I am celebrating Women’s History Month by sharing the deeply personal story of my grandmother’s great gift and heritage.
My grandmother, also known as the Bruja del Ensanche (The Towns Witch Doctor) was born Julia Australia Santos Mirabal in the years that followed World War II. The island of Hispaniola was dealing with the consequences of the war, including political unrest between the Dominican Republic and neighboring Haiti. The countryside of the Dominican Republic is to this day a place of fertile valleys, sugar cane and agricultural plantations run by the native people of this country, as well as its border-country. Julia was said to be born of humble upbringings to tobacco farmers and so called “rebels” in Santiago, DR. My grandmother was one of twenty births that produced nine surviving offspring, including my grandmother, seven sisters and one brother.
Due to her being the darkest shade in the family and the socioeconomic system set in place at the time, she was subjugated and expected to take the role of a matriarchal leader. Her mother (my great-grandmother Josefa Mirabal) was an aspiring entrepreneur that developed her own handbag business using local resources. Julia’s first job at the age of four was working the tobacco fields during the day and collecting the materials for hand-woven bags at night. Even though there was no running water or electricity, she always made sure the household was in order; taking charge of bathing, feeding and bedding the entire family every night. Even as a child she was expected to uphold her responsibilities like an adult, working multiple jobs; using her earnings to support the growing responsibilities of the family.
In 1964, by the age of 16 the Bruja del Ensanche had already established a divine belief derived from her self- learned knowledge of Santeria; a faith based religion that uses the mystical and divine forces to bring about luck. In the D.R, Santeria is almost exclusively known as Palo, although there are other names such as 21 divisions. Her version of Santeria was a fusion between traditional Catholic beliefs and African heritage. My grandmother would travel four hours by bus to Santo Domingo to take advantage of the opportunities of the thriving capital city. In Santo Domingo she would work various part time jobs in entertainment and hospitality while developing a network of clients interested in the blessing of her special gift. People have always told me throughout my entire life that my grandmothers’ gift is her ability to solve problems.
In 1968 after a near fatal accident on the tobacco farm, her father lost his ability to work, and my great grandmother Josefa was left bedridden and mysteriously deaf for the rest of her life. Julia had saved enough money from her various jobs to build an altar to practice her beliefs and offer customized spiritual services to clients. The business grew to be a rousing success in both Santiago and the capital, which allowed her to make enough money to follow her dreams. The first thing she did was set up an educational fund to pay for the schooling of all of her unmarried sisters. Shortly after she took her show on the road and developed a client base in Cuba, Florida, and Spain. Her clients were men and women of all walks of life looking for a solution to their troubles. Her favorite client was none other than the legendary Celia Cruz, whom she met during a chance encounter after a concert in Havana, Cuba. After finishing her shift as a stagehand, my grandmother ran into Celia Cruz backstage. My grandmother mentioned to Celia Cruz that she looked exhausted and offered to buy her a cafe con leche at an undisclosed location. I don’t know exactly what was said but I can tell from the way my grandmother spoke of her that they shared a special bond. Julia had her first child in 1969, and her second in 1971. The situation called for the help of two of her most trusted clients who unofficially adopted the girls. The two girls grew up to become my mother Luisa and her younger sister, my aunt Sandra.
The Bruja del Ensanche, Julia, spent the next twenty years successfully maintaining her spiritual business in the Dominican Republic during a time when job opportunities were dim. Other than my birth, I did not develop a relationship with my grandmother until my family began to take trips back to the Dominican Republic. I can still remember the first bus trip to meet my grandmother in person: I was six years old at the time and everyone I met told me my grandmother was a magical Shaman—whispers about the “bruja del ensanche” were stories of triumph and revelations. To them, Julia was the woman that used her magic to bring good into the lives of those who sought help from her mystical ways. As a young girl, I experienced various severe medical issues that were cleared by the time I’d reached school age. In 1995, when I got off the bus in La Zona Colonial (a district of the capital) my grandmother greeted me with open arms and a deeply personal trip to the Basilica of Higuey. I can only describe the experience as a pilgrimage to the national shrine devoted to the Virgin de la Altagracia (or Dominican Virgin Mary). There we made a promise to return to the same shrine in 21 years to the day I was released from Mt. Sinai hospital in New York City.
In 2004 she found herself arriving in America for the first time in her life. Enticed by the opportunity to make almost three times as much as the same jobs in the Capital of DR, Julia took up my mothers offer to live with us in New York City. Upon her arrival to the United States, it was realized that her limited access to traditional schooling would be an obstacle to overcome; however, where she lacked in education, she made up for with exceptional communication skills. Reaching out to her global network of clients, I watched her successfully establish herself amongst the Dominican American community of Washington Heights. Consultations, advice and “trabajos” (Spanish for work) were offered on a primarily appointment, walk in and over the phone basis. In my teenage years, I saw the faces and heard the pleas of the suffering, the rich, the poor, and everything in between. Julia has been the most important person in my life from the moment I met her. My grandmother has been there for me through thick and thin. I observed her at work and adapted and developed a personally significant version of her practices. Although I was raised and baptized as a Roman Catholic, a monthly supply of Florida water, rose petals, cinnamon sticks and imported candles are always on my shopping list. I do not consider myself to be superstitious, although I find my grandmother’s practices bring me great peace and optimism.
As her first-born granddaughter, she revealed to me that I inherited her gift of problem solving and healing. I continue integrating spirituality into my personal growth and beliefs, finding myself embodying the new generation of what my grandmother represents. In the past week, I went from being an IT trainee to running the social media and web development at the Southside Community Center in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. I have considered labeling such a transformation as a stroke of luck, part of life or a sudden revelation. While her beliefs may not be rooted in the most conventional practices of the world, Julia Australia Santos continues to give me her blessings through thick and thin. When other four-year-old children were in classrooms learning how to read and write, the young Julia was already a real life problem solver. As my 26th birthday approaches on the first of April this week, I look no further for motivation and inspiration than the one, the only “ Bruja del Ensanche”.