Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Legends

Alamo Folk Stories

TO is a junior at the University of Southern California, originally from San Antonio, TX.

Growing up in Texas, TO had lots of folk stories to share about the Alamo:

“Everyone in the Alamo died because they were slaughtered by the Mexican Army, but they chose to stay anyways and didn’t surrender…and then at the Battle of San Jacinto which ended the Texas Revolution, there was a kid there that was fighting, and I guess he was supposedly at the Alamo but he didn’t die because he was a kid and they let him go…the Mexican Army was losing this battle so they were retreating and this kid came upon a soldier, and obviously the Texans were shouting “Remember the Alamo!” And the Mexican guys were all shouting “me no Alamo,” trying to say they weren’t at the Alamo, and this kid who had escaped looked at one of them and said “me Alamo” and killed him.

Another one was about the Mexican surrender and the end of the revolution…the leader of the Mexican Army, Santa Anna, got shot in the foot. They were obviously losing so he put on a foot-soldier’s uniform, and was captured with the other foot soldiers. So he was trying to get away with just being a normal soldier, except then the other soldiers started calling him ‘el presidente’ – the Texans figured out who he was and eventually forced him to sign over Texas and retreat.”

My analysis:

These stories about the Texas Revolution aren’t necessarily found in the history books, and their origins aren’t clear, but they give Texans some great folk heroes to refer back to when talking about the Revolution. A lot of times the stories about battles and wars that are repeated aren’t necessarily true, at least not exactly the way they’re told – no one can really verify some of the stories about Paul Revere in the American Revolution, and often the real origins just aren’t as exciting. Folk stories like these about important events give the descendants a more lyrical way of sharing history with the next generation, and in general are just more exciting to tell.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Pasadena New Year’s and New Year’s Eve

JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.

JH talked to me about some of the traditions and rituals that surround New Year’s and New Year’s Eve in his hometown:

“New Years is probably the biggest event in Pasadena…first of all there’s the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl game…for the Rose Parade you always know it’s coming because in like, late November they start putting up the grandstands down Orange Grove [a major boulevard], and I live right above the Rose Bowl so they start setting up for events around then too in the neighborhood. They put up these giant white tents down there where they start building some of the floats, and you can go down and help decorate them with flowers – I’ve never gone, but I know some people or their families go every year. The floats are really cool.

There’s also the Rose Court and they’re a big part of the Rose Parade. My sister tried out a few years ago. I think in like September, or really early in the school year, all the girls who are seniors can try out, and they go to this really big mansion called the Tournament House and have a bunch of rounds of interviews. Obviously like, not all the girls are really interested in being on the Court, but it’s just a tradition they all do together. Everyone who participates I know also gets two tickets to this ‘Royal Ball,’ which is basically just a huge dance they have. That’s why a lot of girls do it I guess, just to get the tickets. But I don’t know, maybe it’s also just fun for them to participate. And then they eventually pick like six or seven girls, and one of them is the Queen, and they spend the rest of the year doing charity work and being like, the representatives of Pasadena, and then on New Years they have their own float and they kind of “preside” over the Rose Bowl game later that day.

A lot of my friends don’t really go to the actual parade though…it’s the kind of thing you go to a few times when you’re little and your parents want to take you and it’s exciting – they have free donuts under the grandstands, and hot chocolate – but once you’re like, 10 everyone’s pretty over it. And then when you’re older, the best part about New Years is New Years Eve. The night before, everyone usually gets dressed up, not fancy or anything but girls wear dresses and heels sometimes, and even though it’s freezing outside, like less than 50 degrees at night, everyone goes to parties near the Parade Route. They bring some of the floats onto the street the night before and block it off to cars, to everyone’s just walking up and down Orange Grove looking at floats and hanging out with their friends, there’s some people camped out for the parade on the side, and kids are going back and forth between other people’s parties. It’s really funny because everyone is drinking too. Besides the kids, you see a lot of cops and a lot of people’s parents just really really drunk on the street, and everyone’s just having a good time…if you lived off of Orange Grove you would feel kind of obligated to have a party or open your house up. And then everyone would obviously like count down to midnight together and all that, and then you’d usually crash at someone’s house and wake up the next morning and watch the parade on TV, if you wanted to, or just walk up to the parade route and see it from there. But after awhile no one really got tickets to see the parade. But if you were really lucky, you got tickets to the Rose Bowl game, which was always a big deal. My friends and I really like football, and usually someone’s dad knows someone who can get us tickets, so we try to go whenever we can.”

