Author Archives: corypopovich

The Legend of Joe Magarac

My father remembers learning about the legend of Joe Magarac in school. Although he doesn’t remember the exact grade he learned about Magarac, he remembers it was in elementary school, and he does remember learning it from one of his teachers as part of a lesson that included other tall tales like that of Paul Bunyan.

The story of Joe Magarac that my father remembers is that he was a hero to steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and a local legend. Legend has it that Magarac often performed near impossible tasks protecting other steel workers. My father remembers the particular story about Magarac’s death, which as I have learned is one version of the legend, there is another version where Magarac lives. The version that my father told describes how Magarac sacrificed himself by jumping into a Bessemer furnace in order to melt with the steel and make the steel, which was being used to make a new mill, stronger.

My father grew up when the steel mills were still a prominent force in Pittsburgh, and even worked in the mills himself in the 1970s. The area where my father grew up, Munhall, PA, is just outside the city and close to many steel mills, some historical landmarks in the neighboring town, Homestead, PA.


Annotation: Mention of Joe Magarac and his Pittsburgh Origins were mentioned in an article by Jennifer Gilley and Stephen Burnett in The Journal of American Folklore Vol. 111, No. 442. (Autumn, 1998), pp. 392-408.

La ambición rompe el saco.

La ambición rompe el saco.

If you do more than you can handle, you will bust.


(Similar Proverb: Don’t spread yourself too thin.)

My informant, who is bilingual, remembers hearing this proverb from her grandmother, who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1976. (My informant’s mother came to the United States at the same time in 1976).

Her grandmother would always say this to her when she was stressed out. Her grandmother meant to remind her of her limitations with her workload, particularly in high school.

My informant noted that these proverbs are said more by her grandmother than her mother, and hardly ever by her own generation.

My informant also has discussed the effect that speaking English has had on her repeating proverbs in Spanish. She remembers them in Spanish, but does not say them in Spanish. She says the English variants more often than not. I asked about the structure of the proverb, the if/then statement, and if it is popular among Spanish proverbs, but my informant did not have an answer for me.

Ningún mono se ve el rabo.

Ningún mono se ve el rabo.

No monkey sees his own tail.


(Similar Proverbs: Pigs don’t know pigs stink, Before you criticize the splinter in someone else’s eye, remove the log from your own.)

My informant, who is bilingual, remembers hearing this proverb from her grandmother, born in 1915, and who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1976. (My informant’s mother came to the United States at the same time in 1976).

This was one of her favorite proverbs growing up. Notice the objects used in each version of the proverb. In Cuba it was a monkey, a more western version uses a pig. It appears that this proverb is localized to each region in that they use native animals for the proverb.

My informant did note that, although some versions of this proverb do come from the Bible, she felt that “No monkey sees his own tail” is more a reflection of her grandmother’s origins, not the similarity between her grandmother’s version and the version found in the bible involving removing the log from ones eye.

My informant explained the proverb to me as a proverb advocating self-examination. When you want to criticize someone for a small fault, look at yourself and any faults that you might have first.

El que madruga, Dios le ayuda.

El que madruga, Dios le ayuda.

The one that rises early, God aids.

(Similar Proverb: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.)

My informant, who is bilingual, remembers hearing this proverb from her grandmother, born in 1915, and who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1976. (My informant’s mother came to the United States at the same time in 1976).

My informant said that her grandmother would say this to her while she was growing up in reference to her sleeping habits most of all and how they differed from her grandmother’s sleeping habits. (My informant said that she usually goes to bed at 2 AM and sleeps in until 12 noon).

The use of “Dios,” or God in the proverb might imply the influence of the religion and belief of my informant, although of all the proverbs my informant provided me, numbering at around 14 or so, this is only one that references God. And when my informant translated, she referenced the similar proverb noted above, not a direct translation. The influence of her American upbringing explains why she would not use a direct translation and the proverb variant in America seems to be the product of capitalism by mentioning wealth, whereas the Spanish proverb does not mention wealth as a reward for rising early.

“Más vale un pájaro en la mano que cinco en vuelo.”

Más vale un pájaro en la mano que cinco en vuelo.

A bird in hand is worth more than five in flight.


My informant, who is bi-lingual, remembers hearing this proverb from her grandmother, born in 1915, and who moved to the United States from Cuba in 1976. (My informant’s mother came to the United States at the same time in 1976).

My informant said that her mother and grandmother are the ones who say these proverbs, she claims that her generation does not repeat them as much.

For this particular proverb, my informant could not recall the context in which she heard it,  just that she thought it was clever. It refers to the value of money today as opposed to possibilities of money in the future.

This proverb appears in many different regions, so therefore the uniqueness of this variant is the comparison of a bird in hand to five in flight. Other variants have the birds in a bush, not in flight. Therefore, the Cuban influence on this proverb is evident through the influence of Cuba’s aviary wildlife.


Annotation: This proverb, (worded as “a bird in hand is worth a thousand flying”) and its comparison to a western variant are mentioned in the article, “Capital Financing, An Old Approach Reapplied” by Ronald W. Chapman Public Productivity Review, Vol. 7, No. 4. (Dec., 1983), pp. 378-387.

