Published in


still from the video for Princess Nokia’s “Brujas

post(?)colonial witchcraft

(because it’s not like the US has *stopped* using Puerto Rico like a colony)

What we’re reading


  • colonialism
  • brujería
  • commodification
  • secularization thesis
  • vernacular religion
  • spiritualized materialism
  • capitalism
  • espiritismo

On colonialism, Puerto Rico and brujería

When we’re talking about colonialism, we’re talking about the expansion of a nation’s influence, identity, and control beyond its borders. Colonialism also involves the extraction of wealth, resources, and often human beings from the colonized state/territory, as well as the denial of sovereignty (colonizers deprive the colonized of the right to govern themselves or control their own resources). We get into the relationship between colonialism and religion a lot on Keeping It 101.

Puerto Rico is a de facto colony of what is now the United States. There’s a lot of buzz right now about Puerto Rico, especially around questions of potential statehood. If you’re not familiar with PR’s colonial history, I strongly recommend doing some quick research before diving into today’s readings. I’ve learned a lot from Andrew J. Padilla (@apadillafilm6).

John Oliver’s coverage of Puerto Rico isn’t perfect, but he does give a fairly good summary of the way wealthy mainland Americans have manufactured the island’s debt crisis.

What does this have to do with witchcraft, I hear you asking? Romberg and Rodríguez in particular will help us think about the business of brujería, a cluster of Afro-Caribbean magical traditions practiced especially in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and what’s now the continental United States. But here’s a quick intro.

Princess Nokia, an AfroLatina hip-hop artist, has a gorgeous song in which she claims and explores her own bruja identity.

(If you listen closely, you’ll hear an invocation of Yemaya, an orisha — powerful spirit — of Yoruban origin who is also revered by practitioners of Lucumí/Santeria and brujería — at the beginning of this song.)

The short version is that, much in the same way some Black folks are reclaiming Conjure to connect with their ancestors’ histories and ways of knowing, some Latinx folks are reclaiming brujería, Lucumí, and other AfroCaribbean magical practices. We’ll see similar strategies of resistance and pragmatism in our readings about brujería, but there’s more of a focus in these pieces on the tradition’s commodification — the transformation of concepts, practices, histories, and materials into things that can be bought and sold.

Brown, “Afro-Caribbean Spirituality”

Karen McCarthy Brown is a big name in African Diasporic Religions. Her Mama Lola was among the first religious studies monographs on Vodou in what’s now the United States.

cover of Brown’s Mama Lola

Her focus is on Haiti and Vodou, of course, but this piece helps us recognize similarities among AfroCaribbean Religions more broadly. What are the shared characteristics of AfroCaribbean Spiritualities, as Brown calls these traditions? Which ACSs is Brown surveying in this piece?

Brown says that shared characteristics of ACSs include:

  • a primary focus on healing
  • relational personhood
  • healing happening in context of relationships
  • addressing physical AND social problems
  • engaging in the “science of concrete”
  • negotiating with the “western world”

What do each of these mean? Where do we see this practicality, relationality, and hybridity in ACSs like Conjure, Vodou, brujería, and Lucumí? How do these shared characteristics help us better understand the priorities and worldviews of ACS practitioners?

Romberg, “Ritual Alchemy”

Romberg’s Witchcraft and Welfare is a classic and has definitely shaped my thinking about magic and witchcraft in important ways — especially, as I said above, in relationship to commodification. (Thanks to Dr. Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada for recommending this one!)

cover for Romberg’s Witchcraft and Welfare (2003)

Things to think about as you’re reading this chapter:

  • according to Romberg, what’s the relationship between magic/brujería and modernity?
  • what role does belief play in brujería?
  • what does Romberg mean by “vernacular religion?”
  • what does Romberg mean by “spiritualized materialism?”

