Latinx legends and folk stories from my youth
A list of four Latinx urban legends, folk stories, and tales: la llorona, el chupacabra, el cucuy, and la siguanaba.
September is National Hispanic Heritage Month and in honor of my Hispanic heritage, I’ve picked four of my favorite Latinx 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 an 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 Latinx culture.
La llorona, or The Weeping Woman, is rising in international recognition thanks to Latinx and Hispanic creators pushing for awareness. There are MANY versions of her back story, but the story I’m most familiar with is:
There once was a indigenous 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. la llorona now wanders the earth crying out to her children, but will take any child and drown them. 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 in Brawley, California, an agricultural town surrounded by canals. I used to live by Brawley’s old waterworks 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 back roads 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, 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."
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 told us how, as a child, he lived on a ranch in the country with a nearby canal as the family’s water source. There were many children in the family and at night they would all crowd into one bed for warmth and comfort.
One night, he awoke by a tapping at the window. He shifted to get up and peek, but his older sister was also awake and shushed him. "Don't look," she told him. "La llorona is out there." Fear swarmed him and he dug into the covers. "She called out names," the teacher told us. "How did she know our names?" All night he and his sister heard the tapping at the window and low moan of the 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.
Arguably the most known creature from Latinx folklore, el chupacabra literally translates to “the goat sucker.” I’ve heard the original story was of a demon 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 as an alien.
My mother grew up on the outskirts of Brawley, then an even smaller town than when I grew up—a place where homesteads and ranches merged with desert. On their property, 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 the bunnies.
One day, as she approached the pen, she heard no tell-tale sounds of bunny rustling. Peering into the pen, she 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. She heard her older brother say, "The only thing that could have done this was el chupacabra."
I’ve always wondered: Why didn’t it eat the goats?
Years later, as a teenager, 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. Had it been el chupacrabra?
Most Latinx 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 a feeling of dread. I immediately looked at the closet door and felt my innards tighten. The doorknob. It moved. Did I just see that? Was I still asleep and dreaming? At this time, my brothers and I shared a room, and I tried glance at them to see if they are awake, are they seeing what I am seeing? But I dared not move in case I signaled el cucuy and he attacked.
I heard the doorknob again. I forced my eyes to it. A wiggle to the left; a wiggle to the right. A test. I'm dreaming, I told myself. A nightmare. I shut my eyes so tight they hurt. My next conscious moment was waking up with the sun on my face. Figment of my imagination? Maybe. Did el cucuy ever come out of the closet and peer at me with dark, soulless eyes? To child-me, he might as well have.
La Siguanaba or Sihuanaba
This supernatural entity, hailing from Central America, is a shapeshifter 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.
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, which is 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.
Do you have any experiences with Latinx folklore and creatures?