USC Digital Folklore Archives / Life cycle
Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

La Llorona

The informant, K, is 19 years old. She was born in Long Beach, California but was raised in Los Angeles. Her dad is from Guadalajara, Mexico (Southern Mexico) but moved to the United States when he was 2. Her mom was born in Obregon, Sonora (Northern Mexico) but grew in Mexicali (a US-Mexico border town), and she moved to the United States when she was 18. She is majoring in Applied Mathematics with a Computer Science Minor. She considers herself Mexican-American (or Chicana).

 

K-“Ok so we were told the story of La llorona, and for us it was basically like uh the background was that this woman this beautiful woman in this indigenous pueblo uh she fell in love with the Spanish conquistador and had children but then the conquistador left her for like another woman. Because she was in love with this man so much, every time she saw him in them, the children. And that’s the whole reason she drowned them in a like. After she drowned them, she like mourned them so she would go around at night saying ‘oh mis ninos’ (my children) and supposedly she kidnaps kids at night if they’re near the lake. And she is still a ghost that haunts that area where she used to live”

When did you first hear this story?

K-“Um I heard it in elementary school I think I was in 4th grade”

Have you heard this story from other people as well?

K-“Yup, I heard it from my family and the kids at school. Kind of all the same, all the same versions”

Did you use to live near a body of water or some forested area?

K-“No”

Analysis- This version of the story is seen as a way to ensure the proper behavior of children. The legend is specifically aimed to children, as it is the children that get drowned and the children that get kidnapped. The fact that she did not live near a body of water, which is where according to the legend is where the ghost appears, proves that this is a story told by the adults to make children behave. The legend is also given credibility by introducing some history into it in the form of the conquistador and the traditional Mexican woman. This legend would, therefore, not be easily accepted and used in other cultures.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Pine-needle in the Rice Cake

Main piece:

On Korean thanksgiving, it’s called Chuseok, and this is the holiday where families will meet up at the oldest relative’s house- like oldest one alive. And one of the most important dishes served at Chuseok are called songpyeon, which are rice cakes. They’re filled with pine nuts, and some brown sugar, they’re like dessert rice cakes, and really good. You can generally get rice cakes any time, but these rice cakes are special for this time. It’s kind of like a yule log, you wouldn’t make a yule log in the middle of the summer. When you make these rice cakes, you will get a pine needle- oh, by the way, when you’re making these rice cakes, they’re steamed on a bed of pine needles- so you’ll put a pine needle in one or a couple of the rice cakes and if you pick a rice cake and eat it and find a pine needle in it, it means you’re either going to get pregnant or married. Like, soon.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

A long time ago, my mom made these with me and she told me about it. But I was also taught about it in Korean school, when the holiday came around. They made us make them too. I think it’s every Korean child’s rite of passage to learn how to make rice cakes. That and dumplings. I’ve gotten the needle but it’s because I wanted a needle. I made my mom find one for me, which meant she ripped some open until she found one. But like not enough that like the whole thing is ripped apart. Just enough so that she could peek inside it… and I could have the pleasure of ripping it open!

The rice cakes are so good, they’re so yummy. Korean’s love predicting things, and like family values. The faster you get married, the faster you have grandchildren, the better. I didn’t get pregnant. I know it’s a pine needle- if I had chosen it on my own, I wouldn’t be scared of getting pregnant. What, the pine needle is going to impregnate me? (I wish.)

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

You’d only eat the rice cakes on Korean thanksgiving. I don’t actually celebrate it as much as I used to, but i think it’s in september or november. Oh— just kidding, it’s august on the lunar calendar, which means it’s in september! The day changes depending on the lunar new year.

 

Personal Analysis:

This piece reflects the importance the Korean culture places on family. The pine needle is representative of two predictions, marriage and pregnancy. After the interview, the informant revealed that men who chose a rice cake with a needle in it would only retain the prediction for marriage, while women held both predictions. Besides the obvious, men cannot get pregnant, the prediction does not extend to the man in the sense that he will get someone pregnant. If a woman chooses a needle and is single, her prediction would be marriage before pregnancy. This comments on the taboo of children out of wedlock in the Korean culture, as well.

