USC Digital Folklore Archives / Life cycle
Childhood
Folk Beliefs

Hold Your Breath Around Strangers

Context:

We began talking while walking from class to lunch when he told me something his mother told him about strangers.

In the transcript of our conversation, he is identified as S (storyteller) and I am identified as C (collector).

 

S: I’m not sure if this counts as a belief but when I was young, I was told that strangers have this scent that would mind control me, so whenever I walked past a sketchy looking stranger I’d hold my breath.

 

C: *laughing That’s awesome. Where’d you hear that?

 

S: My mom *chuckling

 

C: What do you think it means?

 

S: Like why did my mom tell me that?

 

C: Yea

 

S: Like.. to be careful around strangers.

 

Analysis:

As children, we are often told to be wary of strangers and to never follow people that we don’t know because it can be very dangerous. Though I heard a lot of things like “stranger danger,” this is the first time I have heard this particular lesson being taught this way. The idea of holding your breath is not new to me, however, because I hold my breath while in a tunnel after seeing my friend do it. He told me to do it because the air in tunnels is bad for one’s health. It’s interesting that these two seemingly different beliefs use the same idea of holding one’s breath to stop something bad from happening to them.

Customs
Game
Humor
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Wedding Custom: Stealing Shoes

Text:

BH: “So one of the wedding rituals that all, or like most, of the Indian weddings have, is the joota churai [shoe stealing] of the groom, so basically the [to-be] sister-in-law that uh, whenever, so Indian wedding require you to remove your shoes whenever you enter into that pandar [ceremonial area] where the groom and the bride [perform the official religious marriage rituals] – they have to remove their shoes because shoes are considered to be something dirty and they’re entering into a pure religious place and that’s why they are asked to remove the shoes. So, as soon as the groom removes his shoes, it a battle, or kind of like a battle, between the groom’s side and the bride’s side because the bride’s sides – the sister-in-laws – are supposed to steal the groom’s shoes and at the end of the wedding [ceremony], the sister-in-law will present the shoes back to the groom in exchange for some money. It is like a ritual which shows the relationship between a sister-in-law and – like a very friendly relationship – between the groom and his sister-in-law, it kind of helps them bond.”

MS: “Have you yourself ever been involved in the stealing?”

BH: “So basically what happened – there’s a varmala ceremony [bride and groom exchange “necklaces” made of flowers, similar to leis, similar to the exchange of rings] that happens in Indian weddings. So the groom was [lifted] by his brothers onto their shoulders so that he could put the varmala on his bride. And during that time, all the sister-in-laws – because he was at a height – they, uh, removed his shoes without him knowing and we ran away and we hid them in a car and the whole time when he had to pose for pictures, he was just barefoot and then he had to go for the ceremony [where he would have had to remove his shoes anyway] so it didn’t really matter. But it was a good ice-breaking session for us, that allowed us to bond. Because then we had to uh – so once the wedding ceremony was over, we came to him with his shoes and we were basically bargaining with him for how much he’d be willing to buy his shoes for. Since there were a lot of saliyans [sister-in-laws], we negotiated to a high amount and in the end, it depends on the groom and his family as to what uh amount they want to give and that is split equally among the sisters…It helped us make – uh, it was an ice-breaking thing for us, because the next time I met him [the groom], I was very comfortable because I had led the negotiation earlier because I was the closest sister-in-law so it was very easy for me to maintain a good rapport with him later as well.”

MS: “Does it matter where you hide the shoes?”

BH: “Not really. You just have to make sure you hide them well because if the groom’s side takes the shoes, then you will not get your money. So we usually hide them in the cars so we aren’t really bothered during the long ceremonies that we have in Indian wedding that the shoes might be stolen back by the groom’s side.”

[Talking more about the negotiation over the shoes]

BH: “It’s a very very hard negotiation, so all of the bride’s family and the groom’s family come in to support both of them, though the bride doesn’t say anything even though she is pressured to say something, she will not say anything because she does not want to take anyone’s side…In the end, we just take – as the sister-in-laws, we just take whatever the groom is willing to give and whatever his capacity is to give and that is equally – but it helps because we make jokes about it in the future. Because a sali’s [sister-in-law’s] relationship with her jija [brother-in-law] is very fun and relaxed – it’s like friend-cum-brother so they should be able to have open conversations and this is one of the ways to establish that.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India. The conversation was in response to my question about any wedding traditions that the informant has been involved in or seen in the past. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. Certain key terms have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

This was a very culturally dense discussion that took for granted a basic understanding of how Indian weddings work. Focusing specifically on the one ritual of stealing the groom’s shoes, it seems to be, as the informant says, a means to establish a relationship between the groom and the sister-in-laws. But it is also notable that the entire family joins the discussion about how much the groom is going to pay for his shoes, whose side you support becomes an identifier of whether you belong to the groom’s side or the bride’s side. In the same vein, the bride is not supposed to partake in this discussion because she is now supposed to be a part of both the groom and the bride’s sides. The exchange of money itself is also interesting and may have some historical basis in the fact that traditionally the expenses of the wedding ceremonies were paid for entirely by the bride’s side of the family – this seems to be one of the place where the bride’s side can some monetary and symbolic compensation.

