Carceral “love”, consent, and Black womxn’s bodies: From ‘OITNB’ to ‘Siempre Bruja’
It's misogynoiristic, painful, and irresponsible on many levels.
This essay contains discussion of the sexual exploitation of enslaved and incarcerated Afro-Latinx womxn, and mentions r/pe
by Briana L. Ureña Ravelo
Like with many other seemingly promising new shows, I and so many others, especially Afro-Latinxs, were excited for the debut of Netflix’s Siempre Bruja. Even in the midst of this excitement, there was still some level of skepticism, given that we know quite well about the egregious whiteness and racism of Latin American media.
As I observed and reflected on during the first episode, what I had assumed would be merely a bad plot point, quickly dismantled and done away with, turned out to be the crux of the entire series—a romance between an enslaved Black Latinx woman, Carmen, and her white slavemaster’s son.
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After she is caught having an affair with a white man, Carmen is accused of using brujeria to bewitch him and is sentenced to death. She is able to use a spell given to her by another white man to magic herself into the future and escape this execution. The series then follows Carmen as she does everything in her power to return to her lover in the past, before he was shot while trying to defend her.
From the beginning, Carmen is exceptionalized as an enslaved woman and a healer. She, of course, experiences suffering, but does not spend much time at all reflecting on her own pain and circumstances, nor does she think of others in her same situation, her community, her people. She never considers the only others who are in her position and know who she is—other enslaved Black people—and instead cleaves to her slavemaster’s son.
The exceptional hero story is a white trope and literary archetype and one that does not typically follow in our cultures, where everything from our music, dances, and spiritual practices, and even birth and death, are communal.
Sure, all mythologies have their heroes and icons, but to build a narrative around a singular enslaved Black woman who isn’t rooted in her community, people, or culture is to create a story of exceptionalism that simply doesn’t ring true. To do so does not mirror the reality of Afro-diasporic religious practice, ancestor worship, and traditional healers often generalized maliciously as “brujeria” which the show draws on, and this seems to be done for an expressed purpose. Carmen is deemed exceptional and supernatural because she, like all Black women, is unduly and unnaturally tasked to burden so much.
Carceral and punitive engagements as romance, preludes to romance, and acts/instances of foreplay
What struck me immediately about Carmen’s 19 year-old sexuality and engagements with romantic interests, both confirmed and insinuated, is that her suitors are her captors or authority figures above her. People with whom relationships are or would be highly inappropriate, inequitable, unethical, and exploitative of someone in her position, to say the least. The son of her enslaver, the cop who wishes to capture her and acts punitively towards her but who’s interest she has piqued, and an older adult professor who also seems very much attracted to her.
She risks her life sneaking around during an age of enslavement, racialized genocidal servitute, and mass incarceration to meet with her white slave master lover. When she jumps in time, she must also elude the police, and a during one such chase, the show cuts to scenes of “romantic” moments sneaking around with her lover of the now-past. Watching this reminded me immediately of Dayanara “Daya” Diaz from Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black and her relationship with John Bennett, the white correctional officer at the prison where she is incarcerated.
Daya’s story is also punctuated by the neglect and sexual exploitation, namely from her mother’s partner prior to prison and two different Cos while incarcerated. At one point, to hide a pregnancy by Bennett, she lures seduces another CO to frame him for rape and fathering her child.
By law, incarcerated individuals cannot consent to sex, and knowing what I do about anti-Blackness, white supremacy, capitalism, sexual violence, patriarchy, and slavery, I would extend that to be an ethical reality for enslaved Black women too. And yet sexuality under captivity, beyond being a hypocritical reality, becomes a romanticized one for these women, portrayed positively in media and made a compelling plot point to drive their stories.
Mestizaje as justification for the whitewashing of enslaved-slaver romance tropes
As a Dominican woman, it isn’t lost on me that both characters are either canonically or literally also Dominican, Carmen assumed so because her mother is based on real-life 17th century Afro-Dominicana healer, Paula De Eguiluz. Like all Black women in the Diaspora, we come from a long history where society sees our only value and worth in our hypersexualized labor capacities. By extension, it leaves our sexualities and bodies to be framed and understood in this same manner in media narratives of enslavement and incarceration.
The only uniqueness for the Afro-Latinx diaspora perhaps is mestizaje, which makes it so that even many Afro-Latinxs themselves justify these violent depictions and histories under the guise that they’re merely the racial intermixing necessitated to create the diversity of Latinidad. And we, especially mixed people like myself, are meant to be grateful for this, as we “wouldn’t exist” without it. Too many believe these colonial romanticized whitewashings of rape and the exploitation of my ancestors’ bodies and insist that we should be proud of it.
We are simultaneously superimposing consent and agency onto Black women to make us active happy participants in our incarceration, but also saying our ability or inability to consent doesn’t matter regardless, as our bodies are inviolable. The dissonance is tantalizing to the white imagination, Black women’s bodies are unrapeable, yet easily rapeable. A young Black woman is hypersexed and “fast”, yet nothing happened and “she is making it up”. Enslaved and taken advantage of, but her brave sacrifice created our people.
So much rests on our bodies that a story in which a 19 year-old girl survived the ravages of kidnapping, enslavement, being sold as a commodity, rape, being ripped from her family and arrested for ancestral practices, being burned alive, then transported in time to a new world completely, her only focus is going back to a life of servitude and to the “love” of her slave master’s son. It’s beyond totally plausible, but it’s framed as beautiful and even romantic by the narrative.
In the non-Black writers’ eyes, the point may be to show the regular dissonance of slavery, how it undermined natural human capacities to love and care for other humans, before, despite, and beyond violent yet impermanent human racial constructs. But constructed as they may be, they are real, and to write a “love” story between a white man and a Black woman within this context, and in such a messy way, is misogynoiristic, painful, and irresponsible on many levels.
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In reality, this correlation plays out in the United States prison industrial complex, where many incarcerated women, especially of color, are also survivors of sexual violence, experiencing it at the hands of law enforcement, judicial figures, and other members of the settler criminal justice system, before incarceration or after.
For Carmen and Daya, all throughout their stories, their sexualities and bodies are both their bargaining chip and their damnation. What does it mean when we, narratively, creatively, and in settler systems and institutions, continuously orient ourselves towards incarcerated, enslaved, and oppressed Black women’s sexuality through the engagement of it—that is to say, sexual exploitation—by their captors, and frame it as romance?