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Decolonizing Brujeria: The Gestures of Spiritual Indigenous Practices A presentation by Anthony Ayala

How can gestures performed during spiritual rituals of brujxs decolonize the negative perception of indigenous spiritual practices?

The bruja's botanica in Sonora, Mexico, has an abundance of altar supplies and spiritual items for practicing brujxs (photo courtesy of Alia Phibes).
A bruja tends to her shop at a botanica in Sonora, Mexico.

Abstract: I will analyze the ways in which brujeria can share distinct similarities in practice through gestures, which link them as precursors to the common adopted practices of dominant faiths such as sects of Christianity. Furthermore, there are common gestures that are universally understood as “spiritual” which include closing the eyes, taking a knee (or two), and clasping hands together when praying, burning incense or candles during a spiritual working, facing an altar usually placed in the center of a space, verbal expression such as chanting, humming, whispering, singing, or word spoken out loud, the use of water for spiritual cleansing purposes, and even the sign of the cross. Ultimately, my goal is to demystify and debunk the negative connotations surrounding brujeria by arguing that the reason for the condemnation of these practices is entirely due to colonialism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, all of which are institutions of whiteness and imperialism; two of the most historically prominent foundations of Christianity. This is by linking the clear fact that most common spiritual gestures found in brujeria are also found in modern spiritual practices of Christianity. This further validates the point that many gestures utilized during Judeo-Christian-based spiritual rituals are rooted in similar gestures practiced by people of marginalized faiths. This refers to a humble truth that since most spiritual gestures are universally shared and utilized, the only reason for the continuous condemnation of indigenous practices such as brujeria is entirely due to the constructions of sexism, racism, homophobia and the byproduct of colonialism. I plan to analyze this focus of study through viewing the spiritual rituals of brujxs and analyzing the gestures I make during my own spiritual workings and rituals as a brujx myself, documenting them for comparison and reflection.

Depictions of the Virgin Mary depicted by Catholics compared to depictions of Holy Death by Brujxs

The mere utterance of the word “brujeria” is enough to give any spiritual, religious, or superstitious person a chill down their spine. However, this was not always the case. Long before the colonization of Mexico and other parts of Latin America by the Spanish, indigenous spiritual practices such as latinx witchcraft or “brujeria” reigned supreme over the land and were embraced by the communities as normalized expressions of spirituality. However, due to Mexico’s colonization by the Spanish (who largely held ideas of whiteness, sexism, racism, and homophobia), the suppression of these practices took place and began to flourish into the negative perceptions which surround brujeria today. Furthermore, the oppression of those who practiced these spiritual forms of expression quickly became a rampant force of power used to target women, poor people, queer people, and people of color. However, despite the scrutiny of brujeria and its implications, the gestures performed during spiritual workings are relatively similar (if not identical) to the gestures utilized in dominant judeo-christian beliefs such as Catholicism. This points to the revelation that since most contemporary spiritual gestures are universally shared and utilized, the only reason for the continuous condemnation of indigenous practices such as brujeria is entirely due to the constructions of sexism, racism, homophobia and the byproduct of colonialism.

A cemetery on Dia De Los Muertos, one of the most important celebrations for brujxs and latinx witches who view death as a part of spiritual life
Brujxs gather at the altars of folk saint, La Santa Muerte (Holy Death) in prayer. Also pictured: brujxs kneel in front of an ofrenda to honor their ancestors and deceased loved ones, a Mexican tradition
The pentacle is a sacred and ancient transnational symbol of witchcraft- depicting the elements of Water, Fire, Earth, Air, and Spirit; the elements invoked during spellwork and other magickal rites.

