For Ricardo Gamboa (who prefers the gender neutral pronoun they), their own queer brown identity has always been enveloped in the supernatural. Getting over a first breakup while navigating their own coming out, Gamboa remembers not going to a therapist (“that makes too much sense,” they chuckled) but to a psychic instead. Gamboa went to see a Tarot reader in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood and remains blown away by the fact that everything she said, down to the day and the hour, actually happened. An academic as well as a performer, Gamboa finally found in the web series Brujos a project that brings together their sense of self and community.
Inspired by seeing what shows like Girls and Looking (the former lacking any nuance when it came to gentrification, the latter when it came to challenging heteronormative ideas of gay male intimacy) were presenting to the world, Gamboa set about creating a show that centered its narrative on queer black and brown communities. “We know queerness is not just about, can we get married or get in the military or get to the gym.” It’s also about thinking radically about everything we’ve taken for granted. It’s about de-naturalizing everything that you’ve been taught is natural, from romantic relationships to political power dynamics.
That’s how Brujos was born. On its surface, this supernatural web series reads like a brown and queer riff on magic-driven shows like Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and well, Supernatural. But that doesn’t do justice to what Gamboa and his Chicago-based crew is up to. With a keen academic eye to issues of colonialism, disenfranchisement, queer problematics, and infused with a lived-in knowledge of brujería and Santería, this Zodiac sign-structured show about witches being hunted by privileged, wealthy white men is as potent an allegory for the insidious way white supremacy works in erasing and colonizing black and brown bodies in the 21st century as you’ll find. (Also, you won’t find a better way of incorporating Spanish subtitles into the fabric of the show nor as welcoming a vision of Chicago as the show provides.)
Which is all to say, if you haven’t yet binge-watched this show, here’s your chance. And we’ll do you one better. We chatted with Gamboa and got the inside scoop not just on what they hoped to accomplish with this independently funded project but got insight into several key scenes and moments from the show. Consider the list below your very own director’s commentary for the first eleven episodes of Brujos all of which are embedded below for your viewing pleasure. And since you’ll want to know how it all ends, be sure to donate to fund the Brujos finale at their crowdfunding page.
“I cry when I think about this stuff that us as queer people of color have to survive. That women of color have to do to survive. That poor people have to do to survive. It is nothing but supernatural that we find ways to survive, under immense amounts of oppression, in a world that oftentimes is trying to kill us. And that we don’t just survive but thrive. The supernatural is a conduit to explore those questions. Someone like Panfilo, who can move things with his mind—it’s like, how often do us as queer people of color, to survive, have to be in a situation where it’s “mind over matter”? To push ourselves outside of our circumstances. Or someone like Edwin, who’s an Afro-Latino, played by Justin Mitchell, who’s an Afro-Boricua, who can turn invisible. We’re talking about a country that’s been denied sovereignty under colonial rule and that condition is invisibilized in the U.S. by its colonial metropol and ruler. Giving him to turn invisible was a way to speak to that. And then someone like Jonathan who’s the more femme of the group, he’s someone who can absorb the pain of others and scream—a lot of that is thinking about the emotional labor that a lot of us rely on friends to do. And the way they oftentimes they are the emotional backbone of our community and trying to play with that idea. And then Brian is white. And they mention it, right, in one of the episodes—that’s a superpower. It’s not a supernatural power, it’s a super-nurtured power.”
“What the show was trying to do we were also trying to do on set. So it was non-hierarchical. We called our extras “necessaries.” Everyone was told that at any point they could offer creative ideas or solutions, whether they were an extra or an intern or just a day player. Every day our shooting began with introductions where we explicitly stated that our set was not ableist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, islamophobic or sexist. I’ve acted for years and I’ve never seen a crew as diverse as ours. Our wardrobe department was two black queer people. Our sound designer was a white queer woman. As someone, though I don’t identity as such, I’m legible as male, I will strategically use that and make sure that any project that I work on I have a female co-director. My co-directors were another Latino male from Texas and an Indian woman. So I like to think that we were radically transforming how you make TV. Or taking a step towards that was more ethical and loving and compassionate, especially given the communities we were in.”
“So much of how even we cast the show wasn’t about superficial representation. It wasn’t about someone who could play a thing; we just cast the thing! ? who plays the Santera, is actually a Santera, I actually met her at a ceremony and asked her to come on board. Everyone was allowed to amend their parts, the scripts to better fit their voice and experience. I think a lot of added to the kind of environment where we were able to be ourselves and celebrate ourselves.”
“I love my city so much. And it is so hurtful to see oftentimes our communities be represented in these shows [like Chicago Justice, Chicago Med, Chicago P.D., etc] like an urban ghetto school of crime. It’s not about saying that doesn’t exist in our spaces. For me it was really important to highlight the community-building aspects of Chicago. I would say that part of what happened—I didn’t have to take a kind of anthropological, ethnographic-like approach to the city. I just highlighted the spaces and the communities that I’m already embedded in. The bars that we are at are all bars that I frequent and that the cast also frequents. Where we walk in and it’s fucking Cheers, everybody knows our names! It was important for me to highlight the community that we’re in. A lot of the show is shot between Pilsen and Little Village. I’m very invested in the anti-gentrification movement and these are two neighborhoods that are under assault by gentrification, and part of how they justify that there’s no culture in these spaces. Part of what I wanted to do was highlight the shit that’s going on here, like the queer nightlife.”
