Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Curandero, Brujo, Witch, & Wiccan: Conflation & Defamation

While reading through the discussion board of an online Curanderismo class I'm taking offered by the University of New Mexico, I came across a thought provoking thread on the terms 'Witch' and 'Brujo' in relation to the healing practices of Mexico and other indigenous people's of the Americas. There were many good points on both sides and passions ran high.  It began when one of the instructors, who self identifies as a Curandera, separated herself from 'witchcraft' and 'brujas'.  She told of how as a spiritual and herbal healer she had been called a 'puta' (equivalent to English bitch, slut, or whore) and a 'bruja' (witch, sorceress).  She was visibly uncomfortable and strongly asserted she is not these things.  As this is an extremely large online class open to students around the world, there of course are those who practice various modern Witchcraft, Shamanic, and Pagan religions. Some took offense.  I know I was a bit put off but was willing to listen and consider. The thread ran in many tangents. Some claimed all herbal and energetic workers were Witches and that all terms that could be translated as 'witch' needed to be reclaimed for positive uses. Other felt all 'witches' were Satanic. There was plenty of misinformation about the various African Diaspora Traditions and synchretic Catholic elements.  There were well founded requests for European descended practitioners to respect indigenous definitions of their own terms and to avoid conflating them with modern Wiccan understandings. I had this creeping sensation that all the lines we draw in the sand are so temporary and not worth drawing blood over...  One aspect of stepping into another culture to learn is setting aside your own cultural assumptions and really listen with fresh eyes and ears.  The cross comparisons, the conflation and appropriation, the act of labeling others and ourselves- this is not why we are here but seems like such an ubiquitous human impulse.

Before going any further with my discussion I would like to deeply thank the Elders and Teachers in the Curanderismo class who have taken the effort to open their traditions to outsiders.  It is unprecedented and a true gift. Their efforts to create a form of wholistic health combining modern Western medicine with traditional herbal knowledge and techniques takes its cue from the success of Chinese medicine which has done the same on a very large scale.  We saw that many Curanderos are using elements of Chinese medicine within their own practices. In fact, the Mayan's had their own ancient form of fire cupping and scraping similar to Chinese cupping and gua sha and so these elements meld easily.  This approach has been refreshing after listening to rants about cultural, magickal, and racial purity. A distinct tradition exists but if it is living and breathing, it grows, adapts, and overcomes. The class has just been a joy to take.

Curanderismo class website:
The specific thread in question:

So my response to the instructor's comment, the original thread poster's question, and all the bugaloo following:  I was initially really astounded by the instructor's aggressive attitude toward being called a 'bruja'. The open distaste as she spat out the word bothered me. But it demonstrated that she, like the majority of other Hispanic and Native people, agrees with the definition of brujo as evil.  So what is this 'evil' that brujos are supposedly doing, that Curanderos are separating themselves from?  I know Curanderos who do blocking, binding, removal, and send back work- all defensive and occasionally offensive movements of energy. I also know many who will give spells to help criminals be invisible, help to steal other people's spouses, to get your boss fired, etc. You can walk into any of the 20 + botanicas in my city and ask for this.  Those all could be defined as negative workings. The difference between a Curandero & a Brujo is really semantics. The Brujos I know locally laugh at it. Still I'm very cautious with any attempt as an outsider to reclaim the word 'brujo' for 'good'. I know workers within the cultural context who are and that is their struggle. However, I think as a student I have a legitimate complaint. Any teacher in this course must know on some level that within the hundreds of online students taking it, some herbalist or spiritual worker will be identifying themselves as 'witch'. Why alienate them by singling out that word in your introduction video?

I am a working Witch. I provide services, ritual art, and hand made organic herbal goods for both spiritual and physical cleansing. This is both my Spiritual Path and how I make a modest living. I actually do a lot of work on trade. I have strong personal ethical code and have turned down negative work on many occasions. No breaking marriages and no spirits in bottles. I do believe any worker has the right to defend themselves and their clients, which may manifest as either defensive (blocking and removing what has already been sent) or offensive (reaching out to bind one from doing harm or sending that ugly energy back to it's source).

