USC SCA Senior Class of 2020 Thesis
Modern Bruja celebrates alternative faiths and spiritual practices that many know nothing or little of, and which perhaps even give people a sense of discomfort and fear. My desire is to spark a dialogue surrounding thoughts and opinions on spiritual tools and traditions that fall under the categories of brujeria, meaning witchcraft in Spanish. There will be a focus on the religious beliefs that permeated Latin America and the indigenous communities of North and Central America prior to the violent colonization and mass genocide inflicted upon these groups and the covert way in which some have managed to survive under different
guises in modern-day orthodox religion. The crown jewel of the project is an oracle deck, a spiritual tool used for the discovery or reflection of the unknown and or communication with deity, spirit guides, or other supernatural beings, that I myself have illustrated and authored. The oracle deck is accompanied by a guidebook that details abstract spiritual concepts, as well as, the subject’s meaning in relation to its historical-cultural background. My work seeks to both educate and demystify religious subject matters and spiritual practices that are considered brujeria, as well as, to present the oracle deck as a work of art and an instrument for self-reflection and self-realization.
A Year and a Half Ago…
The journey to Modern Bruja began in my Media Arts and Practice IML 346 Methods in Digital Research class, during the Spring 2019 semester. My personal spiritual explorations had led me to tarot and cartomancy, and forced me to unexpectedly confront the shroud of religious dogma that would label such divinatory practices as evil.
“Let no one be found among you … who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD…” —Deuteronomy 18:10-12
“Then they made their sons and their daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking Him.” —2 Kings 17:17
“When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?” —Isaiah 8:19
Orthodox religion has immense importance in the structure of human life but my research and creative process required me to challenge orthodox religion when used as a tool of historical/cultural erasure and accusatory fear-mongering with the power to strip select minority groups of their ethnic pride.
Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment.—Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848”
The research paper Bruja Positionalities: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism by Irene Lara presented information that opened my mind to the ethnographic direction my thesis subsequently undertook. With it came the realization that the most valuable perspective I could offer was my voice as a Chicana, mestiza woman who had learned about Grecian and Roman mythology and religion within an elevated, high-art context – but never her own ancestral culture whose religious and spiritual practices had largely been stigmatized as diabolic and dangerous post Spanish Colonial Christianity.
Prototyping and Illustration Process
On the left is the very first front artwork iteration of what would be one of ten cards in the deck. The piece on the right was made to compare the impact of the two color stories. Both the layout and border have since been updated along with some of the details of the specific card subject.
Ultimately, I made the decision to maintain a black and white aesthetic to prevent the symbolism of the visuals from being overshadowed by loud and vivid coloring. Despite Latin American culture being known for its customary use of brilliant shades and hues, I wanted to avoid giving onlookers an image and ocular experience of Latinx culture that would be stereotypically familiar to them. There is far more substance behind our flowers, fabrics, altars, traditions and practices than a mere bright-colored aesthetic.
In order to achieve my goals, much of the art underwent various renditions until an ideal balance was achieved between relevant imagery, effective storytelling, and aesthetic composition.
Select card subjects lent themselves to sketched ideation before I actualized them in Adobe Illustrator but some required detailed digital references and others ended up evolving to look nothing like their original composition on paper once brought into a digitized setting. And given the nature of my project, visual cultural references were essential during the creation process to ensure my stylized art remained truthful and sincere while simultaneously illustrating my distinctive perception of the topics.
Final Card Illustrations
The card back artwork is reminiscent of the corn husk cross my father used to cleanse our house with holy water when we first moved.
COVID-19 Note: This project would have been shown during the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ April 2020 thesis showcase and exhibited as a physically printed deck of cards alongside an ofrenda and optional card-reading experience.
Modern Bruja encapsulates my work and growth throughout my college career, the evolution and decolonization of my spirituality, and the honor and pride I hold toward my mestiza ancestry and cultura. The Latinx community has a great ocean of untold and buried stories, talent, and artistry – it is time for them to breath again.