USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Duendes’
Folk Beliefs
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Narrative

Duende’s Curse

Informant (J.B.) is a 19 year old Los Angeles native. J.B.’s mother is an immigrant from Thailand, and his father is an immigrant from Guatemala. J.B. speaks English, Thai, Korean, Japanese, some Spanish. J.B. and I grew up in the same neighborhood, with mutual friends. One afternoon while overhearing another collection I was conducting, J.B. offered to share a story about his late uncle.

J.B.: “My dad, when he was 8 years old, he was living in Guatemala, and his older brother was about 16. He had this job as a dude who delivers to the construction workers up in the mountains. There’s a folk story that in the forest there were spirits that would ask you to bring them a child as a sacrifice to eat, and they’ll reward you with fame, money, and whatever. If you decline than you’ll die or get sickness, your life is screwed over somewhere. My dad’s brother was walking one day, at night, to do a delivery, and a tree was talking to him, and he thought he was tripping out. And the tree asked him to bring a child and he said no. And the tree said I’ll give you a chance, if you don’t bring it in a week you’re going to get sick and die. So obviously he didn’t go back, and in a week he actually did get really sick, like on the verge of death. They had doctors there, and I don’t know exactly what it was, but he had an illness that couldn’t be cured for the rest of his life. He lived out the rest of his life pretty normal, but would have episodes from his sickness. A few years ago he died from one of the episodes from that sickness. I don’t know what he had, I’m trying to remember but I have no idea.”

Upon conducting further research, I discovered a mythological creature, present mostly in Latin American culture, called the ‘duende.’ Europe’s goblins, fairies, and leprechauns all fit into the same category as the duendes of Latin America and the Philippines. While the duende has many different oikotypes throughout the Latin world, they are broadly defined as magical sprites known to cause mischief, especially in areas surrounding forests. I am not acquainted with J.B’s family, however J.B. was happy to share a piece of their heritage with me this afternoon. As J.B. lost an immediate family member to an unknown illness, his father’s account of the duende’s curse carries sentimental value to J.B., and will forever be entwined with the folklore of his father’s distant homeland.

Legends

Los Duendes

Primary Informant: “So, there are these things called duendes, which are like gnomes and I guess they’re, like, cousins or something, they’re, like, related to leprechauns, essentially. And they’re popular, or known about, not just in Mexico, but also in, like, Central America, like El Salvador, or, um, in other parts of South America. And, um, apparently, from what I understand is, these, like, leprechaun-like creatures, these gnomes, they can, they like–, they choose a house or something and, um, when they choose a house, um, like, they’ll, like, try and, like, live in the house, but you can’t really see them, I don’t know, like, adults can’t really see them, I guess. But if you do see it, you have to give it food, um, because if you don’t give it food, it will, like, play pranks on you for the rest of your life. Like, it will just, like, mess with your life I guess after that. Um, and so a friend of mine was saying that, like, uh, he was at his other friend’s house and they had, like, a lemon tree or some kind of tree, a fruit tree, and, um, there would be, a, like, a– they would leave fruits on the ground, like the ones that fell. They would pick some, but they would leave others and he would pick ‘em up and he would, like, throw them or whatever. And I don’t know who it was, but it was like, ‘Noah! Don’t do that!’ and he was like, ‘Why? They’re just—they’re on the ground.’ And it was like, ‘Well, those are for the duendes, you know, so they don’t, like, come in and start, like, messing with my life.’ And, like, there are videos on YouTube, like, of duendes. And the same guy, that told me that story, he said that when he was in El Salvador with his parents, he was- he was young or whatever and he said that he saw a duende, like, following him. And he was like, ‘Mom! Mom!’ And she was like, “No, you can’t pay attention to it, don’t pay attention to it and then it will leave you alone, it won’t bother you.” Um, and that was just on the road. I don’t even think they were at the house. But, if it chooses your house and you don’t give it food, you like, you know, tell it to eff off, it will, like, mess with you forever. Um, but apparently, they really like hanging out with children and, like, playing with children I guess, um, that’s all I really know about that… Yeah. It’s, like, weird, the YouTube video, you see the guy, like this guy’s like playing soccer in his house, I don’t know why, and, um—“

Secondary Informant: “Uh, it’s like South America…. That’s like everyday.”

Primary Informant: “But, like in the house?”