Here are some pull-quotes to help you think through these questions. In your responses, be sure to explain what these quotes mean in your own words, and tie them to other examples from the readings for today.

on brujería and modernity

We’re not going to do a deep dive on modernity, but to answer this question, it’s important for you to know about the secularization thesis: the idea that religions evolve over time, starting with so-called “primitive religions” (a category that includes Native and Diasporic traditions as well as polytheistic traditions like Hinduism) through monotheistic traditions and eventually ending up with no religion at all. Here is the thing about the secularization thesis:

The secularization thesis is both extremely wrong and also extremely racist. (You’ll note that the “primitive” religions at the beginning of that timeline are all racialized as not-white, yeah?) People are not getting less religious; they are doing religion differently, and in ways that are harder to measure than just counting heads of who shows up for church on Sunday. But more importantly, the association with religion, and especially non-Christian (or non-traditionally Christian, since many brujas are also Christian) religions, with being not-modern, is a classic and violent strategy of colonialism.

So when Romberg’s thinking about brujería and its relationship to modernity, she’s specifically responding to cultural assumptions that being religious is somehow regressive, and being religious in AfroCaribbean ways is especially regressive. Keep that tension in mind when you think about how Romberg is articulating the relationship between brujería and modernity.

Brujeria has been consistently under attack in the Americas in various degrees of severity since colonization, its practitioners often persecuted and even punished with death…a secular ideology… portrayed Brujeria as an anachronistic remnant of a premodern era…witchcraft and magic have been easily cast as the villains in narratives of progress and development.” (Romberg 2003, 1)

What is Romberg saying here about the relationship between religion and colonialism?

Brujeria has not disappeared with modernity; It has just changed its face…instead of a remission of mysticism in favor of secularism and reason, there has been an increasing emergence of charismatic movements, spiritual healing, and transcendental practices in highly industrialized and technological environments.” (Romberg 2003, 1–2)

How does this correspond to what Chireau and the Manigault-Bryants said about Conjure?

“witchcraft and magic [are] local practices that have arisen typically as forms of resistance to western colonial and modernization processes…[as] a form of political action — a predominantly subversive local idiom that engages in a contestation of colonial and postcolonial forces.” (Romberg 2003, 9–10)

Why is it important to understand brujería as, in part, a strategy of resisting modernity?

on brujería and belief

What is Romberg saying about belief in relationship to how brujería gets practiced? (This is really important, and not just for understanding brujería.)

“The immediate answer to what we believe in is accessible through what we say, but what we actually do — and experience — often has little or no relation to what we say we believe in.(Romberg 2003, 6)

brujería as vernacular religion

We’ve talked about vernacular, or lived, religion a few times now. Revisit our earlier conversations if you’re still fuzzy on the concept.

“Brujeria [is] a form of vernacular culture emerging out of the sum of strategic, individual defiant moves made through time in response to imposed official religious laws and symbols.” (Romberg 2003, 6)

What strategies do we see brujas deploying and why?

“Brujeria rituals [are] a set of ongoing processes of continuity and transformation, fusing official and vernacular forms of worship, the past and the present, economic and transcendental notions of success and progress… [These] rituals both reflect and index past and current processes in society — their structure, gestures, values, and contradictions…“rituals of vernacular religion are always in the making.” (Romberg 2003, 15, 23)

As you’re thinking about brujería as vernacular religion, pay particular attention to how Romberg relates vernacular religion to time.

brujería as spiritualized materialism

As the title of her book suggests, Romberg really wants us to pay attention to the relationship between brujería and capitalism, an economic system that prioritizes material profit and gains over all else.

“Brujeria has taken full advantage of a free material and religious market… becoming an emergent local force that works in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, consumer capitalism and welfare values.” (Romberg 2003, 2)

What is the relationship Romberg is observing between brujería and capitalism?

“Brujos and their followers see material and spiritual progress as well as the attainment of high social status as not only morally legitimate quests but also visible signs of being ‘blessed’ by the spirits, in addition to being a spiritual ‘calling’ and a godly duty.” (Romberg 2003, 2)

Rodríguez, Santería and Espiritismo

Rodríguez is a scholar of religion and progressive social movements, social theory, and liberation theology, currently finishing up his doctorate at Union Theological Seminary.

I included this thread because it helps us think through some of the ways AfroCaribbean Religions are racialized and provides a really clear overview of why this racialization matters — especially in relationship to capitalism. How does Rodríguez help us further understand the interplay of religion, race, and capital?



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Megan Goodwin

author of _Abusing Religion_, co-host of “Keeping It 101: A Killjoy’s Introduction to Religion Podcast,” and wikipedia-certified expert on (ugh) cults