Author Archive
Folk speech
Proverbs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

You don’t have friends; you have associates.

Information about the Informant

My informant currently lives near USC, near enough that he likes to ride his bicycle around the campus to relax and swim in the John C. Argue Swim Stadium. He grew up in downtown Los Angeles. He spent his childhood and adolescence in the impoverished parts of the city. Even now, though according to him, he has a “nice place” now with neighbors that don’t bother him if he doesn’t bother them, he still sees people he knows to be either gang members or pimps or prostitutes, and he avoids them as he doesn’t want to get caught up in their ways of life. In this account, he tells me about how he avoided falling into a bad way of life in the first place.

Transcript

“You know, when I was coming up, I have a lot of friends down, you know, and most of them, they dead or in jail, right? Or sprung out on crack somewhere. All the drugs. So, um, when I was like, uh, I don’t know. I’d say about, I’d say about thirteen, fourteen years old. Mom used to say this. She used to say, “Yo, you think you got friends out there, but you really don’t have friends,” you know. “You got ‘ssociates,” that’s what she said. “A friend is somebody that’s gonna be with you, you know what I’m saying? Through thick or thin, you know; that’s a real friend. But these people you meet, they out here, they’re trying to, you know, they drinking with you, they doing wrong with you, wanting you to do wrong, those is not your friend.”

So, you know, I listen to Mom, and then again, there goes these old, these old winos used to be out there on the corner, drinking their little wine, you know, not, not, not like bum winos, but they just be out there on the corner drinking wine and just getting together, you know. So one time, they, they would stopped us, you know, they say, “Man, you, whatcha’ll going? Where y’all going? Whatcha’ll doing?” “Well, we’re just going around, just, you know, just chilling, just, just going around, you know.” “Y’all gonna get in some trouble. Now, let me tell y’all,” and you know what, he explain to us just like what my mom said, you know, same way, you know. And it, it, it got to me, you know. Now, a lot of kids nowadays, they don’t believe what their mother tell them, you know what I’m saying? They, they, they go out there and do things and—but I took notice. I said, “Now, why would this guy just sit there and tell me something that my, my mom just told me, you know. So what she’s saying must be true. She don’t even know this guy. Right?” So, right then, I cut with those friends a loose. I slowed down with them. And I basically, ‘cause you know, ‘cause we was done, we headed for the wrong way, doing things out there, the wrong thing. And so these guy—you know, I cut them loose, and as I did that—I, I didn’t just like, bam, going out, I won’t see y’all no more. But I, you know, when they wanted me to do things, oh, I got something, you know, I’d tell them that. You know, I’m doing something else.”

Analysis

I would not have entered this as a piece of folklore if not for the fact that I too have heard people say this. The one specific instance from my life that I can remember came from my mother. Searching for this possible proverb on Google turns up an article called “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” It may be coincidental, but the article is featured on a site called Single Black Male, and my informant himself is African American, as was, presumably, his mother. I could also speculate that my own mother may have heard this from the African American community in Baltimore where she lived while she was in America. No matter where it came from, it is a useful piece of advice. While not always phrased the same way, therefore not making it a true proverb, it does always feature the same two key words, that is, “friends” and “associates.” These two words are the most important as they are the types of people being compared in the advice, considering whether the person in question is truly a friend or merely an associate who may not want the best for you as a friend would. In this way, the advice resembles a metaphor or a simile, although it is never stated in either form, comparing and contrasting two concepts in order to define the qualities of both. In this case, of course, the important thing is how the concepts differ and not how they are alike.

Growing up in the neighborhood that he did, my informant told me many stories about the terrible tragedies and crimes he’s seen in the darker parts of Los Angeles. Many of them involve gang-related activities, and he constantly expressed his relief that he never truly got involved in any of that and his determination to never be dragged into it through associating with the wrong people. If indeed this is a piece of advice that specifically circulates throughout African American communities, then my informant’s case is certainly indicative of why this is. The unfortunate reality is that impoverished African American communities still suffer a disproportionately higher rate of crime, and specifically gang-related crime, and the poverty in those communities plus the temptation of the benefits one gets from being a part of a gang does drive many young kids growing up in those neighborhoods to becoming a part of the lifestyle that my informant is glad he avoided. This piece of advice then would be helpful in telling those kids to re-evaluate the peers they associate with and determine whether or not those peers have their best interests at heart.

