Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch)
“To put a Disneyfied spin on human trafficking is gross and shameful.”
Title: Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch)
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Ana María Parra 👩🏽🇨🇴 based on the original story by Isidora Chacón 👩🏽🇪🇸
Writers: Ana María Parra 👩🏽🇨🇴 and Isidora Chacón 👩🏽🇪🇸
Directors: Liliana Bocanegra 👩🏽🇨🇴 and Mateo Stivelberg 👨🏽🇨🇴
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
UGH. Eres una decepción, Siempre Bruja. Te odio!
That is my message to Siempre Bruja. We were rooting for you! WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!
With that out of the way, let’s back up a little. In Netflix’s much-anticipated addition to the witchy television trend, seen in reboots like Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or Charmed, Angely Gaviria plays Carmen—an Afro-Latina slave from 17th century Cartagena who gets transported to present day after being burned at the stake for witchcraft. However, despite seeing all of the modern marvels we have in 2019 (including a society that has abolished slavery) she wants to go back to save her master with whom she had fallen in love with.
Gone are all the Black diaspora’s expectations about what a show like this could explore. Gone is our hope to see a powerful Black woman in charge of her own life. Instead, we get a series that celebrates colonialism and slavery to such a degree that our lead, the only Black woman in this main cast, wants to be a slave again. WHAT IS THIS?
The focus on slavery is, of course, extremely problematic. But the the show also feels convoluted and boring. As one can expect from a telenovela, there are tried-and-true dramatic devices such as characters who “die” but come back for whatever reason. But glaringly, the story and character motivations just don’t make sense. If you’re going to offend me, at least be articulate about it.
For example, Carmen never reacts to the future in a believable way. Instead of being confused or afraid of cell phones, she simply looks at them with mild concern. It doesn’t matter what the tech is—cars, hospitals, or the internet—Carmen only ever seems bored by all of the advancements around her. Contrast this to a show like Sleepy Hollow, which went out of its way to show how Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills reacted to being out of their time. Whether it was Ichabod stuck in the 21st century or Abbie in the late 18th century, both expressed believable awe, fear, and confusion. Meanwhile, Carmen’s antipathy shows how the writers don’t care about her inner life. She’s just a passive participant in the events that surround her.
Between the un-engaging story, the simplistic treatment given to Carmen’s characterization, and the heinous interpretation of slavery and race relations, Siempre Bruja just becomes an exercise in lost potential.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test: YES
Carmen is supposed to be the headliner of this show. But instead of taking charge and making her own decisions, she spends her time being reactionary and beholden to men. For example, when she has the opportunity to escape to the future, she doesn’t seize it and improve her life. Instead, she only appears to visit 2019 to run an errand for the warlock Aldemar (Luis Fernando Hoyos). In return, he promises her that she can return home to save her lover, Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa).
Speaking of Cristóbal, it’s so confusing that we’re supposed to like him. He literally bought Carmen at an auction to work in his family’s home. This puts their relationship in a very messed-up place, especially considering how house slaves were often subject to sexual abuse by their masters. Instead of calling it what it is—rape—these masters would give these slaves titles such as “mistress” or “bedwench,” thus institutionalizing their crimes under the guise of consensual pleasure when it was anything but consensual. Siempre Bruja completely muddles that distinction, making Carmen’s love for Cristóbal seem healthy when in reality, because of such lopsided power dynamics, it could never be so.
Overall, it’s painful to see the erasure of slavery’s reality as Carmen and Cristóbal carry on their eyeroll-inducing romance. To put a Disneyfied spin on human trafficking is gross and shameful.
As mentioned above, Colombian actress Gaviria plays the only Black woman in the main cast. Meanwhile, Dubán Andrés Prado, who plays one of Carmen’s modern-day friends Daniel, is the only Black man. Why is there such a lack of Blackness on a show supposedly centered around an Afro-Latina protagonist? Keep in mind, white people are the minority in real-life Cartagena, making up only about 1 in 5 residents. Yet we see an outsized number of white characters in Siempre Bruja.
In her journey, Carmen constantly has to find white people who know more than her, or who are somehow affiliated with magic. Even though Carmen herself can perform helpful magic, she hardly ever uses it except in service to white characters.
This alludes to the main problem with Siempre Bruja overall: It presents Blackness from an uninformed white perspective, rather than from the Afro-Latinx angle so many of us crave.
Even in the modern timeline, racial dynamics are overtly problematic. White characters are written with confidence and vitality whereas Carmen meekly subjugates herself over and over again. For example, to pay for boarding at a hostel, she offers her services to the white owner by saying she can cook, clean, and be a nursemaid to her teenage grandson Johnny Ki (Dylan Fuentes). It never seems to cross Carmen’s mind that she could explore her newfound freedom and choices that would have never been available to her in the past.
Instead of being declarative in stating that slavery was unequivocally bad, Siempre Bruja jumps through hoops to depict slaves and slaveowners coexisting without incident, except for a few burnings at the stake. This fallacy is personified by Cristóbal’s character, the benevolent slave-owner stereotype who treats his slaves like one would treat their family pets. Never is the practice of owning human beings critiqued itself.
Furthermore, when the writers do show the brutalization of slaves, they balk at owning up to the fact that white colonizers were the ones doing it. We’re led to assume that cruel slave-owners like Cristóbal’s father were the exception, not the norm. As for the stake burnings, those were perpetrated by some amorphous, minority group of politicians and clergy rather than a societal crime enabled by the general white populace.
There is one small bright spot, however. During one of the episodes, Carmen and her friends go on a field trip to a marine conservatory where they meet Kankawimaku (Nelson Camayo), an indigenous conservatory leader who speaks on the importance of preserving aquatic life. But he only appears for about five minutes, and we never see any of Colombia’s other minority groups again. Thanks to this microscopic representation, Kankawimaku comes off as a tokenized spiritual guide and doesn’t actually add to the inclusiveness of Siempre Bruja.
Carmen’s friend Daniel constitutes the only queer character on Siempre Bruja. His backstory is neither negative nor positive for representation; he’s just a college-aged kid who feels incomplete because he doesn’t know the whereabouts of his former love, who also happens to be male. Since it hasn’t been made clear if this subplot ties into the larger story, I found it difficult to care about its outcome.
Despite that, Daniel’s character proves one of the better parts of Siempre Bruja. As a confident Black man who never falls into gay stereotypes, he’s a small mercy for a show that has otherwise stereotyped Blackness to the fullest extent.
Mediaversity Grade: F 1.38/5
On the one hand, the show does make space for Afro-Latinx actors just by existing. But overwhelmingly, it represents a lost opportunity.
Siempre Bruja could have expanded roles for Black women in science-fiction and fantasy; it could have diversified the genre of telenovelas by showcasing an Afro-Latinx storyline; and with colorism and racism still rampant in Latin America, Siempre Bruja could have been a game changer. Unfortunately, all of this hinged on the show’s ability to tell Black stories. Instead, Siempre Bruja merely approximates them from a white perspective.