USC Digital Folklore Archives / Initiations


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

JH talked to me about a school retreat he just went on, which they host every year:

“We have a different retreat every year, but the senior retreat is called ‘Kairos’…we spend like the last week of classes at a center near Santa Barbara, but they don’t really tell us where we’re going…we just left after school one day. It’s pretty religious-based and we talked a lot about God and the Catholic Church and stuff, but more of it was spiritual, like we talked about our personal relationship with God and spirituality and stuff. On the second day they surprised us with letters from our parents, and both of our parents had to write us a letter with stuff they may not have told us or with like, things they wanted us to know…some people got letters from siblings too, and they mostly talked about how we’re at an important transition in our lives, talking about becoming an adult and stuff. And then we all had to share a lot too, and people talked about really awful things that had happened in their past that we had no idea about, and our teachers and the priests did too…I think we all got a lot closer, opening up like that…I wasn’t expecting to really buy into the whole retreat thing, but I think I learned a lot in the end. When we got back, they led us into the auditorium where all our parents were sitting, and they were cheering for us, and we went and sat up on stage where they talked a little about the week, and then we all had to go up to the microphone and talk about our experiences that week, and then we would go and sit with our parents.”

I asked JH if he felt it was more of a religious retreat or a school/class retreat:

“Definitely more about our class than religion. The religion was a big part of it, but even just going to a Catholic school they were never necessarily trying to convert us or anything, and they were really inclusive both at the retreat and at the school like in general.”

My analysis:

A lot of high schools that have the resources put on these “retreats” for their students, especially at the end of senior year, or the end of their high school career. It helps usher these students through the liminal period, or help them slow down and understand the importance of the transition they’re in the midst of, and by emphasizing parental involvement JH’s school highlights the community aspect, where families would play a big role in celebrating the child’s transition to adulthood. This is actually the first kind of retreat I’d heard of that gave parents such a role – usually it revolves more around the school’s influence and presence in the students’ lives.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Forget it, it’s Chinatown

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

JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.

“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.

“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”

I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:

“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”

My analysis:

I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.

Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.


Cheerleading Sleepover

Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. She was a founding member of the cheerleading team of her high school, and the experience of being on this team helped to define her high school experience in general.


Main piece: I went to a really small high school, so we never had a football team, just a basketball team. My sophomore year of high school, a few girls (including myself) founded a cheerleading squad. At first, we weren’t very good. Our coach was a competitive cheerleader her whole life, though, so she began to increase the amount and intensity of practices and we eventually got pretty good after two years. Our second year, we went to state competitions and at this point I was our captain. Making it to competition was a huge deal because we were finally earning some credit in the cheer world. In preparation, my coach encouraged me to do something to get our squad excited and ready. So I decided to host a cheer sleepover the weekend before our competition, a sort of sisterhood-like night to bond. It became a tradition for my high school that every weekend prior to a competition (the squad goes to multiple competitions now), the cheer squad has a sleepover at the captain’s house. I only got to do it twice while in high school, but it’s nice to hear that it’s still tradition! The new captains send me & my old coach a photo each time it happens.


Performance Context: This sleepover ritual would be performed over the weekend before a competition.


My Thoughts: This sleepover ritual is a way for people to feel that they belong to a group, and that others are looking out for them. It is a way for the cheerleading team to have a shared experience and even have team bonding.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Camp P________ Secret Ritual

Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.

Informant: So ever since I was a kid, I went to this sleep away camp called Camp P________ (name removed by request). Once you reach a certain level at the camp, a lot of people know you, like a sufficient amount of people, and you can get inducted. So the second week, every two week during campfire, everyone who is inducted, which is a huge secret at my camp, like nobody knows about it, they come to campfire, and they say like please stop what you’re doing and follow us in silence. And then they lead you into the woods, and everyone’s dressed as indians. And you recognize them, but you can’t talk to them, they won’t smile and they won’t look at you, you walk, you all sit in this area, there’s like bonfires everywhere, this woman sits in the middle, and it’s like a ritual. The girls and boys are separate, by the way, there’s no boys around. She starts this whole ceremony and she says all of these native american prayers and does these rituals, and it’s all accurate too. And then, everyone has a specific name at camp, so the lady says “Giggling Chipmunk and Mountain Sunrise, come down from the hills and bring us the one that we shall call Spastic Chipmunk.” That’s my name. And they run and they grab you and they drag you from the crowd, and you have no idea if you’re being taken, you’re blinded and you’re stripped naked, they beat you, and then you get this necklace and it’s this hand painted necklace, and every single one is different, and there’s a rock on the end of it, and it’s a symbol that’s specific to you. So like mine is a sunrise, and that’s how we know that someone’s in the tribe. And if anyone asks about the necklace, you’re supposed to just say “My friend made it for me,” just very casual. And you spend the entire night with the tribe, and there’s this party after, and the next day you act like everything is back to normal, and then you, the next year, get to choose people to be part of the tribe. And it all stems from this indian tribe called the Paioka, and the guys do the same thing, except they wear a necklace that’s just an eagle on it, and it’s a representation of the Monotauk Indian tribe, and a lot of our camp counselors have it tattooed on them. It’s a really spiritual thing at our camp, because those tribes used to live there back in the day.

