Published Jan 19 2023
Brujas is the second book I’ve read by Brenda Lozano, who is easily becoming one of my favorite authors. Brujas, or its English translation, Witches,is a novel about a young journalist, Zoe, who is interviewing a famous curandera, Feliciana, from San Felipe, Oaxaca, Mexico, after Zoe learns about the death of Feliciana’s cousin, Paloma. Throughout the interview with Feliciana, Zoe learns as much about herself as she learns about the journey of Feliciana and Paloma. Feliciana is the first female-born curandera in a long line of curanderos who is taught the ways of the "Language” by Paloma, also a curandera and a person who identifies as Muxe, the name for the third-gender people of the Zapotec, an indigenous people from Oaxaca, Mexico. Brujas does a wonderful job exploring many intricate themes, such as language, self-exploration, inheritance, gender and gender identity, indigeneity, love, colonization, violence, and so many others. Each theme seamlessly integrated into the novel takes the reader on an everchanging exploration of life.
Brujas is told through the converging narratives of Feliciana and Zoe. Two women from different upbringings brought together by the death of Paloma. Even though both women’s lives are distinctly different, the juxtaposition of their stories reveals the echo, the connection we have with another that is more similar than different. Throughout the novel, Feliciana and Zoe take turns divulging their life stories. The interchanging narrative structure is explained in part by Zoe, “I came to understand that you can’t really know another woman until you know yourself.” This is Zoe’s introduction to the self-exploration and self-discovery she experiences as the book unfolds. Though Zoe’s story is important, Feliciana’s and Paloma’s stories are the foci of the book.
Zoe’s story is told in a traditional linear narrative of her growing up as the eldest daughter with a father who was silent but trustworthy, a mother who couldn’t keep anything to herself, and a sister who couldn’t be anything but herself. Because of her sister’s wildness, Zoe felt the need to choose a life that she thought was expected of her, “In my role as firstborn, I hadn’t allowed myself to do what I wanted—I’d always done what I thought I should do.” Zoe’s realization is revealed with the help of Feliciana and the “Children,” the hallucinogenic mushrooms Feliciana uses to conduct her ceremonies. With the help of the Children, Feliciana unearths and releases the “deep waters,” the inner most self of one’s self, using the power of the “Language” and the “Book,” “On the third night, Feliciana gave me four pairs of mushrooms and guided me with the Language, she read me a page from the Book. This is yours, [Feliciana] said, this is your page and these words of the Language are yours, Zoe. This is the page you were missing.” In Feliciana’s ceremonies, she guides individuals like Zoe through the ceremony to help them discover their “deep waters,” which offers the person a chance to heal and find peace from the guilt they carry.
Feliciana’s narrative, however, is markedly distinct. First, Feliciana is being translated from her original Zapotec to Spanish (and then into English if you’re reading the English version, Witches). Yet, the writing captures the non-linear, elliptical nature of Feliciana’s oral storytelling which resonates with Feliciana’s description of nature, “…nature has the answers to the ills we suffer, you just have to watch the circles time moves in to understand our nature, the nature of people.” Feliciana’s story folds into itself. It moves forward and backward in a way that creates an echo, a feeling of “Why does this seem so familiar?” Feliciana’s narration builds and builds making sure not to leave the reader/listener behind:
“…I don’t know when I was born because I was born like the mountain was, go as the mountain when it was born, but I know it was six at night when Guadalupe came to say they killed Paloma as she was getting ready to go out…” (Chapter 1)
“I don’t know times, I don’t know dates, I don’t know when I was born so don’t ask me that because I don’t know, but I know that terrible hour…I knew that man had killed her with a dagger in her back from his rage at Paloma for being Muxe…” (Chapter 19)
In Feliciana’s elliptical style, we learn about her journey, but, simultaneously, the journey of Paloma, who doesn’t carry guilt and brings ease to those around her, “People laughed with [Paloma] and they went to her because she was good at giving advice about love….” Despite the good that Paloma was able to bring into the world, she’s killed because someone could not see past her identity as Muxe. In this way, the book is centered around prejudice and gender-based violence beginning with Paloma’s murder to Feliciana’s own experiences with domestic violence to Leandra’s, Zoe’s sister, sexual assault.
Another powerful theme throughout the book is Feliciana’s rejection of colonization and her dedication to preserving her culture, “I speak only my tongue, this tongue that reaches you through an interpreter, this tongue that is the tongue of my ancestors. I will not end my tongue with any other because this tongue is who I am, it is the tongue of my ancestors and this tongue is who I am, I honor who I am when I speak it.” Throughout Brujas, it is clear that colonization has stolen and erased so much of what made us whole. The mindset of the colonized people Feliciana encounters causes them to refuse to learn from those who are still so connected to the “deep waters” of tradition and nature like Feliciana. These people come from around the world to learn from her about the Children, “It’s the other way around, the mushrooms take care of you, bring them with you so they can take care of you in Japan for me. And the Japanese men laughed…they didn’t understand what I was telling them.” These powerful people come to learn from Feliciana, who generously shares her rituals, yet they laugh and disregard her generosity and wisdom instead of listen.
When someone asked me recently for self-help book recommendations, I realized I don’t read any, and I don’t need to because books like Brujas not only teach readers so much about life but provide the reader with the gift of a new perspective in a way that only a book can by building an intimate connection between reader and subject. So intimate, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish who needs who to survive, the reader to bring the subject to life or the subject to impart their lesson on the reader:
“Tell your story and tell mine because they are not two stories but one, this is why I asked you over and over about yours. Say your name or say my name or say both, your name is mine and they are the same because high and low we are the same, it doesn’t matter what name you say, yours or mine because we are all children of the Language, we all come from the Language and when we die we return to it…”
This interconnectedness is highlighted by Feliciana’s words that each of our stories are one. Brujas taught me most of all that when we speak our story, we are speaking the story of the world.