Citation for the article on Single Black Male:

Streetz. “Friends vs. Associates: How Do You Know Who’s Who?” Single Black Male. Web. 1 May. 2014. <http://www.singleblackmale.org/2011/12/21/friends-vs-associates-how-do-you-whos-who/>.

Folk Beliefs
Narrative

USC Haunted House

Information about the Informant

My informant is a USC undergraduate student majoring in Theatre. He used to have a major in the cinematic arts, and acted in a few student films produced by his fellow students.

Transcript

“So I was filming a student film here on campus a couple years ago. Uh, it was a–I was like–the film never actually got produced but I was a killer. I was like a serial killer or something. With all his–it was real–all like themed killings. It’s all pretty…insane. And, uh. We didn’t have a permit. So we got approached by a DPS officer. And we were all scared we were gonna get like…or the director at least was scared that we were gonna get busted. I didn’t care ’cause, you know, I’m just the actor. I can’t be held accountable for any of this. Uh. And… But she doesn’t say anything, she actually, uh, starts…talking to us and I forget how…this came up. But she starts talking about this house near campus. And uh, this is at night. And apparently this house near campus is haunted. And…because she said that like fellow officers have been in it to like…look at stuff or whatever, and there’ve been voices and moving things, spooky stuff. And uh, she said that apparently a family lived there, and…two–I’m pretty sure it was only two of the members of the family are…actually there as ghosts now. And they’ve been…messing with stuff, and…I think she said–yeah, she said one of them is friendly and the other one’s pretty…spiteful and vindictive. Uh. And so basically it’s not a place you wanna go. And I don’t know where it is. But…it’s around here somewhere.”

Analysis

Finally, a ghost story about USC. According to my informant, he had no real personal reason for remembering this story that the DPS officer told; he remembered it because it was part of the larger story that almost got their filming crew “busted.” But for me, and possibly for any other USC student hearing the story, it’s interesting because it presents a side to the DPS that we as students don’t normally hear about. It raises interesting questions as to why the DPS investigate this house that often in the first place and how the story is told amongst themselves. When one of them is told to go investigate it, how does he or she feel about this if he or she has been told about the supposed history of this house? It is curious that this story does not circulate amongst the student population of USC as ghost stories usually thrive amongst young adults around college-age, especially when it involves a location near them. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that this house is probably not one open to the public and thus the only legal reason a person would have for ever entering the house is to investigate it for some official reason, as the DPS officers do in this account. But it is still odd that even rumors of this house have not appeared en masse amongst the students and that even a Google search for haunted locations in the USC area turns up nothing except staged haunted houses for the purposes of Halloween celebrations.

Folk Beliefs
Narrative

Math Classroom Ghost

Information about the Informant

My informant is an English teacher at a high school in Southern California, and has been teaching for over twenty-five years. She has been featured as an Influential Teacher of the Month within the last five years, and has received great reviews and praise from her former students as a teacher who cares about and motivates her students to succeed. I met her next to Tommy Trojan when she brought her class to USC campus on a college visit and she gave me this school ghost story in the short time before she had to collect her class.

Transcript

“I teach at the oldest high school in [school name and location removed]. And there is a common story that, um, circulates. And that is that one of the math classes is haunted. And so everyone goes in, I–usually on a Thursday morning, and you can note the differences in air temperature. Um, on a Thursday morning, you can, at any other time, on any other day. So, we really believe that something is going on in that school, or in that room, or something occurred there that–and that is an ongoing reminder to us that something negative occurred in there, because it’s always cold.”

Collector: “Is there any, like, theory as to what it might be?”

“From my kids? No, we’ve no theory. We have no idea because we cannot, um, there’s no accounting of anything had ever happened in there. So it could be that prior to the building being built, that some violent occurrence was there. Maybe, you know, some, uh, early settlers or maybe some of the indigenous people, or something like that that was in–that was, gave that piece of land or that little area kind of a negative quality.”

Analysis

When asked how this possibly haunted classroom affected people at the school, whether staff members or students, my informant told me that all it seemed to do was reaffirm the beliefs that the students or staff members already had. For those students (and possibly members of the staff) who already believed in an afterlife that included ghosts or some sort of spiritual remnant left in the world after death, the story “gives credence” to that belief. But for those who did not believe in ghosts, they simply believed the unnatural cold was due to “wind pattern or something.”

