Author Archives: Michelle Segura


El burro hablando de oreja.

The donkey talking of ear.

He speaks of others without recognizing the traits and flaws he speaks of within himself.

Silvia told me this was a common proverb that her close and extended family often said to one another or as a comment in regards to someone else. She took it as meaning that you must learn from your mistakes, although she admitted to having difficulty remembering the wording at first and struggling even more to recall its meaning. However, after thinking about it a little bit more, she added that it may have also referred to talking about others when you had a lot to answer for yourself. It seems to be a reminder to check yourself first before commenting or gossiping about other people. She also said that even though her family constantly reminded her to do this with this saying, she did not think they were the best examples of the proverb.

Admittedly, this was a completely new proverb for me that was especially difficult to decipher because it can be quite confusing and bizarre if translated and understood literally.  However, after asking a few of my family members and other Spanish speaking adults I know, they all seemed to agree that this challenging proverb was not only meant to challenge you intellectually as you struggle to understand its meaning, but also challenge you to be aware of your own behavior before you criticize others or speak critically of them. It also seems to challenge you not to judge others, gossip about them, or be critical of others more generally because you need to focus on yourself instead. This proverb makes a pointed observation that applies generally to so many; we are only too happy to focus on or emphasize others’ shortcomings or character flaws as we neglect our own and fail to see those very faults within ourselves. The proverb uses the image of a donkey, a traditionally dumb animal, speaking of or to an ear to highlight the folly of speaking about others and perhaps even listening to others blindly when the smartest thing to do is to turn towards you. This proverb prompts self examination.


El que se junta con lobos a aullar se ensena.

He that he comes together with wolves howl he shows himself.

He that joins wolves ends up learning to howl.

Sergio said that your friends basically influence you a lot. He said with a smile and just the slightest annoyance that his mom constantly tells him this proverb as a reminder to never be influenced by his friends, something that he says he never is. However, he added that his mother who is Mexican (but whose girl friends are Salvadorian) recently picked up a slang Salvadorian saying from her friends. Apparently, she now says “pasmado” frequently without even noticing- something that Sergio can hardly believe and joked about in light of her favorite proverb. He said that he was unsure about the word’s meaning, but he thought it might mean clumsy. Mostly though, he said it was funny how the proverb he had just shared with me and this brief anecdote about his mom was connected because of her constant reminders not to let him be influenced by others.

This proverb is comparable to another Spanish proverb that similarly seems to warn you to be careful and smart about choosing the company that you keep. Like the proverb says, if you choose to become close to “wolves” or similarly unsavory characters, you will also eventually learn to howl, or pick up their habits both good and bad. This is a very telling proverb that warns you against losing yourself and becoming like your friends and those you associate with most closely. However, this proverb emphasizes the consequences of hanging around with the wrong crowd, especially one that can negatively influence you as you become increasingly like them and begin acting differently. It also seems to underscore an emphasis on retaining your individuality and also morally sound character. There is definitely a subtle underlying message that “wolves” and “howling” are negative; or know morally questionable people and their equally questionable behavior should be avoided and guarded against for your own well being as the consequences of their influence could only be negative.


If the world was covered with a sweater, where would the gangsters hang out?

In the hood.

Norby’s joke was followed by very little, okay, no comments or discussion, except for a smile and a bit of laughter at his own wit. He mentioned that he was unsure where he had first heard this joke or from whom, although he thought it could have been his brother who is also pretty knowledgeable when it comes to racist jokes.