Secondary Informant: “That’s like the pastime, dude.”

Primary Informant: “Okay, in the house, for sure. And he’s playing soccer in the house and he, like, kicks the ball over to the wall and ,like, you just see this little thing just like start running across the… and you just see the guy, like, freak out. He’s just like, ‘What the hell?’

Lavelle: “Is it… fake?”

Secondary Informant: “It looks genuine.”

Primary Informant: “I mean, the only thing is, it’s, like, terrible quality, so you can’t really tell. It looks like a cell phone camera.”

Secondary Informant: “Yeah, but do you really think someone would wanna go out of their way to…”

Primary Informant: “To make that up?”

Secondary Informant: “Yeah.”

Primary Informant: “I mean, maybe.”

 

Both informants who shared information about los duendes are of Mexican descent and heard this story from their families and friends. This story was shared in the primary informant’s apartment. We spent the afternoon sharing stories and combining the information we all had about each legend. These stories are important to the informants because they have been passed on from the older generations in their families. Because they value their older relatives, they value and enjoy the stories they’ve been told.

What I found interesting about this exchange is how it became obvious that my secondary informant was more open to the possibility of these supernatural beings actually existing, while my primary informant was growing more skeptical.

Here is the YouTube video mentioned in the story:

 

Folk Beliefs
general

Duendes

Duendes in this context are described as both little people or little children that are in people’s houses who can be mischievous take your things or want to play. They are creatures that my informant knew of in both Mexico and here in the United States.

My informant talked about duendes as both good and bad and then went on to discuss why she thinks Mexicans tell kids scary stories.

Her description of duendes verbatim:

“People they say those they call the duendes they say they’re little bit people some people said they’re little people and other people said they are kids. I hear two versions. I heard a story from my friend a long time ago because we talking about them and they say they scare you but they say they are play people, they like to play with you. They say they are mischievous? Something like this and they say they like to play, and they like to hide the things for you. Then another person say they are bad when you do something or when you are angry with them they are bad they do bad things to you. Also when I was a girl I had a neighbor and she was an old lady very very old. She was very very old. She has uh big house. She was living alone at that time, she was living alone in the house and she never come out. She’s always sitting in right inside it or behind the window. And she has the window with a gate, with the metal thing that always covered the window. I like to to go next to the house, but we stay outside by the street and we talking with her, she’s behind the window. And she always says she has duendes in her house. She would always say that ‘I have duendes in my house. And they play with me they come to be with me.’ And we we think it’s something bad or something scary and I remember I asked her all the time do you feel scary when they come and she say ‘Oh no, it’s not scary because they are good with me, they play and they come to be with me’ and I ask her ‘Really?’ And she say ‘Oh, yes, they are good.’ But I have friends that say they are bad and they do bad things but I never had that experience.

People in Mexico it’s very popular to scary the kids with uh scary stories. I think it’s something in Mexico we have. Now we don’t do that with my daughter. But we always use the scary stories to tell the boys or the girls. We tell because we expecting that if we say something then they are going to be good or they are going to be better. I think that’s why. Especially in Mexico. Especially Mexicans do. They scaring their children with scary stories because they hope if we tell about the scary stories we are going to be better or we are going to respect our mothers our father our brothers our family. I think that’s why people say that.”

There’s a lot to be said for duendes. I grew up hearing about them myself (I grew up in San Diego) and they were, as I knew it, creatures that took people’s things from them. I never believed in them but I didn’t know them to be scary either. I was also told scary stories by my friend’s parents who were Mexican about magical little people/creatures which scared the living hell out of me. That being said, I know first hand about Mexicans telling children scary stories. My informants theory that it’s to keep them in good behavior and establish respect for family, as most scary stories told to children probably serve that purpose. Duendes are interesting here because she knew them to be both good and bad. Either way, they are playful, and it’s interesting that they are sometimes seen as children rather than little people or creatures of some kind. My informant didn’t not believe in duendes, she just said she never had any personal experience with them, which makes them somewhat of a spectacle. With her neighbor’s description the duendes almost resembled ghosts in their likeness to children, since the name duende clearly distinguishes it from being human. It’s understandable that these entities seen as “bad” or “mischievous” would resemble children too because they can be impish without necessarily appearing threatening or dangerous.

Eberhart, George M. “Duende.” Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. 150. Google Books. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

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