Luck Charms in Lacrosse

My informant plays soccer and lacrosse at Allegheny College. I asked her if she knew of any of good luck charms or if there were any superstitions involved with her teammates. She humorously told me that the most popular good luck charm with her teammates on both soccer and lacrosse is to have a pair of lucky underwear that they wear for games. Also, they usually follow a routine before every game, even down to what they eat.

The most interesting routine is with Lacrosse goalies. My informant explained that, because they there is not much movement involved with their position, every move counts, so they take their routines and good luck charms very seriously. My informant had a friend that one day had two hot dogs before a game that she had played particularly well. She kept this routine up for a straight seven games, (until the team lost), just in case it might affect her game and give the team good luck.

My informant said that goalies in sports are particularly superstitious, though she thought it was more because she felt they were slightly crazy, because there are things in the game that cause the team to lose and have nothing to do with the goalie.

I found that players are more particular about clothing that they wear during the game, like ‘lucky underwear’ or as my informant told me, their spikes, or athletic gear that they wear or use. This is centered around the movement of the game, which to them is what affects their performance.

When I asked my informant if she had noticed any similarities from high school to college sports she said lucky charms in the form of sportswear were common, but that she really felt that lucky routines were more centered around the coaching staff and atmosphere surrounding the team.


Camp Stories

My informant told me about some of the camp stories that she used to hear at her summer camp, Camp Letts, in Edgewater, Maryland, which as my informant describes, is an offshoot of the Chesapeake Bay.

She said that the counselors were the ones who typically told these stories to the campers, and that there aws no particular time that they always told the stories. It was sometimes around a campfire, or sometimes just in the cabins or during mealtime.

There were two stories in particular that were mainly used as a means to scare campers away from wandering in the woods or near the pool late at night, thought this intention never occurred to my informant until she was older.

The first story was the girl with the red scarf. My informant doesn’t remember why she had a red scarf, but it was significant to the story. The story is that there were two counselors who were in love and they decide that in the middle of the night that they were going to go into the middle of the woods and meet up at this spot. The boy goes into the woods and he waits and waits for this girl but she never shows up. It’s really dark and the guy doesn’t have anything with him to light the way. He starts walking when suddenly he runs into a body, which turns out to the body of the girl, hanging from a tree by strangled by her red scarf. Her death was blamed on a strangling ghost, meant to scare the children at the camp.

The second story scared children away from the pool. There was a camp manager having a secret relationship with a counselor, and they would often meet at a certain spot that would later become a spot for the camp pool. One night, there was an accident and the girl counselor slipped and fell and died. The camp manager, afraid of getting caught in the relationship and blamed for her death, buried her under the spot where the pool was built and the campers were told that if you went to the pool at night, her ghost would try and grab you. They also warned campers of swimming to the bottom of the pool because of her ghost, to keep beginner swimmers from pushing themselves too far.

USC “Fight On” Gesture

Sports fans at the University of Southern California take their traditions very seriously, even right down to the Homecoming Game tailgate on campus. There are certain things that the football fans of the Trojans, (USC’s team name), do before, during, and after the home games.

USC has become a very big partying school in the sense that the day of home games are the only time that you can have open containers of alcohol on campus. It has become such a tradition to party before the game that the school has recognized this and allows tailgating on campus.

My informant told me about the rituals involved in attending the games. First, everyone walks over to Exposition Park, which is near the Coliseum where the team plays. On the way there, everyone kicks one of the light posts that are on the very edge of campus before crossing Exposition Blvd. As a matter of fact, my informant told me that if someone does not do this, other fans to kick the light posts sometimes turn them back. This is just a superstition to ensure that the team wins. My informant did not know when this tradition was started, just that it has become so widespread that all students, fans, and alumni perform the ritual.

Another tradition is to make the fight on sign with your right hand. It looks like you’re giving a peace sign, but it is actually a symbol of the team’s slogan, “Fight On,” and is often shaken to the beat of the fight song that the band always plays at the games.

When the game is over, everyone walks back across Exposition Blvd. and once again kicks the light posts for good luck for the next game or the next season.

Traditional dress is the school colors, Cardinal and Gold, and sometimes traditional food is labeled as ‘death dogs,’ the hot dogs that local vendors sell right before and after the game all along Exposition Park.

Slovakian-American Wedding Dance

I asked my informant about her wedding that I attended, in particular a wedding dance that took place during the reception. My informant’s wedding party initiated the dance, which consisted of all the women gathering on the dance floor, surrounding the bride. Then the groom has to try and get to the bride through all of the women while they wave him away with the dinner napkins. Usually the dance is done to a polka song, which is also traditionally part of the Slovakian celebrations in the Pittsburgh area.

My informant told me that her husband and most of the wedding party was of Slovakian heritage, which is where the dance traditionally hails from. Not everyone at the wedding was Slovakian, but the wedding party easily got the majority of people to participate. I participated, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing at the time. The important thing was to have as many women on the dance floor surrounding the bride as possible. This made it harder for the groom to reach the bride and it also just added to the festivities.

The significance of this dance might be the women protecting the bride and her ‘innocence’ from the groom, and the fact that they form a circle around the bride that the groom has to ‘penetrate’ is related to sexual imagery usually involved in traditional wedding activities.

At the end of the dance the groom finally makes it to the center and takes his bride away from the circle.