I asked JH if he thought his experience with this festival was unique, as someone who lived in the community and had people coming from all over to vacation in his hometown:

“Yeah, it was definitely different. Growing up with this happening every year, a lot of it just got kind of annoying, especially living right next to the Rose Bowl and having streets blocked off and so much traffic that entire week before New Years. There’d be a lot of football fans from the Midwest of whatever Big-10 school that was playing, or Stanford people coming down from the Bay for the week, and there’d be just a bunch of people and a bunch of cars all over Pasadena during the end of winter break, a lot of people who didn’t know where they were going. I guess Pasadena isn’t usually a tourist destination until New Years, so it’s weird all of a sudden having a bunch of strangers in your hometown…like Pasadena isn’t small, it doesn’t feel like a small town where everyone knows each other, but you can clearly tell if someone is visiting or someone lives here. And yeah, the Rose Parade gets old after awhile, but I think everyone who lives here would still say it’s one of their favorite holidays.”

My analysis:

Its very different to visit a festival annually and to live in a community where an annual festival takes place – after awhile, the nostalgia and excitement is buffered by some of the logistical nightmares and fatigue that JH describes above. Pasadena New Year’s and New Year’s Eve definitely has similar traditions as other places, like counting down to midnight and getting together with friends and family. The Rose Parade also has elements of other festivals, like floats and a “court” of young women. JH gets to see community involvement a tourist doesn’t, like the selection of Rose Princesses or the decoration of floats that requires residents’ participation and support. This ritual is a great example of welcoming the new year by bringing a community together, while continuing customs that now have come to define Pasadena.

For more information about this festival, see:

“About the Rose Parade.” Tournament of Roses. Tournament of Roses, 18 Feb. 2016. Retrieved from https://www.tournamentofroses.com/rose-parade.
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestures
Signs

Deadly Chopsticks

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM gave me some insight on chopstick etiquette that was passed down from her Japanese parents:

“So in Japan, when you’re eating rice with chopsticks, or really anything which chopsticks, you NEVER rest them by sticking them straight up in your food. It looks like the number 4 spelled out, and in Japanese culture 4 is a very unlucky number – it means death. If you go to Japan you’ll never find anything grouped or sold in 4s, it’s just superstition, like how in America people are scared of the number 13. Also, you never point your chopsticks at people, like if you’re talking at the dinner table. It’s rude, and a little threatening.”

My analysis:

Many cultures have different traditions surrounding food and table etiquette, and this folk belief offers insight into utensil practices many American might not be familiar with. While Asian cuisine is not absent here, it’s often transformed over time by the influence of other places, or even other Asian cultures (like common Japanese-Korean fusion). People from all over use chopsticks, but it’s important to be aware of protocol observed by those whose heritage is more authoritative.

Apparently, chopsticks stuck straight-up in rice also imitate incense sticks on the altar at a funeral, another symbol of death or bad luck. Oftentimes people avoid mixing their foodways with death imagery, compounded by the prevalence of rice in Japanese meals.

I also think it’s interesting that the subject is Japanese-American, and three generations removed at that. Seeing which customs are continued when a family emigrates shows both their cultural and individual values, or superstitions that for some reason or another “stick” in places where they’re not observed.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays

Japanese New Year’s Ozoni

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM described to me some of the basic traditions her family has for New Years Day, especially the cooking of “ozoni”:

“Ozoni is just a soup made with chicken broth, green onion, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, chicken and mochi. My Auntie Kazuko would make it for us every year when we were growing up, and it’s always the first course of a New Year’s Day meal. All of [my mom's] siblings and my cousins would get together at [Auntie Kazuko's] house and while most of the day would be, you know, just a family gathering, we would all sit down together to eat the ozoni. It’s only cooked on New Year’s and you have to go to special Japanese markets to find the ingredients.

“Now with my siblings and kids and nieces and nephews, we get together at my sister’s place – she’s married to a Japanese man, and his mother makes the ozoni. The holiday is pretty similar to how it was for me, where everyone just gathers at someone’s house to watch football and eat food, but the making of the soup and eating it together is like one concrete tradition we do every year. I’m not sure who will keep making it after [my sister's mother-in-law] passes away though…”

My analysis:

The most interesting part of this food tradition for me is the shared background of the family members who actively carry it out – KH told me her Auntie Kazuko was most connected to their Japanese heritage, which is why she insisted on making the soup every year. Similarly, her sister’s mother-in-law is from Japan, and she is the one who facilitates the tradition. It really reveals how certain customs make it overseas when families would move to America, but also how fragile they are. KH isn’t sure anyone else in her family is motivated enough by their Japanese traditions to continue the laborious process of making this particular food. Traditional holidays tend to become more Americanized (in this case) over the years they’re observed away from their roots, and unless enough people are committed to certain customs, they can easily die out.

For more information about ozoni, see:

“Ozoni (Zoni) Recipe.” Japanese Cooking 101. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.japanesecooking101.com/ozoni-zoni-recipe/.
Customs
Foodways
Proverbs

Lazy Grace

KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.

