Positioning “La Bruja” in Western Psychotherapy

Positioning “La Bruja” in Western Psychotherapy

“Incorporating La Bruja Positionality and Indigenous Spiritual Practices

as a Complement to Western Psychotherapy to Facilitate Self-Empowerment

and Emotional Healing for American Women of Color”


This paper explores the historical erasure and delegitimizing of indigenous spiritual practices and healing rituals, and the impact it has had on emotional well-being outcomes for women of color, specifically Black/African descendent and Latinx women in America. Colonization disrupted connection with the spiritual self, and present-day exposure to trauma – including racism and sexism –  serve as continued biased attacks to the soul. Spiritual activism is a tool to empower and facilitate emotional healing for these populations; thus, the argument that an awareness and incorporation of La Bruja positionality and traditional restorative rituals into Western psychotherapy and counseling is necessary, in order to increase practitioner cultural competency as well as positive outcomes for WOC in counseling.

Keywords: spiritual activism, indigenous spiritual practice, women of color, religion, multiculturalism, faith-based interventions, complex trauma, social justice

Incorporating La Bruja Positionality and Indigenous Spiritual Practices as a Complement to Western Psychotherapy to Facilitate Self-Empowerment and Emotional Healing for American Women of Color

A key function of counseling psychologists is unarguably to support transformation of the client’s emotional state of being, to recognize and alter the connections between the mind, body and soul in order to live a life of fulfillment and purpose. However, studies have typically shown negative disparities in positive counseling and psychotherapy outcomes for women of color, compared to non-Hispanic whites. A portion of my proposition is that this gap in success is partly due to the fact that our practices, which heavily rely on and value Western-based evidence and promote Western solutions, do not connect with the original ethnic and cultural humanity of marginalized populations.

La Bruja represents a symbol of power outside of patriarchal and racial supremacist control (Lara, 2005). She is a figure of powerful transgressive sexuality and spirituality that should no longer be ostracized, but embraced as a reference for self-empowerment. I believe bruja-like epistemologies are a missing link to healing the soul aspect of practitioner work with American WOC. The term bruja, or witch, is an indication towards Latinx and African-diasporic communities, and religions such as Santería, Vodou and Candomblé – which were, essentially, complex remnants and adaptations of African spirituality (i.e Yoruba religion) that were developed after slaves were brought to and throughout North and South America. Ideologies and practices associated with this particular cultural healing figure can aid in rectifying the physical and psychological violence endured by WOC clients by reconnecting them with more indigenous rituals of emotional healing.

The core dynamics of spiritual activism are creativity, adaptability, understanding and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. This holistic approach to faith-based interventions serves as a conduit for restoration of the soul. The twelve keys of this form of activism are: empathetic action, understanding the interconnectedness of all living beings, applying compassion with wisdom, using synergy and teamwork to accomplish goals, collectivism, pursuing integrity, honesty and dignity in the conduct of actions, open-mindedness and conflict resolution, mentoring as an aid in self-accountability, following your intuition, sustainability, mindfulness and self-compassion, and love as a primary motivation (“Twelve Keys,” 2007, p.2).

By utilizing appropriate and diverse mechanisms of healing, practitioners can better understand and equitably support women of color through their recovery process.  This paper will articulate the disparities in therapeutic outcomes, explore the context of colonization and identity in regards to this issue, and provide reasonable solutions to incorporate into current, standard practice.

Literature Review

According to a report by the American Psychological Association, a 2016 composition of the racial/ethnic identities of the psychology workforce compared to the U.S population showed percentage ratios of 84:61 White, 5:18 Hispanic and 4:12 Black/African American (Lin, Stamm, & Christidis, 2018). If a Hispanic or Black women seeks treatment, the odds of them seeing a positive image of themselves reflected through the counselor is slim because of the lack of representation in the workforce. Though psychologists are capable of developing a humanistic and empathetic perspective, there are inherent challenges when collaborating cross-culturally. The efficacy of most current practices does not transcend cultural boundaries, or has not been looked at from a culturally informed perspective.