This is especially prominent within spiritual brujx communities which engage in the worship of Mexican folk saint, La Santa Muerte or “Holy Death”. Since the worship of La Santa Muerte is condemned by the official Roman Catholic Church as a “degeneration of religion”, many brujxs are targeted for their indigenous beliefs in the folk saint (Lorentzen). This is primarily due to La Santa Muerte being a folk saint who is worshipped and celebrated by the poor, women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ identifying people, all of whom live outside the margins of the dominant power structure and its extension of power and control through reinforced institutionalized religion. Institutionalized religion, a byproduct of Spanish colonialism, has since become rooted in mexican culture and the latinx identity, thus reinforcing the alienation and oppression of marginalized communities who continue to practice indigenous forms of spirituality, while upholding attitudes of heteronormativity, superiority, and catholic-induced moral righteousness. This in turn demonizes Santa Muerte worship as a bastardization of Catholicism and specifically refers to its followers and practitioners as lost and ignorant, labels that are continuously perpetuated to address their identities as women, people of color, and queer people, as “other” or contrary to the moral design of god and humankind. Moreover, the negative accusations regarding Santa Muerte as a “narco saint” who is only worshipped by drug dealers, criminals, and other forms of perceived flawed morality, only serve to oppress and disenfranchise the poor and those who do not abide by the traditional gateways of income expected by neo-liberal participation. It also further encourages the idea that La Santa Muerte is only worshipped and celebrated by abominable people and therefore must be an enemy of the state, the church, and the people. This denies mexican witches and other latinx-identifying brujxs the chance to venerate the folk saint of death without receiving additional backlash from their surrounding religious communities respectively, as well as an assumption that their practices are to be feared and condemned. Through the denial of their spiritual expression, brujxs are then forced to exercise their traditions and practices in secrecy, even furthering the idea that their spiritual practices are somehow dark and ill intentioned. However, the irony of it all is that not only do many brujxs and devotees of La Santa Muerte utilize similar or even identical methods of spiritual gestures used by their oppressors to venerate the folk saint, but many of them also identify as Catholics as well, shattering the idea that brujxs are satanic or inherently anti-religious.

A Santa Muerte devotee prays to his patron saint
a standard altar for practicing brujxs incorporates multiple spiritual items and elements of various significances.
Thousands march to the altar of La Santa Muerte in Mexico City

In fact, “Rituals, prayers, masses, altars, prayers, rosaries to Santa Muerte are nearly identical to standard Catholic practice” and “The worship of Santa Muerte poses no problems or contradictions for her Catholic followers“ (Lorentzen 1). Furthermore, the video Worshipping At The Altar of Saint Death (2009), depicts thousands of people gathering around a house in Mexico City to show their devotion, love, and appreciation for La Santa Muerte (also known as La Santisima Muerte, La Flakita, La Nina Blanca, or Holy Death) the folk saint of death and the dead in Mexican folk origin and belief, at the altar of Santa Muerte. They perform the sign of the cross, touch the statue, and present offerings such as flowers, fruit, alcohol, tobacco, money, and personal possessions to show their gratitude and invoke the spirit of La Santa Muerte. Some people get on their hands and knees, face the altar, and pray with intention, petitioning for a favor or wish. Others light candles and incense, stand in front of the altar, join hands, close their eyes, and pray to Santa Muerte out loud. Brujxs kneel at the altar and thank La Santa Muerte for working with them. Images and statues of Holy Death flood the property and surround the brujxs and devotees as they continue their spiritual working. This once again illustrates that the only difference between brujxs and (even Catholics) venerating Santa Muerte compared to their strict Roman Catholic counterparts, is that they are overwhelmingly communities comprised of marginalized people and incorporate a folk saint born out of indigenous beliefs and folklore into their daily spiritual practices. This would not be a radical issue if Santa Muerte simply symbolized the passiveness, purity, and chastity of the virgin Mary, a saint encouraged by the catholic church’s favorability of heteronormativity and sexism. However, since Santa Muerte is the ultimate spiritual icon for marginalized people such as brujxs who are largely women, poor people, people of color, and queer people, the narrative shifts towards a tale of impurity, tainted by the identities of the practitioners. This is supported by the fact that many LGBTQ+ people (especially trans women) are devout followers of La Santa Muerte and brujxs who turned their back on the Roman Catholic Church after experiencing discrimination, rejection, and neglect. Since LGBTQ+ identity and queerness oppose the dominant power structure of the heteromajorative, it paints queer brujxs as clear targets for violence, abuse, and discrimination. Due to this, LGBTQ+ followers in Mexico often look to Santa Muerte “..for protection from violence, given their status as social outcasts…” (Lorentzen).

Arely Vazquez, a latinx trans woman, Mexican immigrant, and Santa Muerte devotee, poses in front of her beloved altar in Queens, New York City (Photo by Dr. Andrew Chestnut, professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University)
Herbal potions and remedies combined with candle magick is a classic brujx practice of curandismo, natural healing through energy, magick, herbs, and the earth.

