To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including TV writer Cord Jefferson and activist Mariah Moore, return to the full list here.
Emilia Ortiz’s laughter is harmonized by a joyful choir of spirits whose vitality and vibrancy cut through the background static of our interview.
The laugh was inspired by a simple question.
“How are you?”
Simply put, Ortiz is transforming. The 29-year-old bruja and spiritual adviser is literally bursting with new life — Ortiz was entering her third trimester of pregnancy when we spoke over the phone. Appropriately, we paid a quick tribute to her growing mofonguito, calling in protection and abundance. The ancestral spirits that guide her in her ritual practices seemed to be already in sync with us.
She has amassed more than 200,000 followers on Instagram as @ethereal.1, where the assemblages of her Afro-Puerto Rican lineage, no-bullshit delivery and brujeria create a space where she openly explores themes like mental health, sexuality and grassroots activism, sin verguenza. Brujeria, native folk witchcraft, has historically been a powerful tool of collective survival, perseverance and the crafting of radical new paradigms. The proud Brooklyn native has created a space without shame.
On Instagram, Ortiz provides avenues for self-care for la gente. Hoops big, nails long, skin glowing, edges set, she takes the hands of her followers and guides them through native herbal plant support, meditation exercises, mutual aid projects and oracle readings assisted by her pet parrot, Rico. Her readings for the collective strike a divine balance of providing hope and reminding followers to check themselves before the spirit does the job for them. Using memes, Ortiz reminds followers to honor boundaries, feel safe within their bodies, and that the government is trash. (Just look at its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she notes on Instagram.) Along the way, Ortiz never compromises on her sense of self and the tortured lineage she honors through her practice.
In Puerto Rico, an island still suffering under continued colonization, much of the spiritual practices that are a medley of African, Spanish Catholicism and indigenous Taino belief systems and rituals have been purged from collective memory. However, Ortiz’s psychic ability was recognized in her childhood and encouraged by her father, who never shied away from their African roots. Following his death, Ortiz’s family encouraged her to continue to develop her abilities and step into her power and fate. The well-established nature of her practice offered a means of preparation for the onslaught of trauma that would be 2020.
“I’m very thankful that I have an established practice and have had ones for many years because the moment Trump came into office, to be honest, I knew that at some point during his presidency, whether it was right away, in the middle, at the end, things like this were going to happen,” she said.
Ortiz said that her spiritual guides, her ancestors, encouraged her to stay grounded. She needed to maintain a stable foundation to fortify her mental health so that she could find her role to best serve the collective. Throughout the past year, when many public-facing figures were remaining silent or ambiguous on matters of life and death, Ortiz recognized that with her gifts and platform, she had a responsibility to her community to play a role in how they were collectively navigating this time.
Feeling a sense of urgency and a call to action is understandable after social movements were reignited in 2020. The advice of la bruja? Reconnection: Our ancestors have fought these wars before, and we can connect and call upon them to better understand our roles and be guided by their experience. Light a candle. Say their names. Write letters and prayers. Build an altar, cook their favorite meal, honor them often and abundantly.
In April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was at its early height, @ethereal.1 posted, “We all have a role to play,” detailing that during this time, often folks feel pressure to take on a visible role, as producers, creators, healers and more.
“We all have our ‘call time’ and what needs to go into our prep, as well as our rest period,” she said. “Do what you can in this time. Make moves with intention.”
Intention and responsibility guide her every move, as Ortiz recognizes that the offering of her gifts is a bridge connecting a larger community that has been forcibly scattered. The effects of the historic and ongoing colonization of Puerto Rico have caused multiple diasporic waves of forced migration.
“It’s funny, I often say when it comes to being a Puerto Rican of the diaspora, there’s this aspect of being born on the wrong isla, you know?” she said with a subtle laugh. “And especially as a Nuyorican, it’s not necessarily that you were born in the wrong place, but that’s how it feels, right? Because it feels as if there’s nowhere that is truly home. It’s not that New York isn’t home, it is home. But at the same time, there’s a piece of you that is always longing for this other home.”
This tension and embracing of duality informs her sense of responsibility. So she utilizes her privileges and platform to honor the spirit of radical resistance and collective healing native to the Puerto Rican tradition. At times when she feels she is not doing enough, it is this responsibility that grounds her.
“We can use the privilege of being here to advocate for what is right for the island,” she said, but it’s important to do it in a way that holds space for the complexity of privilege and does not erase Afro-Puerto Rican identities and roots.
Ortiz said she’s hopeful of the future and the collapse of systems and structures that “are just beyond unfair and not working, quite frankly. Except obviously in the favor of, you know, white supremacy.”
Mutual aid and community is an imperative antidote.
We all have our role to play, she — and her guides — reminds us. Pa’lante