Brujería and Healing: An Interview with Lorraine Monteagut of Bruja Heights
Brujería has been appearing more and more in trending hashtags, online articles, and Instagram posts. In Spanish, it means witchcraft, but that may or may not be how many are using the term today.
I (Annalise Mabe) sat down with Lorraine Monteagut who is a humble powerhouse of forces. Not only is she a Ph.D. in Communication, she’s also a certified yoga teacher (RYT-200), astrologer, tarot card reader, graphic designer and an incredibly talented writer. Most of her work has focused on Bruja feminism, spiritual activism, and the ways second-generation Latinx immigrants are reclaiming the spiritual traditions of their homelands.
For the last two and half years, she has co-hosted the hugely popular Full Moon Women’s Sadhana workshop at Sattva Yoga Seminole Heights in Tampa, Florida which has grown out of the community’s need and desire for a collective space to share, grow, and heal. Through these monthly meetings, women in the community have been able to participate in writing exercises and new takes on old Brujería rituals.
Now, Lorraine embarks her next endeavor: Bruja Heights, a collective of practitioners offering spiritual healing and oracle services, including astrology and tarot readings, energy work, and ritual facilitation. The brujas of Bruja Heights seek to bridge the practices of their ancestors and the growing interest in witchcraft in popular culture and their local communities. They are also working to provide a platform of expression for Brujx practitioners, giving voice to Latinx, POC and LGBTQ+ experiences that are usually underrepresented in spiritual and wellness circles. To them, the new wave of Brujería is about decolonizing magic and tapping into issues in intersectional feminism, and they hope to contribute their art to the emerging Brujx international community.
AM: Could you first tell me a little bit about yourself and what made you interested in Brujería?
LM: First, I have to say that it’s still weird for me to claim “Brujería” at all, because like many second-generation Hispanic immigrants, I grew up Catholic. We were no strangers to rituals, to smoke and mirrors, but back then, practices that have now entered the mainstream — placing offerings on altars, cleansing energies in the house, invoking protection spells, etc. — were either kept private or rejected as blasphemous. I remember when I first started dabbling in the occult during my middle school “The Craft” phase (of course, right? if there’s one thing that’s universal among pre-pubescent girls in the mid-90s…), I was told by a friend’s mom that it was the devil’s work. This is how we learn to be ashamed of our roots.
While on the outside my family assimilated to a more Anglo-Christian tradition of worship, there were indications that we were missing the occult practices of our homelands. We got our fix where we could. I tagged along with my aunts as they consulted with strange priests, who warned me to stay outside while they carried out their ritual sacrifices, things I could only imagine, things I thought maybe they’d learned to do in Colombia. And then there’s my great grandmother. She was a practicing spirit medium in Santiago de Cuba, and when I sat with her, I longed to ask her about what she had experienced, about her training and how she helped people and why she stopped. I wanted to do it, too, but felt silly asking, only half believing.
I always felt that there was a secret power hidden in our past, and that if I could just tap into it I could fix things, heal the hurts in my family, heal myself. I grew up with anxiety and had the occasional panic attack, and at a young age, I found comfort in meditation, in chanting, in making potions out of crushed leaves. I didn’t really know what I was doing, nobody ever trained me, but it felt natural to do these things.
So I’ve always been interested in Brujería, but in my early adulthood, I didn’t really know what to do about it. In the absence of any guidance, the drive to practice kind of fell dormant.
Image description: Black and white photo of Lorraine sitting at a tarot table behind a curtain.
AM: Your coming to terms with your own spirituality and rituals is super intriguing, as is your great grandmother being a practicing spirit medium. Can you tell me more about her? What she might have been doing or who she might have been trying to heal?
LM: One of the biggest regrets I have in my life is not asking my great grandmother more questions. I had so many opportunities while she was alive — she died at 96, when I was 21. Her memory was sharp until the very end. She had bad eyesight, so she memorized all our phone numbers, birthdays, anniversaries. I knew she remembered everything.
Her name was Elvira. I sat with her often, and I knew even back then that I was letting time slip by, but it was hard to broach the subject of spirits. I was having terrible recurring bouts of sleep paralysis at the time. It’s common, your body remains paralyzed in REM even after you wake up, and it’s often accompanied by scary hallucinations. Maybe you’ve experienced it? I felt embarrassed talking about it, and I wasn’t sure if the cause was science or spirits. I guess I’m still not sure, or is there a difference? I wanted so badly to tell her what was happening and ask her to make a connection for me, or to teach me how to do it myself.
But Elvira had stopped practicing decades earlier. My father told me that the last séance she ever conducted was in Brooklyn in the 70s. She was trying to contact his mother, her daughter, who’d died of ovarian cancer days earlier. It didn’t go well. My father says he watched her become possessed by a bad spirit who threw her around the room. The whole family was very affected by the scene, and Elvira vowed to never practice again. I never met Elsie, but I have her name. It’s my middle name.
