By Josh Watkins
Why are queer folks so obsessed with witches? Perhaps it’s because witches have always been “outsiders,” stepping beyond traditional roles and binaries to embrace power. Perhaps it’s because of the public shame that witches have faced throughout history—having been shunned and exiled from common society. Or perhaps it’s because of the pains and struggles shared by both queers and witches.
Delving deeper into witchcraft, brujería is the Spanish channeling of the practice. Popular among Hispanic and Native American cultures of the South, these witches—known as brujas, brujos, or brujxs—have been around for centuries. Brujería often possesses a negative reputation and is feared as a manifestation of evil. But for many young Latinx millennials—and more specifically queer Latinx millennials—it is an outlet for empowerment and freedom. Spectrum South recently caught up with Alex Aguilar, a self-identified queer bruja from the Rio Grande Valley who is now based in Austin.
Aguilar’s earliest memories of brujería involved the rise of the cult of Santa Muerte—a female deity of healing, protection, and safe delivery to the afterlife—in Mexico and the southern United States. “I’d always see statues of [Santa Muerte] at the flea market,” Aguilar says. “But my parents were heavily Christian on my dad’s side, so they always told me it was devil worship.”
As Aguilar grew older, he began exploring brujería culture more and—after watching The Craft for the first time—became hooked on the idea of being a witch. The film also inspired him to talk to his mother about witchcraft, and he learned that she and his grandmother occasionally practiced little spells. From then on, Aguilar began practicing Wicca in secret.
When Aguilar started college, however, he learned that the practice of Wicca was more associated with white culture and was problematic in terms of homophobia. Still interested in pursuing witchcraft, he decided to return to his roots and research Mexican brujería and Santa Muerte’s cult.
Aguilar soon came to see brujería as a form of personal liberation. He began his practice around the time he came out as queer to his evangelical, homophobic Christian family, and found it to be an escape from the abuse and suffering he experienced throughout high school. “I turned to witchcraft to give myself a way to fight back against my oppressors,” Aguilar says. “At the same time, it allowed me to gain confidence in myself and it taught me self-love and care.”
The cult of Santa Muerte, Aguilar explains, started in disadvantaged areas where drug cartels were competing with local police. Because civilians had no one to turn to amongst the death and violence, they began venerating death as a deity and as inevitable. “I think our generation is a lot less pious than the last,” Aguilar says, explaining the reemergence of brujería in Latinx millennials. “A lot of us grew up in [similarly] disenfranchised families and communities.”
The Internet—especially social media—has allowed people to secretly tap into things like witchcraft, helping to form a following of new young witches. “Kids needed spirituality that empowered them against their oppressors,” Aguilar says. “Nine times out of ten, they were abused or abandoned because of religious or conservative families. Kids were being marginalized in already marginalized communities and had nothing to turn to.”
Aguilar points out that witches have always been “the other,” or people who have been rejected by society. In nearly every culture or religion, there are interpretations of witches, usually depicted as hags and women. Queer people have similarly been cast aside in society. “There’s been a reclaiming of that status of ‘the other’ by queer people as a method of empowerment against the white heteropatriarchy that we have to live in,” Aguilar says.
This reclamation is present in all variants of witchcraft and folk magic—from Santería to brujería, hoodoo, voodoo/Vodoun, root work and conjure, herbalism, and Wicca. “[Witchcraft and folk magic] initially started as a method to retain and cherish culture and fight back against slavery, racism, and the white machine,” Aguilar says. “It’s now being continued by queer people who are reclaiming it to combat homophobia, sexism, and all other dangerous prejudices that continue to surface in our current society. Spells and information on all of the different religions [of witchcraft] are available for free online. Lana del Rey just enlisted her following, many of whom are queer millennials, to curse Donald Trump with a binding spell.”
Beyond social media, film and television have also become rich with depictions of witchcraft. From The Craft to Practical Magic and The Witch, Charmed to American Horror Story: Coven, these cultures are now injected into every aspect of pop culture. Of recent notability, the web series Brujos follows four queer Latino grad students/witches who are trying to survive everything from school to witch hunts led by the white patriarchy.
If you’re interested in learning more about brujería or witchcraft, Aguilar suggests the film, Daughter of the Dust, which depicts multiple generations of the Gullah women of St. Helena Island. The film examines the relationship between the old folk magic of past generations and the Christianity of the current generation, while the future generation tries to carve a place between the two. And if that isn’t intriguing enough, Aguilar notes, “[Daughter of the Dust] also partly inspired Beyonce’s Lemonade, so there’s that, too!”