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Laura Gonzalez, a forty-two-year-old native of Mexico City, welcomed me into her home last Sunday to talk about her life as a witch, a Wiccan, and, most broadly, a Pagan. We lit incense upon settling into her kitchen, to calm the air in advance of our conversation. As I waited, I caught the eye of the Hindu god Ganesh in the corner, enshrined on top of a refrigerator. I switched my glance and noticed a whimsical broom guarding a doorway. An open terrarium sat behind me with a turtle basking in the heat lamp, limbs fully extended, unthreatened, and taking it all in.
“The first thing they ask is, ‘Do you worship Satan?’ And Satan is a Christian concept, deity, essence, whatever you want to call it. It’s not a Pagan concept. So no! How can I worship something that I don’t believe in?” Gonzalez said, slightly exasperated. “No, we don’t eat babies and we don’t kill cats. What you see in the movies—no. We don’t fly on brooms.”
“But you do jump over them!” I quipped.
“Yes!” she said with a chortle. “I love the traditional aspect of it because it was the old witches of ancient times. The ones we are trying to emulate and learn from. They use the broom to cleanse the space and get all the negativity out of it.”
Gonzalez, a self-employed witch, serves as South Side host, co-organizer, and vice president for the board of the Center of the Elemental Spirit: A Congregational Wiccan Community, a not-for-profit organization. She also hosts the Pagans Tonight radio show in both English and Spanish, distributed online using BlogTalkRadio, and has a new program coming out on the platform tentatively called Lunatic Mondays with Laura Gonzalez. The Center of the Elemental Spirit, based in both Rogers Park and Bridgeport, is about six years old, with the latter, South Side contingent meeting for the last year and a half. Marty Couch, a longtime Wiccan priest, founded the Center; Gonzalez joined three months after the opening, and calls herself the “oldest member.”
Gonzalez was raised Catholic, and was the most devout among her family members. Aspects of Pagan ritual surrounded her in the Aztec traditions of her native Mexico. By age sixteen, Gonzalez tore her way through books on the occult, extrasensory perception, and the like. A sense of teenage rebellion caught fire as well, characterizing her departure from the Catholic Church.
“You’re sixteen and you tell people ‘I’m Pagan!’ And people’s faces go…Agh!” Gonzalez joked, as she drew her face into a scowl. “But I really didn’t know what the hell I was saying.”
It took almost twenty years for Gonzalez to find the Wiccan church. In the meantime, she experimented with reading Spanish cards, a less complex version of the tarot cards she now reads for a living. In her early twenties, she followed family ties to Illinois, living in the western suburb of Bensenville before settling in Bridgeport with her husband about fourteen years ago.
“It wasn’t until seven years ago when I first met an American witch,” Gonzalez said. “She recommended a couple of books for me, and I started reading about Wicca.”
Since then, she’s been actively involved in Chicago’s Pagan communities as both an educator and a proprietor. She holds diplomas in tarotology with a focus in Jungian archetypes from a small private school called Saber and Sanar in Chihuahua, Mexico, run by psychologist Christian Ortiz. Her services as a witch are extensive, ranging from tarot readings to teaching classes on Wicca to providing assistance in the performance of prayers and other magic.
“I’m a witch for hire. I don’t have a ‘day job;’ my day job is being a witch,” Gonzalez said.
“My spirituality has a big place in my work—I’m not a therapist and I’m not a counselor, but I like to call it therapeutic tarot,” Gonzalez said of her tarot reading business. “Because we like to heal people on big or small issues that are happening in their lives throughout the tarot reading. It helps them with guidance.”
Her work with the Center of the Elemental Spirit reflects that desire to heal and guide others. The Center is the only Wiccan congregation open to the public—most others are covens where membership is invitation-only. The Center provides a place where anyone can learn about Wicca, be they students of religious studies, reporters, practicing Pagans, or people exploring their own spirituality, known as “seekers” in Wiccan circles. To date, the group has about 300 members on paper, but the core group consists of fifteen to twenty regulars.
“For me, finding this group was absolutely a coming home,” Gonzalez said. “Like-minded people who are of different ages, colors, genders, backgrounds—everyone is welcome! We just want you to know that there is this group right here.”
Gonzalez considers her role as a witch in Chicago unique, in that she must contend with the advancements of a post-industrial world where the traditions of witchcraft, including apothecary arts, midwifery, and farming, are in some ways obsolete. But even as a city witch, she still keeps a broom above her doorway.
“I can still go to Jewel and buy lettuce. But we’re trying to use that mythology and mysticism and practice and tradition to intertwine it into our lives,” she says of witches in the city.
“Most of us in Chicago are urban witches. We all have phones and stuff, you know? So we’re not living in those ancient times, but we’re using those mythologies and traditions to understand our lives now.”