Customs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Korean Birthday Count

Main piece:

In Korean, the new year counts as a year. So I’m technically nineteen or twenty in Korea.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

My mom- when I was younger, I would ask my mom’s age. This was when I was really young. And my answer would always change. And when I realized they were always changing… I asked why. She explained that she gets mixed up about her age because America doesn’t count new years as a birthyear. It’s almost like a communal birthday for everyone. It has to do with renewal, and rebirth, um… like a new year. New year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea. It’s like Christmas and thanksgiving combined. And I think since it follows the lunar calendar, It follows the idea that we change on the same day as well. Like against our will. I don’t identify as twenty years old. To me, it doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s my american side. I feel 18, if not younger. So, it’s not very particularly special to me other than the fact that it represents how much Korea loves new year. My mom is technically 50, but I think in Korea she’s 53 or 54, I don’t even know. I think Korean’s just love being older than people. It’s so hierarchy based. Even if you’re months older, the younger one has to respect you. If an older person hits you on the train, no one can save you. They’re allowed to because they’re old.

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

This is performed every new year. When you’re born, you know how in america you’re 0 years old? You’re already a year old in Korea, they count in the womb. And you get another birthday on New years, and then another on your actual birthday. So you’re always one or two years older than your biological age. So my mom would be like “I’m forty!” “I’m forty two!” “I’m forty one!” and I’d be like mom what are you…?

Personal Analysis:

This piece was especially hard to follow- I needed the informant to explain to me time and time again how exactly the years were counted. It reflects an innate belief among Koreans that the elderly should be respected. The older a person is, the more prestige and immediate respect they receive. In American society, women strive to be younger, even going so far as to lie about their age. In Korea, there are traditions put in place to extend the age of a person meanwhile their biological age remains the same. The piece also touches upon the importance placed on the lunar New Year. It is so important that Koreans count it as a year on their own age, and everyone in the country celebrates their birthday with the moon.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Initiations
Life cycle
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

The Choice of a Lifetime

Main piece:

In Korea we have this thing where on the baby’s first birthday, it’s called Dol, what we do is we put various items in front of the baby. Classic items include yarn, pencil, money- and people put other stuff, they cater it so like they’ll put fruit or something, they’ll generally cater it. And you put them in front of the baby, and whatever the baby chooses, it predicts their future. So, each item represents a different future. The yarn represents longevity. The pencil represents academic prowess. Money represents wealth. Sometimes food can represent always being food, or like fulfillment.

 

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

My family. I have siblings, so for my siblings’ first birthday, we did that. I wasn’t alive for my sister’s, but… we did that and we have photos. It’s a huge thing. I’m pretty sure it was the biggest birthday party of my life and I don’t even remember it. I like it the same way that people like horoscopes. I think that having some sort of prophecy is really intimate especially if it’s about yourself. Personally, it feels like our family’s results were pretty correct in the sense that my sister got yarn, and she’s very dedicated to being healthy. She’s the health nut in our family. My brother picked money, mostly because my dad like pushed it towards him, but he’s very frugal. And i picked the pencil, and I really like writing, so I like it because to me, it’s something I share with all my siblings and it’s something that korea has been doing for a very long time. It originates from when korea was really poor, so baby’s wouldn’t make it to their first birthday. So when they did, the whole village came together and everyone provided a dish of some sort. Having a lot of dishes and food is integral to Dol, and for me, growing up, when I look at the photos, there’s not a lot of food, but there’s still a lot in comparison to what I usually had. So it was a very special occasion because it represented a day where i guess my family could go all out. It’s something I want to do with my kids, definitely. It’s a tradition that resonates with my country’s history, my family’s history, and possibly future. It’s a cute celebration of life, and possibility.

 

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

The ritual is done in a home, or now a lot of rich families rent out venues for it. If you know any rich korean families who have a child that is about to turn one, you should know they’re going to have a party and kind of invite yourself to one. Family, really close family, or friends who are as close as family are invited. But oftentimes, some rich families will invite a lot more people, expecting gifts. Some families, they might put something down that represents marriage, and it would be sort of great if a girl picks that one because it means she won’t be a widow or an old maid. I don’t know anyone that’s done that, I think it’s a pretty old one.

 

Personal Analysis:

Korean culture is very much centered around family, both the making of a family and the upkeep of the reputation of the family. From the start, knowing what your baby will become or what interests they may have would readily equip the parents for the future. Parents then could plan around the choice, giving their child a lifestyle catered to the object they chose. I believe it’s rather soon to decide the fate and future of a child, but since I am an outsider to the culture, my values are not aligned to the Korean family dynamic.

Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Old age

Baba Yaga

Ekatherina Chumakova

 

Баба Яга (Old Lady Yaga)

Baba Yaga

“A scary old witch who lives in the forest in a hut that has chicken legs. She is usually like a boogeyman figure who will kidnap and eat children if they don’t behave, or if they wander alone into the forest. Baba Yaga is generally malicious, and flies around in a stoop with a broom for steering. She eats children and hapless travelers in the forest, and is said to be immortal. At the same time, if you’re a hero in a legend, she will give you tests and if you pass them, she can’t eat you and must grudgingly point you in the right direction. She is not always immediately evil: often she will pretend to be a kind old lady who is very hospitable, and will offer you a place to stay for the night. But most of her hospitality is a trap: the water with which you bathe might be boiled, the food might trap you in her clutches, and the bed makes you fall asleep so she can prey on you. However, she is often wise and if you can use common sense and get around her sometimes obvious traps, she will aid you in your quest.”

Analysis: This is a legend which also has links in numerous fairytales. Propp identified her as a typical villain figure, or, more often, a test for the main hero that he needed to pass in order to succeed. Baba Yaga does not usually seem an active figure unless she is dealing with children. This is probably used in stories to children in order to make them behave and not wander off into the woods. When it comes to adults, however, Baba Yaga does not seek them out but rather waits for them to come to her. There are many, many different conceptions of Baba Yaga in Russian folklore. Her appearance as an old woman both gives her an appearance of wisdom and age, and might also represent the separation of old women from society and family life in some respects: she is no longer bearing children, nor can she actively participate in household chores. In the village life in Russia, old women were sometimes seen as a burden, one more mouth to feed that had no concrete wisdom to give (being a woman). The idea of old women as witches is also a very popular one in Russia and Europe. That she has a broom reinforces the image. However, it does not accuse all old women of witchcraft, unlike Europe and the US: this is a singular character with a single name, as well known as ‘the boogeyman’ or ‘La Siguanaba’ in other cultures.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Foodways
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Gestures
Homeopathic
Kinesthetic
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sunken head remedy

Iliana Cuellar

“When I was a baby, the soft spot on my head caved which I guess just means dehydration. But my mom is very spiritual and she thought that she could take me to a “curandero” which is a spiritual healer (kind of like a witch) who then held me upside down by my ankles, poured honey on my soles, and smacked my feet which is said to be the cure for the sunken head.”

 

Background: This happened in El Salvador, and as many people cannot afford doctors and hospitals, folk remedies and spiritual healing are the most common forms of treating illness.

 

Analysis: This is a ritual combined with folk remedy. It is not so much mixing ingredients together for homeopathic remedies that might work physically, but more a ritualistic healing. Holding the baby upside down might have been a somewhat logical response to a caving of the head- sending more blood to that extremity. However, pouring honey on soles does not seems to have much meaning beyond ritualistic and spiritual, and smacking feet also the same in that respect. Lack of access to formal doctors and medicine drive parents with sick children to witch healers.

Customs
Festival
Folk Dance
Foodways
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Musical
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mother’s Holiday

Mother’s Birthday Celebration

“My mother passed away of old age four years ago. In her life she accomplished many things, and touched many people. She had a huge family, ten grandchildren, and, being the matriarch of the family, left a big hole when she passed away. To commemorate her life, I decided to hold her birthday celebration as usual the year after she died. We had always celebrated hers in style, with up to a hundred guests, all on the veranda of our dacha (summerhouse) on the outskirts of Moscow. There was always a lot of food- Russian traditional dishes- people recited poetry in her honor, and we put on charades. She helped many invalids as a philanthropist in her life, and at least five came every single year from wherever they lived, some traveling over two hundred kilometers. Her peers from life dwindled every year, but the number of those attending always managed to stay the same. The year after she died, I decided to keep on the tradition. I invited all the guests, only this time we were celebrating her memory without her. The first time, there were more people than had ever been. Yet the celebration stayed the same- we ate the same food, sang the same songs, people recited poetry in her honor, shared memories of her, and in the end we played charades. It felt like she was still with us. Since then, for the past four years, we have had the same birthday celebration in her honor without her present, and the numbers have so far not dwindled at all. All her close family, friends, and those she helped in her eighty four years of life try their best to come and remember her by celebrating.”

 

Background: This is performed by a 54 year old Russian Woman, in Moscow, Russia, and her family and the friends of her mother.