This is an interesting example as it’s an instance of a ghost story where there is no actual ghost, but merely an unnatural phenomenon that could easily be attributed to a natural cause. It’s interesting to observe because, rather than attribute the cold to a problem with the cooling system or weather patterns, it seems like people at the school are more than willing to try to find a “supernatural” explanation for the cold, even undertaking, it sounds like, research into the history of the school to find out if anything violent had ever occurred on the school’s property. It’s an interesting example because it provides a look at how an experience may turn into a memorate, the process by which an experience can become a memorate, where the experience is something strange but explainable and those involved instead search for a way to incorporate it into the genre of ghost stories, using the tropes about ghost stories that they already know (e.g. that if there is a ghost, there must have been some violent incident in the past; that settlers or indigenous people may have cursed the ground long ago).

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Protection
Proverbs

Crow’s Mouth

Information about the Informant

My informant is a freelance editor and translator living in Taiwan. She was born in Taiwan and has lived there essentially her whole life, except for a few years in America. I asked her specifically about this proverb that I’d heard my grandma tell me when I was young as I’d never really understood it, and she told me the origin of the proverb and how it became the version that I heard as a child.

Transcript

“‘Having a crow’s mouth.’ Because we Chinese believe—no, not believe, Chinese always claim that crows are bad luck. The story’s very simple. It’s just…we feel the crow—because it’s black, so it’s bad luck. So when it—and other people say…uh…most of the time, it’s just that we believe, it may go against biology, but we believe that most of the time, crows don’t speak. That they don’t go, ‘Wah, wah, wah, wah.’ So when they do speak, it’s that bad things are about to happen. That it’s kind of like…a…prophet, can predict, can tell you that bad luck or bad things are coming. So, so, when they speak, they just…they tell you that you will have misfortune—not necessarily you, not you specifically, just somewhere around there or Taiwan or something. Just that there’ll be misfortune.

So then people started saying ‘having a crow’s mouth,’ became like ‘you’re acting like…a crow.’ That is to say, what you say, after you say this thing, it’ll actually happen. So they’ll say you have ‘a crow’s mouth.’ But if…if a person says something and then it doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t count as ‘crow’s mouth.’

Collector: “But you…you—when you say someone has the ‘mouth of a crow,’ you don’t know yet if the thing will happen. Just, as soon as they say, ‘Oh, this bad thing might happen,’ then you need to say, ‘CROW’S MOUTH.’

‘Yes.’

Collector: So you haven’t even checked, to see if it’s really happened.

‘Yes. And, when it—when it first started, ‘crow’s mouth,’ this term was…was…changed—it was that the thing the person said, if it really happened, then we would berate him, saying, “It was you having a crow’s mouth.” That is, for instance, uh, we at NTCH [informant’s work place], each of us wishes…wishes that our boss won’t, won’t do a certain thing. And then a person then, then says, ‘Oh!’—never mind, if we, let me give an example, for instance, we have our first day off, we just had, let me see, Memorial Day. And the day before we get Memorial Day off, someone says, ‘Let’s hope that…after the holiday ends, the first day we come back to work, we don’t get called to a…kind of…meeting…that starts at 8 in the morning and lasts till 7 in the evening kind of meeting.’ I’ve heard that the person who likes our English writings, that boss has that kind of meeting a lot. And then…and then—because everyone thought he was just kidding, ‘No, no, no, that won’t happen,’ and then, yeah, the first day back at work, it actually happens that there’s a meeting from 8 in the morning, as soon as you get to the office, you get called to the meeting, lasting until the afternoon, 7 o’clock, getting home at 7 pm. And then people will yell at the person who said it, ‘You have a crow’s mouth.’ However, if it was this person, it happens that every thing he says like that always has this kind of effect, that is, whenever he says something, it always has this effect, for instance, he eats lunch, that one, that one, at that place that [a coworker of hers] took you to eat once, and then, the dish that they like to eat, they say, ‘I hope they’ll have that dish today,’ and then that person says again, ‘They won’t have that dish today because it’s that…um…that—lately that dish has been going up in price. They definitely won’t use that dish.’ And then when they go, they really don’t have that dish, they’ll say, ‘You had a crow’s mouth!’ And then…um…in the future, when he talks, people will say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth,’ to stop him first. So when he’s prepared to—before he, um, starts to talk, you have to say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth.’ But then, that is, nowadays, um—actually, Taiwanese people are becoming more and more superstitious. Because we’re having more and more bad luck. Don’t we say a lot that we are a bad luck family? The whole country, it has more and more of a workload, things like that. Less and less money. Then everyone starts to become really nervous, whenever someone starts to say something, they say, ‘Don’t have a crow’s mouth!’ Meaning in case, meaning if you say it, then it’ll become a bad thing. So, this phrase became a sort of ‘stop someone from becoming’—it’s superstitious, in case what they say becomes a thing that, um, comes true.”

