Fans of supernatural, other worldly, magical and mysterious stories have had their fair share of TV shows to choose from in the past: from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Charmed to Sabrina the Teenage Witch and even Bewitched. But rarely do those stories star a Hispanic or African American witch in the lead role. And never has one of those shows taken place in South America, showcasing Latinx talent, South American scenery and Latin culture of the past and present. That is where Siempre Bruja, a new fantasy show from Netflix, strays from the typical TV path. Netflix’s new show stars Angely Gaviria as Carmen Eguiluz, a mixed race, dark skinned, time-traveling, black witch, and it’s creating quite a stir.
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The new Netflix series, which translates to Always a Witch, takes place in modern-day Cartagena, Colombia, though it isn’t always set in the present. It actually begins in the 17th century, with the lead character, a young, enslaved, black witch, about to be burned at the stake for practicing magic. Clearly, magic was seen as an offense punishable by death. And as if magic wasn’t enough of a crime, Carmen also falls in love with Cristóbal, the son of her slave owners. Cristóbal’s mother ultimately catches the two lovebirds, accuse Carmen of bewitching their son and demand her execution. A witch being burned at the stake — not exactly a groundbreaking concept. But this is where things get really interesting.
Carmen is able to escape her death by making a deal with a powerful wizard, who gives her a time-bending spell so that she can travel into the future, to present day 2019, as long as she is able to fulfill a promise to him. She must deliver a magical stone to a college professor who also happens to be a witch. Carmen delivers on her promise, but, because this is a TV show and nothing ever goes smoothly, there’s a complication to her plan: the professor disappears before she can perform the spell that will send Carmen back to 1646, to her life before she was about to be executed. Which begs the question, why would someone want to go back to a life of slavery where you are at risk of being executed for being who you are? Like we said, this is where the show gets interesting.
Carmen is desperate to go back in time so that she can save Cristóbal. You see, after his parents catch Carmen and Cristóbal in a sweet embrace, they shoot him, because they would rather see their son dead than in love with a black, enslaved witch. Imagine. Cristóbal is shot right before Carmen is sentenced to death herself, so her plan is to return to 1646 so she can save her love before he is shot defending her honor. Did you catch all that? We know time-travel stories can get confusing, and add to the mix forbidden love plus the elements of a witch hunt and you’ve got quite a complicated plot on your hands.
Which is why critics have a lot to say about this show. The reviews are mixed, to say the least. There’s a lot that is good, exciting and empowering about this new series, and a lot that critics argue is bad, underwhelming or borderline offensive. So let’s unpack the argument a bit, and dive into what makes this show unique, where it falters and where it succeeds.
The Good: Siempre Bruja Features Latinx Talent and Culture
This show is heavily packed with Latinx talent and culture, both behind the camera and on screen. The show is inspired by Isidora Chacón’s 2015 novel Yo, Bruja, about a female witch who feels like an outsider and chooses to leave her life of witchcraft behind and lead a normal life. Though that’s about where the similarities end.
Behind the scenes, the series is produced by Dago García, a screenwriter, producer and director born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. He is one of the most famous screenwriters in Colombia and is known for his work on several Colombian TV shows and films such as Pedro el Escamoso and the El Paseo film series.
And then there is more Latinx talent on screen. And this is what has excited a lot of people, viewers and critics alike. The lead character is an Afro-Colombian witch played by the breakout star Angely Gaviria, who is perfect in this role. According to her website, Angely was born in Cartagena in 1996, and studied acting at the University of Bogotá before appearing in some smaller roles in Colombian programming. This role in Siempre Bruja is definitely her biggest role to date, and we can expect to see a lot more from Gaviria in the future. Gaviria is arguably the best thing about this show. She brings life and complexity to a very complex role, and she alone is reason enough to watch this show.
Other Latinx actors appearing in Siempre Bruja include Sofia Bernal Araujo, Valeria Emiliani, Dylan Fuentes, and Carlos Quintero, among others. According to Erik Barmack, Netflix Vice President of International Originals, having a Latinx cast and a show that is produced by a Colombia production company is a part of a larger company strategy to foster more inclusive projects globally. “Our second Colombian original Siempre Bruja is not only a magnetic young adult story that audiences will love, but also holds a powerful message of empowerment that will connect deeply with members both in Colombia and globally,” Barmack said in a statement.
The Good: The Story Appeals to Our Fascination in Witchcraft, But with a Twist
Who doesn’t love a good story of mystical powers, supernatural gifts and misunderstood outsiders with secret abilities to perform magic? If the success of films like The Craft and shows like Charmed and American Horror Story: Coven is any indication, people really eat this stuff up. (Busted.) Let’s look at the core plot points of this show: a 17th century witch who is burned at the stake makes a deal with a powerful wizard who gives her a time-bending spell so she can travel to the 21st century to escape her death, deliver an important enchanted stone to a modern-day witch and ultimately save the man she loves. It’s a mouthful, but admit it, you’re intrigued. Time travel alone is entertaining; we love watching characters adapt to new cultures and civilizations and it’s always interesting to see how producers represent different times in history. And we love watching powerful witches, often with powers we could only dream of possessing ourselves, discover their capabilities. And doing it all to save the person you love? Classic. None of this is groundbreaking, but it sure is enticing.