I have multiple forms of praxis but am largely informed by Southern style Conjure and Traditional Witchcraft, Hedge and Sabbatic varieties.  The healing energy in plants, both genuinely therapeutic and the imbued anima, are my main form of expression. Taking the Curanderismo course has expanded my knowledge of the physically therapeutic aspect of native plants in my region of the Southwest.  I do plan to continue in my herbal studies after completing this course.

The majority of my clients are Hispanic Catholics.  I have a few regular Caucasian Pagan and Protestant African American clients as well.  I respect the very different views that each of these populations comes to me with.  I use 'Witch' regardless of the cultural baggage associated with it bc it best describes what I do- I 'see' (Witta- witness, witty, wisdom) and I 'bend' (Wicca- wicker, wicked, whittle).  My work is fairly shamanic but I don't refer to myself with that term (it has it's own special baggage centered around cultural appropriation and the New Age). Hispanic people will often ask if I am a 'white witch' or a 'bruja'.  I do not work in distinct fields of black or white- energy is like water in Nature, both destructive and creative, killing us in floods or feeding us with rain on our seeds.  I usually say I am a 'Green Witch' meaning a natural Witch.  I've had people seek my services but still insist I'm going to hell.  That is their cultural perception, not mine.

I did have one run in with local members of a biker club, which will remain unnamed.  They had wanted the same flea market stall I was in but I had offered the rent first that morning.  I was warned by nearby merchants to be careful. 4 large members of the local chapter walked by a few times then came in gruffly asking who I was and what I was doing in that stall.  I told them I was a Witch and discussed a bit of what I sold. One of the guys looked at the others and said 'Bruja'. They left without saying anything else. Later that week my brother got a call from a friend of his who is a club member.  He was freaking out about the whole thing, very concerned for me. He couldn't believe I was 'the Witch' because he had been over at our house for dinner a few times and it was never mentioned.  Our house looks like a very good Catholic home downstairs- my private world is upstairs.

Both the words 'Bruja' and 'Witch' have real power in Hispanic culture. This is much more than just wearing fairy jewelry and flitting around festivals in your sparkles. This can lead to ostracism, people not doing business with or renting to you, job loss, unfriendly neighbors, death threats- there is a real level of fear and willingness to take action against perceived magickal threats that most Caucasian Wiccans will never have to face. There are also strong associations between witchcraft and the violence of drug cartels.  I've had to talk to my mom about publicly outing me at local Bar-B-Q's and adverting my services at her work place. While she is just proud to have a daughter that is different and a family that is progressively respectful of diverse religions, how the word 'witch' sounds on our Hispanic neighbor's, in-laws, and coworker's ears is not to be underestimated. It's one thing to whip up a batch of green rice for ladies playing bingo. It's an entirely different playing field when they come over with a cow tongue and jar of nails to deal with their gossipy coworker.  I don't want my mom associated with any of that or be targeted by fearful people. The majority of people we live and work with are Hispanic. I've married into a Mexican American family. We have to respect these beliefs. In another incident, I was stopped from drinking out of my cup at work one night because a security guard saw a coworker put powder in it when I stepped away.  She wrongly felt I had worked against her and consulted a local Brujo on how to 'destroy me'.  Such an ugly cycle to get caught in. Needless to say, I dealt with it successfully and she is out of my life.  I think this is the type of negativity and fear that the instructor of the Curandero course was trying to separate herself from.  In that regard, I completely understand.
Interestingly, I have some of the loveliest Brujo friends. Very wonderful people. They have claimed the word for themselves and also accept the English word Witch.  These are Spanish speaking Mexicans living in the US. They barely speak English- my point being I'm not sure there is a case to be made that they are influenced by European varieties of Wicca and Caucasian reclamations of the word 'witch'.  Between my conversations with them as well as a few other Brujeros online, they feel that they are doing much the same work as Curanderos.  When I asked what the difference is they say that there really isn't much, just a perception by outsiders of 'good' or 'bad'. They discussed Curanderos who do take on defensive and offensive work beyond merely healing. They also rejected the notion that a brujo is essentially 'evil'.