Analysis

The meaning behind the proverb and how it became a preemptive warning instead of a way to blame someone after a misfortune is pretty clear in the transcript. I do agree with her that this change from a comment or exclamation after the fact to a warning (and the time I remember hearing my grandmother tell me the proverb, she did sound pretty horrified and frantic) does reflect a change in the culture of Taiwan. I don’t believe necessarily that it is due directly to a sort of economic crisis or “bad luck” for the whole island, but it does seem to at least reflect a change in behavior from a more relaxed one where such prophecies were not welcome but tolerated, to one that actively tries to prevent these prophecies from ever being made in the first place.

Original Chinese

Continue reading Crow’s Mouth

Folk Beliefs
Narrative

Ghost leaving hairbrush on the dresser

Information about the Informant

My informant is the father of a high school girl who was visiting USC campus for a college tour.

Transcript

“And then her mother passed away just a few years ago. Um, and she was close to her mom. And her mom, you know, died suddenly. They didn’t expect her to die. And she may have been not taking her medication or something of that nature. So it’s like maybe preventable. Preventable. Um. So her old–and this woman’s fifty, so she’s not like a kid. Um. The mom–the woman–her mother was in her…maybe close to 80. Um. So she went to a psychic. Someone had said, ‘Oh, maybe you’ll feel–get closure from this woman,’ so she goes and listens to this woman. And the woman said, ‘Oh yeah, your mom’s here with you and she’s sorry that she had to leave. But she’s looking over you,’ and all that stuff. And the– my friend was still thinking this was just kinda, ‘Ok, this woman’s just telling her [inaudible].’ And then she starts saying–she said, oh, there was things that– she left some stuff in her house for her. But they had already gone to the house to clean it. Um, clean the apartment. Um, so she said but there was things that were left there for her. So she said, ok, whatever. So she went back to the house. Another day, not even that day. She was–a couple of days later. And there was–there was things sitting on the…the dresser. That weren’t there. I mean, she says they weren’t there before. She says, ‘I’ve–we cleaned, everything was in boxes.’ And it was a brush, like her mom’s brush, that she would brush her hair, like, my friend when she was a little girl, her mom would use this brush. And there were a few other little things that were sitting there. On the–on the dresser. And, like she said it was–it–the whole house had been cleaned and packed up. So she went back to that woman–the woman. She says, ‘Oh, can you tell me more?’ And she says, ‘Oh, she’s always looking out for you,’ and all that kinda stuff, ‘and will always be here.’ That was like two years ago. So she’s…totally believes all this stuff. You know, my friend believes that, oh, her mom’s looking out for her.”

Analysis

This is a prime example of a memorate. The friend in this account experienced the events in the account for herself, but her story is also part of a larger narrative about ghosts and contact from the afterlife. The significance of the experience for her is pretty clear; she was close to her mother and most likely was grieving the loss of such a beloved figure. The possibility that her mother could still interact with her even after death is a comforting one, especially reinforced by the hairbrush being left on the dresser, an item that she associates with her childhood experiences with her mother taking care of her by brushing her hair for her. My informant, however, when telling this story, sounded less than convinced that there was a supernatural reason behind the experience. I felt that, to him, this story was more important because his friend was involved in it and it marked a turning point in her life, as my informant stated that after this incident, his friend did start believing that her mother was looking after her from the afterlife, when, in his story, she too had been skeptical of the psychic being able to offer her anything substantial.

Legends
Narrative

The Doheny Library Book Thief

Information about the Informant

My informant is a librarian working in Special Collections at USC’s Doheny Library. She first told me this story as an example of real security breaches that have occurred at Doheny Library. This is her second telling of the story to me.

