satanism have forcefully driven the practice to modernize and adapt itself to quell the threat of erasure (as the majority of indigenous practices have suffered).

Furthermore, la brujeria’s reputation as an urban legend motivated the Colombian Institute of Anthropology in Bogotá to conduct a study on the topics of bruja/curandero practitioners and their patients in the late 1970s. The study was qualitative since a concept so subjective cannot be easily quantified into a data set. Reflecting prevalent prejudices against those who frequent brujas, the subjects that were selected were patients of mental hospitals. Those patients were perceived to have been afflicted with witchcraft as a psychiatric disorder; this involvement then secured their spot in the psychiatric ward.

In the 1980s, Colombia experienced an era in which annual visits to la bruja or el curandero were table-talk and commonplace. There existed a strong referral system that would allow practitioners to establish their prestige in a given community. This also solidified the tightly knit teacher-apprenticeship relationship by which new curanderos and brujas would establish themselves. However, la bruja or el curandero was never named, and appointments were socially covered up.

Recently, my dad and I revisited his experiences with las brujas and los curanderos.  His visits with the infamous, community bruja began at the ripe age of 12 with his mother. My grandma’s intention was to see if her husband was loyal to her at the time. La bruja’s technique was built off of reading tarot cards and the telling ashes from a cigar she smoked. (Picture a magic ball; the cigar’s ashes are a fundamental aspect of the art of extrasensory perception). From the cards’ messages and the burning ashes, the woman was able to deduce that his dad had a mistress who was my grandma’s best friend. She claimed to see where he was and when he would return to the family; all of these predictions held true. 

Moreover, it was typical in the Caleño community to visit her for assurance regarding your partner’s loyalty or to obtain a love potion; she would either mend marriages or break them.  

However, visits were not limited to the topic of romantic ventures; clients would often find themselves asking if anyone was doing harm unto them. As such, the bruja’s line of work was also to ensure good fortune and a fruitful future. 

Later on, when my dad had matured, he revisited la bruja with my grandpa. Their intentions were the same: they were there for the promise of good luck. She individually instructed them to undress and bathe in holy water, she then proceeded to spray him with an unknown mist. Once my dad was in his respective room, he was told to raise his arms; the elderly woman gathered branches that lightly danced around the body. She directed incense around him and sang a hymn under her breath; once this was done, she wished for and predicted his future success. Las brujas are devout believers in karma: my dad was told that karma would be done unto anyone who dared harm him. He parted ways with a perfume to be worn always, a charm to forever keep in his wallet and a figure for his future children which would ward off the evil eye. 

On the same note, the practice is often thought to inflict harm on others; this is true as brujas can cast and dispel curses. My aunt visited the same bruja as she was under the impression that the course of her life was being meddled with; she had been divorced three times. The bruja revealed to her that harm was indeed being done; a voodoo practitioner had buried a doll of her. This was her explanation for her failed marriages. Although they are familiar with Voodooism, Colombian brujas are not Voodooist practitioners: they are not involved in building and distributing dolls from which curses may be made.

You couldn’t have any doubt. She would notice it. If you move your eyes if you are distracted; she would notice it and she would tell you the session is over.

Importantly, what was fundamental to the bruja’s practice was for the client to believe in the success of her curative powers. If there was any hesitation she would detect it almost instantly. The session would promptly be cut short for wasting her time.

My dad insists that las brujas look like everyone else. 

Whilst citing prayers and mumbling hymns, la bruja is donned in normal clothing. She works from home and her visitors form a queue on her porch. She recites from her book of incantations. She may pray to Christianity’s Saint Michael, who protects one from enemies and wards off evil spirits. Her appearance is not as romanticized as old folklore may predict. Central to her practice is her rosary and cigars that she may light; the resulting ashes could depict any names, faces, or objects that may comprise her prophecy. Cigar ashes and tarot cards inquired about success in health and love. Holy water, which is bathed in, assured the client would be surrounded by good and moral people in the coming days. Her mystical branches protect against los espiritus malos de su cuerpo, inhibiting any potential for betrayal.

Lastly, although the practices in seeing la bruja have waned in recent years, the practice is very much alive in Buenaventura, Colombia, once considered to be the country’s deadliest city. An ironic relationship built on protectorship exists between Narco commanders and las brujas: those whose work has destroyed lives seek redemption from unending evil from what some consider to be the “antichrist” (las brujas). Narco commanders visit brujas to protect their name: one such ritual involves unearthing their murdered victim’s body and burning it; the victim’s fingers and toes are tied together while the killer’s name is written and placed in the corpse’s mouth. This is to reverse any curse that may have been wrought on the killer for being a murderer. Las brujas are intimately involved with the Narco network in other ways, as well. Some offer specialties to meet the gang’s needs, from workings on absolution to other rituals involving murder.

Overall, the general picture has changed. What was once a communally celebrated activity is now a telltale sign of urbanization. La brujería and curanderismo are more often practiced in rural Colombia; there no longer exists a robust belief in folk remedies and spiritualism. The practice now appears to reside more on the screen than it does in real life: in 2019, Netflix released a series about the history of Colombia’s brujería. While it may be debated whether the new show romanticizes the practice, it was recently renewed for a second season. La brujería has unwittingly made a comeback since being deemed a taboo topic: its recurring presence in pop culture has captivated the eyes of the public.

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