El Monte barrios (1942-1951),
map by Alfred Avila © 1993
|Folktales from the Los Angeles Mexican Barrios of Canta Ranas, La Misión, and La Colonia by Alfred Avila|
The following stories are stories my friends, my parents, and elders told me in the Mexican barrios of El Monte, California, I grew up in. Barrios with names like Canta Ranas (Singing Frogs), La Misión (The Mission), and La Colonia (The Colony) left mysterious memories deeply etched in my mind. It was in these barrios I encountered the realm of ghosts, devils, witches, bewitched dogs and birds that roamed at night spreading terror and evil throughout the Mexican countryside.
In writing these stories, much of the impact was lost because many had to be translated to English from the original oral Mexican stories I heard in my youth, and much was lost because I waited so long to write them down. My youngest daughter asked me in April 1973 to help her write a story for her Spanish class. I tried to recall the stories often told to us in the evenings. Some were meant to instill in us moral values, others were for our entertainment and to pass on the oral tradition of Mexican folktales.
Many of the stories were extended to make them more entertaining. In Spanish they were shorter, for the language conveys much emotion. But in English, much of the impact of these stories dies in translation and when converted to the printed word. The emotions — connected to changes in the tone of voice and hand gestures — disappear, making it difficult to pass on the full impact of the story to the reader.
|Description of Book by Alfred Avila|
This book is but a small portion of many stories that exist or existed in our Indio/Hispanic world. Many stories have been forgotten or lost with the older generation that has passed on to our forefathers. This is not a scholar's book. It is a book of stories of the past, of a previous existence rapidly deteriorating and disappearing with the passing of the years and with the help of a modern cyclops, a one-eyed monster that inhabits the earth and day-by-day destroys the Indio/Hispanic folklore of yesterday. It is known to us as Television.
Alfred Avila autographing
books at Bowers Museum.
It has replaced the times when families and friends gathered together in the darkness of the evening on porches or living rooms and told oral stories to teach, frighten, or entertain. These became places where evil was brewed and spawned. The devils, demons, and spirits of the night became living entities. You could see them in the darkness. They became alive within you as you followed every word and gesture of the speaker [storyteller], and listened closely to every word he or she said. It was a time for a lively imagination to overreact, and the emotion of fear prevailed.|
This group of tales I have written is but an attempt to recapture the feelings of yesterday, to pass on the values, hopes, and fears that our fathers and Indian ancestors passed on to us, of a past that we have speedily left behind, with all the modern culture now governing our lives.
These stories are short as most oral stories were. It was an attempt to pass on the seeds that were planted long ago in my youth. Those seeds have borne forth fruit, and I too must pass on these seeds to the new generation, hoping that somewhere, someplace they too will sprout and blossom in someone's imagination. This is the main purpose of this book.
|General Notes by Kat Avila|
• Index of principal motifs in Alfred Avila's Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest
1. Part of the aftermath of the great tug-of-war over Texas, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was the bitter conclusion to the Mexican-American War (1846-48). It was signed on February 2, 1848, in Guadalupe Hidalgo, on the outskirts of Mexico City. By way of this treaty, the annexation of Texas (1845), and the Gadsden Purchase (1854), the United States acquired half of Mexico's territory, lands recognized today as the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and sections of Wyoming, Colorado, and Oklahoma. Mexican citizens residing within this territory suddenly found themselves and their property on the other side of the border. They became another group of hyphenated Americans. Though their rights to property and language were guaranteed under the treaty, many Mexicans lost their land holdings through unfavorable U.S. court decisions or through violence, and Spanish is now predominantly viewed as an alien language in the United States.
