Netflix recently dropped it’s newest teen drama Siempre Bruja and I couldn’t have been more disappointed.
Like many young women of our generation, I’ve always loved a good witch story.
It’s no surprise when you think about it. Many of us grew up with a slew of kickass witchy classics, from The Craft and Practical Magic to Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and even Hocus Pocus. These stories focused on women who were a little bit different, a little bit dangerous, a little outside the norm.
One thing that these otherwise awesome stories have always lacked for me, though, was a bit of diversity. As fun and empowering as these stories have always been, it would have been great if, at least once, one of those female leads looked a little more like me and the girls that I grew up with. Black and brown witches have always either been the side characters or completely absent altogether.
So when I heard about Netflix’s new show Siempre Bruja (or Always a Witch in English) I was pretty excited. A new show about a time-traveling afro-Latina teenage witch? Released on the first day of Black History Month? So here for it.
I was, however, a little bit concerned about the fact that she was also a slave — a detail that sounded pretty heavy for a soapy teen drama series. But still, I had high hopes. I mean, this girl is the female lead. The storyline couldn’t end up being that bad, could it?
Pro tip: if you ever find yourself thinking that something can’t be that bad, it probably is.
Our lead character Carmen is not only a slave, but a slave who “falls in love” with her master’s son, a white man named Cristóbal. As we learn early in the first episode, their romance is discovered by Cristóbal’s family, who accuse Carmen of using witchcraft to make him fall in love with her.
While Carmen is sentenced to be burned at the stake, a distressed Cristóbal ends up being shot trying to defend her. After making a deal with an imprisoned wizard, Carmen agrees to take on a mission that requires traveling to the future, in exchange for a chance to save Cristóbal’s life.
Yes, you heard that right. The entire plot of the show hinges on Carmen, a slave, trying to save the life of the slave owner she’s in love with. Yikes.
The big question here is just…why?
Why this romance?
It’s clear from the way Cristóbal is depicted in the show that we as an audience are meant to see him as a good person and to root for his and Carmen’s relationship. But, no matter how many loving flashbacks the show gives us, there’s just no way to justify their “romance.” The power dynamic between them is too unequal to create anything remotely mutual. In reality, any historical relationship between these two people would have been far from romantic, even if Cristóbal was a (quote, unquote) Good Slave Owner.
Unfortunately, pop culture has a habit of romanticizing unequal power dynamics and the idea of the slave/master romance is nothing new. It’s a disturbing trope and it contributes to existing ideas that, hey, maybe slavery wasn’t that bad.
Sorry everyone but yes, it really was.
So, why this narrative?
Aside from just the problematic romance angle, the question still remains, why include a slave narrative at all?
When you take away the baggage of the slavery backstory, Siempre Bruja is actually a fun, delightfully dramatic telenovela about an out-of-place heroine adjusting to an unfamiliar setting and trying to save the world. It’s a familiar fantasy premise with a funny, engaging lead, and an adorable, CW-worthy, supporting cast. Honestly, why couldn’t it have just been that, instead of including all of this slavery stuff?
If this show hadn’t focused on a black or afro-Latina lead, then you can be sure that, like Sabrina (both versions), Charmed, and so many others before it, nobody would have felt the need to insert a slavery storyline.
However, when it comes to stories about black and brown people that engage with history, it seems that slavery is too often the go-to. And yet, there are so many other historical moments involving black and brown people to pull from that don’t involve slavery. In fact, there were even black people during that era who — wait for it — weren’t slaves.
And I’m not saying that slavery should never be explored in fiction. It’s important to tell that story meaningfully, and it’s definitely important to talk about its global impact in places we don’t often see it depicted, like Siempre Bruja’s Colombian setting.
However, with its fun, soap-opera tone, Siempre Bruja simply is not a show equipped to deal with that kind of storyline. And honestly, Carmen, one of our few dark-skinned witch protagonists, deserved way better.