And then Siempre Bruja adds in a twist: this is about an Afro-Colombian witch, set in Cartagena, with a young black woman as the lead role. In the past black witches are often misrepresented in media and pop culture, that is, if they are represented at all. This series reframes what it means to be a heroine, a witch and a mixed race woman.
In addition, witchcraft is framed differently in a Colombian-produced TV show. While some American-produced shows (often with a primarily white cast) present witchcraft as something to be feared and witches as dangerous outsiders, magical abilities are viewed differently in Colombian culture. Carmen’s new friends in her 21st century life don’t run and hide when they discover her power. They embrace it. Perhaps it is because Colombia is a culture that embraces the mystical and the unknown, or that Colombians have been surrounded by spiritual practices for centuries. Instead of witchcraft being alienating in Siempre Bruja, it is seen as more of a source of spiritual power and less a type of voodoo.
And did we mention that the series is set in gorgeous Colombia? Forget about dark graveyards and cold, gray small towns; Carmen is a witch navigating life in gorgeous Colombia. The series is filmed in Bogotá, Cartagena, and Honda, so scenes are brought to life amongst bright blue waters, Spanish colonial architecture, bright colored clothing with lively music around every corner. It’s hard not to be drawn into a show that makes you feel so immersed in a beautiful culture.
The Good: The Story is About Humanity and Empowerment
While Carmen’s powers make her a force to be reckoned with, she is still illustrated as a human being. She is driven by her love for Cristóbal and her desire to travel back in time and save him. She is vulnerable and flawed but also has integrity and hope. She is learning to control her powers and accept who she is and what she is capable of. She is navigating a world where she doesn’t belong and is trying to exist in a time period that she doesn’t understand, but above all she is willing to fight for her freedom and for love. There’s humanity in that story, and Gaviria plays that humanity with such passion that you really root for her to succeed.
The Bad: Siempre Bruja Undermines the Trauma of Slavery
Now onto the not-so-great aspects of this show. There are several aspects of the plot that don’t really add up and that definitely don’t sit well with critics and viewers. For starters, Carmen is a slave. She falls in love with the son of the slave-owners who control her fate. The man she is literally willing to travel back in time to save, the man she believes loves her, in reality owned her. He bought her when she was put up for auction as a “sweet virgin.” There are a lot of issues with that slave/slave master romantic relationship, and one of the biggest problems is that it is completely tone deaf to the actual trauma of slavery. It ignores the deep and lasting impact slavery had on those who were enslaved, and instead it perpetuates a false impression that an enslaved woman could love her master. And this is an element of the series that isn’t sitting well with a lot of viewers and critics.
According to Joelle Monique in an Op-Ed for Broadly, “there is nothing alluring about a slave/master love story. Instead, it erases the trauma of slavery, the history of survival, and deeply offends the descendants of the enslaved as recognized soon after its premiere.”
Jaleesa Lashay Diaz explains, “Siempre Bruja presented an opportunity to educate and enlighten audiences of the history connecting Latin American communities to our African history. However, the series managed to do quite the opposite. The initiative to increase representation for Afro-Latinas took an unfortunate step back with this slave romance.”
The Bad: Mixed Messages About The Language and Culture
This Colombian-produced show has a Spanish name, Siempre Bruja, and it is a Spanish-language show with English subtitles. Following on the success of Netflix’s award-winning film Roma, it’s clear that Netflix is dedicated to producing more Spanish language content. But there is also confusion around this show, because when you try to stream the show on Netflix in America, it is listed under its English title, Always a Witch. The marketing behind the show doesn’t exactly line up with how the show is presented on the platform, and this can confuse viewers and critics, who aren’t really sure what to expect.
In addition, the trailer only shows half of the story, and doesn’t really dive to deep into what the show is really about. It conveniently leaves out the plot lines about slavery and how Carmen falls in love with her slave owner’s son. It fails to mention that despite the fact that Carmen was enslaved, she still is willing to give up her freedom to save the man she loves. The show seems to swipe the cruel truths of slavery to the side, particularly in the trailer but also throughout the series, in an attempt to focus on the love story and the time-traveling adventure of a witch trying to harness her powers. Critics argue that Siempre Bruja doesn’t do enough to focus on the strength and formidable talents of a woman of color who also happens to be a witch, and instead the show falls short in how it addresses the oppressive racism and slavery of colonial Colombia.
All things considered, Carmen Eguiluz is still by far one of the most intriguing and powerful black witches we have seen on screen to date. While the show isn’t perfect, it’s generating a lot of buzz, both good and bad, and we’re curious to see where this show takes us.
Season 1 of Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) is currently available for streaming on Netflix. With only 10 episodes and each episode approximately 40 minutes long, you can definitely binge this show and decide for yourself whether it’s your new favorite telenovela/supernatural show, or if it’s missing the mark where it matters most. Tune in and decide for yourself.