KM was raised in a Christian household, where her family said “grace” before dinner every night:

“I have four siblings and we always ate dinner together with our parents. We’d sit around this big round table and every night, we would take turns saying grace before eating…we were supposed to come up with something original, like something that had to do with the day or different events going on in our lives, but usually my siblings just defaulted to ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” I always tried to have an interesting one, but I think everyone else just wanted to eat.”

I asked KH if she still says grace in her family, or if she and her siblings carried their religious traditions on in their new nuclear families:

“Ultimately I was unsuccessful in getting my kids to go to church. My husband grew up in a Catholic family and now wants nothing to do with the church, and I couldn’t get my kids to show much interest either. I don’t think anyone else in my family still goes to church…except my parents. They’ve been going to the same church since they met.”

My analysis:

Religion is one of those things that can either define a family, or be irreconcilable when two families come together. In KH’s case, religion’s importance started to waver amongst her and her siblings, despite the traditions of their parents. The “grace” prayer in her family shows one generation trying to pass on their beliefs through a ritual, and the next generation participating half-heartedly, or just to please authority. Eventually as they started their own families, her siblings decided the tradition wasn’t particularly important to them, and refrained from instilling it in their own family. More broadly it seems to symbolize the diminishing importance of their religion, and maybe a certain progressive movement amongst families to not force it on their children.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Re-birthday

TO told me about an unusual holiday her family celebrates:

“When I was maybe ten, I used to go rock-climbing at a YMCA in San Antonio with my family, and one day when I was on one of the walls, I realized all the people below me were rushing around and that something had happened. When I was finally able to get down, I saw my dad on the ground, and he was performing CPR on another man. He ended up saving his life, and so every year since our families have gotten together on January 18th to celebrate “re-birthday.” It was kind of weird the first couple years, but now are families have gotten really close, and even when we moved to Carmel both of our families have travelled back and forth for the holiday. Their family has three kids that are the same age as my sister and I, and we’re all really good friends.”

I asked TO if she thinks the tradition will taper off over time, especially as she and the other kids get older:

“I don’t know…so far we’re going strong though. When something like that happens, it can make people really close really quickly, and that’s definitely what happened to us. They’re like, practically family now.”

My analysis:

While this is a relatively new tradition for TO’s family, I think it has the potential to be a holiday – and piece of folklore – she shares for a long time. Her father, a cardiac surgeon at Stanford University, has inspired her to pursue her own career in medicine, and at a young age watching him save someone’s life clearly had an impact on her. Every tradition started somewhere, and “re-birthday” may become a story or full-fledged holiday TO, her sister, and this other family share or celebrate for generations to come. At the very least, TO can pinpoint it as a meaningful experience that influenced her to become a cardiac surgeon herself, and a story she passes down to her kids about the heroism of her father.

It’s also an example of a tradition threatened by geography, and while the families are now in other parts of the country, they still make an effort to come together.

Festival
Folk Dance
Legends

Club Leavey

DK is a junior at the University of Southern California, originally from Denver, CO.

Dora works on campus at Leavey Library, and shared one story she’s heard with me:

“I’ve heard this urban legend about a Leavey rave? Sometimes on Facebook or Yik Yak I’ll see something about ‘Club Leavey,’ and I guess they have people get together in a basement study room at like, 2:00 in the morning and have a dance party. If it exists, it’s definitely not organized, probably so it wouldn’t get shut down, but I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone who’s ever gone…you can bring it up with other students and they’ll all have heard of ‘Club Leavey,’ but no one has ever actually seen it in action…I think. Unless it’s like Fight Club, and they can’t talk about it.”

I asked her if the Leavey staff has ever been made aware or observed this taking place:

“None of the supervisors I’ve brought it up with were aware. Either it really is just a urban legend among students, or the Club Leavey kids are very sneaky.”

My analysis:

Communities like universities all have their own traditions and folklore, and this one is classic USC: a secret dance party in the basement of the least-popular library on campus. In fact, lately I’ve heard of “Club Leavey” more as simply an ironic nickname for the library, trying to downplay the miserable time they’re anticipating there. This is a classic urban legend in that the story is passed around with conviction – everyone is aware and everyone believes in the event – but no one can say they’ve participated or seen it themselves. Colleges around the world have similar stories only their community can relate to, uniting current students and alumni, and often the same stories are transformed and passed down for generations. Maybe the “Club Leavey” legend isn’t as new as we’d think.

Folk speech
Humor

Surf vocabulary

DK is a junior at the University of Southern California, but also a transfer from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

At UCSB, DK had many friends who surfed, and while she didn’t participate she was surrounded by the culture:

“My surfer friends had a lot of really weird vocabulary. They used to call people ‘kooks,’ almost always to make fun of them, and eventually I understood that it described kids who don’t really know surfer etiquette or are new to the sport, so in everyday life it’s just someone who’s a spaz or disrespectful, kind of oblivious.

