by Odette Casamayor-Cisneros
we must establish authority over our own definition (…) It means that I affirm my own worth by committing myself to my own survival, in my own self and in the self of other Black women. (…)
Claiming some power over who we choose to be, and knowing that such power is relative within the realities of our lives. Yet knowing that only through the use of that power can we effectively change those realities.
Entertainment is the conditio sine qua non of telenovelas; and this is all that accomplishes Always a Witch (Siempre bruja), the Colombian production on Netflix since February 1st.
What is the trouble with the series, then?
Great expectations preceded its première, arisen by the trailer shown months before, in which the mere appearance of its protagonist was a rare occurrence: the splendid Afro-Colombian Angely Gaviria would play the role of Carmen Eguiluz, a slave accused of witchcraft and burnt alive by the Inquisition in 1646, miraculously reappearing on the beach of Cartagena in 2019. Weary of the invisibility of blacks and blackness in most Latin American TV productions, we hoped that Always a Witch would at least start quenching the thirst to watch our stories receiving global recognition. We’ve been anxiously waiting for the series, which proves the capitalization of Gaviria’s dark body and face as a promotional lure to be an effective marketing strategy. However, the team behind this idea appears to be ignorant of one incontestable, basic truth: nowhere in the Americas it is possible to resort to a Black enslaved character while avoiding all discussion on race.
Through ten episodes, Carmen Eguiluz is taken back and forth from slavery to the present, without evoking her blackness. Watching her knocking at the doors of a colonial mansion where she easily finds a place to live and being received with openness and kindness everywhere she goes, one could assume that contemporary Colombia has become a post-racial paradise. Anti-black discrimination seems to be buried in the past, along with slavery. Yet, it is difficult to believe that anti-racist Colombian activists would actually agree with the series’ writers.
Equally suspicious is the absence of black characters in the spaces frequented by Carmen. Except for her friend Daniel (Dubán Andrés Prado), none of the university students and professors, neither the police inspectors or the owners of the colonial mansion are black. They haven’t been completely erased, however. Carmen encounters black Colombians when she visits the neighborhood where she was born. There, 21-century blacks remain confined; dancing, drinking and celebrating a dark-faced saint (Virgen de la Candelaria). Out of this enclave, the only black characters are magical Carmen and the always-smiling Daniel.
Immediately after being launched, Always a Witch has been slammed through social media for its failure to accurately depict the black experience in Latin America -a fact aggravated by the coincidence of the première with the beginning of the Black History Month. The most recurrent criticism was Carmen’s unconditional devotion for Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa), her master’s son. But we all know that love is the strangest thing... Besides, Always a Witch is a telenovela asking the audience to believe in such improbabilities. (Members of the production team previously worked on a famous telenovela whose awkwardness was already announced in its title, La esclava blanca (The White Slave). I then followed the odd romance between the master and the slave, wearing the sarcastic half-smile of someone accustomed to watch this sort of fantasies. In my opinion, the real problem with the series is that its creators never managed to fulfill the promise implied in their promotional campaign. This is not the tale of an Afro-Colombian woman but the story of the white characters dictating her actions. Always a Witch does nothing but follow a tradition, long before deconstructed by Toni Morrison, of the fabrication of black characters by white artists as a means to talk about themselves.
To save her white lover, Carmen Eguiluz travels to the future, sent by a white witch, Aldemar the Immortal (Luis Fernando Hoyos) -who made me jump from my seat when he started reciting a Yoruba prayer (“omi tutu, ana tutu, laroye ilé”) without referring to any African religion. Were the writers aware of their invocation of Elegguá, the orisha mischievously opening and closing our paths in Afro-Cuban santería?
As the story advances, the black girl is either escaping from or searching for one white witch or another, one white lover or the other. She appears to be perfectly happy of devoting her extraordinary powers to their service. In this sense, Carmen Eguiluz becomes the latest addition to the pool of "good" black servants, eager to solve the problems created by their masters.
Towards the end of the season, an array of explicit feminist speeches is voiced by the female characters, which could be related to the high female composition of the creative team. Inspired by the novel Yo, Bruja, by Costa-Rican writer Isidora Chacón and adapted by Ana María Parra, the series was produced by Dago García, María Cervera and Juliana Barrera and directed by Liliana Bocanegra and Mateo Stivelberg.
But Carmen Eguiluz is not only a woman. She is black. She was a slave. Though these conditions are never addressed in the series’ feminist claims. Intersectionality, for its creators, stops at the choice of an attractive black actress as the main character.
Always a Witch is a painful reminder of the media’s inability to recognize the work of Black female writers. That’s why, when struggling to reach the last episode, I couldn’t help but ask myself if the presence of an Afro-Latina writer, producer or director in the creative process would have made it possible for Carmen Eguiluz to shine as the self-determined, truly powerful heroine she was supposed to be.
Cuban born writer and scholar, Dr. Odette Casamayor-Cisneros is currently a professor at the University of Connecticut.