Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch), the hotly anticipated witchy time-travel series out of Colombia is finally here, and the reactions are mixed. Some viewers find the romance between Carmen, a slave, and her master’s white son to be an offensive trope. Others are excited to see a black woman as a lead in a Latin American series, which is undeniably a rare occurrence. Most are dumbfounded by Carmen’s apparent ease in transitioning to a modern Cartagena 400 years into the future without batting an eye.
In order to delve deep into the cultural nuances of Netflix and Caracol TV’s Colombian production, we reached out to a handful of critics – making sure to include Colombian and Afro-Latina voices – to write up their opinions on the ten-episode series. Read their reviews below.
–Vanessa Erazo, Remezcla Film & TV Editor
Siempre Bruja season one is currently streaming on Netflix.
The jacket copy for Yo Bruja, the Isidora Chacón novel that serves as the inspiration for Netflix’s Cartagena-set Siempre Bruja (Always a Witch) offers but the briefest sketch of a storyline: it follows a young woman who’s always felt different. She knows she’s yet another witch in a long line of strong, wise women. Yet, like many a witch in pop culture, she decides to lead a normal life. That is, until her study of petroglyphs in the Museo Nacional de Costa Rica force her to reckon with her legacy (though she chooses to run away from it and flee to Paraguay where she’ll find love and friendship). But, the synopsis asks us, will she able to run away from what’s so certainly her fate?
Compared to the bright-colored supernatural series Netflix (via Caracol Television) has conjured up, Chacón’s novel feels quite narrow. As if to up the ante and broaden her story, producers and writers chose to set their narrative back in the 17th century where a young slave witch, Carmen (the wonderful and expressive Angely Rivera) is set to burn for having bewitched her slave master’s son (but in actuality it’s really for having fallen for and beginning a relationship with him). Thinking he’s been killed she time travels to the future where she’ll learn how to return back and prevent his death. Only, the present-day world comes with its own challenges. There’s a witch hunter on the loose, there are witches eager but scared to help her, and there are endless stories about boyfriends and alcohol and Uni classes and even ghosts that keep Carmen busy as she frets about her beloved Cristóbal.
It’s hard not to wish that Siempre Bruja had dispensed with its ill-advised slave-master romance. It makes all of Carmen’s agency pivot off of her love for a white man, all the while her present-day stories have her serve as a conduit to solve problems afflicting everyone else. As charming as Rivera is, there’s very little sketched out for Carmen to do. Magical shows like this one often require some suspension of disbelief but when your time-traveling witch is somehow quite chill about all the new technology around her and not at all baffled by the changing racial dynamics she sees firsthand, one wonders whether the worldbuilding here has been shortchanged for the worst, handicapping what is an all-around promising wisp of a premise.
When the trailer of Siempre Bruja was released in January, Netflix fans were thrilled at the idea of a new series centered around an Afro-Latina woman. The show promised us an exploration of a witch who time travels from the 1600s to present-day Cartagena on a mission. The trailer did not divulge much about that mission.
Starring Angely Gaviria (as Carmen), the ten-episode series focuses on Carmen’s relationship with her slave master’s son. Her goal: to return to her old life with Cristóbal as a slave, despite being an unrestrained woman in the present-day.
In the first episode, Carmen is auctioned off as a “sweet virgin.” Her providential buyer, the son of a slave master. Cristóbal and Carmen begin their love affair. Carmen has secret encounters with her lover, and even deliberately places a flower in her hair, as her life insinuates no worries.
Cristóbal’s mother incriminates Carmen. Cristóbal is shot. While awaiting sentencing, Carmen agrees to travel to the future to help a wizard, in exchange for the one thing she desires, going back to Cristóbal. Carmen is not concerned with her freedom.
As we delve deeper into the series, we recognize that Carmen’s story arc is not the only one reliant on her relationship. Her friends, Alicia and Mayte, also have storylines that mostly revolve around the men in their lives.
Newcomer, Dylan Fuentes is one of the few redemptive characters of the series. Johnny Ki (Fuentes) is charming and appends a vulnerability that is refreshing in the midst of this thoughtless storyline. He desperately wants to help Carmen. She, however, is so focused on recouping her old life that she never addresses the reality of those circumstances.
There’s hardly any discussion about the pain and trauma black men and women endured in the 1600s. Noticeably, there are also many Afro-Latino male characters missing from the narrative. While we certainly want to see more opportunities for Afro-Latinos, we have to challenge how these projects impact us long-term and accept when we just don’t get it right.
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.
–Jaleesa Lashay Diaz
Earlier this year, Netflix announced a series hailing from Colombia titled Siempre Bruja. Now, there’s an apparent cultural divide between African-American expectations and Afro-Latino enjoyment. At the center of the heated debate was the plot. Carmen, the protagonist, played by up and coming Afro-Colombiana Angely Gaviria is a witch that propels into the future to save her boyfriend.
Let’s unpack some things here. Carmen’s love interest Cristóbal is the son of the slave owner. He never regarded her as a slave but navigated as best they could under the restrictions of the 1600s. This series is loosely based on a novel by Isidora Chacó. It’s a telenovela. Novelas are loose with reality and more focused on entertainment. This show is also part of a deal between Netflix and local Colombian content creators. The truth is that roles for Afro-Colombians are few and far between especially starring ones. Siempre Bruja wasn’t intended to represent black culture but just a series starring a black woman.