“We had so much fun on set. Those house scenes; we rented the house the brujos live in and there are so many group scenes we shot there. Those were 18 hour days but we were all together and joking around. There wasn’t a day when we we weren’t all feeling grateful to be there. You know, there’s a scene where we’re all the lecture in episode 5, at the university which is followed by a reception. And, sometimes, you don’t always get to film in sequence. So we filmed the reception scene first where we were popping all these bottles open and we were just really drinking them. We had a break, we were drinking the wine—it was our last day of shooting, and so we just drank the whole time while the lecture was happening. That was kind of cool—even when we were listening to her lecture, there are bottles of wine at our feet!”
“I wanted to take an unapologetic look at queer sexuality. Unapologetic doesn’t mean sensationalized or scandalized. There’s a lot of humorous moments, like when Panfilo is like “Be careful, I’m uncircumcised!” you know? I think a lot of what I was trying to do was put pressure on a lot of different narratives in any given episode. So, I’m a big proponent of promiscuity and I’m down for it, and I’ve definitely frequented bathhouses and stuff like that. I think there’s something really beautiful about queer intimacy that can exist like that, but I also think there are some of us who pursue that type of sexuality just out of pain, or because there was no other way to have it. So you see Jonathan involved in some kind of group sex situation where he screams at the end. I wanted to show that this kind of intimacy isn’t just right but that queer intimacy is beautiful and natural and also playful.”
“The young boy that appears, played by Victor Musoni, who’s a sleep talker—that was influenced by a young autistic boy that disappeared when I first moved to New York, and further motivated by the Laquan McDonald shooting and the shooting of black men that were happening around the country. The fact that these witches are under attack speaks to that. I grew up in Chicago when immigration raids were happening down 26th street, down the block where my parents lived and grew up. We are hunted as immigrants, as brown people. Again, it wasn’t just about shining a light on these spaces but also the events that were happening in Chicago.”
“For me I don’t think it’d be possible to sell this to a corporate platform. Not only is the content so radical but there is no way I would do it without also saying “Ok, but you also gotta give money to youth centers in Chicago, you gotta give money to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.” I wasn’t going to try and profit off of these spiritual traditions or the really harsh realities we have to face as queer people of color. We were very determined to keep it free. And free of influence. I was that queer kid who would hide and try and find anything I could. The internet taught me a lot about how to be queer. And I wouldn’t want to put this behind a paywall that would make it inaccessible to someone like me as a young person. Even if they have their parents’ Hulu password, they might not want them to know what they just saw. That meant we had to hustle and work really hard. Part of what happens is that as artists of color we just aspire to be included by the entertainment industry that does oftentimes more harm than it does good, so it was an experiment to see what it would look like to make work outside of that system.”
“We’re really careful in how we represent magic here. So many times when brujería or santería is represented, they rely on these tropes—they get sensationalized and fetishized in ways that recast it as something that’s primitive or out of time, or folkloric. And that’s never been my experience in the communities I’m a part of. One of the thing that I was really careful about doing—especially when dealing with communities that have dealt with centuries of persecution—was to not provide just some cheap voyeuristic window into them. So how the supernatural is represented is that, while a lot of what they do in the show is actual spells (most have real references) they’re mostly scrambled, or a composite of different spells, mixed in with an element of the absurd or the fantastic, to keep the secrets of the practice.”
“I can’t name another show off the top of my head that shows an Asian male as sexy. I can’t name another show off the top of my head that shows a positively asexual Muslim man as non-aggressive or terrroristic; and into comics and listening to hip hop! I can’t think of another that shows black women being strong and breaking down in the face of oppression. Like in the spa scene where they take out this group of possessed cops. There are representational moves there but I am interested in radical change and so much of how we even made Brujos was designed to resist co-optation. We made it outside of the purview of the culture industry. Similarly, what I guess the show is about a kind of a fairy tale or allegory and part-handbook of how we can all get free. And how we are implicated in each other’s liberation.”
“Representation is so problematic. And we hail representation blindly. And representational progress doesn’t always mean real progress. Sometimes you have to be on guard of the effects of identity. Part of what identity is smooth over real differences. And tries to flatten that could happen within an identity. So, not all brown people are my people. Not all queer people are people. Certainly the queer people that are not invested in trans liberation are not my people; or brown people who are not invested in trans liberation or that are homophobic are not my people. Part of what I am trying to do is really tease out a truly rigorous intersectional analysis in the show that puts a lot of pressure on our go-to conceptions of identity. I don’t think I try to come to any conclusions. I’m not a fascist, I don’t want to tell people what to think as much as I’m trying to get all of us to collectively think about it. But the battle we’re anticipating in that last episode is about the dismantling of white supremacy.”