Also interesting is the change that the informant implicitly mentioned from the traditional “battle” like nature of the ritual, where each side is supposed to steal back and forth from each other, to the more modern “we just hide them in the car and forget about them till the end of the ceremony”. Even though the practice has changed, its social significance persists.

Childhood
Musical
Myths
Narrative

Arky Arky

This is a song that was taught to L.D. as a child in Catholic school. It teaches the biblical story of Noah’s ark and the flooded Earth that lasted 40 days and nights.

Lyrics:

The Lord told Noah
There’s gonna be a floody, floody
The Lord told Noah
There’s gonna be a floody, floody
Get those children out of the muddy, muddy, children of the Lord
The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky
The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky
Build it out of gopher barky, barky, children of the Lord.
The animals, they came, they came in by twosies twosies
The animals, they came, they came in by twosies, twosies
Elephants and kangaroosie, roosies, children of the Lord
It rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies
It rained and poured for forty daysies, daysies
Almost drove those animals crazy, crazy, children of the Lord
And so on for a few more verses L.D. forgot. They even taught basic choreography for the kids to perform with the song, such as two fingers held up peace sign-style for the “twosies, twosies” line.
The existence of this method of teaching a “kiddie” version of a myth (especially one so apocalyptic) shows the given church’s priorities in making sure children grasp and retain these tales from an early age. The song is also usually performed after a few rehearsals by the kids for the adults, making it a task for the kids to remember it and turn them into the storytellers. It all helps the myth pass on to the next generation basically.
Folk speech
Old age

Italian Folk Saying

The following folk belief is a saying that my family friend G often heard from her mother in 1950s-60s San Francisco. Her mother was an Irish woman but G believes this is an Italian and global saying.

Text: It’s amazing that 1 mother can take care of 8 children but 8 children can’t take care of 1 mother.

Context: G told me this folksaying when I was meeting her for coffee, asking her about folklore she has heard. G described that this was a common saying in Italian and Irish families in San Francisco. G emphasises that she believes this folklore describes how a mother always takes care of her children and does anything for them while they are growing up. She is always there for her children when they need her throughout their lives. However, when a mother needs help, which is most often the occurrence towards the end of her life, all her children are absent. The children always claim they are to busy, have to work, or don’t have enough money to take care of the mother. G also said that throughout her lifetime, she has seen this folk saying come to fruition many times, and often see mothers be ignored or not given enough attention when they need help from their children.

Analysis: I think G’s interpretation of this folklore is completely accurate. This folk saying is clearly representing the belief that mothers should be cared for later in life, and often aren’t by their children. It demonstrates how our society is obsessed with wealth and capitalism, and not focused enough on family. Often times people don’t want to take care of their mothers later in life because it might limit the advancement of their careers. Another aspect of the folk belief is that it seems to personify older women to be in needing of care, which could show small sexism in society, as it is assumed that older men don’t need any help or resist it. However I do not belief that there is any true meaning to be sexist in this folksaying. In my research of this folk belief however, I found it interesting that this folk belief also occurrs in other cultures throughout the world, and exists in Muslim culture as well. Showing the importance of mothers throughout the world and the belief that children often neglect their mothers as they get older. Why this particular folk saying names 8 children, and others I found online have differing numbers of children, seems to be arbitrary and there is no meaning behind the specific number of children.

Childhood
Musical

Duck Girl Song

[The subject is CB. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

Context: CB is one of my friends, and a sophomore student in college. Both of her parents are lawyers in the military, so she was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, but has also lived in Germany, Kansas, and Oregon. The following is a song that she learned when she was nine or ten years old from an American Girl Scout camp in Germany called Camp Lachenwald, which translates to “laughing woods.”

CB:
I’m an old duck rover from out in Montana
Round up them duckies and drive ‘em along
To a flooded corral where we bulldog and brand ‘em
Mosey on home just a-singin’ this song

Singin’ quack quack yippee-yay
Quack quack yippee-yo
Get along, little duckies
Get along real slow
It’s dirty and smelly and really don’t pay
But I’ll be a duck girl ‘til the end of my days.

