7 Memoirs About Unearthing Ancestral Magic

Real magical stories to show us, individually and collectively, different ways to create a new world

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash

I have always been keenly interested in the history of folk magic, witchcraft, curanderismo, myths, fairy tales, and Jungian archetypes, but as I began earnestly researching my family’s Caribbean heritage and my curanderismo/quimbois roots in preparation to write a memoir, I did what I always do: turn to the books, follow the story. Yet it became clear that while the publishing market is flooded with fiction featuring magical characters or spell and how-to books from Wiccans, cunning folk, curanderos, brujos, and root workers, to name a few, very few nonfiction narratives trace the authors’ personal stories. If you scour the Internet for witchy or magical narratives, you’ll find lists of fascinating novels, histories of the Salem and European witch trials, or pop-culture grimoires, but you won’t find many spiritual or magical journeys in the form of memoir. 

As I continue to contemplate what stories my ancestors, many of whom have been subsumed by colonial repression, its anti-Black, racist caste systems and the Catholic Church’s destruction of our African and Indigenous languages and knowledge, I am buoyed by those with the courage to write about their personal journeys, to share their roads toward decolonization and reclamation of ancestral practices as well as the determination to face this world, which our ancestors would not recognize, and make something new, and better from it. So here is a different kind of list, one featuring real magical stories to show us, individually and collectively, different ways to create a new world.

Initiated: Memoir of a Witch by Amanda Yates Garcia

Amanda Yates Garcia’s Initiated: Memoir of a Witch is about her underworld journey toward claiming her birthright as a witch. Her odyssey begins with her childhood in California watching her mother practice her witchcraft and fighting to maintain her individuality amidst abuse and trauma to striking out on her own as an artist and dancer to her true, soul-deep initiation as a witch.

Throughout Yates Garcia’s moving story, she also shares her own hard-learned lessons and teaches us about the history and theory of magical practices and how we can incorporate the real “practical magic” in our own lives. One of the things I admire about Yates Garcia, in both the book and her social media, is how she consistently walks the walk when it comes to being an ally to Black, Indigenous, and people of color in and out of the magical world, as well as welcoming us into her own learning process, which is often a very vulnerable place. You can tune into Yates Garcia’s deep-dive tarot podcast, Between the Worlds, or book a private reading.

Jambalaya by Luisah Tsieh

Originally published in 1985 and then revised and updated in 2021, Yeye Luisah Teish’s Jambalaya is a critical text for understanding pivotal syncretic religions with deep roots in African and Indigenous spiritual practices but also tracks her personal quest to becoming a priestess of Oshun (and now a respected, revered elder) from her childhood in New Orleans, living across the street from Marie Laveau’s original address, to Mississippi and then later San Francisco. Teish, whose Southern heritage is African and Indigenous, lays out a detailed roadmap to, in Teish’s own words in the author’s note, understanding “the worldview, spiritual culture, and ritual practices of the African diaspora out of the shadow of ‘spookism’ and into the light of accessible spiritual knowledge.”

Jambalaya is definitely a guide to those practices but she stresses, like Yates Garcia and every other author on this list, the need to fight and overcome systemic white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism to find the best path forward. Coupled with her personal anecdotes about her life, such as her Black nationalist activism in college, her struggles to practice her faith during moments of illness and doubt, and her personal search for Laveau’s Voodoo in the urban turmoil of 1980s New Orleans that truly make the book come alive and gently guides readers into believing they can be a part of this at-its-heart inclusive spirituality.

The Man Who Could Move Clouds by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Ingrid Rojas Contreras has recreated what a memoir can be for everyone, but especially for the Latinx and Caribbean diasporas, with her stunning book, The Man Who Could Move Clouds, which traces her family’s lineage of Indigenous curanderos in Colombia. Rojas Contreras and her mother both sustained head trauma from accidents that resulted in amnesia, Rojas Contreras as an adult and her mother as a child. With her mother’s amnesia, however, came an awakening talent that traditionally was traditionally only passed through the male line. Rojas Contreras’ grandfather is a hereditary curandero, a folk healer who could move clouds, and he saved his daughter from complete disfiguration from her accident. When she woke up with the ability to talk to spirits and he reluctantly trained her in some, but not all, of their family’s secrets.

Rojas Contreras may not have come out of her own episode amnesia an espiritualista like her mother, but she is still a dream walker, whether that power was always her or awakened by her memory loss. Years later, when her grandfather visits her in a dream to ask for his body to be moved, Rojas Contreras and her mother embark on a powerful, life-changing pilgrimage to Colombia. Rojas Contreras fought to tell this story as nonfiction and with that victory, it gives so many of us in African and Indigenous diasporas a decolonized roadmap to our own stories, and the stories of our ancestors, that have been patiently waiting for a new generation of storytellers to exhume and breathe back into the world.

Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color by Lorraine Monteagut

Though technically a guide to decolonized, activist magic, Lorraine Monteagut is concerned with amplifying the stories of contemporary brujas and brujxs, and threads her own personal story through each section. When I first began my research into ancestral folk magic/healing practices in 2020, Monteagut was one of the first people I encountered. I read an interview with her that led me to her Ph.D. dissertation, which detailed her experience growing up in Florida as part of the Cuban diaspora, her family’s roots in Cuban Espiritismo (there are different sects of espiritismo as a syncretic religion, Puerto Rico also has their own version) along with her experience with shamanic journeying, which was all fascinating and some of it made it into her 2021 book, Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color. Monteagut is focused on activism, community building, and uplifting BIPOC practitioners, with each section outlining an overarching topic (Magical Ancestry, Spiritual Activism, Bruja Life) and including Monteagut’s anecdotes along with a feature on a different bruja/x and then a how-to guide with magical tips and lists of organizations for learning more about each subject. It’s not only a celebration of individual stories and ancestral/contemporary practices but also a must-have resource guide for the decolonizing practitioner. She is also an active practitioner, tarot reader, and beekeeper.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In September, I had a dream where the spirit of serviceberry (a plant I could not recall ever consciously encountering, in person or in my reading) visited me in dream as a Native man who introduced me to his friend, an artist who works with wood and was frustrated as she attempted a new technique and my dream self knew she needed the wood of serviceberry. Mystified, I researched this amazing plant, which turns out to be indigenous to North America, abundant, and well used by Native Americans all across Turtle Island as a bountiful fruit, medicine, and also a wonderful hardwood for carving. The search led to a powerful essay on the message of serviceberry by celebrated Native botanist and writer, Robin Wall Kimmerer.

I had been meaning to read her bestselling book, Braiding Sweetgrass, for quite some time and this was obviously a strong sign from my ancestors to do so ASAP. Braiding Sweetgrass is likely the book that should begin this list, though it doesn’t simply because Indigenous wisdom, religion, and culture do not interpret the same meaning of or identify with as “magical” in the same way as others may, per se, and it’s important to be respectful. However, animism and the practice of reciprocity with the earth as mother are the foundation for any meaningful magical practice. The white-supremacist view of Native spirituality as mysticism and something to be exploited, belittled, and commoditized is always a something to be wary of, but Wall Kimmerer’s writings and work as botanist, teacher, and elder gardener, are so essential and all encompassing of how we must shift our worldviews and allow Western science and Indigenous knowledge truly marry to find the new way forward. Wall Kimmerer has spent her life listening to and learning from the plants, trees, and land, and shares through her personal life experiences what she has learned of their language, of their inherent gift giving that when we truly reciprocate back, will lead us to healing and reclaim the original instructions for all life to thrive together.

Woman Who Glows In the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health by Elena Avila

As Wall Kimmerer argues for Western botany and Indigenous knowledge/practices of land and plants, so Elena Avila argues for Western medicine and cuaranderismo practices to unite, as well. Avila, a widely known and respected curandera from my part of the world, the Southwest and Borderlands, wrote the now-canon Woman Who Glows In the Dark with Joy Parker in 1998 and I had been walking past it on my mother’s bookshelves since I was in my late teens as it called to me, always in the back of my mind, but I had other concerns, until I finally began this particular journey of my own about three years ago.

Avila grew up in El Paso and comes from a family of curandero and always yearned to be an artist but was also as a child deeply called to the spirit of curanderismo. She went to school to become a psychiatric nurse, but was called upon to teach and share her then-small knowledge of traditional curanderismo, a syncretic healing practice that combines Spanish, African, and Indigenous medicinal and shamanic traditions, and felt constrained by the strict separation of body and spirit in the U.S. medical system. Woman Who Glows In the Dark is Avila’s journey to becoming a Curandero Total, a healer who “employs all four the of the levels of medicine as described by [her] Aztec teacher, Ehekateotl: education, bodywork, medicine, and sacred tools.” It is also a comprehensive practical guide in Aztec curanderismo, complete with Avila’s stories of personal healings she had performed over nearly two decades. It is a book that requires one to approach with open mind and heart, as well as respect, for if the call to curanderismo is sleeping within you, to find your own teachers and walk the path, Woman Who Glows In the Dark will awaken it.

Longing For Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna by China Galland

China Galland’s Longing For Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna also isn’t in the most specific terms a magical narrative but I actually found it enormously helpful in my research into the divine feminine, which many magical practices hold sacred and whose histories have been subsumed by the patriarchal religions. Galland’s book, which was first published in 1990 and focuses on her experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, centers on her search for a spiritual place amongst a white-supremacist patriarchal society and its religions. A white woman from Texas, she grew up Catholic, married very young and when she inevitably needed to leave a bad situation, she faced the prospect of having to leave her religion if she could not procure an annulment, which is a very difficult thing to do in any circumstance, but especially if one has no money or leverage.

So Galland broke with the church and became a student of Buddhism but still yearned for a more feminine place in the religion, which, in the midst of battling alcoholism, she discovered the Black Tara, Buddhism’s first female Buddha. Galland then goes on an intense search that takes her from California to Tibet to India to Poland to discover why the Tara is Black and also why the Black Madonna is also a part of so many European cultures.

Galland is not only a brilliant writer and journalist but is starkly honest in her own privileges and slowly dawning awareness that white supremacy is the ultimate systemic and spiritual evil that we must battle head on if we are to find a new road forward together. For a white woman writing in the 1980s, I found her personal revelations both astonishing and comforting because it illustrates how anyone from any background, at any time, can enter the underworld for a powerful reckoning with spirit and soul, to witness and experience, and come out the other side healed and ready to battle injustice.

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