I have known Norby for a few years now, and though I cannot pretend to know how he feels about the joke and any larger significance it may have, I can definitely comment on the larger discussion that this joke invites. The youth center where I first met Norby (and where I actually interviewed him for this piece) is located near the infamous Mac Arthur Park in Los Angeles, California. It is a predominantly low-income Hispanic immigrant community with unfortunately high crime rates and other unfavorable statistics. It could essentially be seen as “the hood” by some. Norby’s joke seems to speak to this kind of neighborhood, or ‘hood, and some of its experiences or more specifically, some of its local citizens; “the gangsters.” It is interesting that the joke asks where “the gangsters” would go if the world was otherwise completely covered in a sweater. This image of the earth being covered in a fuzzy sweater could reflect a sense of there being no where else for gangsters to go that was not covered or protected in some way from them by everyone else everywhere else. As a result, they only have one place to “hang out”; the hood of the sweater or the more obvious ghetto or hood that is the only place left for them to go to. This joke carries the weight of larger social implications regarding the economic and social disparities as well as certain populations that are seemingly outcast in the joke.

Myth – Hispanic

La Cigüeña

The Stork

When I was little my parents would always tell me that the cigüeña had brought me and if I was bad the cigüeña had the ability to come and take me back. They would say that the cigüeña brought good kids to the earth, but if they misbehaved they would take them back.

As Kevin recalled the tale of the stork that he so often heard when he was younger, he could not help but say a few times that his parents had been mean to tell him this. He did also say, however, that his grandmother had been the first one to tell him this story. Yet, as he said emphatically, it was his parents who would keep telling him over and over again as a warning to him of what the consequences of misbehaving could be.

This is a fairly common story similar to the myth that describes storks delivering babies to their prospective parents. Kevin’s story does more than provide an explanation of where babies come from though, and seems to have a twist because of its different emphasis. Kevin’s parents would emphasize the stork’s ability to return misbehaving children to whence they came, an entirely different emphasis and tone. This twist in the stork baby tale reveals and serves a more cautionary purpose for the young children who hear this tale. It is a reminder for very young children that they must behave well and listen to their parents if they still want to be with them, because otherwise, the consequences could be pretty drastic. In this way, the tale of la cigüeña, or the stork, told most often by parents or other caregivers, is meant to curb young children’s bad behavior and encourage them to be obedient “good” children that the stork will let stay at home.


Don’t take any wooden nickels.

…Means don’t waste your time with something that has no value, not monetary value per se. For example, if you can’t learn something from someone everyday then you shouldn’t date them. If you can’t grow from something or be challenged by it, then why do it? Take no wooden nickels.

Andrew’s commentary of this personally meaningful proverb above combines both his own personal philosophy with the original meaning conveyed to him by the first person he ever heard it from. As a young boy, Andrew said that he would often spend a lot of time with a close guy friend of his whose grandfather (a “Swedish old guy” as he described him) would tell them this proverb repeatedly. In essence, Andrew said that he grew up hearing his friend’s grandfather’s favorite saying and blessing. When I asked him in what context his friend’s grandfather would tell them this, Andrew responded that he would use it as they left or went out instead of the familiar “good bye” or “be careful” sentiments that are customarily said. He would share this proverb with them upon their departure as a reminder and blessing in hopes that they would indeed not take any wooden nickels.

This proverb definitely seems to issue a personal challenge to the person to whom it is being told. The proverb seems to challenge you to not settle for anything but the real thing so that you do not take wooden substitutes for nickels of real monetary value that can actually be used. Andrew’s initial application of this proverb to relationships fits especially well. The proverb lends itself well to relationship advice by challenging you to not settle for anyone less than you deserve. Andrew himself gave an example of this. I also think that this proverb cautions you against settling for something that may appear to be satisfactory but is still not quite what you need or want exactly. Literally, a wooden nickel may be a nice oddity or keepsake, but at the end of the day it has little other practical value because you cannot use it as currency. This idea could apply more generally to various situations as a reminder that there is no substitute for what is real and is earned like a genuine nickel.

Folk Belief

If you see a hummingbird, you will have good luck.

My grandmother, and then my mom would always say this when we were lucky enough to see these rare hummingbirds by our windows in the kitchen or outside in the garden behind our house. I am not very sure about why hummingbirds are lucky, maybe because they seem to be pretty rare, but they are definitely really beautiful, small and colorful, and also seemed to bring my grandma a lot of joy. I mostly think about this saying when I happen to see a hummingbird somewhere randomly and it reminds me of my relationship with these two very important women in my life and just how much I loved listening to their stories and advice when I was smaller.