2. El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is celebrated from the evening of October 31 through November 2 (All Saints' and All Souls' Days) in memory of the deceased. Typical activities include preparing and decorating ofrendas (family altars of food and other offerings for the dead; the making of ofrendas has also evolved into an art form), cleaning up grave sites and picnicking with departed loved ones at the crowded cemetery, and playing traditional Dia de los Muertos games. Orange and yellow marigold flowers, sugar skulls and toy coffins, pan de los muertos (bread of the dead), and calaveras (handcrafted skulls and skeletons, historically linked to lampooning verses of the same name) are among the usual items sold for this festival.
3. The Pomona (60) Freeway runs through what once was the neighborhood of Canta Ranas. Legg Lake in the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area covers the site where La Misión and La Colonia barrios stood.
4. Retold by John O. West, there is a similarly structured story from Texas involving a boy who passes off a dead man's intestines for the tripas (animal intestines) he was supposed to buy at the market. Sometime during the night, the dead man mysteriously comes back to life to take back what is his. As the zombie closes in, the narrator grabs the listener while wailing "My tripas! My tripas!" (79).
Another Texan jump story titled "The Return of the Gardener" was recorded by Soledad Perez. A gardener invites friends over for dinner even though there is nothing to eat. His exasperated wife murders him and serves him up as a stew to their unknowing guests. Then, one night a mysterious light appears in the distance. The next night it is even closer to the house. Its presence is always announced by the tinkling of a bell. Several nights later, a voice can be heard saying, "I have come for my entrails!" By the end of the week, the gardener's ghost is in the bedroom and scares his wife to death (77-78).
The above stories and Avila's "Los zapatos del muerto (The Shoes of the Dead)" may remind some readers of Mark Twain's Negro dialect version of "The Golden Arm": "Once 'pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de prairie all 'lone by hisself...." The man had a wife with a golden arm. After her death, he dug up her body to steal her arm of solid gold. What he could not foresee was that she would come back for it: "W-h-o--g-o-t--m-y g-o-l-d-e-n--arm?" The narrator at some point pounces on a naive listener with a hearty "You've got it!" (Twain 204-06).
For further reading along these lines, Wilson M. Hudson in a Folk Travelers article "I Want My Golden Arm" summarizes folktales from around the world that involve the theft of body parts either for their monetary value (body parts made of gold) or for cannibalism. It may be an arm, leg, toe, or entrails that are stolen, but the original owner is guaranteed to turn up at the guilty party's door.
5. Chihuahua is the largest state in Mexico. New Mexico and Texas lie immediately north of it. Its capital city shares the same name. The state is probably best known as the home of the diminutive, round-headed Chihuahua dog. Historical events associated with this state include Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's call to arms with his famous speech El Grito de Dolores (The Shout of Dolores) for Mexico's independence from Spain in the wee morning hours of September 16, 1810, and Pancho Villa's military campaigns during the Mexican Revolution and his assasination several years afterward in 1923.
6. The college's name was changed to Rancho Santiago College, then was changed back to Santa Ana College.
7. Pulque, "the poor Mexican's 'beer'" (Brasch 98), is a milky-looking alcoholic but vitamin-rich folk drink made by fermenting the sap (aguamiel, or honey water) collected from the heart of the maguey agave plant. The production of pulque is thought to have either originated with the Otomi (Gyles and Sayer 64) or the Toltecs who conquered them (Terry 114). There is a tale about how pulque played a role in the downfall of the great Toltec priest-king Ce Acatl Topiltzin (historical counterpart of the god Quetzalcoatl). The consumption of pulque was strictly regulated by the Aztecs who used it in their ceremonies; the penalty for public drunkenness was death (the elderly were excused).