Despite there being hardly any distinct differences between the gestures used by brujxs during Santa Muerte worship and standard or common Roman Catholic spiritual rituals, the stigmatization of brujeria remains rooted in the perceptions of society at large due to the identities of brujxs themselves. Although “... Latin American Catholicism’s historic ability to merge indigenous traditions with Catholic doctrines..” is a resonant aspect of spirituality in Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and latinx communities in the United States of America, the persecution of brujxs remains a contemporary issue simply due to the lingering effects of colonialism and the heteronormative, neo-liberal, racist, and sexist ideologies that poisoned native latinx spirituality (Lomax). In order to move forward as a collective, it is crucial to question why societal norms such as the negative perceptions surrounding brujeria become established in the first place. Chances are, they are nothing but a bunch of white colonial hocus pocus.

La Santa Muerte Negra, Blanca, and Roja, the 3 cloaks of La Santa Muerte used for different purposes (Black- Hexing/Cursing, protection from negative energy) (White- All Purpose, miracles, blessings, angel guidance) (Red- Love/Lust, matters of the heart such as revenge, anger, love, lust, sexuality, etc.)
A Mexican brujo holding the money votive of Nina Blanca, the white-cloaked version of Santa Muerte
A full image of La Santa Muerte in her patron saint depiction
Don't ever forget your own magick, witches! Witches will always be the wisest and most trusted of their spiritual communities. Witches have a gift to heal the world and those who inhabit it!

Works Cited

Lomax, John Loma. 2012. “Santa Muerte: Patron Saint of the Drug War.” Houston Press, 12 September. Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

Lorentzen, Ann Lois. “Santa Muerte: Saint of the Dispossessed, Enemy of Church and State”. University of San Francisco, Hemispheric Institute, Accessed 12 Nov. 2019.

SBS Australia. “Worshipping At The Altar of Saint Death (2009)”. YouTube, uploaded by Journeyman Pictures, 7 Sep. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ssI96kBTQF4

Reflection

Throughout the writing, creation, and presentation process of my project, I have experienced humbling realizations about myself as a potential change-maker in academia. The idea to base my project on Brujeria and its origin in spiritual indigenous practices, was directly inspired by my own spiritual journey as a brujx myself. I knew it was crucial to present something meaningful and thought-provoking; something that was possibly jarring to the public eye but an authentic representation of myself as a witch. However, there were some challenges that came with presenting such an obscure topic such as Mexican witchcraft. I began with presenting images that were real and captured the complexities of witchcraft but battled with trying to make it palatable enough for an audience that was generally uneasy about the idea of witchcraft. I also had to keep in mind that for many people, this was potentially their first time being shown actual depictions of witchcraft and would be a possibly new and overwhelming experience. With that in mind, I proceeded to connect the gestures performed in brujeria to Catholicism in an effort to normalize and create a sense of unity with spiritual practices and beliefs. This was to illustrate that the underlying condemnation of brujeria was due to the effects of colonialism and that since both sectors of spirituality focused on shared universal spiritual gestures such as praying, lighting candles or incense, and generating a saint or deity, the disparities between them were all too minor to suggest that the rift between the two spiritualities lied simply in their differences as practices. Instead, the negative perceptions about brujeria perpetuated by institutionalized religion were due to racism, sexism, homophobia, and classicism that religions like Catholicism often produce as a result of its origins in colonialism and the structures of whiteness, capitalism, and imperialism. Overall, though I had strayed from my original idea to analyze gestures performed in both brujeria and Vodou as well, I think the emphasis on the relationship specifically between Brujeria and institutionalized religion made for a far more interesting topic of conversation and allowed many students who identify with religion to feel connected to the concepts discussed in my essay and presentation. Ultimately, it felt genuine to share a piece of my identity as a brujx/witch with an academic setting rooted in celebrating identity and analyzing the way it functions in American society.

Pictured is my altar: My very own Santa Muerte statue (from Mexico City, Mexico) and votive candle (from New Orleans, Louisiana) with an offering of a bouqet of dead roses. I also have a few other items on my altar in offering and dedication to her which are not pictured (such as Santa Muerte incense from a botanica, a chunk of smoky quartz and rose quartz crystals, a small white crystal skull, and an amethyst pendulum used only to communicate with her directly). She is a powerful presence on my altar and in my life. She guides almost all of the work I do as a witch/brujx and our connection is largely due to my Mexican and indigenous ancestry, as well as my queer identity. She truly is such an integral part of my spirituality and practice. Mi Patrona!