“A mi hijo la hicieron brujería,” stated the Mexican mother as she choked back tears. Both she and her husband sat in a therapist’s office as they made themselves present for a meeting regarding their son. The mother was saying that her husband’s parents cast a spell on her during her pregnancy with her son.
The family had immigrated to the United States about five years ago, and it was evident that their traditions and culture were still strongly present within their family system and community. They told the therapist that this spell resulted in their son’s diagnosis of autism.
Both mother and father had sought out multiple curanderos, or healers, to heal the child from the spell, paying thousands of dollars for his improvement and the possibility of reversing the spell. As the parents spoke, you could feel the apparent defeat and hopelessness around finding “healing” and not knowing how to move forward with the diagnosis that was given to their child.
The clinician in training was at a loss for how to help the family.
The therapist had never been taught how to work with families or clients outside of Western culture. They were, however, well trained to work with clients who could understand psychoeducation within a setting that emphasized behavioral interventions. After the therapist had met with the family, they immediately spoke to their supervisor for guidance and consultation.
Once again, the supervisor reiterated the importance of psychoeducation and teaching the family about the bio-psychological factors that play into understanding and helping their child. Subsequently, in their second meeting, the therapist did what their supervisor advised them to do.
They sat with the family and provided psychoeducation. During the meeting, the therapist noticed how dismissed and offended the family felt. After that meeting, the therapist never heard back from the family. Had the therapist known some of the tenets of brujería, santería, and espiritismo, things may have gone differently.
Understanding the History of Brujería, Santería, and Espiritismo
In many Latin American countries, Catholicism is the predominant religion, and it is embedded into the region’s traditions and cultural practices. However, Catholicism was established through the forcible suppression of thousands of cultures, traditions, and beliefs that the Spanish extinguished with colonialism.
To survive, thousands of indigenous people and African slaves had to adopt Catholicism and reject their previous faith. Others decided to uphold their religious/spiritual identity and use Catholicism as a shelter to keep practicing their beliefs. This is how traditions like brujería, santería, and espiritismo were born.
Santería was developed in Cuba from the Yoruba people’s beliefs and customs, which incorporates some aspects of Catholicism. While santería and espiritismo are ubiquitous in the Caribbean, we also see the bridging of indigenous beliefs and Catholicism in several Latin American cultures. The majority of the people in Central and South America might use more of the language of brujería negra or magia negra and brujería blanca or magia blanca.
Brujería blanca or magia blanca is considered good magic, used to protect, heal, or gain prosperity and blessings. Brujería negra or magia negra is considered bad magic, as it is used to harm others, whether with sickness or as a form of vengeance. It is common for people who believe in brujería, santería, or espiritismo to still believe in Christianity; they hold space for both beliefs even though they are different.
Brujería, santería, and espiritismo beliefs have been passed down for generations and are part of cultural practices that many individuals uphold as part of their cultural identity. Some examples of these are el día de los muertos, or day of the dead, and the adoration of La Santa Muerte. These rituals combine Catholic and indigenous beliefs, which allows us to see how these cultures blended together.
These traditions connect many people with their cultural roots. Some people who believe in these faiths might argue that their mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, or psychological or emotional distress, are rooted in the belief that brujería negra was done to them.
Keep Your Biases in Check
In the same way that we approach individuals from diverse backgrounds, we must also approach people who believe in brujería, santería, or espiritismo with respect and curiosity. Leaning into exploring brujería is an essential practice. Many clinicians might steer away from exploring this belief system because of their countertransference or biases. Additionally, because of their biases or the newness of the topic of brujería, clinicians might, consciously or unconsciously, want to challenge their patients’ belief systems.
Veering away from exploration and their countertransference, however, will likely negatively affect the therapeutic relationship.
Explore Meaning Instead of Oppressing Further
Much like in the example above, many mental health professionals are trained to see people who believe in brujería and provide psychoeducation. Psychoeducation can, at times, be used as a tool to continue colonizing as it invalidates and perpetuates the oppression of indigenous beliefs and spirituality.
By not respecting, validating, and curiously exploring our patients’ beliefs around brujería, santería, or espiritismo, we are enacting colonization and re-colonizing our patients. By re-colonizing them, we may bring about a trauma response that has been ingrained in our patients and passed down through generations. They will respond in the same ways their indigenous and African ancestors responded to the conquistadors.
These trauma responses may vary, but they can include: disbelief, mistrust, anger, defensiveness, and learned helplessness, which will lead to rejecting that cultural piece of their identity. Patients may then begin seeing their belief system as a cognitive distortion, incongruence, or as a form of denial. Additionally, this response could lead our patients to respond adversely and avoidantly to treatment and support from mental health professionals.
Honor Your Client’s Experience
Like the case mentioned above, many clients might come to therapy stating that they have a mental health concern because someone performed brujería negra. That said, the idea of psychology and therapy is not a common belief in the Latinx culture. For someone of this background to walk into a therapy room and disclose information about a spell cast on them or their loved one speaks to their need to find help and support.
Most likely, holding a belief about a spell or curse causes the individual to feel disempowered, hopeless, and out of control. Latinx clients will be ambivalent about these feelings; therefore, they will use narratives to explain their experiences of brujería. As clinicians, it is essential to use the third ear and listen for themes of disempowerment, hopelessness, and lack of control.
Because these themes are so important, it is essential to name them and bring them to the patients’ awareness — we have to validate our patients’ experiences. By validating their experience and demonstrating radical acceptance, the client will feel seen, heard and understood, which will break the colonial premise that only people in power are worthy of understanding. This approach will lead to positive outcomes.
Step Into Your Client’s Worldview
Finally, it is essential to explore the patient’s spirituality or belief system and the role that brujería, santería, or espiritismo play in their worldview. Most people who believe in this spirituality may also believe in a major religion (i.e., Catholicism). Therefore, exploring how these two interact is of the utmost importance. Some questions that a clinician might ask to explore the patient’s belief system include:
- Inquiring about what spiritual practices they find the most helpful
- Asking how can they be more intentional in finding helpful practices
- Exploring the reasoning behind their spiritual practice
- Collaborating and referring to spiritual leaders within the community in conjunction with therapy
While there is a copious amount of research identifying the therapeutic relationship as the key mechanism of change in therapy, it is vital to remember that many Latinx patients thrive and heal through the community.Therefore, healing may not happen individually, but rather through relationships.
As therapists, we must aim to convey acceptance and understanding for those who hold onto beliefs of brujería, santería, and espiritismo so that they do not become viewed as mentally unstable. Instead, working in collaboration with the clients’ spiritual healers and with clients’ spiritual beliefs can provide a window into greater understanding and healing.
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 Garrard, V., Freston, P., & Dove, S. C. (2016). The Cambridge history of religions in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Hodge, D. R., Limb, G. E., & Cross, T. L. (2009). Moving from colonization toward balance and harmony: A Native American perspective on wellness. Social Work, 54(3), 211–219. doi: 10.1093/sw/54.3.211
 Rubaii, N. M., Castro, S. L.-D., & Appe, S. (2019). Pueblos indígenas como víctimas de los genocidios pasados y actuales: un tema esencial para el currículo de administración pública en América Latina. Opera, (25), 29–54. doi: 10.18601/16578651.n25.03
Interested in learning more about decolonizing psychology? Check out Manuel Blasini-Méndez’s recent article, Decolonizing Psychology Programs: A User’s Guide.
- Let’s Not Re-Colonize our Clients: Exploring Brujería in Latinx Culture - February 3, 2021