Magic, Witchcraft and Curanderismo: Let's talk about cultural appropriation

September 18, 2020

 

For some years now, cultural appropriation has been installed in our modern society to judge the practices of some individuals who extract elements of a culture or tradition that doesn't belong to them and use it for their own benefit. Sometimes the accusation is confusing, especially considering that no culture is pure — not even our DNA is pure — and especially in a global world. 

However, appropriation can also be seen as an act of violence, especially when its legitimate bearers are made invisible or muzzled and the privilege, which takes everything, also steals their word.

This is something people of color suffer in countries like the United States, which is especially complex when speaking of magical and spiritual traditions and practices deeply-rooted in the land, family and ancestors.

What is and isn't cultural appropriation when we talk about magic, witchcraft or esoteric traditions? Without the will to do any act of appropriation, we give the word to them, the guardians of ancestral knowledge. 

The pain of the Diaspora

Griselda and Peace are twin sisters born in Brooklyn of Afro-Dominican descent who run Brujas of Brooklyn, where the focus is on womb-healing. Although they were not initiated into a particular tradition, they grew up surrounded by altars, ceremonies and mediums in a family practicing the 21 Divisiones — a derivation of voodoo that honors spirits or "loas" and is practiced in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba or Haiti. 

For Griselda, to speak of magical or spiritual practices strictly linked to a territory can be somewhat "tricky," especially because these traditions are crossed by members of the diaspora.

"The ancestors of the people who practice these Afro-indigenous traditions on this side of the world were captured and brought from the other side, from Africa. So while there is undeniably something powerful about practicing the faith of your ancestors in the same land where they did so for generations, many of us do not have that privilege," she says. "We have had to develop connections with the land we were taken to, our own versions of those ancient practices that are in turn traversed by so many different racial ethnic cultures."

However, there is a big difference, she insists, in approaching beliefs that are "cosmopolitan in a fluid sense" and doing so for a "pure and healing" reason rather than appropriating the knowledge of a community for profit, which is sometimes economic, but can also be exploited for personal power, prestige or followers on social media. 

At the height of the Internet and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, where labels like #witchcraft or #witchesofinstagram abound, cultural appropriation linked to magic has become a sieve where anything goes and not only distorts a path that takes a lifetime to walk, but also is full of misinformation. The roots of rites and world views that cannot be separated from a historical oppression of people of color. 

"Talking about cultural appropriation in these traditions is very complex, because they are in this world, but they are not of this world," Griselda says, adding that in practices like Santeria, the bodies chosen to be the "condom" have been predominantly black. 

"If a white person comes to Santeria they must do so respecting that it is a faith rooted in a very traumatic experience, which was the transatlantic slave trade, and they cannot try to minimize that or exploit that information," adds the Afro-Dominican, although she admits that many people do not do so consciously, but rather "have so much pain that when they see the magic they want to assimilate everything, and sometimes they assimilate without processing it, without recognizing it and without paying homage to it, and they end up copying it without necessarily living the faith or having a particular conviction."

While for Griselda and Peace there is an enormous benefit in opening the healing elements of these traditions to others, one of the biggest problems lies in how to preserve the root of this magic while sharing it with others.

"What my sister and I are trying to do is not so much focus on who takes what or uses what, but how we can build on this magic and preserve its holiness," she summarizes, warning that it is dangerous for people to fall into the hands of charlatans or turn "human mediums" into demigods or gurus — "this happens a lot in the world of yoga," Griselda says. 

"Magic is malleable, it changes and changes you, but you have to create limits around it," she concludes. 

In connection with the earth

Decolonizing medicine is one of the great objectives of Mama Maiz, which is behind the Mexican-American herbalist and healer (they, them) Blanca Diaz. Their practice is rooted in the territory, in the lands of the Tongva natives, in Southern California, where they teach ancestral medicine and knowledge of native plants for healing purposes. 

"I have received many lessons from elders, community members and my ancestors. Curanderismo is a woven braid, composed of teachings that include the ancestors of members of the African Diaspora who were kidnaped by the colonizer and brought to the land of my ancestors, Mexico, just as they brought many plant beings. From the influence of all of them we have this medicine that guides me every day," they explain. 

Blanca rediscovered the traditions of their ancestors very young and had to follow a healing process to be able to do what they do today. 

For an herbalist like Griselda and other native practitioners, the territory is important, but historical violence and migration have made direct contact with the land of their spiritual heritage difficult, and it is complex to know where and when to perform a ceremony or celebrate the medicine.

"I do not have access to the land of my ancestors, but I have access to the teachings and I keep it close. All you can do is ask permission from the people of this land or the land itself," said Griselda.

The stories, have been "buried in the ground to survive" and you have to reconnect with them.

"Today we are all doing our best to come together as we gently dig the soil, as we plant."

In their opinion, initiation into a tradition is not for everyone and requires guidance from the elders and "deep healing," but capitalism is causing all these rites to be misunderstood.

"In some circles I see how younger healers create hierarchies of power that can become what we are trying to abolish. Many will take ONE trip, sit in ONE circle, listen to ONE story, and then get initiated. This is the same monster that colonization/white supremacy and the same violent act that burned our medicines. I am not saying that whites are the only ones who do this, there are also many people of color who participate in this violent act, but the colonial influence and the ancestral trauma that exists makes its way into our sacred spaces and that is why it is unsafe to call oneself a curanderx or shaman."

While modern or "colonial" medicine treats a person in a fragmented way, attending to the ailments of the body and mind through specialists, curanderismo understands body, mind and spirit as a whole that includes wounds not seen under the microscope, and is done in the context of a network where the elders and the community also take part. 

"It would be a game to say that I myself have not participated in some cultural appropriation, especially at the beginning, but I learned that in the process of teaching I cannot and do not want to speak for the indigenous people of this land (Tongva) and that I can only teach what I have been given permission to teach," they say. 

As a person of a non-normative gender, they have seen how ancestral medicine also evolves over time, especially by creating more space for queer healers to practice it. "At the beginning of my journey it was obvious that many people in ancestral medicine were either two spirits or lived within the third or fourth gender, or were not binary. It wasn't until six years ago that we started asking the elders why a specific language was used."

Although they admit that it would be better if there were other better ways of sharing knowledge through mutual support networks than by taking courses and seminars, it is not only a territory that one lives in, but also a system as strongly rooted as plants are. So is magic.

"Capitalism is a bitch ain't it!," concluded Blanca. 

 

Source: Magic, Witchcraft and Curanderismo: Let's talk about cultural appropriation - Al Día