Collector: It sounds like this ritual was very significant to you.

Informant: It definitely was. They always told us that whenever we feel alone or sad, you just touch your necklace and you can feel the voices of the women in our tribe. (Starts crying) Sorry, I’m so emotional. There’s people that wear it year-round. I probably should. It really means a lot to me.

I never went to sleep away camp, so I never experienced anything like what she is talking about here. However, it was very emotional for me to see her reacting so strongly to her memory of this ritual. Because this is something that is very foreign to me and hard for me to understand, it was really cool to hear her describe it so visually. I could almost feel as if I was there experiencing it with her. I also think it’s really interesting how this ritual stems from rituals of previous Native American tribes, and that they still honor them today.


The Proctor House

Folklore Piece

“There’s this house in my hometown of Castro Valley, California called the Proctor House and it’s near Proctor Elementary School and it’s also near my house. It’s empty now, like no one lives in there, and it’s mostly populated by homeless people or drug addicts. But, basically like teenagers are dared to go in there and there’s this room that you go in and there are all these dolls lined up on the mantle. And the story goes that there was this couple that used to live there together and they um they’re foster parents, like they would bring in kids every so often, and one by one these foster kids would kinda just disappear from the foster system and no one knew why. And it was discovered that this couple had just kinda murdering their foster kids and they murdered like four kids. I heard this story when I was in the 7th grade from my friends when I went in the Proctor house. But I heard it throughout my teenage years. The dolls, like, had the spirits of the kids inside of them, or something.”


Background information

This story would mostly be performed by children around the playground or in social situations near his school and the house. As our informant mentioned, he learned this story first from his friends. He would later also tell me that all the parents knew about this story and wouldn’t let their kids go near the house. He said while this was probably because of the aforementioned homeless and drug addicted populations, many kids like the informant would interpret this as an affirmation of the mystic dangers of this house.


Personal Analysis

The dynamic between the children that recount this story and their parents are what I find to be most intriguing. The children believe the tall tale of the haunted house and the clichéd dolls-as-murdered-children horror story, most likely as its grandiose details are continuously reinforced in those kids’ social circles and media. The parents, however, know the house’s true nature, and that it is potentially very dangerous and filled with drug addicts and squatters. These harsh realities of life might be too much for a kid to hear, and so they simply say “Don’t go into the Proctor House.” Somewhat unintentionally, this furthers the legend of The Proctor House as being haunted. In my research, I couldn’t find any authored material on the Proctor House; this would suggest that this legend is relatively local and new. Perhaps the house became abandoned and overrun when the participant was young, spurring the rumors. When I asked the participant about the story’s origin, he said that he wasn’t sure.

Also interesting is the house’s role as a legend quest. When the kids are old enough to brave a trip into the Proctor House, it’s viewed as somewhat of a rite of passage, affirming their role as a “big kid”, or young adult. Ironically, though, it is their discovery of truth about the house, either firsthand or from their parents, and the loss of the childlike innocence about the house’s true state, that affirms their role as an adult.


UC Merced, The Gina

Superstition, Tradition, Ritual


Primary Language- English

Secondary Language- Spanish

Occupation- UC Merced Student

Residence- Los Angeles, CA

Date of Performance- 4/23/16

At our school in UC Merced, California, we have a tradition where we have a cave that is called The Gina. In The Gina, freshman are supposed to walk through it to receive good luck. The tradition does not end there. Once we walk through The Gina, we have to attend the ascend where we all go to a field, have a balloon parade where they are let go to the sky and have time to meet new freshman on campus. Once we complete the entire ritual, the good luck will set in and increase our chances to receive higher grades.

