Lorraine Monteagut talks to her ancestral spirits. She also knows when they talk back—and she’s not alone. As a bruja with a Ph.D. in communication, Monteagut has been interviewing other Latinx and Afro-Caribbean practitioners for years, first for her doctoral thesis and then for her book.
Monteagut’s book, ”Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color,” out Oct. 5, is an extension of her scholarship but is not some dry academic text. (With chapter titles such as “The Ancestral Curse” and “Drama at the Botanica,” how can they be?) Each of the book’s 12 chapters is in line with a house of the zodiac, with each sign dictating the tone, journal prompts and rituals included at the end.
Brujas: A conversation with Lorraine Monteagut
Next Thursday, Oct. 7. 7 p.m. Free (RSVP suggested)
Tombolo Books, 2152 1st Ave S, St. Petersburg
But don’t let the rituals fool you; this book is not ”Brujería 101.” Monteagut instead concentrates on stories, particularly her own, to produce a work that mixes scholarship with spiritual memoir. While those searching for a “how-to” manual may be disappointed, Monteagut says it best: “This is only a book, not the book, on brujas.”
I sat down to speak Monteagut and asked her about her book, and her workings as a bruja-around-town.
What inspired you to write ”Brujas”?
I started writing about this trend in ancestral reclamation in my Ph.D. program, but it was more personal. I went back through my personal histories, I traveled to Cuba, I interviewed people, and I was trying to piece together my immigration story, all the things that we weren’t told when we came to this country.
In the process of researching, I learned I wasn’t the only one doing this. I know that sounds naïve now, but I really didn’t know that there were so many of us yearning to understand where we came from and where our ancestors practiced.
And what I discovered was there’s this community of people, who are mostly online, connecting to each other and sharing very different practices, but there was a common thread all revolving around the ancestor altar.
At the same time, I started to find these witch books coming out that were tracing the parallels between waves of witchcraft and feminism, and the one that really range bells was ”Waking the Witch” by Pam Grossman, which I’m sure...
Big fan of Pam Grossman. Truly the Terry Gross of witches.
Yes exactly! And I loved her book and love [her podcast] ”The Witch Wave,” but I thought they were missing the waves of Afro-Caribbean traditions being reclaimed by recent immigrants to the United States. Where were the Latinx stories?
Now, seeing everybody taking [these practices] out of the occult and de-stigmatizing their ancestor religions I thought, well, where’s that book? And I kept saying that year after year, and finally, my partner at the time said, “Why don’t you just write the book?” So I made a book proposal and that was that.
Your book is heavily a spiritual memoir—both from your own stories and stories of other practitioners—as well as an examination of issues that Afro-Caribbean practitioners face as a whole. What about the subject matter made you choose a braided narrative like this?
I didn’t think when I sold the book that it would be so heavily memoir. But I think that part of the pandemic and everything that happened last year, it became a different book—and better in a lot of ways. It was more raw and vulnerable in some ways, [more] rough and unexpected in other ways. Honestly, I was going through the hardest two years of my life, and there were times where the only thing I could write was what was inside of me at the moment.
I did appreciate how my stories connected with the stories of people that I was interviewing at the time, and I really wanted those stories to be in communication with each other because we’re all so different. I never wanted to write a pure memoir because my experience is so specific, and my background is just one tiny thread of all these traditions and experiences that come out of the diaspora. [The format] did allow me to show the heterogeneity of the Latinx spiritual experience. It’s not a monolith.
In my limited knowledge of Afro-Caribbean traditions and African diaspora religions, there does seem to be a strong oral tradition. Do you think this subject matter lends itself better to stories than a clinical, dictionary definition of what this spirituality is?
Yeah, I struggled with this during the book proposal because a proposal is very much a definition.
A “what is this and how can I sell it?” sort of thing.
Yeah! So I tried to do that, but when it comes down to it, all of our stories are so different and can’t really be recorded in that way. I think we’re coming together right now and recording and figuring out how spontaneous it all is in the moment and how we’re all creating it as we all go along.
I do think there is something about oral traditions that are more powerful than the written word—I mean the written word certainly has its power, I just wrote a book—but there is something powerful about the story my abuelita told me when I was in bed and how that story lives inside of me and is just mine. I share it with others but it's slightly different. ”La Llorona” is a good example of this. A lot of people will tell you a whole different story. And it’s the same ghost, the same monster, but a totally different narrative that usually connects with your own family and your own ancestry in some way.
On that same note of family, you do write about intergenerational and ancestral trauma as a whole as well as your own. You also talk about ancestral healing and your own work with shamanic journeying. What was the process like for you? Do you feel like that type of deep work helped you with those ancestral wounds?
For me it has been [healing.] I think one of the most healing threads of my story in the book was when I, unexpectedly, went into my maternal grandmother’s story. She died while I was writing the book, and I went and documented her funeral and, in that process, uncovered that the convent that she was sent to when she was very young wasn’t actually a convent but a jail, which was known for its many abuses. And discovering that was very healing for me because it allowed me to understand her more. She wasn’t a very happy woman; she had a lot of problems that she put on us.
Ancestor work is very tricky, and I think you have to be prepared to learn about things in your family that aren’t great. You might have to open yourself up to the ways that you’ve been abused by them, even, and of course, when we’re talking about the Latinx experience, part of our ancestors are the colonizers. You know, everyone wants to be Indigenous, everyone wants to have that ancestral magic, but “decolonization” means facing the fact that that part of my ancestry were colonizers, and that’s what runs through me, too.
You do unpack that idea of decolonization in your book as well, in the chapter about spirituality and activism. You talk about some very traditional forms of activism such as protest and mutual aid as well as ways to live a decolonized life and using “Joy as Resistance.” Do you think, as a bruja, that activism and spirituality are always tied together?
I do think that politics and bruja identity are intricately tied together, though I have a wide definition of what politics are—and my girlfriend, who’s a director of a political nonprofit, would have a completely different definition than me—but I think it’s important for us to start where we are when it comes to activism.
Not all of us can be on phones or knocking on doors or on the front lines of protests—but what we can do is we can start to look at our lives and ask ourselves, “How are we spending energy on things that don’t matter to us or don’t give back to us and how can I redirect that energy to something that helps myself, my community, and the common good?” The first step is our own bodies, our own health, and integrating that with sustainable practices for this world, with nature, and with things that are not going to kill the planet or our souls in the process. It can be small. It can be learning how to cook for yourself, it can be gardening, learning to grow your own food. Learning how to turn our soil—which is sandy and crap—into something that nourishes life, that’s witchey.
Lorraine Monteagut will be in conversation with Gloria Muñoz at Tombolo Books on Oct, 7 at 7 p.m. You can follow @witchyheights on Instagram on IG .
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