Famous Hispanic/Latino legends and my brief encounters with each
Illustration by Tavo Santiago @tavosantiagoilustrador
September is National Hispanic Heritage Month and in honor of my Hispanic heritage, I’ve picked four of my favorite Hispanic/Latino folklore to share. These are stories I grew up with and have heard different renditions of each, but I’ve re-accounted the version I’m most familiar with. I’ve accompanied each with a personal anecdote either from me or a family member. These stories aren’t meant to prove the existence of any supernatural being or cryptic, but rather to showcase how these legends permeate the Hispanic/Latino culture.
El Chupacabra Arguably the most known creature from Latino folklore, El Chupacabra literally translates to “the goat sucker.” I’ve heard the original story was of a demon-like creature stalking goats on ranches and sucking their blood out. Eventually, like all folklore, the story evolved. Today, El Chupacabra will kill and drink the blood of any animal, including people. This creature has been described as a scaly coyote-like beast, but also an alien or demon-type creature.
My mother grew up on the outskirts of Brawley, CA, an agricultural town with homesteads and ranches merging with fields and desert. Her parents grew vegetables and raised livestock, including rabbits and goats. In the early 1970s, tales of El Chupacabra seemed to saturate the gossip in Brawley. My mother, about 8 years-old at the time, was more preoccupied with the rabbits her parents were raising. Every morning, she’d run out to the rabbit pen to see all the cute, little baby bunnies. One day, as she approached the pen, she heard no tell-tale sounds of bunny rustling. Peering into the pen, my mother screamed. Most of the rabbits were slaughtered. Their throats ripped out, blood and fur dressing each of the hutches. Other rabbits were maimed, yet still alive; hobbling around the bloody pen. Only the smallest bunnies, hidden in the underground tunnels, were spared. My mother called it a massacre.
She was told the rabbits were killed by a coyote, but she overhead how all the locks were still intact and not a single piece of the pen or any hutches were damaged, including the underground fence to keep the rabbits from digging out. The only thing that could have done this was—El Chupacabra.
I’ve always wondered: Why didn’t it eat the goats?
A few years later, my mother was in the living room alone watching TV. Johnny Carson, she said. Scary stories and fears were the last thing on her mind. Suddenly, the hairs stood up on her arms and neck and she felt someone watching her from the window. She turned to the window and saw a grotesque demon-like face with large oval eyes and horns staring at her. She was never quite sure what she saw, but also knew she didn’t imagine it.
La Llorona The Weeping Woman is second to El Chupacabra in international recognition. The story I’m most familiar with is: There once was a native or Mexican woman who lived in a small village near a river. She was happily married with two children, a boy and a girl, when her husband died. A rich landowner lusted for the woman, but would not marry her because she already had children. To make herself available, she drowned her children in the river. Upon her death, she was not allowed entrance to heaven unless she was with her children (who were already inside heaven). La Llorona now wanders the earth crying out to her children, but will take any child and drown her or him to try to gain entrance to paradise. La Llorona is usually depicted as a wailing woman with long dark hair and a white gown, soaked.
La Llorona is, easily, the #1 folklore I heard growing up. As an agricultural town, Brawley is surrounded by canals. I used to live by Brawley’s old waterworks, the water purifying and pumping station for the city, and my bedroom window overlooked the water basins. Seeing the rippling, moonlit water at night and thinking of La Llorona scared the hell out of me.
My father, a foreman for some local ranchers, took my younger brother and me to see the horses at one of the farms. Taking the backroads around the fields, we drove by an enormous canal. Although I had grown up with the “don’t swim in canals” campaign in school and from parents, I wanted to swim in that canal more than I have ever wanted to swim anywhere. The water looked inviting and peaceful. My father saw me staring out the truck window and said: Ashley, stop looking out there. That’s La Llorona’s canal.
Later, I asked my brother if he had felt a pull to the canal as I did, but he said no. I forgot about the incident until the end of the school year when we were having our annual “stay cool, swim in a pool” assembly. One of the teachers decided to tell us how, as a child, he lived on a ranch in the country with a nearby canal as the family’s water source. One night, La Llorona tapped at his bedroom window. Only he and one other sibling, his older sister, heard it. Knowing her story, the siblings ignored the call of the Weeping Woman. The next morning, the window she had stood at was streaked with water stains. The teacher explained, though she originated in Mexico, La Llorona traveled the water ways, so we had to watch out for the canals even in the US. His story scared me, but the theme of an older sister and younger brother struck too close to home.
I feel most Hispanic/Latino kids are aware of this being. He is the boogeyman. He is a nightmare. He lives under the bed, in the closet, and in the shadows. Better watch out or El Cucuy is going to get you! What he looks like is up for speculation, but mostly, El Cucuy is known as a large shadow person, the punisher to every childhood misdeed.
My older brother and cousins told me El Cucuy lived in my parents’ closet. While I was afraid to walk by any closet, including my parents, it was my own closet that scared me most. If El Cucuy lived in any closet, that was the one. I hated having the closet door open for any reason and could not sleep with it even slightly cracked. The closet’s light bulbs always burned out quickly, leaving the space dark and the air inside feeling heavy. One night, I awoke with dread pushing down on me. I stole a glance at the closet door and felt my innards tighten. The doorknob. It moved. A wiggle to the left; a wiggle to the right. A Test. I shut my eyes so tight they hurt. Figment of my imagination? Maybe. Did El Cucuy ever come out of the closet and peer at me with dark, soulless eyes? No. But, to child-me, he might as well have.
La Siguanaba or Sihuanaba
This supernatural entity, hailing from Central America, is a shape-shifter with the body of a beautiful young woman, long dark hair, but with the face of a horse (sometimes a skull). She appears to young men, who spot her from behind, and lures them away. At the last moment, La Siguanaba reveals her horse or dead face to them. The sight may drive a man to insanity or even kill him. She is sometimes depicted dressed in a white, flowing dress, soaking wet, and is located near bodies of water.
This is sort of a cheat, since I only heard of this creature once and I was already a young adult. I was visiting my maternal grandmother and asked if she knew any scary stories, like La Llorona. She thought a moment, then said something scary happened to a friend of hers, but she doesn’t know if it was La Llorona or not.
The friend, an older woman, and her grown son were driving from Brawley to Mexicali, a town across the border, on Old Highway 111; a secluded road with fields or desert on either side and little to no traffic. It was dusk and the son, who was driving, spotted a figure in the middle of the road. As the car approached, he and his mother saw a young woman with her back turned to them. The son stopped the car and noticed the woman—with long dark hair, dressed in white—was soaked. The son got out of the car and called over, but the woman did not turn around. Finally, he approached her. When he was close enough to touch her, she turned and the son fell back. Instead of a human face, she had the face of a horse. Worse, the horse head seemed dead with ex-ed out eyes and its tongue flapping out of its mouth. The son scrambled back into the car and drove off. The friend told my grandmother her son became so sick she thought he was going to die, but he did recover.
Not La Llorona, my grandmother and I decided, but we weren’t sure what it was; and neither did the friend. Later, during research, I stumbled upon La Siguanaba and realized, to my horror and fascination, this must be what they saw.
As I recount these stories I see, like all fairytales and folklore, the lessons and warnings behind them. But, as a child, they are easy to believe, especially when heard from family members, friends, their families, and role models in the community.