Professional practices of counseling and psychotherapy were developed in the Western world to address Western culture in a manner consistent with Western understanding (Bedi, 2018). Bedi explained that the obsession with Western-based evidence and overzealousness to promote Western solutions have marginalized and delegitimized indigenous systems of healing. However, researchers found that indigenous practices are typically more holistic and spiritual and pay greater attention to psychological, social and emotional aspects of disorders, even when the distress is predominantly somatic (Gureje et al., 2015). Indigenous psychologies pre-date Euro-American ideas by centuries, so to overlook these epistemologies is to ignore influential and time-tested sources of healing.  Incremental effectiveness has been shown when counseling and psychotherapy is culturally adaptive, taking into consideration different values, assumptions, worldviews and other variables (Xu and Tracy, 2016).

Other variables can include the fact that Black and Latin women have endured systemic, generational trauma. Irene Lara discussed how colonization restrained the spiritual connection to nature, as well as the sexual agency of a woman, which was to be feared (Lara, 2005). In the Americas, La Bruja was historically linked with “superstitious” and “primitive” Native and African belief systems and spiritual rituals. Any woman deemed to be a witch was targeted with the desire for social death, though oftentimes physical death (Lara, 2005). These magical, cultural and soulful rituals were used as justification of a legacy of suppression and psychological violence. Furthermore, those accused of practicing “witchcraft” were often tried as having committed a political crime (Lara, 2005). Presently, Western medicine marginalizes the practices of brujas (specialized healers) and curanderas (de-sexualized spiritual healers or psychics), which includes, but is not limited to herbal remedies and psychic or energy work. Bruja-like philosophies aid in remembering, amending and constructing knowledge of self and healing internalized ignorance of oneself. Reconnecting with the inherent power of their whole self – mind, body and soul – is an act of resistance against societal structures. Lara argues that women should embrace their nurturing, healing side, but also find balance with the erotic – which is broadly defined by Audre Lorde as “a transformative energy that bridges the spiritual with the sexual/sensual and facilitates a sense of wholeness and connection with one’s being as well as with others across similarities and differences” (Lara, 2005, p.15).  For these reasons, the Bruja positionality validates the inherent transformative strengths and creative, erotic power within Black and Latinx women.

We can look to studies that have been done with Native American tribes that provide evidence of the value of integrating indigenous healing with Western psychotherapy. A study that looked at mental health services for the Anishnawbe tribe in Toronto, examined how “historical traumas related to colonization have been referred to as a ‘soul wound” (Reeves & Stewart, 2015, p. 58). Some of these distresses included relegating Native people to reserve lands, denying cultural language, sexual trauma, forced assimilation into non-Indigenous culture, disrupting cultural teachings and breaking down of the family structure. The Native experience relates to the complex trauma and some adverse effects of policies such as redlining, inclusion initiatives and microaggressions, cultural (language, religion/spiritual) disconnection through enslavement, and the “War on Drugs” and prison industrial complex that women of color face in the Americas. Many of the individuals in this study battled shame, negative self-concept and low self-esteem because of the political, historical and social contexts in which their identities exist. Colonial policies interfere with the spirit first, due to the fact that the spirit is the foundation that affects the physical, mental and emotional. “Spirituality offers several important healing directions for recovery, such as balance, groundedness and feelings of overall meaning and purpose” (Reeves & Stewart, 2015, p.70). A few of the rituals that were incorporated into the culture-informed care at this site included sweat lodge ceremonies, honest education around colonial history, a medicine wheel approach and group therapy – to address the collective experience. Findings included participants having feelings of enhanced well-being, optimism and acceptance, minimized stressors, reconstruction of a positive identity, and having a sense of renewal and belonging.  

According to Musgraves et al., Mexican American, Puerto Rican and African-American women composed the largest number of WOC in the United States. “The belief in the unity of mind, body, and spirit in harmony with the environment is expressed in the practice of curanderismo among many Mexicans and Mexican Americans. As a combination of elements from Aztec and Spanish cultures and spiritualistic, homeopathic, and modern medicine. Santería, an African-Cuban religious tradition combining Catholicism with Nigerian tribal beliefs and practices, includes belief in the magical and medicinal properties of flowers, herbs, weeds, twigs, and leaves. Espiritismo is the belief in communication with spirits. Its practitioners may carry amulets or medals to protect against evil. Curanderismo, for Puerto Ricans, is a system of holistic folk healing involving faith in both natural and supernatural illnesses, a connection to the spiritual world, and a view of God’s will” (Musgraves, Allen & Allen, 2002, p.558). For Black American women, their transcendent spirituality afforded hope in personal and community relationships in the midst of hardship.

