The Netflix series “Siempre Bruja” (“Always a Witch”) generated lots of buzz when it debuted last year and is now back for its second season, which dropped Feb. 28. That’s partly because movies and television shows about witchcraft — "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina," "The Magicians," "A Discovery of Witches" — remain largely white, with characters of color relegated to sidekick roles or excluded altogether. (The CW’s “Charmed” reboot, about three Latina witches, is the exception.) The thirst for more racial diversity in shows about magic was so strong that “Siempre Bruja” — set in Cartagena, Colombia, with a Colombian cast and production company, Caracol TV — became a global hit.
But the international interest in the show also sparked a backlash. American reviewers — myself included — criticized “Siempre Bruja” for featuring a romance between the black protagonist, a time-traveling Afro-Colombian witch, Carmen Eguiluz (Angely Gaviria), and the son of the slaveholding family who kept her in bondage in the 17th century, Cristóbal (Lenard Vanderaa). Some critics wondered why the rare TV show about a black witch had to include a slavery storyline or couldn’t take place exclusively in the present.
At its core, “Siempre Bruja” is a fantasy-meets-telenovela interwoven with traces of real-life history. Unfortunately, some of that history got lost in translation when its first season aired. Based on the novel “Yo, Bruja” by Isidora Chacón, “Siempre Bruja” is also inspired by actual Afro-Colombians accused of witchcraft. Paula Eguiluz, fictionalized as Carmen’s mother, really existed. Known for her herbal remedies and love potions, she went on trial three times in the 1600s for practicing witchcraft. She admitted to being a curandera, or healer, and described Juan de Equiluz, the man who enslaved her, as her “lover.” He would go on to grant her freedom.
“Siempre Bruja” gives a nod to Paula Eguiluz’s life and to other Africans persecuted during the Cartagena witch trials, but viewers outside Colombia — and especially those in the United States, where events like the Salem witch trials are typically framed as white Puritan phenomena (Tituba’s predicament notwithstanding) — aren’t likely to know about the black victims of the witch trials that took place in the Americas during the same era.
In its second season, then, “Siempre Bruja” doubles down on engaging with this history by having Carmen set out to rescue her mother, Paula Eguiluz. And, following the outcry over the Carmen-Cristóbal romance during its debut season, the showrunners wisely backtrack from simply romanticizing the couple’s relationship. Cristóbal, who has joined Carmen in the 21st century this season, resents that present-day Carmen is an independent woman with her own friends and magical gifts that lead to public recognition. In other words, she now has a life and no longer belongs to him. Her newly realized sense of freedom guides her throughout the season.
“Carmen, let’s go back to our time,” Cristóbal pleads with her. “Everything was easier.”
“I was your slave,” she notes.
It is the first time the show acknowledges the truth about their relationship. That’s progress from season one and perhaps reason enough for viewers who wrote off “Siempre Bruja” then to reconsider the program, still groundbreaking for centering a black witch and engaging the actual history of Afro-Colombians persecuted during the Cartagena Inquisition.
Beyond that, the season follows Carmen as she comes into her own as a powerful woman with one mission: Stop her mother from being executed during the witch trials. But, as an ensemble show using the telenovela format, Carmen’s past and quest to save her mother are just two of many storylines featured in the conflict-filled second season.
Her new university friends create one problem for her after another, from selling an elixir she made to bringing a pirate from the past to modern-day Cartagena after a time traveling excursion. He, of course, continues to behave like a pirate in the present, brandishing swords, threatening to steal, skipping baths, and somehow romancing Carmen’s friend Alicia (Sofia Bernal Araujo). If that weren’t enough, Carmen contends with a curse that inverts her powers and a secretive classmate, Amanda (Laura Archbold), who circulates a petition to forbid the practice of magic on campus.
The multiple plot points of season two may make it messier than the first season, but it also provides the opportunity for some true highlights — such as when Carmen travels back in time and directs her enslaved friends to San Basilio de Palenque, a real-life Colombian village founded by African runaways who escaped their white captors. It is known as the first “free town” in the Americas.
As the season draws to a close, Carmen’s relationships with her present-day friends are tested when, after she’s given them so much, they must decide what they’re willing to sacrifice for her. The writers don’t use their willingness to show up for her as a measure of Carmen’s worth but as a way to evaluate their character. Having had her worth assessed repeatedly as an enslaved woman, Carmen recognizes the truth: “I’m priceless,” she says. The question for her, as it is for many modern day women, is whether those around her recognize that, as well.