Why Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) Is Problematic

*spoiler alert*

When we watched the Netflix trailer for Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch), our telenovela and drama-loving hearts lit up at the prospect of a show centered around a black witch and magical fun. A clear break from the overused high school witch and general fluffy magic, and instead a look into the long traditions of brujeria in Latin America. Sounds great, right?

Siempre Bruja is a show produced by Caracoal Television and Netflix about an enslaved witch named Carmen Eguiluz (Angely Gaviria) from 17th century Cartagena, Colombia, who travels into present day. She is from a lineage of witches who practice magic through incantations and herbal spells, along with a healthy dosage of spookiness. At a slave auction she is purchased by Cristobal (Lenard Vanderaa) and his father, Cristobal seeking to save her from the harsh treatments of the auctioneer. While this is originally an act of kindness of heart, their relationship grows into something much stronger. The two fall deeply in love, leaving each other notes in the doorway and sharing secret embraces when wandering eyes aren’t looking.

The trouble begins when they are discovered (this is a Spanish drama so you should know that happiness is not so easily attainable) and Carmen is condemned as the slave who bewitched him to love her. Long story short, Cristobal renounces everything about him and pledges his love to Carmen. His father is not very fond of this and decides that he would rather shoot his son and kill him than stop Carmen’s execution. Carmen thus makes a deal with the powerful Aldemar to complete a task in exchange for the ability to change time. This will allow her to return to the moment before Cristobal was shot, and save him. From there onward, the majority of the show is about Carmen's life in the modern day where she learns how to adjust while making many friends along the way. She attends college, does homework, and tries to complete Aldemar's quest, which turns out to be much more dangerous than he originally made it seem. With the assistance of her friends, Carmen comes to realize that she is a witch no matter where in time she is. 

It is hard to pay attention to the talented cast of the show or scenic shots when the plot line has such a glaringly uncomfortable issue, one that makes it very hard to connect with Carmen and the show. The idea of a slave and her owner being in love is troubling at the very least. The audience wants Carmen to succeed, but not in the same way she wants to. So we’re left with questions. Why would Carmen want to go back to being a slave? Yes, she is very much in love, but she was also very much his property. It is hard to root for her to return to the life she left, especially when the present offers so much more. The show isolates many of its viewers of color by never really addressing this issue in more than a passing line or two. Even more unsettling is the fact that this plot line makes it seem like everything Carmen does is in order to be with Cristobal, practically making her a supporting character in her own show. Netflix and Caracoal Television simply avoided addressing the trauma and pain that comes with slavery and struggle, and instead made Carmen’s whole arc based on the premise of returning to Cristobal.

The series could have been a huge opportunity for cultural diversity and cultural education. It could have been about discovering what brujeria means to the Afro-Latino community. It could have been entirely about Carmen adjusting to her newfound life where she learns how to use social media or what it means to have a paying job. By carefully avoiding the slave/master love angle in the trailers and by premiering the show at the beginning of February, Netflix made it seem like this would be their take on representing black witches in popular culture. Instead it made audiences uncomfortable. Slavery isn't a plot device. It isn't just a random building block for a character.

This trope is pretty common in Colombia (Esclava Blanca, anyone?). The whole slave and owner love angle is full of drama, danger and forbidden love. Yet, those same elements could have been just as present in the show if Cristobal had been Carmen’s nice, not slave-owning neighbor. Or a farm hand? Or like... literally anything else? The fact of the matter is that, even if he is the nicest guy in Cartagena, he bought her. Yes, he may renounce his family and their livelihood, but had he been a random farm boy that wouldn't have been necessary in the first place. 

The show does have its moments of empowerment. There is a whole episode dedicated to Carmen remembering who she is and why her history is important, all while a street festival to celebrate Afrolatino culture is taking place. The interactions betwen her and her friends highlight the positives of being a student in modern day, where one can dabble in dancing and partying. Unfortuanetly, the great elements of the show are undercut by its problematic romance. 

Siempre Bruja should leave the outdated and offensive tropes in the past and keep Carmen in the 21st century.