Transcript

“So, I don’t know the dates exactly, but I think it was the 1990s. There was a guy Blumberg, and I don’t even remember his first name. I was gonna look it up, but you told me not to. Um, and I had heard of this guy, probably in library school, and then when I came to USC, I was on a security task force, talking about security of rare books and materials, and they kept mentioning, ‘Blumberg,’ and how there was a major theft in the 1990s from some USC Special Collections and Rare Books. Uh, and so, I heard that he–so this guy Blumberg, he was a totally obsessive collector. He collected not just books, but vintage doorknobs and all sorts of things, but my story’s mostly about the books, so in the 90s, he successfully stole millions of dollars worth of rare books from major institutions all over the country. And he would really do his homework, so I know at USC, I learned that he scoped us out for…I don’t even know how long, but he had been spotted in weird places, looking for how our security probably had any kind of holes. And then he ended up shimmying up the dumbwaiter system, which was used to reshelve books between floors in the stacks, and it had been deactivated. He shimmied up the dumbwaiter system, and that’s how he gained access to our closed stacks. And he stole a bunch of rare books, and he kept them in his warehouse. And when he was arrested, and he was sent to jail, when he was arrested, they found a warehouse which is–I think it was his home, but it was full of rare books. They were everywhere; they were in the bathroom, they were in the kitchen, they were just stacked up everywhere. And these were really expensive acquisitions from major institutions. And he had removed a lot of the…sort of…things we do to identify the books, so any kind of book stamp that we might have used or an embossing system. We try to do all these different things to identify the books as ours in case they are stolen. He removed all of those, so when the police were trying to sort of divvy out what books were whose, we couldn’t get all of our books back. So I think, we heard [other Special Collections staff member] say the other day that somebody from USC had to fly to the middle of the country and say, like–Indiana, maybe? I’m not sure. And try to identify all of the USC books that had been stolen. And we were only success–I–[Special Collections staff member] said about a third, um, she’s the [redacted for confidentiality purposes], she said we got about a third of the books back, but I don’t know the actual number.”

Analysis

As the story was originally told to me when I was discussing (as a student worker in Special Collections) the tight security that guarded that section of the library, there is the implicit warning that 1. the security precautions were there for a good reason and that 2. every worker in Special Collections must also be on the lookout for strange people in the restricted area. In fact, my informant told me after telling her story that she hears about people being in the Special Collections stacks that shouldn’t be there, and though they are usually students who have gotten off on the wrong floor because of an elevator issue, whenever she hears about such incidents, she always wonders if it’s yet another book thief or even Blumberg himself. Most of the staff members that work in Special Collections today were not working there during the 1990s when Blumberg struck. (Some were working in Doheny Library, but not in Special Collections.) But it’s a story that all of them know, usually through word of mouth. I suspect it is circulated amongst the Special Collections workers usually for the purpose of making them more security-conscious, but it’s also gained somewhat of a legendary status.

To my informant, the strange part of the story for her was voiced by(she read this in a book after hearing the story) a member of the Mafia who went to visit Blumberg in jail, and asked him, “Why books?” It’s quite possibly the question on everyone’s mind after hearing that Blumberg stole books and then simply kept them in a warehouse. He never tried to sell the books. He sincerely believed that he could take better care of the books than the libraries he stole them from could. My informant saw the irony in mocking him for this belief as this is exactly what libraries do. They procure books from various places and keep them in their own housing because they believe they can take care of the books.

But another aspect of Blumberg’s belief comes into play when the story is circulated amongst the library staff. He believed that he could take care of the books better than anyone else could and yet, from the story my informant told me, it sounds like the books were kept in abysmal and definitely not book-safe conditions. They were stacked up everywhere, in the bathroom, in the kitchen. I believe that my informant’s specific mention of these two locations reveals a deeper fear that this story induces in specifically library staff. As any person trained in the basics of book preservation knows, the most dangerous source of damage for books is water, with heat/fire being a close second. The idea that Blumberg was storing these books in his bathroom, where they could be exposed to water easily, and in the kitchen, where, even worse, they could be exposed to both water and heat easily, is a librarian’s nightmare. This is what makes Blumberg into a dangerous figure for those working in libraries instead of merely a, frankly, amusing eccentric. My informant speculated that Blumberg had to have had some sort of mental disorder for him to have done what he did and to think that he could take care of the books when he clearly had no idea what he was doing. For a staff member of Special Collections, the horror of Blumberg’s actions could very well serve to turn him into a figure of legend, a book thief whom library security cannot stop and who could unwittingly destroy centuries worth of rare books by making away with them.