I think maybe we pass on names and heirlooms because the full stories of our people are sometimes too hard to tell, or there are too many details missing. So we fill in the gaps. We enlist people like spirit mediums to fill them for us, to come to a story that works for us, so we can move on with the process of healing. The stories become myths, something between truth and fiction.
I’ve pieced together that Elvira was part of a collective of espiritistas that practiced in the orient of Cuba, a region influenced by African practices like those of Yoruba, from which Santeria sprang in the Caribbean. She must have gone through training and initiation through some group or other, but I’ll never know the details. My father says that when he was little, a neighbor looked into his eyes and told them how pretty they were, and then his eyes suddenly shut. He couldn’t open them for days, and none of the doctors his parents took him to could help. Suspecting evil eye, Elvira enlisted the help of other espiritistas and they chanted in a circle around my father. That’s when his eyes opened. He says the first thing he saw was the circle of women all in white. The Brujas, he called them.
AM: Wow, that is fascinating. I’m also interested in how Brujería intersects with chronic illness and the healing that can come from it. In Western, modern medicine (which is good and necessary, too) everything is about the physical, the tangible, the seeable. But what are we to say about Brujeria and spiritual healing or how these rituals might actually influence our physical world and bodies? Can you speak to that?
LM: That anecdote of my father and the evil eye is an extreme example of the way a spiritual — or psychological, if you prefer — ailment can manifest physically. Of course we need modern medicine, but there is demand for other types of healing. Brujería provides a set of practices to operate in this liminal space. But what is it? Brujería means witchcraft in Spanish. It’s an abstract term that encompasses a huge geography and history of practices. Of course, witchcraft is not just Latin American and has appeared in so many different ways, taking on specific forms depending on a practitioner’s tradition and training. Everyone has a unique story and entryway.
For me, sickness was the entryway. At one point in my mid-20s, my night terrors and anxiety got so severe that I had psychosomatic rashes all over my body. I’d go to doctors and they’d try to put me on hormones or antidepressants, these chemicals I think we too often reach for when we aren’t really sure where our problems are coming from. I thought, what’s the difference between them and magic? I know some people will crucify me for saying that. I know they really help some people, but the drugs weren’t for me.
So I tried to simplify things. I focused on getting my body healthy. I started practicing yoga, particularly mantra/chanting and pranayama (breathing! I started really breathing for the first time!) and that’s when things began to change for me. On the one hand, I’m sure the physical exercise provided all sorts of chemical benefits, which translated into increased confidence and the feeling of wellness. But something else started to happen — I felt rooms opening up inside. The visions that came in the night didn’t vanish, but instead clarified. At first, they became more violent. Shadowy figures appeared in the corners of my room and tried to get into me. When I allowed the fear to come and go, I could look into their faces and see my own memories. A memory that I had been trying to forget returned in full force. The person on top of me was a boyfriend of my past, who had gotten drunk one night and taken his anger out on me. He’d pinned me to the bed and hit me in the temple. I saw stars. Years went by. I hadn’t allowed myself to return from those stars, until I started to unlock the secrets in my body.
The unlocking is not pretty. The morning after I allowed that vision back in, an ovarian cyst ruptured, the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. It’s like I’d had an exorcism. But after that, things started to get better. The night terrors subsided. In its place was a raw source of creativity. In yoga parlance, my kundalini had awoken, the bridge between my body and the spiritual world becoming stronger. You can’t draw neat lines between the physical and the emotional and the spiritual.
That’s when I knew that there was magic out there, practices of transformation that could be learned and taught. At this time, I sought out a shamanic practitioner and learned how to do a version of what I’d stumbled upon accidentally, but through a safer container. For six weeks in 2015, I trained in the process of shamanic journeying, which provides a structure for approaching uncertainty and fear and returning with helpful stories.
I realized that this is what I wanted to help people do, to help them clarify the blockages in their life and transform them into opportunities. I began to co-facilitate a full moon women’s circle at Sattva Yoga in Seminole Heights with the owner, my dear friend. They are still going monthly, nearly three years later. We guide women through journaling, sharing, and writing obstacles and intentions. It’s about being honest with where you are and remaining dedicated to keeping track of your thoughts and feelings on a monthly basis. Many participants have told us that this monthly process has helped them identify difficult issues or memories and work through them and grow and accomplish things they didn’t think possible. That’s the real magic right there. Yes, we chant and light candles and burn our intentions as a group. But the magic is in the intention, itself, and the personal practice.
I noticed that the attendees of the circles were younger, browner and queerer than those who typically came to yoga classes. There was something there. And that’s when I tapped into what we have been calling Brujería, or to be more exact, Bruja feminism. Every generation has their own wave of feminism and spiritual activists reclaiming magical traditions. The current one reflects the intersectional feminism of the age; it’s led by people of color with ancestral ties to magic and is inclusive of an increasing number of second-generation Latinx immigrants (the x neutralizes the gender of the words Latino/a — for that matter, many of these practitioners prefer Brujx, pronounced broo-hex, to make room for queer and gender non-conforming individuals).
