The informant, C, is an 18 raised in South Central Los Angeles, California. His parents are both Mexican and he considers himself Mexican as well. He is studying Astronautical Engineering.
C-“An old family saying is ‘trabaja con la mente y no la espalda’ (Work with your mind and not your back)”
When did you first hear this?
C-“My dad used to tell me when I was younger so that I would try hard in school”
What does it mean to you?
C-“It means that you know you really have to invest in your education so that one day you can be working with your mind rather than your back”
Have you heard it other times besides from your dad?
C-“yea, I’ve heard it many more times”
Do you use it?
C-“Yea I use it from time to time. I add my own twist to it. I don’t know it depends on the situation”
Could you give an example?
C-“If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t want to try hard in school versus someone who is struggling in school. One has the motivation to do well and the other doesn’t. You just have to adjust it”
Analysis-The Mexican culture is a hard working culture that many times focuses on getting the children to work to help support the family rather than earn an education. The father of the informant clearly grew up experiencing some of this mentality, which he does not want to pass on to his children. The proverb is a way to encourage getting an education especially at a young age.
“Ask not what is now, ask what is now possible.” – Collected from a 17-year-old girl from Colorado (My younger sister) who heard it from her high school choir teacher, who uses the proverb to keep her students in line and thinking positively.
My informant is a Vietnamese student currently attending high school in Irvine, California in a predominantly Asian-American neighborhood. She was born in Irvine and has lived there all her life, and the high school she attends now, ranked in the top ten public high schools in America, is notorious for its rigor, and its extremely studious students. When I asked her whether she knew superstitions pertaining to her school, she jumped up with this one almost immediately:
I know it’s probably not just my school, and there are probably people that do this in schools everywhere, but I think it’s especially bad here because everyone does it and everyone really believes in it too. Like, before a test, you’re never supposed to say out aloud that you think you’re ready. Ever, like, it’s taboo or something. You’re always supposed to say, “Oh my God, I’m so screwed,” or like, “I’m gonna do so badly on this,” because otherwise, there’s this stupid superstition that you’re gonna fail. [Laughing] And it’s really annoying when the super-smart kids do it too, and you know they’ve studied for like the past week straight, and they’re saying things like, “Oh, I just started studying yesterday,” and I’m like, “No you didn’t!” Like, if you say you think you’re ready and you think you might do well, people kind of look at you like you’re being cocky or arrogant or something. And then people say all the time how once, they thought they were ready for a test and said so, and they ended up failing. And then the next time they like, lowered their expectations or whatever, and said they were gonna fail, and they end up getting an A-plus. Everyone does it. [Smiling] I mean, it’s stupid, but I do it too. What’s better than like, not having any expectations at all, you know?
In a school culture dominated by grades and academics, this superstition, which is, as she said, probably present in any high school, is intensified and ritualized. Saying, “I’m gonna do so badly on this” is a student trying to lower their expectations in case the test is more difficult than they had thought, and at the same time trying to disarm, in a way, “the competition,” as my informant put it. “People at my school are super-competitive.” She said. “It’s funny, like, there’d be people that would even argue about which one was more not ready, so that if they did get a bad grade it’d be justified or something.” The lower the expectations, the less the disappointment would probably be–which is why it is such a good defense mechanism.
That these students even need a superstition like this seems testament to the immense amounts of pressure placed on them as high school students expected to advance to prestigious universities. By telling themselves and others that they aren’t ready for an exam, they push the blame for a bad grade on not being ready, instead of, perhaps, the scarier alternative, which is not being smart enough. A minor superstition, but its proliferation at her high school probably expresses a certain terror for not being capable enough–we can always try harder, but if we try really hard and we still can’t get a good grade, then where do we go? Are we just not smart enough? And that question is what these students seem the most afraid of.
The informant says he probably learned [the following game] in elementary school or something:
The game is called Red Light, Green Light, and the basic rules are that one player allows the rest to rush forward from a start line when he says, green light, and has his back turned, but the other players must stop suddenly if the leader says, red light, and turns around, lest they be caught moving and get sent back to the beginning. The first player to reach and touch the leader becomes the next leader. Here are the rules in the informants own words: Red Light, Green Light
When asked when the game was usually performed, the informant responded, I dont think I played it any time beyond, like, elementary school, or . . . Either during recess or with some friends of mine at, like, a kiddie birthday partyfour, five, six, seven, you know, something like that.
The informants opinion of the purpose of the game is that it allows children to get some of their inherent sneakiness, you know, resolved without getting into any real trouble, cause the worst that happens is you get sent back to the beginning of the line. This might be construed as a useful function, making children more governable the rest of the time; however, the informant thinks the game is more a subversive game designed to, uh, uh, to effectively teach people that it doesnt matter what you do as long as you dont get caught. In his words, the game is designed to teach you to be sneakythe idea that if someones not looking, you can get away with something. He concluded by saying, Im not sure that, ultimately, the message is all that positive.
The informant compares Red Light, Green Light to other games that might be considered folkloric cognatesMother May I and Simon Sayscommenting, Theres a whole sort of series of games thats about can you follow instructions, can you be sneaky without getting caught. However, Rae Pica and Mary Duru, authors of the book Great Games for Young Children, have a different concept of what the game is supposed to teach: listening skills, traffic safety skills, and self-control (47), among others. Clearly they endorse the game from an adult standpoint and do not consider it subversive. That the game is included in their book is evidence of multiplicity, and there is a slight variation in their rules for the game: instead of being sent back to the beginning, children who get caught moving are designated as yellow lights, which means they must walk in place until the signal to go is given again (47). And instead of the person who reaches the leader first getting to go next, Rae and Duru recommend a less partial system of deciding an order in advance (47). Clearly the name Red Light, Green Light has a terminus post quem of the invention of the stoplight, but the cognate games that the informant mentioned may be older.
Pica, Rae and Maray Duru. Great Games for Young Children: Over 100 games to develop Self-Confidence, Problem-Solving Skills, and Cooperation. Beltsville, Maryland: Gryphon House, 2006.