The casting of Duban Prado as Daniel is overlooked. Prado is the other Afro-Colombian actor in the series. He is one of the university students Carmen befriends. Knowing the above, I understood that this show wasn’t trying to make a statement but entertain. Siempre Bruja accomplishes that goal. Some of my favorite moments in the series are when Carmen is learning what an app is or her experience drinking alcohol for the first time. We root for Carmen and are excited to see her get stronger with each new challenge. This story is also about friendship. In the end, her newfound friends assist her in discovering her inner strength. In an interview Angely explains that Carmen may have started as this love-sick woman wanting to save her man however once she arrived in the future and charged off on her mission, she began to find her strength. One of the reasons we are rooting for Carmen is because of Angely’s performance.
The one disappointment for this series for me was that it needed a better explanation of brujería. What is its significance and origin in Colombian culture? Most non-Colombian viewers are going to equate it to voodoo or black magic, instead it’s a spiritual practice tied to West African culture. I do hope this series receives a second season. I would love to see how Carmen deals not only with her freedom but her independence in this new world.
As Netflix has continued to expand its content reach internationally, we are rarely left with a sour taste in our mouth post-binge. Roma has been the crowning glory of the Netflix’s Latin American content acquisitions, so expectations were high when it was announced that Siempre Bruja, a show starring Afro-Colombian actress Angely Gaviria, would join their slate of original productions.
The initial playful trailer introduced Carmen, a time-traveling witch, navigating the 21st century, complete with iPhones and apps. From the trailer, we know that she is in a relationship with a white Latinx male and the context of the relationship is left a mystery except for the young man’s death by gunshot. We see Carmen burned at the stake just before a jump to the future where she is attempting to save the young man with the help of her new friends. Minutes into the first episode, we had answers to the questions from the trailer, but somehow leave with more questions? It is explained in flashbacks, that Carmen and Cristóbal are forbidden lovers, because shocker, Cristóbal is the son of Carmen’s owner. In fact, we are given an offensive meet-cute, where they flirt while Carmen is on the auction block. They are caught by his mother, and in another horrifying turn of events, Cristóbal’s father kills him because he would rather have a dead son than one in love with a black bruja. Carmen is then sentenced to be burned at the stake but before her fate is sealed, she makes a deal with a wizard. In exchange for her help, he will aid her in reuniting with Cristóbal.
The optics as the episodes trail on leave viewers wondering what exactly was discussed in the writer’s room. Carmen meanders through the city with no questions regarding why people of lighter complexion have such a proclivity to assist in her mission. One would assume that if you time traveled from 1646 to 2019, you would have some trouble adjusting. However, this is not the case for Carmen, who walks into a university without any issues, something that would not fly in the 17th century. Carmen’s mission, goal, and reason for existing is to get back being a slave and in the arms of Cristóbal. The racial power dynamics of this relationship prompt an immediate raising of one’s brow and poses the question: was the concept of a Afro-Latina witch in the 21st century not interesting enough to the creative team without the slave-owner relationship?
I’ve been thoroughly entertained by several of Netflix’s Spanish-language offerings in the last year. So when Siempre Bruja was announced, with its story about an Afro-Latina witch from colonial times being transported to modern day, I thought it might be fun. But the minute I found it on Netflix, under the English-language title Always a Witch, I was skeptical. Couple that with reviews from numerous women of color about its overt stereotypes and, yeah…
Siempre Bruja would be a show Jane the Virgin’s Rogelio de la Vega wouldn’t do. A series that combines time travel with forbidden love, if that forbidden love was keyed totally towards a white audience. We meet Carmen, a fledgling witch/slave living in the Caribbean in the 1600s. She’s burned at the stake after being caught with her slave owner’s son. The help of a spell sends her to present-day Cartagena as she hopes to find a way to get back to her lover (again, a slave owner’s kid) but, in the meantime, shenanigans! Instead we’re treated to her attempts to get back home – where slavery exists so, why are you going back? – while navigating the world of college sex tapes and a mysterious demonic serial killer that’s offing witches.
Angely Gaviria who plays Carmen is fantastic, and she’s probably the one thing that keeps Siempre Bruja afloat. But the show seems so intent on showing Carmen in the present day without confronting any of the things that should be focused on. Case in point, a young teenage girl whose grown up in slavery doesn’t even stop to question a world where slavery doesn’t exist! Yes, she treats the discovery of iPhones and cars with just as much indifference, but what’s the point of having this be time travel if the lead never finds wonder in anything, let alone the freedom she was denied back in her own time?
The inability (or unwillingness) to confront anything of actual importance to its characters leave Siempre Bruja as little more than a generic diversion. You can watch a character confront a different time in a million different shows with predominantly white actors, so if the series’ existence is predicated on her being a black female witch, why not use it? Carmen’s blackness becomes nothing more than a gimmick to further uncomfortable master-slave narratives. Cute only goes so far, and Siempre Bruja wears out its welcome fast.