Author Archives: Francesca Martens

Monkey in Silk Proverb

“Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.”

Trans: A monkey in silk is a monkey no less

This proverb is one frequently mentioned by my mother and in Lima, in general. The interesting thing is that it is used to convey a slightly different (somewhat racist) message than its English equivalent. In the English proverb, the meaning is that a person’s worth is determined by who they are inside, not by what they’re wearing. In their words, appearances can be deceiving. In the Peruvian sense, however, this proverb is used to denigrate the “new money” class, the rapidly growing middle and upper middle class composed of indigenous people. Since these people are frequently self-starters who come from poor backgrounds and have no social graces or taste, they are ridiculed by the European class with sayings like these that denote that in spite of their new wealth and position, these “cholos” are still the same illiterate farmers (and should be treated as such).

La Casa Matusita D

In the late 1970s, Argentinian comedian, Humberto Vilchez Vera made a bet on his television show that he would stay in the house for seven days without incident. However, on the the fourth day, neighbors called police because of the horrible screams that could be heard inside the house. The police and ambulances arrived and took Vera away who was still screaming, speaking in tongues and acting erratically. He was also frothing at the mouth. He was sent to an insane asylum for 13 months and after his release forever declined to speak of the house.
While the previous versions about the Chinese family and the cruel master are not supported by any evidence other than property records which show that the house was indeed inhabited by Chinese migrants, the Vilchez Vera case re is the most recent occurrence that is well-documented and would seem to corroborate the stories of the hauntings. However, Vilchez Vera denied having entered the house in his autobiography and said that while he made the bid, his intention was only to fool people into believing he’d entered the house. Vilchez Vera was very vague in his autobiography which was published shortly before his death, and he doesn’t state exactly how he pretended to enter the house nor does he address his documented rescue by the police or his disappearance after the incident (the insane asylum story has never been proven since no documents have been found). Over all it’s a very puzzling case.

La Casa Matusita C

The American embassy used to be situated in a building directly in front of the Matusita house, and it is said that the legends were all invented and fostered by the American mission so as to prevent people from entering the Matusita house and using it as a site to launch terrorist attacks on the embassy itself (during the late 80s unrest due to the communist Sendero Luminoso).
This version is corroborated by multiple  facts. First, my mother and her coevals heard of the Matusita stories only in the early nineties, and second, as a consular officer herself, she once heard from her peers at the Ministry that the Matusita legends were a product of “Hollywood at its politically finest”.

La Casa Matusita B

During the 19th century, the house was inhabited by a migrant Chinese (sometimes Japanese) family. The father worked very hard and came back late at night every day. One day, he came back earlier and was surprised to hear strange noises coming from his and his wife’s bedroom. He went there and fount his wife in bed with a lover, irate, he grabbed a knife and hacked them both up into pieces. When his kids got home, he decided to kill them as well since he saw no feasible explanation of his deeds and he didn’t want them to hate him. After that, he committed suicide.
While property records show that a Chinese family did indeed live in the house during the early 19th century, there is no proof that the above events transpired. This story’s popularity however could be attributed to lingering xenophobia, staring from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century, there was a very large wave of Chinese migrants to Lima. These immigrants were brought to Lima under false pretenses of wealth and opportunity when in reality, they were brought to collect guano since there was a dearth of cheap labor in Lima (the remaining Africans who were brought over as slaves were too few and the indigenous population had fled to the Andes to avoid being enslaved). These Chinese immigrants suffered horrendously and died by the thousands; however, there was a good number who survived the Guano age and established themselves in the city. In spite of their work which had brought an immense level of prosperity for Lima, these migrants were viewed with distrust by the Peruvians of European descent and were actively discriminated against. This version of the story is a vestige of that sentiment.

La Casa Matusita A

This house situated in Downtown Lima, Peru is the most famous haunted structure in the entire country. It is famous throughout, you can ask anyone in Lima, and they will all know of it whether they believe in paranormal phenomena or not. The house was first brought to my attention when I moved to Peru by one of my maids, she told me all about it and then my mother confirmed the stories circulated, but said they were all made up. During her last visit, I had her recount a couple of versions of the story of the Matusita which she knew (there are dozens):
At the turn of the twentieth century, there lived in the house a cruel man with two servants (cook and butler). During dinner with friends, the servants decided to get their revenge and poison their master and his friends with hallucinogenic substances. They served the tampered dinner and locked the door of the dining room. A few minutes later, the servants heard  a horrible scuffle. They waited until the noises ceased and then when they opened the door, they saw that the diners were torn to pieces, there was blood spread everywhere. The servants felt terribly guilty and took their lives right there. This version is said to explain the loud voices, conversation and laughter followed by blood curling cries and sepulchral silence that neighbors and passerbyers have attributed to the house.  It is said that if they get close to the house or look in, they will go mad at the sights of gore and debauchery inside.
This version shows the rift between the master and his servants which can be extended to the sentiments that the indigenous and African workers feel towards their European (and later on Asian) masters. This tension is found to this very day since in Peru there is a very strong, but passive racist undercurrent that is perpetuated from generation to generation and never confronted. The race of the master is left unsaid in some versions of the story like this one (it is implied he was white); however , there are also versions that connect this version to version b which I also discuss. In those versions, the master is Asian and a descendent of the Chinese family who lived in the house in the 19th century.