Lorena thought of her grandma and mom’s words about the hummingbirds good luck blessings as more of a saying and simple story than actual truth. Having also grown up in a Mexican family with very strong females, I would also hear my grandma often say the same thing about hummingbirds. I tend to agree with Lorena’s belief that the hummingbird’s unique colorful beauty and rare presence in our daily lives seems to emphasize the hummingbird as a special bird or creature with mythical qualities.  It is definitely more common to see countless grey pigeons in the urban concrete jungle of Los Angeles, including Echo Park where Lorena’s family resides, than these charmingly bright birds that seem to captivate so many.  This may be why both of our grandmothers remind us of the good fortune to come that a “colibri” promises. (Colibri is hummingbird in Spanish).

Annotation: The Papyrus line of greeting cards, similar to Hallmark, uses a picture of a single hummingbird in flight as its primary marketing and branding symbol. This hummingbird appears on each of its greeting cards and similar products. Moreover, each of its products includes the following brief history of the legend of the hummingbird and its symbolic significance which best speaks to the significance of this storied bird;

“Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.”


Story of Hammurabi

Hammurabi created laws one day on a stone tablet and he called them his code of conduct and then one boy talked back to the king and had his tongue, leg, and arms cut off. And he couldn’t do anything so he stayed home. They were about to him out but then his father went to talk to the king and murdered the king. (* At this point, Mahfous said that he didn’t know how the man had killed Hammurabi because his mother would never tell him because she did not want him to know the details.) And then he became the new king and destroyed this code of conduct and he created a surgery for his and gave him all of his body parts back. Like stitches basically.

Mahfous said that his mother has shared this legend with him on different occasions, mostly when they have an opportunity to just sit or talk or maybe she will squeeze in a tale or two when they have a moment together. Mahfous said that she always emphasizes Hammurabi’s strictness and the fact that everyone hated him. She always ends by saying that if Mahfous ever wants to be a king, he shouldn’t be strict like Hammurabi because otherwise the people will kill him. Mahfous also said that his mom wants him to move to Persia one day and perhaps even become king…

This incredible legend has obvious historical significance, although this exact storyline may not have necessarily occurred in this way or even at all. Nevertheless, it is rooted in the very real history of King Hammurabi and his famous, or infamous, code of laws. The true significance and what I believe is probably most meaningful to Mahfous’s mother, is the lesson of how King Hammurabi chose to treat his people and the terrible consequences of that decision embodied in his code of conduct. It speaks to what a good leader must be like and how he should treat his people; with dignity and respect regardless of their position within society. It also speaks to the political turbulence and uncertainty of contemporary times that may continue to affirm the significance of this legend and its relevance. It may seem that now more than ever we are in need of a just ruler who does not treat his citizens as Hammurabi did, whether it is Mahfous as his mom hopes so or someone else.

Legend – Hispanic

La Llorona

Story about a mother who supposedly lost her three children (or died, I don’t know) and she keeps calling them. Her spirit is not at rest so she haunts them [people]. Men especially. She appears to them pretty, like the fantasy I guess, a pretty lady. They’re usually drunk. It’s easier to fool men than women, I guess. My mom told me the story, because my grandpa saw her. He was walking home and it looked to him like my grandma but my mom says it wasn’t because my grandma was at home with her. But he still went home and beat her up. And supposedly my aunt saw her, too, but it was someone she had just finished dropping off on her way back home.

Olga said that her mother would scare them with this story to make her and her siblings go to sleep at night. Her mom would say that if she didn’t go to sleep then, the llorona would come and take her away. Olga believes that the story of La Llorona is simply a legend of a mother who didn’t exactly go in peace. She also added that certain deaths can haunt you, which is what she thinks this story most strongly conveys.

