Editor’s note: Today’s offering comes from Sandra Santiago-Pickett, a second-generation Puerto Rican and a practitioner of Santeria and Palo Mayombe who lives in Chicago. This column is part of our Spotlight on Traditions series, which invites authors from diverse Pagan paths to share their traditions with our readership.
The smell of copal wafts through the dark room. One white candle flickers in the darkness. Alongside it are several glasses of water, a bouquet of white carnations, and pictures of loved ones who have passed on. Statues of Catholic saints and African deities, along with a cup of coffee, sit atop a table with a white laced tablecloth.
This is one type of altar some might use in their spiritual work; some might call this “Brujeria.”
The meaning of the Spanish word Brujeria is “Witchcraft.” The practitioners of this spiritual practice are Brujas (female), Brujos (male), or Brujix (genderqueer). Modern Brujeria is, in its essence, magic that is a blend of folklore, herbalism, African and Latin American magic and healing, and Catholicism. It usually involves charms, divination, love spells and hexes.
The historical significance of Brujeria goes back to the early 15th century, before indigenous African and indigenous Latin American communities were colonized by the Europeans. Stories that are passed on from that time are filled with depictions of people, mostly women, who are portrayed as evil witches who inflict misfortune, illness, and can destroy relationships, luck, and life. This perspective came from the vilification of any non-Abrahamic spiritual practice carried out by women.
Indigenous, African, and racially mixed women (Indo-Mestizas/Afro-Mestizas) were, by virtue of being female, considered inherently evil and dangerous. These women resisted at a time when colonizers wanted to wipe away their way of life, sexuality, spirituality, and leadership. The fear that they were likely to cause a rebellion with their magical powers loomed, and so these women were made an example of how not to be.
Within the past few years, a movement has developed where many people of color are reshaping the perception of what it means to be a Brujo or Bruja and acknowledge Brujeria’s powerful legacy. This affirmation of the term is a rediscovery, and a homecoming of sorts, in the ability to find power in the spiritual wisdom of their ancestors.
This renewed interest in Brujeria can be linked to the rise of modern feminism and the historical exclusion of women of color within this movement. The idea of “La Bruja” aligns more with the Womanist movement than mainstream feminism, Womanism focusing more on the lives and stories of women of color, especially Black women. According to the scholar Layli Maparyan, Womanism seeks to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcile human life with the spiritual dimension.”
When I started this path, I was not aware of the socio-political implications of my practice. I was simply looking for “more” in spirituality. Buying into the paradigm put forth by Eurocentric constructs, I was taught that people who practiced Witchcraft, Santeria, or anything other than Christianity were dark and invoked energies I did not need nor want. I treaded with caution around the pentacle symbol, the five points on the star that represent fire, water, air, earth and spirit, or around anything that was related to non-Christian practices. However, I was also intrigued by these things. It was not until my adult years, when I had to undergo major surgery, that I came into Santeria.
I do not necessarily identify as a “Bruja,” although many within the Latinx community will call my practices of Palo Mayombe, Lukumi, and Espiritismo “Brujeria” because, as previously stated, my practices are non-Abrahamic. Also, as an Espiritista (practitioner of Spiritism in the tradition of Alan Kardec, as brought to Puerto Rico via the elite who traveled to and from Europe), ancestor veneration and the ways of connecting to spirit are a powerful gift. The ability to access the supernatural world is also a practice that gets the side eye. As an Afro-Latinx person, my choosing to return to the ancient ways of connecting to the universe has been an act of defiance.
These alternative forms of ancestral practices are rooted in the empowerment of the marginalized. Indigenous practices are no longer hidden because they help in the reclamation of power. This world of mysticism belongs to those who are so often excluded from traditional religions that marginalize its parishioners. Practitioners of ancestral spiritualities are symbols of power outside the parameters of the status quo where patriarchy, via “Machismo,” misogyny, and homophobia, exist.
We also challenge existing social constructs. Engaging in ancestral spiritual practices is an act of decolonizing one’s spirit from patriarchal and western world values. It heals historical trauma. Brujeria and similar traditions reconnect practitioners to the vibrant strengths of their ancestry and culture, helping people process the embedded pain created by colonization. This allows for the creation of new historical narratives. In this context, Brujeria and other indigenous ancestral practices become revolutionary.
I am a practitioner of two separate diasporic African Traditional Religions (ATR) – Palo Mayombe and Lukumi. They are different practices, although they both stem from Africa. Palo Mayombe is a religion that evolved in Cuba out of the native religious practices of the Bakongo (commonly called Congo) speaking people of Africa. To contrast, Lukumi, or Santeria, evolved in Cuba out of the traditional religious practices of the various nations who are now within modern-day Nigeria and Benin, among them the Yoruba.
Palo and the many traditional forms of West African religious systems were in direct opposition from one another. To be clear, one is not better than the other – they are two different branches from the same tree. They are two distinct systems with two separate cosmologies. Initiation in either religion can only be determined through their respective divination systems. It is not correct to assume that someone will be initiated in both or either religion. If a person’s destiny, as revealed through divination, is one where they will only participate in Palo, that is perfectly acceptable and traditional. Similarly if a person’s destiny, as revealed through divination, only requires them to be made a priest in Santeria through the Kariocha (“Ocha”) initiation, then that is what needs to be done. One does not automatically lead to the other.
The process of becoming who and what I am has not been easy. The beautiful part of these practices is that becoming a Palera, then later making Ocha and becoming a priestess of my orisha, has given me perspective and an understanding of my purpose in the universe. Going through the varying ceremonies is not the end all, as some would believe it to be. These ceremonies have been the beginning of the rest of my life. Particularly for me, Ocha designated who I am and who I will end up being.
This ceremony was a yearlong initiation, not only into the mysteries of the Orisha, but into the mystery of my own self. The mirror was held up to my existence. The regulations of the initiation year (called Iyaworaje) pushed and pulled at me. As mortal beings, there are things we believe we need. During that year, something shifted; I began experiencing the world with new eyes. It became a new reality, one in which society’s perspectives of “needs and wants” did not always coincide with Ifa’s tenets of Iwa Pele. Iwa Pele is not just the tenets of what it means to have good character, but the development of the understanding of the symbiotic relationship of us with universe as a whole; they are the reflections on principles given to us by nature, elders, the Orisha, and the supreme god of the tradition.
As practitioners of Lukumi, we love the orisha. However, the intimate relationship that is developed between the Orisha and the self, the trials of life, and the tests of faith that push one to the edge are indescribable. Every day becomes a lesson in faith. Every breath is testament to the presence of the living word that is Odu, that is, the 256 signs that comprise the Ifa corpus. I have the Orisha and egungun (ancestor spirits) in and around me to help navigate this journey. It is a journey I am blessed to undertake.