House of Tia Toña

In the forest of Chapultepec in the capital (DF) there is an old dilapidated house that is said to be inhabited by a woman who flies into a rage when curious onlookers come to visit.  Visitors to the house have said that when she is enraged, you can hear strange noises in and around the house; you will often see a shadow pass through the windows and the feeling of being watched by someone who sends chills down your spine and goosebumps over your flesh. 
The name of the woman was “Tia Toña”, and she was a very wealthy widow who lived many, many years ago in her house by herself. She was a very kind person and to ease her loneliness, she started taking in homeless children off the street. She gave them money, food, clothes and shelter. But in spite of her charitable acts, the kids were unruly and ungrateful. They made her life impossible and one day, they banded together and decided to kill her in order to take the house and her money.
The kids carried out the murder and threw the body down in the attic. However, they were unable to live in peace because the woman’s angered spirit returned and chased them out of the house – eventually leading each to a terrible death.  From then on, the woman’s angry spirit haunted the house and continues to do so now. Kids are especially warned to stay away from the house.

There is another version of this story that I found in this Mexican newspaper:  http://www.vanguardia.com.mx7leyendasdeterrorquehanpuestoatemblaraldf-668416.html
It is all the same except for the fact that the woman is the one who kills the kids (because they misbehaved so much) only to then be driven to guilt by her actions. She locks herself in the house and has been there ever since. Flory told this story to me during a coffee date, there were no particular gestures that she used to relay it; however, she did say that when she visited the capital for the first time with her parents, her mother repeated this story to her in an effort to scare her away from wandering away from them (it worked, especially in said park).

Seven Sisters

Once there were seven sisters and when it came time for marriage, the proposed sister decided to runaway for she did not want to be married. When her sisters saw her escaping, they followed her one-by-one and when the first runaway fell in a well, the other six followed. The constellation therefore shows the seven sisters in the well (cluster)

Indian stories, these were collected from a nomad camel driver named Haleh in the Thar desert in Rajasthan (he was Muslim, his village was near the Pakistani border). Haleh spoke only Marwari and his words were translated and related by Mayuri Bhandari. This story relates the creation of the star constellation known in North America as “the Big Dipper”. In this story, the well is the four star, square cluster (occupied by four of the sisters) and the tail is the line of the remaining three sisters waiting to throw themselves in it.

The Old Man and the Cot

In a village lived a very generous and well-liked old man. He was so old that he no longer left his cot. The old man had a young wife, and one day, he saw her sneaking out of the house after dark. The old man did not want to distrust his wife, and so he reasoned that he must’ve imagined it. The next day, he didn’t bring it up. The following night however, he again saw her tiptoeing out yet again and so the night after that, the old man moved his cot by the window and saw her meeting a young man. He decided to ask her of her whereabouts the following morning. When he asked her, she looked insulted and rashly replied, “I was by your side all night, I never left. You dreamt it.” The wife was angry that her husband knew of her affair, and she slit his throat that night while he slept on his cot. As he lay dying, the old man called out to God that in exchange for his righteous, honest life, his wife always have a reminder of his death which she would be haunted by after she’d made off with her lover. God hear his prayers and took him and his cot up into the sky, becoming a diamond-shaped constellation.
This was the second story related by Haleh and translated by Mayuri. This story, like the one about the sisters is about the big dipper; however, this one is only about the “dipper” in the big dipper which turns out to be the old man’s cot.  Haleh was cooking for us while we were camping in the Thar Desert, he told the story as a way to entertain ourselves since it was night and apart from the flickering fire that was soon to go out, there was nothing to do and no lights in sight. Therefore, we all stayed around the fire and listened to him and shared stories (all relayed by Mayuri who spoke his language, Marwari).

Festival de Amancaes

Informant is a Peruvian friend who was visiting me this week. She first heard of the Amancaes festival from her grandmother. The Fiesta de San Juan was a festival that took place in the hills of the Amancaes located in the seaside Rimac district of Lima. The Amancaes are bright yellow flowers that grew on these hills during the months of June and July.
The Festival of Amancaes evolved from the pilgrimage site because of the beautiful Amancay flowers that blossomed during the months of June and July and covered the hills in their entirety. In these celebrations, limeñans of all classes and races came down to the hills for unlimited food, music and dance. This celebration went on until 1952 when it was discontinued because the hills of Amancaes were invaded by squatters coming from the outskirts in search of better opportunities in the capital.
This festival was meaningful because Limeñan society has always been very stratified and segregated by class and race. Limeñans of European descent always looked down upon the indigenous and African populations, but on this one day (like Mardi Gras and the Ancient Roman’s Saturnalia) all of these social mores are forgotten and people of all races and classes would party together and share food and drink. Now, there is a festival that was started two years ago called Mistura, this is a gastronomic festival organized every year in Lima and it has become so popular that tickets are sold out almost immediately after they go on sale. This festival is doing the same purpose that the Festival de Amancaes used to do which was to bring society together by providing them with something that people of all ages, races and social classes enjoy: good food.

Rajasthani Wedding Games for the Groom

1. The first time the son-in-law comes to his mother-in-law’s house,  the women in her family fill his mouth with sweets, and he can’t refuse.

2. The Son-in-law will also have to pick out his new wife from amongst all the women in her family (and servants). They will all cover their faces with their veils and group together. The new husband must recognize his bride by her hands and figure; if he picks her out, he gets to spend the night at her side. Otherwise, he has to sleep outside under the stars.

Just like for the bride, the marriage period is a liminal period of transition that needs to be eased. Teh groom is now responsible for his wife and is joining a new family.Unlike the bride’s experience though, the groom is not being tested like the bride for his courage, strength, intelligence, etc. This is probably a carry over form the dowry tradition, back in old days (and to this day in villages and conservative communities) the bride’s family would pay the groom’s family to marry their daughter. Thus, the groom’s family would put her to the test to make sure she was “worth the money” so to speak. Now, the dowry system is uncommon, but the practice of testing the new wife remains.