Lucy is from Los ANgeles, California but currently resides in UC Merced which is still in California but different from Los Angeles because of the community. She learned this tradition because her school practically enforced it upon the students. Every freshman student had to attend this ritual where they walk through the The Gina and then attend the ascend. The tradition is special to her because it gave her the chance to make great friends at the school. She herself thought the tradition was silly but it is what makes her a unique bobcat, which is a mascot of UC Merced.

During the ritual of The Gina, you are supposed to walk through a cave, attend an ascend, make good friends, and bam, you instantly receive good luck. You of course have to attend the school. Lucy has lived through and told quite a few people of the ritual that she performed.

I think that school traditions are great. It shows us that it isn’t just USC that has rituals and traditions like kicking the pole before a football game. Other schools like UC Merced have traditions they almost force upon the students. It may sound a little cynical but it a fantastic way to integrate the new students into the community in order for them to fit in well. This tradition can improve morale, performance, and feelings for the school. Traditions at school can display their values. While some schools have delved into traditions with athletics, other schools like UC Merced have become embedded in a tradition that represents their desire for thier students to become a close community and believe in themselves. I also have other friends who attend the same school and had the same experience. The Gina is a unique location for all UC Merced students to embody and cherish.


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

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
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Physicists are the salt

Ksenia Chumakova


“Только физики – соль, остальные все- ноль”

Phonetic- “Tolko fiziki- sol’, ostalnie vse-nol'”

Transliteration- “Only physicists are the salt. Everyone else is a zero”

Translation: Only physicists are worth anything, and everyone else is nothing.


Background: “This is a saying my grandparents, both physicists, would say often in a joking manner. It was something they had picked up in their spheres of work. It was a catchy saying that rhymed, and jokingly put them a cut above all the other professions.”

Analysis: To compare something to salt goes back to cooking: salt is often the only spice that Russians will use in our dishes, and we always put it on the table in case guests want more. It is always seen as a vital addition to any meal, and separates those meals from others without it. Salt used to be rather expensive, too. Russian culture a lot of catchy folk metaphors and proverbs that rhyme in silly ways. This is also a form of distinguishing a career group from others, even if jokingly. Other professions have also used this rhyme, but the physicist version is the most popular and is considered to be the original. This is also a way to encourage children to follow in the path of their role models, in this case- physicists. That the grandparents told it to their children and grandchildren means that they took the identity of being physicists deeply and had hopes that others in their family would pursue it as the only ‘right’ path (if all others are zeros).


Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

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.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cousins All Aboard

The Main Piece
It is customary in Nile’s family to take her cousins in during the summer to help teach them certain life lessons and values that their aunts or uncles feel they are incapable of doing. While taking cousins in and teaching them about life may seem odd to some, Nile finds this completely normal and a part of her life. Cousins would be sent to the Jones household for various reasons. These reasons include losing weight, divorce, adjusting to urban lifestyle, wanting more interaction with other teenagers or children, and learning to be away from home. This was not only for Nile’s cousin’s benefit, but also Nile’s and her family’s benefit. They were able to interact with people who were not in their direct family and learned to deal with social situations which they normally would not. The summer-stay was usually for only one cousin at a time and the child would usually be between the age of ten to sixteen years old. This was an important factor to consider because they wanted to send them in when they were “sort of independent, where they didn’t need to call mommy every night.” The child would be accepted into the family and treated like a normal member. They would do chores, play with the other children, thus molding them and giving them proper social skills and proper habits.
Background Information
My informant is Nile Jones, a current undergraduate and close friend of mine at USC. She recalls having her cousins over for as long as she can remember. When she asked her mother, her mother stated that they had been doing this since her great, great grandmother was alive. Nile enjoys this tradition because she can see her own personal benefits and those of her cousins. She also feels it is a good way for her to interact with her cousins. The first time her mother told her that her cousins were coming to stay she was confused as to what was going on, but with her mother’s explanation she soon began to understand the meaning behind the tradition.
Nile told me this story as we were sitting together discussing her life at home. I found so many elements of her life differed from mine, I had so many questions to ask. It was casual conversation as we were simply chatting like normal friends. Hearing stories about my friend’s different lives has expanded my mind as I learn about their different lifestyles.
Personal Thoughts
I thought that it was an interesting way for Nile to keep in touch with her cousins. I barely ever talk to my cousins even though they live next door to me. It has encouraged me to reach out and take a more proactive role in their lives. I enjoyed hearing the way that Nile’s family was having a positive influence on their family members, trying to help them out as much as possible.