The Political Magic Behind A Show About A Latino Coven Of Queer Witches

brujos round table
PHOTO: COURTESY OF BRUJOS

Brujos is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s a crowdfunded web series starring a coven of queer, Latino witches going through grad school while living in Chicago. 

It’s the brainchild of writer and creator Ricardo Gamboa, who didn’t come out until his mid to late-20s. He moved to New York, had his first gay relationship, and had his heart broken. 

Instead of going to a therapist, Ricardo went a different route. “Since I’m a messy bitch, I went to a psychic, a tarot reader.” He says that reading would become one of the first supernatural occurrences he would experience. Everything the tarot card reader predicted came true.

Courtesy of BRUJOS

That’s around the same time Ricardo was accepted into graduate school, and the idea for Brujos began brewing. At the time, he was researching the hyper-incarceration of black and brown people. He traced it back to colonization. That realization plays a big part in the Brujos plot. 

Each episode is named after a sign from the horoscope. The descriptions read: "Brujos is a supernatural series about gay, Latino doctoral students who are also witches trying to survive the semester, and a witch hunt led by a secret society of the straight, wealthy, white male descendants of the first New World colonizers.” There you have it.

Now, don’t get it twisted. The series is violent. It features a handful of no holds barred sex scenes, and it doesn’t beat around the bush (pardon the pun) when it comes to owning and celebrating the characters’ queerness. The brujos (okay, so mainly Jonathan) are completely unapologetic about their sexuality and how they choose to express it. It’s totally refreshing.

Ricardo says that when he started writing Brujos, shows like HBO’s Girls had just come out. He wanted Brujos to be the complete opposite of the white frivolity, normative, and privileged lives depicted in Girls. He wanted a show that empowers people of color (literally and figuratively) and celebrates the differences in our beautiful, non-normative, creative lives.

Courtesy of BRUJOS

“When you grow up Mexican-American, so much of the quotidian culture and communication takes magic or the supernatural as part of everyday, real-ass life — catching the (evil eye) or getting a limpia (cleansing).” He’s not wrong.

When you're growing up queer, Ricardo says you experience the world differently. For him, something always resonated with the supernatural. He compares it to sometimes feeling like you're a ghost, because your very existence feels haunted by heteronormativity and the threat of violence at every turn.

Ricardo says Brujos is first and foremost “a political project, and one that is invested in political imagination and thinking of different ways to imagine politics and power.”

There’s Panfilo, played by Ricardo, who has telekinetic powers. Then there’s Edwin, who can make himself disappear. Jonathan is the baby-faced brujo of the group, who is described as the most femme, and channels the pain of those around him into screams. Oh, and there’s also Brian, the white guy who doesn’t have any supernatural powers. It’s a running joke in the series that he’s the self-deprecating white guy who has a healthy self-esteem, but knows he’s “normal” next to his superpowers-having minority besties. Ricardo says he’s the pedagogical foil whose character allows us to switch up the way we think of power, and who has it.

Panfilo is the leader of the group. In the beginning of the series, we see his character still clinging to normative ideals. There’s even an ex-girlfriend in the picture, whom Panfilo had been with for seven years before we meet him in Brujos.

Edwin is Afro-Boricua and, as I mentioned before, can make himself disappear. Ricardo explains there are many critiques about Afro-Latinos and how they are basically erased from Latino narratives in the U.S. It’s as if they don’t exist, so this is an extremely literal representation of them in Brujos

Jonathan is the brujo of the group who has the most feminine qualities. His superpower is meant to channel the emotional labor and physical pain women endure during childbirth. His screams represent that and all the other painful duties women are often asked to “perform.” Deep stuff, huh?

Again, although Brian is the only white male character in the series, he has the least power — literally. And not only is he powerless next to his peers, but he’s forced to learn to survive by stepping outside his comfort zone and learning a new language. Actually, he has to do that if he wants to run in solidarity with his brown peers. We hardly ever see the white, cis male character adapting to others. Here, we most definitely do, and it’s a matter of survival.

The main characters in Brujos all attend college. There are a handful of scenes in each episode showing them either a classroom setting, exchanging ideas about historical representations of minorities and social movements. The discussions are led by professors whom I’ve come to learn are not actors, but actual professors the cast describe as loving mentors and radical luminaries.

