To say the word “brujo” in some communities is akin to yelling “fire!” in a crowded movie theater. It incites fear and panic.
For centuries, brujería, or witchcraft, has been an obscure practice.
It was woven into the superstitions that abuelas taught their grandchildren — such as using an egg to perform a limpia, a cleanse, on a baby suffering from mal de ojo, the evil eye.
Everyone knew it existed but it was seldom acknowledged.
Now, more and more younger Latinos are identifying as brujos and claiming to practice brujería, much to the bewilderment of others who grew up in fear of it.
“I think it’s both a disconnect from history and a form of reclaiming power for them,” said Patrisia Gonzales, a traditional healer/midwife and professor of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona.
Gonzales, 57, who is of Kickapoo, Comanche and Macehual descent, cites this fear of the practice as a reason younger generations are claiming it.
“There is a certain amount of power when you think of a brujo,” she said. “You don’t tend to think of a weak person.”
According to Gonzales, the fear stems from the early days of colonization, when indigenous communities were forced to convert to Catholicism. Mirroring the witch trials of England, the spread of Catholicism eventually led to the persecution of those who were identified as brujos in South and Central America.
By identifying as brujos, these younger generations are reclaiming their indigenous, pre-Columbian power.
Irving Orozco, 25 and of Purépech descent, openly identifies as a brujo and practices brujería.
Orozco, a student studying archaeology at the University of California – Riverside, says he began practicing years ago as a way to cope through rough times in his life.
“It’s a reconnection with yourself, your ancestors and the natural world,” he said. “It’s about the understanding of how everything is connected, how everything is woven together like a fabric.”
Orozoco’s sentiments on why more and more young people are turning to brujería mirror those of Gonzales.
“Brujería is empowering,” he said.
“It’s defiance,” he continued. “Defiance against Christianity, defiance against colonial powers. It’s decolonization.”
But despite the empowering nature of the practice that Orozco cites, the negative connotations attached to brujería still tend to latch onto other forms of traditional healing, most noticeably curanderismo.
Curanderismo differs from brujería in that it focuses solely on healing. But it is alike to brujería in that it borders on the idea of “magic”, which strictly goes against the Catholic church.
Curanderos are sometimes met with fear by those who misunderstand the practice.
“A lot of people still get concerned when someone proclaims themselves or is called a curandera.” Gonzales said. “Right away, they’ll think it’s witchcraft because there was so much of this kind of bad medicine going on.”
Oscar Zepeda, 24, of Nogales, Arizona, remembers how his grandfather was known in his community as a sobador, or traditional healer/masseuse, but that he had to hide it. His grandfather, León Romero, used oils and physical methods of healing to cure the ailments of members in the community.
Zepeda remembers the way his grandfather would cure Caida de Mollera, or sunken fontanelle (soft spot on head) in babies. Caida de Mollera is characterized by a dent on the crown of a baby’s head, usually caused by falling.
According to Zepeda, Romero would begin by rubbing the child’s stomach with oils while saying prayers. He would then hold the infant upside down by the feet over a bowl of water, gently shake the child, then put his thumb on the roof of the mouth and push down to remove the dent.
Even though he was well known in the community for his work, Zepeda insists that Romero, who died in 2016, didn’t outwardly promote his practice as his community had a fear of curanderos.
“It’s more common to relate that work with the bad energies because people don’t like to open themselves to that type of knowledge,” Zepeda said. “It’s a lack of understanding.”
Both brujería and curanderismo are met with preconceived assumptions of how they work.
“Many people have internalized a perception of brujas as evil, loathsome, lustful, crazy, troublemakers, producers of illness, and having the ability to destroy,” Irene Lara, in her essay Bruja Positionalities, wrote.
Lara also wrote that the split between brujería and curanderismo is precarious due to how western medicine and organized religion has worked to delegitimize such practices.
Despite many young people like Zepeda growing up around these practices, and understanding the uneasiness others feel toward them, Gonzales believes younger generations aren’t fully aware of the connotations that come with identifying as a brujo.
“What are you saying about yourself?” Gonzales asked. “Are you saying you’re working with these powers? A true brujo wouldn’t be putting it out there.”
But Orozco disagrees.
“I don’t want to scare people,” he said. “That’s not my intention. It gives me strength to move forward. That’s why I’m so open about it.”
Orozco advocates that young Latinos in the United States perceive practices such as brujería and curanderismo much differently than older generations from South and Central America.
He believes that these young people are moving further away from Catholicism and setting out to reconnect with their roots.
“It’s helpful, not bad,” he said. “They mostly do it because they want to help people.”
“People are open about other beliefs; why can’t I be open about mine?”
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Maxie Ruan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org