“‘Frothing’ is another one they’d use a lot, which is just a synonym for excited, like you’d say ‘I’m so excited for dinner, I’m absolutely frothing!’ They use it to describe wave sets a lot.

“One I really liked was ‘grom,’ and when I went surfing with them one time they kept calling me that. It’s kind of similar to ‘kook,’ I think, except not so much someone who’s disrespectful. I think it’s mostly for people who are new to surfing or just a really young and excited surfer.”

My analysis:

Groups that bond over a common activity always seem to have their own culture, and DK gave me some great examples of vocabulary that would only be understood by people who surfed. It’s interesting to see how the words are applied both out in the ocean and in everyday life, and surfers are constantly drawing comparisons between the two worlds. DK also said she’s heard surfers at USC use the same language, but sometimes with slightly varied meanings. I’ve also heard of different surfers using different “lingo,” and there seem to be regional differences even in Southern California, depending on where your local spot is. Hawaiian surfers don’t use the above vocabulary, and Manhattan Beach surfers aren’t going around saying “shaka.”

Festival
Holidays
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Fiesta San Antonio

TO is a junior at the University of Southern California, and spent most of her childhood in San Antonio, TX.

TO described a popular festival that took place in her hometown:

“Fiesta is just a giant celebration held right around now in San Antonio, and it’s supposed to celebrate the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. The whole thing is really colorful: people wear colorful clothes and decorate everything with bright flowers, and they have these things called cascarones, which are hollow eggs filled with confetti that you’d crack on e=people’s heads. They also have this ‘Battle of Flowers’ parade, where they literally have a calvary, and they pick a bunch of local girls to be ‘princesses.’ The princesses wear these huge colorful gowns covered in flowers with really long trains, and they each ride on a float.”

I asked TO if having the parade in her hometown made it less special over the years:

“A bit, yeah. The whole thing was really fun but I didn’t really participate much. The public schools would always get school off on the day of the Battle of the Flowers, like it was a holiday, but I never did. I was always a little weirded out by the princesses, and I knew a couple girls who participated in that, but I was never really interested. You had to be a part of a very old San Antonio family to be in it, and honestly be pretty wealthy. It kind of had a debutante ball vibe, like you were presenting yourself to Texas society.”

My analysis:

Fiesta San Antonio sounds a lot like other festivals around the world, with parades, cavalry and a princess “court.” This had it’s own Texas coloring though, and as someone from southern California I’d never heard of most of these traditions, or things like the cascarones. It was interesting to learn about the vivid relationship the city has with the Texas Revolution, and it almost makes San Antonio seem like a different kid of American city – the old Mexican influence is still very prevalent there, unlike a more modern influence in Los Angeles. The local history clearly still impacts citizens today, but the novelty can wear off after awhile for people like TO.

Game
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sespe Ouija Ghost

TO is a student at the University of Southern California, and current president of SC Outfitters, the student-run outdoors club.

TO shared an Ouija board encounter with me that took place on her first retreat:

“We were backpacking for our first guide retreat in the Sespe Wilderness near Ojai, and someone decided to bring an Ouija board. My friend Mac told us that a long time ago, exactly where we were camping, there was a troop of Boy Scouts that got caught in a flash flood and all drowned, so we decided to try and summon them with the Ouija board. We tried to get in contact with them, and the board spelled out “J X I,” which we were convinced meant “Jimmy.” We asked Jimmy if we could talk to him about the afterlife, and he said “no.” We attributed this to him being a young boy who wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers, so we let him go…I slept with a knife under my pillow that night, I was so scared.”

I asked TO if she had been back to that campsite since, and if she remembered hearing or seeing anything unusual.

“I’ve never been back to that specific campsite, no. We’ve done guide retreats in Sespe since but we seem to purposely avoid that campsite…new guides who weren’t there that first year want to go back and try and talk to Jimmy again, but I’m going to say no. I don’t remember seeing anything, but I was so on edge I thought every noise that night was the ghost of a Boy Scout or something.”

My analysis:

Campfire ghost stories are even scarier when they take place where you’re campfire is located, but people seem to enjoy telling these kinds of legends while out in the wilderness. Ouija boards are a fun folk object, but also a terrifying one, used to start and further new or existing ghost stories. TO says whether or not her friend made up the story of Jimmy and the Boy Scouts is uncertain, but her reluctance to return to the campground indicates she at least somewhat believes him. It also turns into a fun story for her to pass down to new generations of guides/members of the club, and possibly something they can one day go back and test, to begin creating their own sort of folklore for the club.

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