Scholar representations are more often than not white. Latinos are usually cast in clichéd roles maids, gardeners, gangbangers — you name it. Ricardo wants to add more clarity and depth to Latinos’ portrayals in the media. Why not get more creative with these roles? Ricardo was interested in exploring a university space as the setting for a lot of the scenes. I don’t blame him.

Allowing people the opportunity to self-represent throughout the series was also hugely important, as well. Ricardo says they were very conscious about that during the casting process. That’s why the “Boricua Santera” we see in the series is also just that in real life. 

When it comes to the black magic, Ricardo and his crew were super careful and respectful about how it was represented in the show. He says Brujos is largely inspired by brujería (witchcraft), Santeria, and hoodoo, but the show isn’t looking to provide a how-to manual on curses or love spells for amateur witches. 

“Many of those practices have survived and thrived (and had to do so) in secret and I’ve always been good at keeping secrets.” Fair enough.

There’s also something Ricardo refers to as “respectability politics,” which I totally get. It’s the Latino portrayals of immigrants trying to do good, and gain the acceptance of the dominant culture. Or there’s the typecast of the struggling Latinos that are almost saintly figures straight out of the hood. His point is that being Latino is not a homogenous identity. It’s most definitely not a one-size-label-fits-all. Ricardo wants to show a glimpse of these other identities, some that most of us have never seen before. 

When it comes to LGBTQ representations, Ricardo is just as adamant at allowing a more varied range of representations. “They're largely white and largely center around homo-normative, upwardly-mobile, gym bunny white men. It's the "looking" hegemony. And, I do feel there's been more progress but we need to do better.”

Courtesy of BRUJOS

Brujos is slick, the special effects are on point, and the storylines keep you guessing. As a matter of fact, most episodes end on a cliffhanger. 

Sure, today we see more people of color, LGBTQ folks, and more women in television than ever before, but Ricardo argues most are portrayed in normative scripts playing to the dominant culture. I agree. The media matters a lot. Ricardo wants media representation that isn’t afraid to tackle important social and political questions, like Brujos does.

Ricardo says he has dozens of inbox messages from Brujos viewers celebrating the show. For a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever seen a character like them on screen. That’s a big deal. Some say they had never seen their politics or their spirituality represented on the screen quite like this before. And they’re absolutely right.

“There is this whole POC-nerd-into-supernatural-shit-or-shit-like-Charmed demographic that make me wish someone made Brujos when I was a kid, so I would have known that I wasn't alone.”

There’s also been criticism, which Ricardo is totally open to if it’s helpful, and wants to make the work better. But if it’s someone on an ego-trip just looking to shut down his work because it’s new, and exciting, and possibly threatening the normatively we see on our screens every day, he has not time for it.

It’s important to note that the creators of Brujos don’t have to answer to anyone when it comes to creative control. The own all of their intellectual property. They opted out of mega-funding by a company with big money. Instead, they raised funds the through grassroots efforts. They crowdfunded the whole damn thing, and when you see the production value, you’ll see they didn’t skimp out on scenery, sound, or special effects. 

It was also incredibly important for Ricardo to make Brujos accessible to everyone. That’s why he had trouble securing funding at first when he refused to put the content behind a paywall. He would not put profit before content and that goes a long way when trying to tell stories that are not often told. 

Courtesy of BRUJOS

The filmmakers are still trying to pay off $20,000 of accumulated debt from filming expenses. Even so, Ricardo loves that the whole project has more of a community organizing feel, as opposed to a bunch of starving artists begging for money to make a vanity project. Brujos represents so much more. 

“We are about to have to try and survive the next four years with a president that won the oval office with a campaign comprised entirely of ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia.”

With that being said, people need entertainment now more than ever. Ricardo wants to provide audiences with what he calls “alternative entertainment.” There’s too much information out there these days with the constant 24-hour news cycle that can feel draining at times. Ricardo wants “Brujos” to inspire people, and pique their interest with his type of surreal and radical imagination. He calls it revolutionary entertainment, and we need more of it.

You can watch Brujos here.

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