Amaro et al.’s study on a culturally-diverse group of low-income women in substance use disorder treatment found that a culturally-adapted mindfulness-based intervention greatly reduced the risk of drug and alcohol relapse, craving and use. Of the 318 women, 45.3% were Hispanic and 34.6% were non-Hispanic Black. All women completed a posttraumatic symptom diagnostic survey to take into account, whether previously self-reported or not, the history of race and sex/gender-based trauma for these racial/ethnic communities. To reduce the harmful, habitual reactions to stress participants were taught to refine their self-regulatory skills and access inner resources through the acquisition of mindfulness techniques such as meditation and gentle yoga. For those who attended 5-9 (out of a total of 9) group sessions, their Addiction Severity Index composite score continuously decreased between the baseline and 12-month follow-up. Overall perceived stress, as well as the overall change in trauma symptomology decreased an average of 1.7 points per six months (Amaro et al., 2014).

Similarly, drumming and community-based shamanic activities have shown to have a positive effect on the rehabilitation of people in substance use disorder treatment and prison systems – places where people of color are overrepresented. One participant in a Drumming Out Drugs treatment program had been seeking ways to naturally induce altered states of consciousness. Historically, colonizers forbade people of color from drumming because it was belief that it gave them otherworldly powers, especially after the practice was claimed to have played a factor in the Haitian Revolution. Drumming is a cultural aspect whose significance and tradition has been made relatively inaccessible.  Yet, some considered benefits from a study on drumming as a complementary therapy for addiction include enhanced sensorimotor coordination and integration, release of emotional trauma, increased bodily awareness and attention span, anxiety reduction, enhanced verbal and nonverbal communication skills and self-skills for self-conscious development and social and emotional learning. It also alleviates self-centeredness, isolation and alienation (Winkleman, 2003).


“A healing-centered approach is holistic – involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing” (Ginwright, 2018, p.1). When engaging with women of color we must work, contextually, through a framework of colonization to restore the core of well-being, the soul connection. Liberatory change will come from critically analyzing the Western mold we reinforce in our practice, and remain open to the ideas that may extend beyond our seemingly rational minds.

La Bruja is symbolic of a racialized and sexualized, yet empowered, divine and spiritually-connected healing figure. What she represents is a methodology of the oppressed and a deep relationship with herself, her surrounding environment and the universe. In addition to interventions mentioned in this paper, such as drumming, group therapy, meditation and yoga, the use of crystals, tarot cards, reiki, massage, essential oils, herbal remedies and baths, smudging, etc. are therapeutic tools that can offer guidance and facilitate a healthy journey towards emotional well-being. These “alternative” methods are a few of the many cultural elements that have been lost, demonized and/or marginalized as a result of colonization and valued Western influence.

The integration of these holistic interventions with Western psychotherapy and counseling, though not heavily researched, have indicated increased positive outcomes for people of color compared to if the only treatment was Euro-American-based mental health care. Deeper education about the generational psychological effects of colonialism, and understanding of the lived traumatic experiences on the basis of race/ethnicity and sex/gender is necessary to understand the full context from which Black and Latinx clients’ emotional disturbances occur.

Considerations for Counselors

It is important for counselors to situate client’s story in an appropriate context that takes into consideration not only proximal trauma, but “intergenerational trauma inherited from communal experiences around genocide, colonization and alienation” (Ocampo, 2010, p.1). Healing-centered engagement expands how we contextualize and respond to issues of emotional distress. This level of cultural competency aids in profounder transformation and alleviates further perpetuation of the problems, especially ones around race/ethnicity, sex/gender, power and privilege. Decolonizing our practices can begin to bridge the cultural gaps that hinder well-rounded healing of the mind, body and soul.

La Bruja is a powerful symbol of a narrative that examines control and degradation of the physical body and emotional soul. Reclaiming and situating her perspective in a positive light can reconnect WOC with necessary understandings of and resiliency to somatic and psychological disturbances. Historically, correlating brujas with political criminals is evidence to the sustained, inherent crime of black and brown women fully existing within this society. In addition, social justice is about equitable treatment of humans. Counselors must recognize that part of the humanity that was attempted to be stripped away from Black and Latinx people was their connection to their faith and methods of healing. However, we have the opportunity to educate and reengage these communities with the tools and methods that feel good to their soul and facilitate an increase in positive outcomes.


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