8. Pancho Villa was a flamboyant revolutionary figure and bandit (1878-1923) whose real name was Doroteo Arango. As a man on the run he changed his name to Francisco Villa, becoming more commonly known by his nickname Pancho. The legend of this Mexican "Robin Hood" begins with his shooting of a rich landowner's son who tried to rape his sister. He led the powerful and, at one time, the largest rebel army - the Division del Norte (Northern Division). He was vilified by the United States after thirty-four Americans were killed in a vengeful 1916 train ambush in Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and after a deliberate excursion into Columbus, New Mexico. A subsequent American expedition into Mexico failed to catch the guerilla leader. Three years after the Mexican Revolution was over, Pancho Villa met his end in a bullet-riddled Dodge in the streets of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua. Even in death he could not find peace. His corpse was later inexplicably dug up, decapitated, and his head secreted away by an unknown party. Villa's legend continues to fascinate both Mexicans and Chicanos. In the classic play The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa by Luis Valdez, Chicano activism is projected as a legacy of Villa's revolutionary struggle.
9. Mexicans use the Spanish word for lemon to indicate a lime. Real lemons are uncommon in Mexico.
10. The tumultuous Mexican Revolution lasted from 1910-20, starting with the revolt against Porfirio Diaz's dictatorship and ending with Alvaro Obregon's assumption of the presidency. "Tierra y libertad! (Land and liberty!)" and "Viva la revolucion! (Long live the revolution!)" were popular slogans. Vivid images from this period include a battle-ready Emiliano Zapata majestically standing with his rifle in his right hand, his left hand on his saber; Pancho Villa and Zapata sitting side-by-side in a historic meeting of the rebel armies of the north and south in Mexico City; well-armed Zapatistas (Zapata's followers) sipping coffee at one of Mexico City's better restaurants; and soldaderas (women soldiers) accompanying their men on foot and by train.
11. It is a folk belief in many Christian countries that the Devil often assumes the form of a dog, especially a large black dog with fiery eyes (Woods 12-14). From southern Colorado, a somewhat humorous variation of the devil dog is the devil pig with "flames coming out of its eyes and nose and ears" (Wallrich, "Devil Lore" 53-54).
12. To be feared more than a whipping is the curse of a mother or a father against a disobedient child: "A curse is bad, but that of a parent is worse. God helps this curse the more; and the Devil helps it, too" (qtd. in Pearce 300).
13. San Francisco del Oro and the nearby town of Santa Barbara originated as mining towns. Half the silver in the world once came from Mexican mines (Lister and Lister 75).
14. The Tarahumara Indians are also known as the Raramuri. They have a tribal reputation as runners with incredible stamina, their high level of physical conditioning maintained by an active lifestyle in the mountainous country where many of them still live.
15. Tecolote comes from the Nahuatl word tecolotl. Although in this tale the sighting of an owl is a good omen for Cuco, its call is generally associated with misfortune.
16. Its full name is Hidalgo del Parral. It is a historical mining town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
17. Patas, as it is used in this utterance, is colloquial Spanish for human feet. In standard Spanish, human feet are pies and animal feet are patas.
18. La Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a part of the Sierra Tarahumara, so called because of the large concentration of Tarahumara Indians who live there.
19. The Yaquis are a nation of Indians who were persecuted harshly for their long stubborn fight to retain their lands and autonomy against the Spaniards and, later, American developers and the Mexican federal government. They distinguished themselves among the North American indigenous peoples for their determination not to become another assimilated tribe, a proud sentiment also shared by the Maya Indians. The Yaqui-language term Yoeme is sometimes used for ethnic self-identification; it means "We most human of people" (Spicer 288, 306).
20. Mestizos are of Spanish and Indian blood. Their lot was only slightly better than the colonized indigenous peoples. Mexico's population today consists of mostly mestizos, whose cultural and religious expression is a blend of European and indigenous traditions.
21. Were the assassins Mexican or American? The available evidence indicates Mexicans were responsible. In addition to the Americans who wanted him dead, Pancho Villa had vengeful personal enemies. Alvaro Obregon's post-revolution government feared Villa. They felt he had not fully retired from war and was prepared to lead another rebellion.
22. The Rio Hondo runs through Los Angeles County, California, and merges into the Los Angeles River on its way to the Pacific Ocean.
