A couple of months ago, Refinery29 staffers of color were happily Slacking over the trailer for Netflix’s Siempre Bruja. The 45-second video promised to tell us the tale of an Afro-Latinx witch from 17th century Colombia who makes it to the present day. In the past Carmen (a breakout Angely Gaviria) was burned alive for her powers — and her status as a Black woman — but, it seems like she may just thrive in the 21st century. It was easy to be excited about Siempre.
Then the Colombian-made series actually came out. Siempre Bruja, which is translated to Always A Witch on Netflix’s U.S. platform, is still about Carmen Eguiluz, a mixed raced, dark-skinned Black woman and witch who ends up traveling to 2019. But, this isn’t merely a time traveling fish out of water tale, as previews suggest.
Siempre Bruja is built around a slave/slave master “romance” — and it premiered on the first day of Black History Month, February 1, no less. Yes, Carmen is a slave who is in love with the man who owns her. Yes, that disturbing trope, which has been employed by everything from 1993’s Halle Berry-starring Queen to Tony darling Aida, is still ruining promising pop culture. Not only is the supernatural drama’s central coupling an affront to the very celebration it kicks off, it simply didn’t have to happen.
Carmen’s relationship with Cristobal (Lendard Vanderaa), a white man, was never a secret. The longform trailer for Siempre shows the pair in a passionate embrace and suggests Cristobal was shot for being with a Black woman in colonial, racist Colombia. This is all technically true, but season 1 of the streaming series reveals this love story is far more troubling than the romance novel veneer Netflix’s marketing wizards cooked up.
Watching #SiempreBruja and I see exactly why a lot of this was kept out of promo. I don't even feel comfortable with this plot. Y'all love making slaves fall in love with their masters. And y'all knew EXACTLY what y'all were doing not putting any of that in the trailers. pic.twitter.com/5AtSXDc82v— N O V A (@_inthenova) February 2, 2019
As we learn in series premiere “A Leap In Time,” Cristobal’s family owns Carmen. In fact, Cristobal is specifically the person who purchases his future beloved at a slave auction. Siempre tries to sanitize this terrible origin story by revealing Cristobal, the son of a wealthy Cartagena family, acquired Carmen to stop her auctioneer’s inhumane treatment, but the narrative choice doesn’t help. Plain and simple: Cristol bought Carmen.
Following that fateful day, romance blossoms between our young lovers. Carmen and Cristobal hide secret love notes for each other in their aristocratic home. They have a “secret garden” meeting spot. At the rendezvous location, Carmen appears in a beautiful dress and puts flowers in her hair. Somehow, this entire scene is treated like a Bachelor-style date rather than a meeting between a woman ravaged by the toxicity of slavery — an earlier scene shows young Carmen (Victoria Mosquera) tending to the wounds of a male slave whose back has been torn apart by a whip — who has inexplicably fallen for a purveyor and beneficiary of that very life-ruining institution. It’s a wildly dark truth Siempre attempts to sidestep.
That foundation only becomes darker when Carmen heads to the future. She solely agrees to go forward in time to save Cristobal. Forget saving her own life from a witch burning pyre. Forget the chance for someone like Carmen to actually flourish without the bonds of slavery controlling her every breath, under the threat of death. This is about her owner. Carmen is in the present day because a suspicious warlock named Aldemar (Luis Fernando Hoyos) tells her it’s the only way to turn back the hands of time to before the moment Cristobal is shot.
Thus begins Carmen’s present day adventure. While Carmen, an ultra powerful being, is treated as a whole, fully independent individual in this time — free to go where she wants, when she wants, including college — the witch wastes most of her opportunity complaining about her need to go back to “her time.” Eventually Carmen gets her wish and is sent back to the era where she is treated like dangerous, persecuted chattel (considering all the twists and turns of Siempre this is the lowest level of spoilers). Only then does she seem to realize the future is probably optimal.
It’s possible Siempre puts viewers through all of this racist hell to show Carmen eventually overthrowing her slave captors and the entire violent institution in Colombia. It’s a sensibly woke take on the horrifying history of slavery, especially for a show centered around a super-powered woman of color. But, Siempre Bruja didn’t have to continue the painful history of Aida and its brethren to make that hypothetically powerful statement. Cristobal didn’t have to be Carmen’s owner. He very easily could have been a stable boy or a random shop owner or the aristocrat who lives next door to Carmen’s slave-having hacienda. 1640s racism would still attempt to destroy Carmen and Cristobal’s interracial love. All of these possibilities could have worked with the witch’s eventual work to dismantle slavery in her city.
Even one of Siempra’s most offensive scenes — when Cristobal’s violently racist dad Fernando (Edu Martin) is bewitched into dancing with a slave woman — could have still happened if the series’ writers were passionate about it. Fernando doesn’t have to be Carmen’s lover’s dad for the scene to work; a determined Carmen simply had to return to her “home” for these unsettling events to unfold.
While the Netflix series features quite a few scenes as cringeworthy as Fernando’s dance scene, it’s clear Siempre took a few stabs at being thoughtful about its oppressive setting. At one point, Carmen embraces her “witch” moniker as a way to scare her would-be inquisition murderers. At another point, Carmen tells Cristobal the future is where it’s at for very obvious reasons (this makes Cristobal sad because he is kind of awful). Both of these moments fall flat due to the drama's upsetting romantic origins. How can Siempre be progressive when its leading lady is risking it all for the man who owns her?
Black History Month deserves better.