Folk Beliefs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

What to do if you go to jail

Information about the Informant

My informant is a university professor of English and American literature. He grew up in Chicago during the 1950s, and fought in the latter half of the Vietnam War. After that, he returned and received his degree in English Literature at UC Irvine. He has worked on many textbooks and movies that deal with the Vietnam War.

Transcript

“I was once taught, at the age of twelve, what I should do if, if I went to jail. And the man gave me three pieces of advice. One, keep your mouth shut. Two, keep your eyes and ears open. Three, find the toughest guy in your cell block, and start a fight with him. ‘Cause even if you lose, he’s gonna respect you and nobody else is gonna fuck with you.”

Analysis

I believe, although I could be wrong, that this advice has become widespread or a bearer of the advice has become a published author or told it to someone who then published it, because I believe I have seen this piece of advice in a book once. While not fixed enough (and probably too long to ever be fixed), to be considered a proverb, the advice is still worded memorably enough that it is easily remembered and passed along. There is almost a certain lyrical quality to it. The concept of keeping one’s mouth shut is offset by the second part of the advice which involves keeping two other orifices open, and there is the implication that this is a balance, where one shuts one’s mouth and, to compensate for that, one also keeps one’s ears and eyes open. The third part of the advice then comes as a disruption to the balance of this advice, especially the way it was worded by my informant. Whereas the first two parts are standard pieces that could be told to more than just people going to jail, told by mothers to their children, told by bosses to their workers, the third part really establishes the context and the brutality of the environment in which the complete advice is applicable.

Folk Beliefs

El Coco

Information about the Informant

My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. He is Hispanic and grew up in Napa, California. He told me this story when asked if he had any stories from his childhood that his mother had told him.

Transcript

“So, growing up, um, every time I didn’t behave the way I was supposed to, my mother used to tell me that if I wasn’t good, there was gonna be this guy, um, that’s gonna come and take me away, and I believe the name of that guy is, ‘El Coco.’ And I was obviously scared, so.”

Collector: “Did she say what he was going to do, or just he was gonna take you–”

“Uh, she’d never say what she was gonna do. But–uh, excuse me, what the guy was gonna do. But, um, there was always rumors that the guy would kidnap kids and eat them, or, like, make them slaves, or, you know, scary things like that so it was, it was pretty scary. Every time she would mention the guy, we would just stop whatever I was doing. Not to make my mother mad or anything, ’cause I didn’t want the guy to come and kidnap me.”

Analysis

This is yet another story from the collection of stories that mothers tell in order to get their children to behave. It’s interesting that of my four pieces of folklore collected from young Hispanic adults in this project, all of them have been such stories. With such a small sample size, obviously, nothing conclusive can be drawn, but it may be a topic of further interest for future researchers: whether or not certain cultures have more stories that they tell children in order to keep them from misbehaving. In this instance, the figure of El Coco is a pretty generic one and can be substituted for one of many other figures antagonistic towards children and still have his actions make sense: Baba Yaga, another witch, a bear, a wolf. It’s interesting though that my informant was vague on what exactly El Coco would do to children once he’d kidnapped them. This may be attributed to my informant’s having forgotten the tale, but it could also be that it didn’t matter for the purpose that the story was meant to accomplish. For children, the mere threat of a monstrous figure coming to take them away from their parents can be frightening enough to scare them into being obedient. Often, in children’s stories, the same theme of a sympathetic character being eaten reoccurs. I don’t know about other people, but for me, as a child, hearing or reading those stories, the implications of being eaten never truly sank in. Yes, I knew it was a bad thing to be eaten, but it was bad in the way that being made to sit in timeout was bad. The concept of the amount of pain and horror that going through the experience of being devoured is not one that came to the mind of this child naturally. This is also evidenced, I think, in the unrealistic portrayals of being eaten that often appear in tales, where characters are devoured whole, even when, realistically, they would be far too big to be swallowed whole by their eater, and more often than not, are rescued intact from the belly of their attacker. For children then, being told that if they misbehaved or angered their parents, that El Coco would come and abduct them, the effect is rather the same as if they had been told that whenever they did something bad, they would be punished the parent. The difference is that El Coco, being a distinctly inhuman figure, he is not subject to the same limitations as the parents are, and I believe the child knows this on some level. He knows implicitly that El Coco is a figure that only delivers punishment and that he is not bound by human restrictions. Specifically, El Coco does not have to be physically present and watching to know when a child has done something bad. Therefore, as explained more in depth in my entry about the mother who claimed she had an eye on the back of her head, the child behaves because he never knows when this entity may be watching. My informant’s mother could only be watching him when she was physically present and had her eyes on him, therefore, when her back was turned or out of the room, he could misbehave and rest easy that it was unlikely she would find out. But when he is told that an inhuman entity is also watching him, then he believes that he may be monitored at any point in time and, therefore, must always behave lest El Coco observe him without his knowledge and punish him.