On Saturday nights, I ride into town
On my short-legged pony with my hat pulled way down
But the boys don’t like duck girls and I can’t figure out why
No cowgirl could be more romantic than I

Singin’ quack quack yippee-yay
And quack quack yippee-yo
Get along, little duckies
Get along real slow
It’s dirty and smelly and really don’t pay
But I’ll be a duck girl ‘til the end of my days.

Thoughts: This song was sung entirely in an exaggerated Southern accent, which I thought was interesting especially because CB learned it while she was in Germany, albeit from other Americans. One thing I noticed was that the song was specific to a gender, but it led me to realize that most of the children’s folk songs I knew growing up were generally sung by girls more often than boys, even when the songs didn’t specify whether the singer was supposed to be a boy or a girl. I also feel that ducks are a common motif in children’s songs and games, like duck-duck-goose and the Five Little Ducks song. Ducks seem to be a symbol that adults associate with children because pictures of them commonly appear on baby clothes, but I suppose children also associate ducks with themselves because the songs they sing and the games they play often involve them.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Life cycle
Narrative

Haunted Santa Fe Hotel

Haunted Santa Fe Hotel

The following informant is a 21 year-old student from Sherman Oaks, California, currently studying at the University of Southern California, but raised for a few years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here, they are describing a legend they heard of while living in Santa Fe; they will be identified as B, and I will be identified as U.

B: There’s this one hotel in Santa Fe, it’s kind of in the middle of town, too, but if you’re a bride, you’re not supposed to stay there, because once upon a time, there was a woman who was left at the altar at the hotel, like she was staying there, and her husband, just like, didn’t show up, and then, it was told she died of sorrow. And so, she haunts the hotel now. So, you’re not supposed to stay there because she’ll ruin your wedding.

U: Just for brides, or…

B: It’s just brides. Well, if you’re, like, getting married, you’re not supposed to stay at that hotel.

Context

The informant is a friend of mine who studies in the same program. I was aware that they have lived in a few different locations while growing up, and was curious if they have carried any urban legends with them that they would be willing to share.

My Thoughts

Among the few ghost stories that I have been told for this collection, this one stands out, as there is a deterrent factor included. Whereas many stories are composed of a simple chronological plot, this one possesses a “don’t do this, or this will happen” quality. It offers a specific sort of identity to the hotel in question (I could not find a specific hotel name online).

However, I am sure this story has brought in many tourists; many of the haunted Santa Fe hotels I read about online have drinks served at the bar that are named after the ghost’s supposed name and other sorts of souvenirs. This gives the location and business a unique identity that I have no doubt brings in many willing customers, even engaged couples.

 

Adulthood
Folk speech
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Proverbs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Polish Wedding Joke

Main Piece

QJ: “Can it be a dirty joke?”

Collector: “Yes.”

QJ: “A lot of the jokes I grew up with are kind of dirty…most Polish ones are…I think one that my grandfather would say asks what is long and hard that a Polish bride gets on her wedding night?”

Collector: “What?”

QJ: “A new last name.”

Analysis

This joke seems to be fairly popular among Polish people, and I have heard it beyond my informant. In fact, I have heard it outside of the realm of Polish culture, and have seen different ethnic backgrounds attached to it. It seems that many prideful Slavic people make light of their often long and hard to pronounce last names through jokes like these. Given my informant’s background for the joke and explaining that he heard ones like these growing up, I would also assume that his culture and family have more of an openness to tell dirty jokes in front of younger audience. Generally, it would seem that older people have more of a relaxed ability to tell jokes that otherwise would not seem appropriate. This joke also implies a patriarchal society, where a woman would receive something from her husband in any interpretation of the joke, but no jokes suggest the woman giving the man anything.

 

Life cycle
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Peach Boy in Hawaii

Main Piece

Informant: “A story that I heard a lot growing up was about this boy who was born from a peach. They called him Momotarō. He was considered a blessing to this older couple, who had not been able to have kids, but had always acted humble and hardworking. They got the child as if they were being rewarded, and it’s explained that the Gods sent him to be their son.”

Collector: “That reminds me of a lot of stories, especially religious ones, too.”

Informant: “Yeah, that premise isn’t the most unique, but the peach makes it memorable. He grows up and then decides to leave and go fight some Oni, which are a type of demon. He has some animals that help him on the way, and I think one of them is a duck….Yeah. There are a dog, a monkey, and a duck. They stop the demons and then get to take their treasure.”

Collector: “Who told you this story?”

Informant: “My mom would tell me it, but I think most people in Hawaii know it. It’s Japanese, but there are books and a lot of stuff for kids based on it.”