23. Alfred Avila's mother, Guadalupe (Lupe), was known as a curandera (folk healer) in her community. People really liked her and she loved people, said one of her daughters about her.
There are different types of curanderas (women healers) and curanderos (men healers) with varying levels of abilities. Some are quite skilled in herbal cures or as midwives, and others are adept at tending to strained muscles. Their strength lies in that they are able to treat a patient in a manner that is responsive to the patient's system of cultural and religious beliefs (Trotter and Chavira 52-56).
24. One cenote (well) that comes to mind is the Sacred Cenote in the city of Chichen Itza (Mouth of the Wells of the Itza) on the Yucatan peninsula in southern Mexico. From that deep and broad well, reserved for religious purposes by the ancient Maya, the skeletal remains of men, women, and children were dredged up, as were many other types of offerings.
25. "She of the Serpent Skirt" is the Mexican (specifically Aztec) version of Mother Earth. She bore 400 stellar sons (the Centzonhuitznahuac), the lunar goddess Coyolxauhqui, and the solar and war god Huitzilopochtli. Coatlicue was sweeping the temple grounds on Serpent Mountain when a ball of beautiful feathers fell before her. She tucked the ball into her skirt where it disappeared. She searched for it and could not find it. Later she discovered she was pregnant. This unplanned pregnancy so angered her daughter and many sons that they plotted to kill both their mother and her unborn child. Coyolxauhqui took charge of the attack, not knowing one of her brothers had already betrayed them and had become an informant for the unborn Huitzilopochtli, who would burst forth fully grown from his mother's womb to slay all of them.
An awe-inspiring statue of a headless Coatlicue can be viewed at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City. The statue was rediscovered in the early 1800s. From the place where a head would normally be emerge two great patterned snakeheads - fanged and facing each other to form the illusion of a face and head - representing gushing veins of blood. Coatlicue wears a necklace of human hands and hearts that ends in a round-eyed skull pendant/buckle. In back, a similar skull fastens a double-layered fan of thongs to her belt. Beneath her necklace, her exposed breasts lie limp and flat, having "nursed both the gods and mankind" (Caso 53). Her snake cord belt, knotted in the front, holds up a woven skirt of writhing and twisting snakes. Her serpent-head hands are fanged, and her feet are clawed.
Irene Nicholson writes, "We must remember that the statue is describing a vast cosmic process" (85). Indeed, the statue is a fluid multilayered poem about life and death subject to many different interpretations. The celebrated La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin of Guadalupe), patron saint of Mexico, is a distant relative of the unforgettable Coatlicue.
26. The early codices, accordion-fold books made from tree bark or deer skin, were the historical, religious, and calendrical bibles of the Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya nations. Indigenous knowledge was documented using pictographs and hieroglyphics. Nearly all of the pre-Hispanic codices were destroyed by the Spaniards. Interestingly enough, the Aztecs had destroyed their own libraries once before to rewrite history.
The well-known Florentine Codex, twelve illustrated volumes of Aztec knowledge, was compiled by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun. The actual title of this body of research is Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana (General History of the Things of New Spain). The text is in both the Nahuatl and Spanish languages.
27. Mictlantecuhtli ruled the Aztec underworld, Mictlan, with his female counterpart Mictlancihuatl.
28. Regular trade between Acapulco in Mexico and Manila in the Philippines was in place by the mid-1500s (Nunez 129).
29. The will-o'-the-wisp is a phosphorescent fireball generally seen over marshes where there is a lot of decaying matter. The rotting material creates a gas by-product (mostly methane) which is combustible.
The author's Japanese wife, Sachiko, once saw a hi-no-tama (fireball) as a young girl. She was sent to the store one night to buy her father a pack of cigarettes. The path went by a hillside cemetery next to a small dirty river where people threw their garbage. As Sachiko was about to cross the bridge over the river, she noticed that the area was starting to get lighter. Thinking it was the moon, she turned around to see a long-tailed, crackling bluish-green hi-no-tama floating just above her head. Needless to say, the cigarettes were never bought.
