Romance, as a genre, fraught with drama, challenges the notion of healthy relationships. Netflix You can be seen as both a romance and a horror-driven narrative. A man obsessed with a woman stalks, seduces, and eventually murders in a twisted romantic conquest. NBC's Hannibal plays to similar themes. A therapist, intrigued by an unusual patient, designs elaborate tests to bring out dormant homicidal desires. In both of these examples, the creators spend ample time exploring the unhealthy aspects of these relationships. The forbidden nature of how the protagonists' court their prey, makes the hunt alluring to watch.
When applied to an unchecked master/slave narrative, however, these bad boys go from sexually appealing to downright appalling. As Netflix latest’s show Siempre Bruja demonstrates, there is nothing alluring about a slave/master love story. Instead, it erases the trauma of slavery, the history of survival, and deeply offends the descendants of the enslaved as recognized soon after its premiere.
Siempre Bruja, which translates to Always a Witch, opens with Carmen (Angely Gaviria), a slave who practices witchcraft, tied against a pyre. She's being burned at the stake for “seducing” her owner's son, Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa). In a flashback, it’s revealed that the pair were caught kissing by Cristóbal’s mother and at Carmen’s sentencing, he’s shot for trying to defend their love. While awaiting her eventual death, Carmen makes a deal with a powerful wizard to travel into the future (2019) to do a task for him, in exchange for bringing Cristóbal back to life.
June Erlick, a publications director in Harvard’s Latin American Studies department, studied Colombian telenovelas extensively and said these kinds of portrayals of Black women and slavery are not uncommon in televised Colombian narratives. She referenced the telenovela La Esclava Blanca, which translates to White Slave about Victoria, a white woman who was raised by slaves, and now seeks to be an abolitionist.
“It’s even more offensive than Siempre Bruja, in my opinion,” Erlick tells Broadly. In discussing the issues of romance and telenovelas Erlick landed on Fernando Gailtan’s Yo soy Betty, la fea—North American viewers might know the adaptation Ugly Betty. In both series, Betty, viewed as ugly, finds herself in a new job where she excels but ends up falling for her boss. Her boss, not initially in love, fakes it in order to keep her around. In the Colombian version, Betty chooses to stay with her boss in the end, “The French photographer obviously loves her and sees her attractiveness,” Erlick explained. “He sees how smart she is and yet she chooses in favor of this former boss. The ending made a lot of people, especially feminists, angry.”
Though the finale left some wanting more, Erlick still found the show to be progressive. “I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m contradicting myself, but Betty's making her stand by becoming this extraordinarily successful, businesswoman.” Women striving for success and falling into toxic relationships are prevalent globally in soap-opera-styled shows. Korea’s Strong Girl Bong-soon, Italy’s My Brilliant Friend, and Britain’s Killing Eve all use this trope as the central pillar of their story.
History-based romances often take liberties with the facts of their time. Sometimes changes are made for aesthetic purposes, sometimes to better enhance the story, on occasion mistakes are just made.
Many note that Siempre Bruja doesn't take into account any of the rich histories Cartagena provides. For example, in the early seventeenth century the community of San Basilio de Palenque was founded as a community of freed slaves. Two-hundred years before Nat Turner began his rebellion in the states, King Benkos Biohó and his maroons built Palenque "the walled city." The execution of Biohó in 1619, was widely spread to deter the uprising of more slaves. It took nearly a hundred years, but in 1713, the Spanish Crown officially decreed the cities occupants as free. Today, San Basilio de Palenque still stands with some 4,000 descendants of the first free colony in the Americas. So why didn’t Carmen visit a freed community to seek guidance from other brujas?
Carmen’s well being, her emotional journey from slave to freed person, and the monumental shift in lifestyle are consistently an afterthought. In fact, it doesn’t seem like much has changed for Carmen at all. Even in the 21st century, Carmen lives in servitude to every woman she meets. She works hard to make sure their hotel (the same place where she was kept as a slave 400 years before) is clean, endangers herself by using her power to help a friend shake a predator, and is asked to seduce a man to help save a relationship. It is clear that though she isn’t a slave in 2019, Carmen is still valued less than all of her white counterparts.
In her essay for Electric Lit, writer Jennifer Baker summarized the deep issues behind centering Black trauma. “When the Black pain narrative is used to try to bring awareness but doesn’t examine the systems in place, these stories cater to the idea that Black people need to be saved, not that our political structures need to be questioned and altered," she says.
Here lies Siempre Bruja's worst offense; the distinct lack of profound impact being enslaved has on each individual.
To depict any white slave owner as anything other than willingly taking part in the degradation of society is cruel and misleading. Cristobal doesn't try to help Carmen escape, until she demands it. He cannot fathom why she wouldn't accept freedom papers and marry him, when the rest of her community would be left behind, still suffering. Yet, Carmen never calls this into question. Never truly pushes back because the narrative says they should be in love. So, she loves him blindly, even when it means leaving a free society to return to bondage.
“I will be the first to say that I wanted this more than anything. Stories about Black/Latinx/Latin American witches are few and far between,” writer Kayla Sutton says in her critique of the show. “After finishing the series, I have more questions now than when I began, the biggest being, what would it look like to have someone properly tell this story? Questions like these must be asked when plundering the very real pain of Black bondage in the Americas.”
Mayra Luna, an Afro-Colombian actress, tells Broadly that the show's controversial themes are indicative of the pervasiveness of racism within the culture. "In Latin America, even in 2019, Black Latinx people continue to be discriminated against," she says. "The struggle has been different and very hard. I do not believe Always a Witch is the place to talk about the topic of slavery.”
Luna is hopeful that the second season if the show is renewed, addresses systemic racism and colorism that’s oppressed generations of diasporic people. "I hope that in the second season they can explore the themes of slavery more seriously, but I also understand that this is fiction and we cannot wait for a history lesson in a series of fiction."
Though Luna has come to terms with the disappointment that can arise from poorly told historical fiction, there was an opportunity missed in Siempre Bruja. Casual browsing of Colombian telenovelas showcases a distinct lack of roles for Afro-Latinx. Across South America, despite having a large population of Black descendants of slaves, their stories are still missing from the popular culture narratives. This lack of representation can be directly linked to slave theme birthday parties of the fabulously wealthy and low self-esteem in underrepresented children.
Until more Black voices are given center stage in telenovelas, racist portrayals of Black Latinx population will continue. Carmen may always be a witch, but she shouldn’t always be a slave.