The legend of La Llorona has diverse manifestations and emphasis, but Olga’s family rendition most clearly highlights the tension between gender roles. This conflict is present not only in the basic tale of la llorona, but also in her grandfather’s supposed vision of la llorona and subsequent violence toward his wife. It also directly speaks to the ideals many hold regarding women. La llorona appears to men especially as the ultimate fantasy or vision of a pretty lady as Olga said. She lures them, fools them, and then haunts them. Olga’s grandfather’s story of his experience with this woman is one that unnerves him and sparks his violent physical explosion later that night. This seems to illustrate men’s attempts to free themselves of the women who haunt them in some way, an image and a conflict that does little to empower the female’s role in this legend.


What does the whole world have in common with a jar of jelly beans?

Nobody likes the black ones.

What do you call White people inside a yellow bus?

A twinkie.

What do you call Black people inside a yellow bus?

A rotten banana.

At first, Norby was enthusiastic about sharing some of his jokes but became hesitant; eventually claiming that he needed a Black person next to him in order to tell his jokes. Then, after telling his first racist joke, he continued without hesitation this time to share the last two which build off of one another. After each joke he would stop and say that his brother had told him each of the jokes, except the very last one which he does not remember hearing from anyone specifically. He paused after the first one and commented that black jelly beans are nasty because they taste like licorice before continuing with his next joke. He did not want to comment or add much else. Although he did say that he only said these racist jokes for fun and not because he was racist or anything.

I purposefully chose to list the three racist jokes he shared with me together to highlight the sequence and also to illustrate in a sense his performance of these jokes; he said them one after another with only brief pauses to remember how each one went between these jokes. I believe that this adds to the nature of the jokes, which are obviously racist. Although he had little to comment and was reluctant to think that these jokes might have any significance other than being “fun”, I disagree. The first and last jokes are racist against African Americans, or Black people, and both betray strong sentiments of dislike. The sentiment is the same whether it is because black jelly beans do not taste good or because a rotten banana is unfit to eat and fit only for the trash; Black people are seen as unfavorable and dispensable in these jokes. Both images also convey the equally strong message that the black element in each joke ruins the rest of the jelly beans or the banana, which has larger racial and social implications. The ease with which he was able to recall these jokes and the people the jokes targeted also reveal something greater. It reflects how pervasive racist sentiments can be and also the nonchalant manner in which they are shared and perhaps even internalized without too much awareness of the ideas and beliefs at the core of these jokes. Norby learned them from his brother and then shared them with me. He also mentioned that he says them for fun or as a means of entertainment only. Also, the jokes were tellingly about Black and White people; two minority populations in the predominantly Hispanic community of Los Angeles in which he lives.

Contemporary Legend

Candy Man

So, in elementary when  a large group of girls would go to the bathroom, they would hit the mirror three times or more, I’m not sure, and say candy man and then the mirror would shift, or the toilet would get off and we would all get scared.

This game or invocation was the thing to do to get scared when she was younger. At the time she remembers that a movie by the same name had come out recently and their game emerged soon after seeing and learning about it. Cathy said that she still had not seen the movie, even though she did participate in this game when she was younger. She commented that it was mostly a way to get a rise and a thrill when they were younger and also a way to get away with something that they maybe should not have been doing.

Cathy’s initial eagerness to share this urban legend is interesting to note because although she did say that used to participate alongside her friends, she did emphasize that she thought it was all very silly. She emphasized that the Candy man story/ game was more about the exhilaration and anxiety of the moment than anything else. For example, when she said that the mirror would shift or the toilet might go off mysteriously, she did also later add that it was most likely because all of the girls had gotten quiet waiting for something to happen in the bathroom. In this way, the smallest sound or sudden movement could have easily shocked them and also perhaps made them believe that their invocation of this so called Candy Man had worked. Regrettably, she did not remember details about the Candy Man or his story, most likely because she did not see the movie that may have sparked their bathroom games. It is however significant to note that the movie by the same name had such an impact and influence on popular culture. Whether the movie inspired their beliefs and game, or it simply portrayed an already prevalent urban legend, it nonetheless held its own power over a captive audience such as Cathy and her childhood friends.