Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest
MELUS, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 194-96.
by Mary Anne Bernal

Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest. Alfred Avila. Houston, TX: Piñata Books, Arte Público Press, 1994. 172 pages. $9.95 paper.

Although Arte Público has published Alfred Avila's collection of ghost tales through its division for younger readers, these violent stories may not be suitable for pre-teens—with the exception of those who have been weaned on R.L. Stine in elementary school and have begun cutting their teeth on Stephen King. Adult readers of Mexican descent raised with abuelo's stories will feel a familiar chill upon encountering these tales of evil spirits and hapless humans. And all readers will recognize the archetypal struggle between good and evil and the traditional patterns of storytelling designed to promote cultural values, as well as to entertain.

The supernatural punishments suffered by disobedient children, drunken men and self-centered women in the stories serve to reinforce values such as respect for elders, for nature, for the old ways, and for the spiritual world beyond human comprehension and control. Characters who disregard traditional values are punished with terrifying physical and psychological torture. While the worst punishments are reserved for deliberate transgressors, sometimes victims are only guilty of curiosity or bad luck.

The style Avila uses to tell these tales effectively accomplishes two objectives. He achieves verisimilitude while still retaining the legendary quality of the stories. One way Avila provides a sense of authenticity and realism necessary in good ghost stories is through references to historic figures such as Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata and familiar places like Chihuahua or Zacatecas. While his illustrations show fantastic, horrifying creatures, the violence depicted in each picture is only as vivid and gory in detail as the story that accompanies it.

Suspense in each story builds up to the point where the protagonist tempts fate through an outrageous act of disrespect or foolishness. Like the musical cues in horror films, Avila builds a sense of dread so readers can anticipate the horrible punishment that will surely befall the main character. Elements of setting, such as the approach of twilight, or proximity to a river or cemetery also lead up to each inevitable climax.

While some characters are given names, which makes them individuals, and therefore, more realistic, the storyteller does refer to many characters as simply "the boy," "the old man," "a grizzle-bearded seadog," or "the old woodcutter." Rather than individuals, then, the characters become "types," suitable to fables and parables. Most of the characters are simple people living hard, impoverished lives in Mexico, and often the stories begin with a declaration of this fact which sets it in a different time and place than the reader. The timeless quality evoked by the use of nameless characters and the use of types is also supported by a somewhat formal tone, with simple sentence structure and elegant diction, maintained by Kat Avila, the author's daughter, who translated and compiled the stories.

One stock character is represented in the various dogs who appear in numerous stories. While made individual through their comic and descriptive names—Mocos, Mangas, Prieto, Sapo, Pansas—the dogs nevertheless serve the same function in each story. The dogs represent what humans lack—innocence and a healthy dependence on instinct to survive. In one story the foolish victim fails to react to approaching danger: "An instinct born of centuries of Indian survival told his brain, 'Awaken! Something is wrong.' But his simple mind only dulled his instinct." Yet the Indian manages to survive because of the innocence that makes him more like the dogs than the victims in the other stories. La Llorona (The Wailing Woman) who is torturing him, suddenly feels pity. She thinks, "Was he not one of her own kind? An Indian suffering from centuries of abuse first by the hated Spaniards and then at the hands of the mestizos?"

The mestizo, the person of mixed heritage, Indian and Spanish, is influenced by at least two cultures, and the folktales told in this collection reflect that same diversity of influence. Gods of many different belief systems co-exist. In one story the Indian gods, who are angry about being ignored by their worshippers, are said to be as powerful as "the god of the Spaniards." The spirits in the stories emerge from various traditions: from Catholicism, from the practices of Tarahumara Indian shamans, from Japanese and Chinese beliefs, from the Aztec pantheon.

One important contribution of the collection is its preservation of one original version of legends which have been recast in classic and contemporary Chicano literature. In one of Avila's stories a curandera (healer) battles a bat for an innocent soul; other oral accounts describe similar battles with owls or other creatures. A different story, with the same recognition of evil and the struggle to overcome it, occurs in Rudolfo Anaya's classic novel Bless Me, Ultima. Besides the curandera, another figure depicted by Avila and also in contemporary literature is La Llorona who makes an appearance in five of Avila's tales. In the first story of the collection, Avila recounts one traditional story of her origin. La Llorona drowns her own children so she can enjoy her own life unencumbered by responsibility. When she eventually dies, she is doomed by God to wander near rivers for all eternity, looking for her children's bones. Her bitterness and rage are unleashed upon those who are foolish enough to be near rivers at night. Her story is essential for an understanding of the works of some contemporary Latino/a writers who have created feminist visions of La Llorona, as Sandra Cisneros does in a short story in Women Hollering Creek and as Ana Castillo does in her novel So Far From God.

A recognition of changing values, for good or ill, is apparent in the surprising final story of the collection, which serves as an elegy to the stories which seem to fade in the light of new values replacing old ones. While many of the values might still be seen as valuable, others such as an unquestioning acceptance of tradition are not. But the stories will certainly continue to evolve and adapt, rather than disappear, because of works like Alfred Avila's.

Mary Anne Bernal
San Antonio College

Mary Anne Bernal, Assistant Professor at San Antonio College in San Antonio, Texas, teaches composition and world literature. Her research interests include the twentieth century novel, Chicano literature and contemporary Latina writers, in particular, Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, Sylvia Lopez-Medina, and Christina Garcia.

Copyright © 1998 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States
Reprinted with permission of editor of MELUS.
Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest
Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA) April 1995
by Jennifer A. Fakolt

3Q 3P M J
Avila, Alfred. Compiled by Kat Avila. Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest. Piñata Books, 1994. $9.95 trade pb. 176p. 1-55885-107-0. Illus.

Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest is storyteller Alfred Avila's valuable effort to save the vanishing folktales of a predominantly oral tradition from being lost to future generations. The tales are translated from Spanish, and transcribed by Avila's daughter, Kat. Here are the tales of La Llorona, the wailing woman, who drowned her two children and is now forced to roam the rivers of the world until she finds their bones. Here are tales blending Aztec legend and Hispanic tradition—Coatlicue, Mother of Earth and Waters appears to claim the sacrifice that the mestizos, neglecting their Indian gods, forgot to give her; Mictlantecuhtil, the Lord of the Dead, emerges to rescue one of his minions. Here, too, are tales of the dreaded Caves of Death, where revolutionary leader Pancho Villa supposedly buried his treasure, and left the souls of dead followers to guard it.

Avila's tales are short, quick reads that seem almost to blend together in their similarities: there are many tales, for instance, that involve the evil figure of La Llorona. Fans of spooky stories may find Avila's tales less scary than those in the tradition of Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark because they sometimes lack the overt end-shocks, and often contain cautionary or didactic messages—though some might say that these are the redeeming features of horror. The tales may also have less of a frightening impact for some readers because of unfamiliarity with the historical and cultural bases underlying the tales. Do not let these comments dissuade you, however. Try giving your scary story readers this more exotic fare, and see what they think. Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest is certainly a valuable addition to libraries interested in expanding their multicultural holdings.

—Jennifer A. Fakolt

Reprinted with permission of Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), from issue April 1995.