Analysis: This is a version of a holiday in the name of a person: the only difference, here this person was not famous or a political leader, but was simply very influential in her community. This is not uncommon in Russia, as communities are often very close together, and people value their ties very much. Birthday celebrations in general, at least for older people, are rather formal occasions: many guests might be invited, there will be presents and singing and games. Ekatherina’s mother was from the intelligentsia class, as well, which often has ties to the upper class at least in the ways in which it acts and celebrates. This holiday is also an excuse for a big group of people to get together and reminisce about a common group they used to belong to, and perhaps still do. It is also an excuse for the older generation, in their seventies and eighties, to get together and impart stories and recollections of the past.

Adulthood
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Game
general
Initiations
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Magic
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Fountain Run at USC

Informant: USC alumni

“The USC fountain run is a tradition for graduating seniors. They are not allowed to go into the water of any of the fountains at USC or else it is said they won’t graduate. But on the last week of class, they all get together, drink, strip down to their underwear or swimwear, and run through every single fountain at USC. It is this big celebration of achievement and a right that only graduating seniors have. Usually some people get too drunk, but it’s all about celebrating freedom and no more rules. It’s something you do with your friends, and something people reminisce about years later when they meet other USC alumni.”

 

Analysis: This is a ritualized tradition for separating a ‘privileged’ group of students from the rest. Only seniors are allowed to do this, because it is a right of passage- you cannot participate if you have not completed all the obstacles and challenges that the last four years brought. It entails formally breaking taboos, such as going inside the fountain before you graduate. This superstition also underscores that its a privilege that only people who have completed USC can partake in. After the formalized, restrictive education process at University where rules must be obeyed or else expulsion, students celebrate on the brink of freedom while they are still technically bound to the student body.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Scattering Ashes at Sea

The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:

“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.

It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”

Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?

“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”

 

My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.

 

Foodways
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese Buddhist Wedding Feast

The informant, AA, is a Vietnamese American high school student. She is a second generation immigrant- both of her parents and their families are from Vietnam, and many of them still live here. AA shared with me a Vietnamese food tradition that she participated in herself at a wedding:

 

“So when my aunt and uncle were married, after the ceremony there was this big feast. There were 7 to 10 courses- they’re always the same foods at Buddhist weddings.

First there are cold dishes, like jellyfish salad, and then it goes to hot dishes, like lobster and hot pot. It’s always the same dishes in the same order. They’re always really precise about the order, especially at this wedding since my aunt is very Buddhist, actually.  It’s always very elaborate, and a lot of money is spent on the food. It incorporates many different types of seafood.

The dishes are served in a certain order as a way of wishing good luck onto the couple. For appetizers, we have sliced meats and jellyfish, and nuts shaped like dragons and phoenixes- those are served chilled as well. It’s supposed to symbolize, like, the male and female roles in a marriage. The dragon represents the groom- so powerful and strong. And then the female is like a phoenix because she is “born again” into this new life as a wife.

Later on, there is a roast pig that’s meant to symbolize virginity. I’m not sure why, exactly! I don’t know, I think it’s just a really old, sort of outdated tradition. Because back then the bride was supposed to be a virgin, and since many weddings were arranged marriages it was really valued for the girl to be a virgin.

Another common dish is shark fin soup. But since its Western style now, these kinds of weddings in America usually switch it up to pork soup or porridge. Then you have the lobster, and since it’s red it symbolizes luck and happiness and joy. Colors are really significant in Buddhist and Vietnamese weddings, especially red. Then you have fish, which symbolizes abundance, like, the abundance of money and possibly children. Towards the very end you have noodles, which is longevity.”

Which dish do you find to be the most significant, with a meaning you find particularly special?

“Desert is usually sweet red bean soup, which, stands for 100 years of togetherness because the soup contains a lot of seeds and beans- I think that one is really cute!”

Is this something all or most Buddhists do?

“It’s specifically Vietnamese Buddhist. It’s very unique to our specific background so it’s very important to me.”

 

My thoughts: Every culture has rich traditions pertaining to weddings. The particular wedding food customs AA mentioned are so fascinating because they show the intersection of Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Western traditions- for example, shark fin soup is replaced with other foods to reflect Western criticism/rejection of shark fin soup for ethical reasons. The idea of symbolic foods that ensure happiness and prosperity later in the marriage are common in different cultures, including the Hungarian wedding folklore collected by Géza Róheim, as well as foods that represent virginity or gender roles.

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