In the Texan desert can be seen another interesting phenomenon, which is referred to in Spanish as la luz del llano (the prairie light). Frank Goodwyn reports that it is created by certain atmospheric conditions coming together and it disappears when approached (53). There are other stories of mysterious lights in Texas and Colorado for which less conclusive explanations have been given (Miles 107-08; Steiger and Steiger 64-70).
30. There are many people who do not know of the longtime Asian presence in Latin America. A citizen of Latin America, like that of the United States, can be of any race, though racial stereotypes betray the diversity. Chinese and Filipino crew members rode over to the Americas on the trade galleons (Nunez 130-31). Later, on the heels of the African slave trade, Chinese slaves (euphemistically called "contract laborers") were imported to meet the demand for cheap labor. They were followed by Japanese farmers and laborers. In 1970, the Japan Emigration Service reported that the largest colony of Japanese living outside of Japan lived in Brazil, followed by the United States, and then Peru (Gardiner 133). In 1990, Peru elected Alberto Fujimori, a Japanese-Peruvian, as their president. The history of Asians in Hispanic America is one that mirrors many of the hopes and bitter struggles they have had in the United States.
31. Folklore scholars have studied both Aztec mythology and European folklore (e.g., the German Die Weisse Frau, the White Lady) in order to pinpoint the origin of the legendary La Llorona (the Wailing Woman, or the Weeping Woman). Various Aztec goddesses have been proposed as the original model. The most frequently mentioned is Cihuacoatl (Snake Woman). Dressed in white and her entire body chalked in white, she broke the silence of the night with her wails of despair in anticipation of war. She carried an empty cradle. Inside it was a sacrificial knife. Cihuacoatl would encourage men to sleep with her, after which they died.
Another Aztec goddess is the goddess of the waters Chalchihuitlicue (She of the Jade Skirt). Chalchihuitlicue made crossing any body of water treacherous for men. It was her pleasure to trap and drown them.
In present-day Mexican folktales, La Llorona can take on any number of forms:
1. A sinful mother condemned to eternally wander the rivers of the world looking for the bones of the children she drowned, all the while shrieking "Ayyy! Mis hijos! (Ohhh! My children!),"These basic versions of La Llorona may be found separately or together in various combinations. John O. West gives an example of a male version, El Lloron, set in 19th-century Mexico. On a chilly night, a miner orders a worker to help him bury his treasure. The worker's worried wife visits the miner's wife to express her misgivings. The miner murders the worker as foreseen. He also kills an approaching bundled-up mother and baby, mistaking them for the worker's family. Discovering his horrible mistake back at his own home, the miner hangs himself. He can be heard wailing on the anniversary of his crimes (76-77).
Details of La Llorona stories are often manipulated to fit the local geography and circumstances of the storytelling situation. The stories may be tied to actual occurrences of infanticide. Didactically, La Llorona tales have been used to keep wandering children, starry-eyed girls, reluctant mothers, and wayward men in line. A modern, feminist approach is to use the tale of La Llorona as a sobering illustration of what can happen to a woman who fails to nurture her creative potential, her youthful ideals represented by the children, her capacity to realize those ideals represented by the man. She is condemned to endlessly plow through the sludge of what is left of her creative flow, looking for that which once made her feel alive (Estes 298-315).
32. From the corridos (folk ballads) sprang the canciones rancheras (ranch songs), songs of unrequited love and other related themese (Terry 98).
33. The vampire in Chinese folklore helped to explain the seemingly well-preserved appearance of some bodies. By feeding off the living, or even other corpses, the vampire could keep his or her own corpse intact.
34. The standard translation for lechuza is "barn owl," but in the story the term is used to refer to a small common owl, not a barn owl.
Works Cited and Bibliography for Notes by Kat Avila|
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