The bruja - Spanish for “witch” — sitting across from me proudly sports a BROOKLYN chest tattoo in sprawling Gothic letters. I first notice it peeking out from under her baby-pink tube top, announcing her roots with the same defiance as her sharp Nuyorican accent when she greets me at the East Williamsburg vegan diner Champs — a favorite of hers, primarily for its seitan asada. “How y’all tricked my Puerto Rican ass?” she says jokingly about the fake meat before settling on a more indulgent (though still vegan) meal: macaroni and cheese, a side of fries and a banana milkshake.
Emilia Ortiz’s playful irreverence has no doubt burnished her internet fame, but that fame can mostly be attributed to what she promulgates. She’s part bruja, part healer and part mental-health advocate, and she draws on an eclectic collection of spiritual practices, including candle work, reiki and meditation, to help people live better lives. In minute-long Instagram videos — she practices both privately and publicly —Ortiz doles out affirmations and guidance to some 227,000 followers. She’s often sitting in front of her vast collection of houseplants. They’re named, of course: Chachi, Rosa, Conejo Malo, etc.
Instead of the hushed tones you might expect from a counselor, Ortiz punctuates her videos with expletives: “In case you ain’t already know, I’ma tell your ass: You are a magnificent-ass being. Your guts are made of motherfucking stardust, okay?… I’ve been checking up on your ass in the collective consciousness, and let me tell you: You’re beautiful.”
This tough talk distinguishes her from her peers — a growing cavalcade of women who are reclaiming previously denounced forms of spirituality. In pop culture, online and in real life, there has been a resurgence of sorcery. Consider the recent flood of witch inspired television shows, such as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, American Horror Story, the Charmed reboot and Game of Thrones. As of 2014, approximately 700,000 American adults identified as Wiccan or pagan, compared with just 8,000 Wiccans in 1990. Although organized religion is losing favor among younger people — about 35 percent of millennials don’t identify with any religion, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey — the cultural demand for spirituality, self-help and wellness is booming.
In Latinx communities in particular, a renewed focus on brujería signals a long-overdue resurrection of sorts — a revival of the once-condemned mysticism entwined in our heritage. Throughout the colonial era, the Catholic Church persecuted brujas, branding them evil enchantresses. Today brujas can practice openly, which means a new generation is exploring brujería in the same place they explore everything else: the internet.
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