Folk Beliefs
Magic

Eye on the back of the head

Information about the Informant

My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination. This one of three stories that his mother told him when he was a child.

Transcript

“And I guess another one was, um, a kind of derived eye-in-the-back-of-your-head type thing. Where she’d [informant's mother] say that, you know, ‘If you do something behind my back you’re not supposed to, I can see it.’ And, um, I’d be like, you know, whatever. You don’t have eyes in the back of your head. But occasionally, she’d turn her head. And she was doing something. And she would turn her head back, and she says, ‘I see you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. How do you…How do you know that?’ And, um, she’d say, ‘I have an eye back here that’s magic, so you can’t see it.” You know. Typical…you know, that’s what little kids say, like, ‘Oh, it’s magic, so you can’t see it.’ But I–we bought it. So, um, any time she was in the room, or even might have been in the area, we behaved because she had an eye on the back of her–a magic eye on the back of her head, so.”

Analysis

Most of the stories that this informant told me were ones that his mother used to keep him well-behaved as a child. This one she seems to have used to keep her children from misbehaving when they thought her back was turned and she couldn’t see them. Although I doubt that this was hardly the intention of my informant’s mother or of the people who first came up with this story however many decades or centuries ago, the theory behind how this story would work as a way to keep children from misbehaving is one that has been discussed amongst Western philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham. The concept of the Panopticon, which operates by allowing the guards of a prison to have full view of all the prisoners, but the prisoners are unable at any time to see the guards, or even know if there are guards currently at their posts. The theory is that the prisoners, unable to tell when they are being watched, would always behave as if their actions were being monitored and self-govern in this way. This is the essential theory behind the story that my informant told me. The mother having a magical eye on the back of her head that, by virtue of being magic, my informant could not see and so would never know where it was looking or when it was open and watching, forced my informant to govern himself whenever his mother was in the room as he would never know when she could see something bad that he had done. My analysis may sound critical of the mother for using this tactic, but it is a very useful one and one that I would not be surprised to hear is employed in many households of various cultural backgrounds. A parent cannot be constantly watching her child at all times, and this allows her to have the relief of being able to be in the same room, thus available if something important does crop up, but also be able to perform other tasks rather than be required to watch her children at all times to make sure that they do not misbehave.

Humor

Interruptor Cow Knock Knock Joke

Information about the Informant

My informant is a college student at a community college in San Jose. He’s an avid amateur photographer, and we know each other through going to the same online high school. His family’s very closely-knit, with his parents very involved in the lives of their children. I collected this family in-joke from him while we were visiting the same high school friend outside of Las Vegas.

Analysis

“Knock knock.”
“Who’s there?”
“Interruptor cow.”
“Interrupt–”
“MOOOO.”

Analysis

When asked why this joke was important to the informant, he replied that, “It is or was for a long time the only joke my mom remembered. So when you said, ‘joke,’ that’s immediately what I thought of.” He and his mother do have a tendency to enjoy humor that involves subversions such as the one in this joke. In this case, that the punchline of the joke is the interruption and the derailment of the usual structure of a knock knock joke. Its subversion of the usual knock knock joke structure may be precisely the reason why the informant’s reason remembers it when she cannot remember any other joke, making this joke one that is precious both to her and my informant as the one family joke that they both remember and can share.

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