This does not deny the fact that there are many Hispanic followers of the new religion 'Wicca', which came to the Americas in the 1950's via various British authors.  Some of these folks do equate a Brujo with a "Wiccano".  Many of the popular mainstream Wiccan books being pumped out by Llewellyn are now translated into Spanish and readily available.  There are also many pulp pamphlets and booklets in the botanicas containing a mix of Catholic folk magick, Hoodoo, and Granny Magick. These do not contain a shred of Wiccan elements.  Any resemblance between them is the result of both groups drawing from Ceremonial Magick; hence the sigils, pentacles, and zodiac. Wicca of course completely leaves out the psalms and other Abrahamic elements.  I would argue that while traditional Brujeria is from a totally different cultural base than European derived Wicca, there is a growing trend blurring these lines.  That sounds like a fantastic thesis on synchretic new religious movements for some young grad student.

Here is one example of a psychic site equating the two systems.
Here is Spanish Wiccan shop offering "produtos e artigos Wiccanos"

Here is a Bruherio book, how much Wiccan influence it has, I'm not sure but I will try and get a copy to see if this is so.  The description: "El presente manual ofrece a lector una variada y sencilla selección de fórmulas, conjuros, hechizos y encantamientos, para lograr los más diversos objectivos a través de los enormes poderes de la brujería: Cómo curar y evitar enfermedades, cómo alcanzar el amor, cómo obtener trabajo, Qué hacer para tener buena suerte, cómo alejar a personas indeseables, que hacer para librarse de maldiciones, salaciones, envidias y mal de ojo."

This is my quick translation, forgive any glaring mistakes- my Spanish needs some work! "The present manual offers a lecture of various selections of formulas, conjurations, and enchantments for diverse objectives largely used by the brujeria. How to cure and evict sickness, how to draw love, how to obtain a job. How to make good luck, how to make a person __?, and how to free from maledictions (curses), gossip, envy, and evil eye".

This site combines the author's interests in both Mexican Brujeria and American Conjure and Hoodoo traditions.  The folk magick elements & Christian veneer in Southern Conjure are probably much closer to brujeria ways than Neo-Paganism and Wicca.

In the Daily Wicca blog, there is a vague attempt to understand Brujeria on its own terms.  Many eclectic Wiccans will probably be fascinated by this new 'exotic' element to add flavor to their rituals, completely oblivious to the offense taken by such outside appropriation. I would suggest that if you are going to call yourself such, you should be studying under a true Elder in the tradition.

I have also come across very ignorant but well meaning Wiccans who used 'brujo/a' to refer to themselves.  The first time was at a Samhain costume party in Ohio. I wasn't sure what her point was beyond 'all witches of the world must unite' but I was pretty sure that the term she was using was not appropriate for her. Still I kept it to myself.  Years later I made my way back home to Texas and ran into someone wearing a Brujo t-shirt at a metaphysical festival.  A psychic at a nearby table, an older Hispanic lady, pointed her out. She was a local Wiccan I had met a few times, with fairy earrings, a large pentacle, and a red 'Proud to be a Bruja' t-shirt. The girl meant no harm but she was warned to take the shirt off because of 'expectations of what she should be able to do'.  The girl was confused and embarrassed and I felt for her. Considering the type of actions some of my Hispanic clients have asked me to do, I don't think your average festival going Wiccan or Celtic Neo-Pagan is up to it (although I'm sure the Scottish and Irish curse traditions work just fine- these elements of the full magickal tradition aren't generally found in the 'self- initiated' eclectic American Wiccan scene, in fact being frowned upon by the fluffier elements).
It seems unwise for people outside of Hispanic cultures to either appropriate the word 'brujo' for themselves or try to force a redefinition of the word within Spanish traditions, mirroring their own reclamation of European based Witchcraft. I in no way impose my definition of 'witch' upon another culture. I also wouldn't insist a healer carry the term 'witch' if they do not find it useful or accurate.  Their are healers, diviners, wise people, shamans, sorcerers, singers, priests, and all other manner of spiritual people throughout the world using their own cultural terms. We all tap into the same Universal Source.  I think a healthy respect for one another and avoiding disparaging remarks about any term a practitioner wishes to identify with is the best way to move forward and learn.

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