Brujx magic centers on transforming the sickness of our bodies and our politics into community and power. This is what I mean by “spiritual activism” or “magic as resistance” — a spirituality that’s not all about light and image, but about facing our fears and the ugliest social problems of our time. Brujx practitioners are reclaiming the spiritual traditions of their ancestors and mixing them with new wave practices to call attention to the horrors of racism, xenophobia, fatphobia, misogyny, you name it. They are super tapped into the politics of the world, and they take to social media to offer rituals and spells for facing and transforming these horrors. They are decolonizing magic.
Image description: Lorraine pointing to tarot cards in a nine-card spread.
AM: I think it’s so important to make space for everyone, and it’s great that the Brujx movement is doing that. On another note, we are seeing a lot of wellness trends, and Brujeria is sort of popular again right now. Bitch Media recently commented on this saying: “Westerners [are] appropriating spiritual practices from other cultures and commodifying them for their personal enlightenment.” So, how can people who don’t have this in their cultural heritage interact with the practice without appropriating or further colonizing? Or should they not participate at all?
LM: This is something I’ve struggled with a lot personally, and I’m definitely not the authority on who should practice what. That’s the point of everything else I’m going to say — I think we need to realize that we are never the authority over anything but our own lives, and everyone has a different story, a different set of skills. We each need to be honest about where we are coming from and do our homework about what we are practicing and who we are borrowing from.
I’m white passing Latinx. That is, I look white, and people are usually surprised when I start speaking Spanish. This has come with a certain privilege, as I’ve been able to walk through my life without experiencing some of the racism that my browner cousins have had to experience. I have attained a higher level of education (I got to do a whole PhD on this stuff!) while a lot of my family members had babies in their teens and continue to work their butts off to sustain their families. White people are treated better and have more opportunities than brown people, and this includes people like me, who pass as Anglo.
As more people started to seek out my services, I really wrangled with my place in all of this. I knew I had something to offer, but I felt guilty about the prospect of making a living on practices that didn’t fully belong to me. And as magic has become a stronger fad, as happens from time to time, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the sweeping appropriation of indigenous traditions in pop culture. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen just released a new line of “witchy” products, which includes a $49 sage stick. This might seem harmless — if you don’t like it, don’t buy it, right? — but things like this take power away from practitioners whose lives and spirits are rooted in this work. It commodifies ancient traditions. And for fuck’s sake, I can go to my local botanica down the street and get a sage bundle for a couple of dollars, tops! So it’s just making a mockery of something that is really serious to a lot of people.
I do think that anyone called to magic should be able to practice, but the danger is in doing something merely for image and entertainment. If you’re interested in a particular practice, do your research. Seek out a reputable teacher. Find out who’s been doing this before you and trace the practices back as far as you can. Enter the practice in an authentic, humble way. And stand as an ally to native practitioners who didn’t just stumble upon this, but whose whole lives and histories are entwined in these practices.
Now, everything is borrowed really, and even practitioners with strong lineages need to fill the gaps in their traditions in creative ways. Every wave of spirituality adds a new aspect to the old. Take tarot, one of the most popular “witchy” things on the current scene. The origin of tarot is fuzzy, but it became popularized in medieval Europe. And the astrology of the mainstream is based on Greek mythology! Does anyone really own anything?
But here’s the thing — there are politics to what we are doing, and we can’t ignore those politics. As the Bitch Media article points out, these things come in waves. People turn to magic when the structures around them are failing, when we need something else to survive. If we are just going to wave palo santo around because it smells nice and looks cool, we are doing a disservice to the history of these practices and to the things they are working to resist. If you’re not doing this to heal in some way, to heal yourself or the systems that oppress others, then what you’re doing is spiritual materialism, another manifestation of the problems of capitalism. You are doing the opposite of what magic is about.
So in short, yes, please, I think everyone needs magic. But what the world needs is fewer egomaniacs and more allies. The point of all this is to make a connection, to channel understanding, to transform the sickness and isolation of individuality into healthy community. We need to step back and allow indigenous and people of color, queer and marginalized folks, anyone who has existed at the borders of hate and love to take the reigns and teach us the way.
Image description: Black and white illustration of a hand reaching for a crescent moon among small yellow stars.
That was my idea behind Bruja Heights. I want this to not just be about me reading people’s cards or creating natal charts (though oh boy, I really love doing that). I want to be an ally for others who don’t usually have a platform on which to practice. I want for those of us who’ve been able to express ourselves in healthy ways to be a beacon for those who haven’t had the same opportunities. Most of all, I hope for a future in which communities of healing and understanding outnumber those of hate and isolationism.
That’s what magic is all about, to me.