Analysis

The story of Momotarō seems very easy to compare to a lot of other stories in Western culture, be it Superman or Moses. The popularity of it seems easy to comprehend, given the good values and morals that it is supposed to set forward for young children. The fact that the informant learned this story growing up in Hawaii exhibits how strongly connected those two geographical places are, and how the culture of Japan affects the state to this very day. It fascinated me that the  work generally is told the same in Hawaii, and that not many oicotypes were known to the informant. It can be assumed that the printed version of this book that popularized in the 1970s for the Bank of Hawaii’s 75th anniversary played a large part in the spread of this story in the same variation. The authored Momotaro: Peach Boy declares itself  an “Island Heritage book” that promotes its impact on Hawaiian culture.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Life cycle

The Haunting of the Lorenzo

Main Piece

JS: “Yeah, dude! The Lorenzo is haunted! You’ve never heard about this?”

Collector: “No! I guess I don’t know enough people who live there.”

JS: “The Lorenzo used to be a hospital, which was abandoned for a bunch of years before the developers bought out the land for the apartments. A bunch of people died in that hospital, so obviously some parts of a place that big have got to be haunted. They try to gloss over it, but the carpets in there still give it away. It looks like The Shining! People get lost in the hallways all the time, and never come back.”

Collector: [laughter] “Has this happened to people you know or is it just something that you’ve heard about?”

JS: [laughter] “No, it’s never happened to anyone I’ve known. It’s probably all just made up. You can never be too careful, though. The place still gives off the creepy vibes and I am not making up that it used to be a hospital…look it up!”

Analysis

Buildings that have taken on lives beyond their original intention or original owners are often claimed as haunted places. The inevitability of death and pain in places like hospitals and prisons adds a very convincing layer to many that there are still souls who cannot escape the earth trapped in these locales. Many people are uncomfortable thinking about the harsh lives of those in the same spot as them, even if they did not know them directly. The legend is known to students of USC because of how many end up living at the Lorenzo after they lose their spots in student housing. To this very day, people consider ghosts as considerations when deciding where to live, which demonstrates how strong the belief in after life and spirits are in the US.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

The Legend of El cucuy

Background

Informant: A.G.  22 years old current senior in undergrad at USC, third generation from Honduras/Mexico

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

A.G.’s family is originally from South America, namely Mexico and Honduras. His family immigrated to the US when his mother was a child and have strong ties to their heritage, tradition and culture back in their homeland. Many of the stories and traditions that A.G. knows have been passed down from generation to generation, and instill a cultural and familial understanding in the younger generations. The Legend of El cucuy is one such piece of folklore, that is told to young children to scare them into behaving appropriately and being obedient. The story itself has many parallels to ones like La Llorona, or other similar ghost stories that are based around children. A.G. initially heard this story from his uncle, who learned it from his mother, whom would tell him this legend at night when he was a young boy. I have transcribed his telling below:

Main Piece

“My uncle told me that his mother, my abuela, would tell him to behave or the cucuy would get him. Cucuy is like a small, bat eared, hair monster that has huge red eyes and it would kidnap you if you did something bad or misbehaved. He said this his mom would always tell him to go to sleep on time, to behave, never doing anything bad by anybody else and to listen and respect her, which was the most important. If he didn’t behave properly, the cucuy would come and take him into the night. Some of his friends would tell him that when they were up past their bedtime or sneaking something, they would hear screeching or suddenly see red eyes in the bushes. Whenever that happened, someone would be missing the next day. To this day he says he’s still scared of it, especially if he goes back to Mexico”

Thoughts

El cucuy from Mexico that has long been known by the Mexican people and a lot of latin americans. It has traveled to the United States and spread at a tremendous rate. The legend is reminiscent of La Llorona or the American boogeyman due to the similar roles that the stories play; to scare kids into staying in their beds and not misbehaving. When asked about whether this story was relevant when he was a child, A.G. noted that while he was aware of it, it wasn’t told to him in the same way that it was told to his uncle. For A.G. he learned it more as a reference to his culture, and less as a cautionary tale used to make children behave. He also noted that in his uncle’s telling of the story, he naturally began acting out the legend, and made it sound ominous as if he was reciting it to some unruly children and really trying to convince them of El cucuy’s existence. Apparently, there is still superstition and belief in this creature, much the same way that there is belief in Ll Llorona.

It was interesting to me to hear how similar this legend is to other and the role that these legends play specifically when related to children. In the folklore course with Tok Thompson, there has been discussions about the way that folklore is used to teach children about social and cultural norms, and how to behave. It seems that in this case, the myth of El cucuy’s purpose is directly related to scaring children into acting appropriately, in the same way that Cinderella informs them of gender norms. Belief in the legend also prompts real changes in behavior and of perception, for example when a child does act out of turn and “sees” El cucuy in the bush, someone goes missing. This then strengthens in the “validity” of the legend and further impacts the cultural behavior around it.

[geolocation]