USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘el salvador’

La Siguanaba

She was a woman that went out every night to wash by the river. Everyone would hear her washing. But no one would go outside. They would see a woman that had long hair that would drag on the floor. She seduced the men. The story is often told to children to scare them into not misbehaving.

My tia Estella did not listen to my grandmother and went out at night. She was using the bathroom outside and she saw a tall women standing there. The woman had long black hair. And she was washing. My tia thought it was one of the neighbors washing. She approached the lady and when the lady turned to her she was a skeleton. My tia became mute and ran away from the women.

My informant is a service coordinator. She likes to help people. She also migrated from El Salvador to the United States. Most of her stories are from her mother or personal experiences.

I talked to my informant over coffee in our house.

The interesting part of this piece is the similarities between this and the Llorona of Mexico. It is also interesting because my own aunt experienced it. This story is a classic tale Salvadoran parents use to keep them from misbehaving.



El Cipitillo

My informant is a service coordinator. She likes to help people. She also migrated from El Salvador to the United States. Most of her stories are from her mother or personal experiences.

I talked to my informant over coffee in our house.

El Cipitillo is a boy that wears a large charra or sombrero. He has a little belly. He eats the ashes from leftover fires. The people that make tortilla over the fire would find footprints all over the ashes. He also likes children. If he touched you then you are left retarded.

The story of el cipitillo is often told to scare children from misbehaving. He is said to visit misbehaving children.

It is interesting to see at what lengths Salvadoran moms would go to keep their children safe. I grew up with these stories believing the to be true

Folk speech

“Siempre ay un ‘yo lo vi’”

EM is a 45 year old statistician from San Salvador. He immigrated to the US in the early 90s to attend Kansas University, but he grew up in El Salvador where he and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Here is a proverb he recalls from his childhood:

“This is a proverb, or a saying- something people tell you. This one is more like a warning, but it also tells you a lot about the community.

It goes something like this, “there is always someone that saw you.”

“Siempre ay un ‘yo lo vi’

So, literally it says “there will always be someone who will say “I saw him do it”!”

If you are doing something, you are not supposed to do, someone will catch you and know you were doing something bad. It’s a warning not to misbehave. My mother used to repeat that often, and early on it is proved to be true. Suddenly you are doing something you are not supposed to and the neighbor from the corner tells your mom! So you learn early that, “oh my god, this is true! If I do the wrong thing there will always be someone who will tell on you!”

I think it comes with the idea that in El Salvador, in particular, that we believe in the English saying- “it takes a village to raise a child”. Even other adults are always aware of where every kid is, and they can correct you if they find you out on the street doing something, because you are part of that community and they care a lot about you and your parents. So proverbs like this one encourage you to behave in a way that the adults in the community find acceptable.”


My thoughts: Proverbs that are passed down from adults to children often serve the purpose of socializing them to follow the cultural norms of their community. This particular proverb is meant to keep kids from doing things their parents don’t want them to. It also reflects the nature of these communities were, as the informant noted, the raising of a child is a collective endeavor- Salvadorans consider their relationships with their neighbors to be amongst the most important because you never know when you may need their help. Neighborhoods in El Salvador tend to be closely interconnected, and an important part of coming of age is figuring out how you fit into that community.


El Cipitio

El Cipitio

The informant, EM, grew up in the country of El Salvador, which is in part known for its vast jungles and large amount of volcanoes. Naturally there are many legends surrounding these places, including ones about creatures that may live there. EM shared a story with me about one of these creatures, El Cipitio:


“So there are different, interconnecting traditions regarding beings or creatures in El Salvador. El Cipitio is a kind of a duende- or what do you call them, the Irish creature? Like those ones who trick you? A leprechaun! He’s a little bit like a leprechaun.

He always tries to deceive people, specifically young girls, because he wants to take them back to his cave or wherever he lives. So he will do silly things to entice them and deceive them.

But El Cipitio is the bastard son of another legendary figure, La Sihuanaba. Depending on the story, La Sihuanaba was a woman who lived in pre-colonial times- she was the beautiful wife of a famous chief. She was unfaithful- so there is something about that, right? A warning about what will happen to you if you are unfaithful in a very patriarchal society. So, it says, “this is what happens to women who are unfaithful”. A shaman condemned her to forever appear in front of men who wanted to be unfaithful- once they are alone together, she will become this ugly woman. So El Cipitio is her son.

In the story, El Cipitio is always alone, and he dresses like a peasant with a white clothing and a huge, huge hat. So I don’t know how you can’t spot this guy from a mile away! You’d think the hat is so huge you can see him anywhere. But he will hide in the jungle and entice youg girls to go with him, and little girls just disappear.

A statue of El Cipitio in El Savador

If you think about it, it’s a story that tells you what is wrong and what is right- there’s the idea that you will be marked for life if your mom is unfaithful. And people will always label you as something different if you were not born to a married family. There are specific places were it’s said that he lives, a specific cave in a specific town. It’s called San Vincente and its by a volcano called Chinchontepec. So there are caves there and people say he lives in them. It’s so people don’t go to places that are remote and dangerous, so don’t go there because something might happen to you and you will never return. There are stories that gold was hidden in those caves by the Spaniards- there’s a lot of folklore surrounding that region.”

Who told you about him?

“You grow up with those stories. It could be an adult, or you could hear it on the radio. You will find it any book with short stories when you are learning to read. But El Cipitio was so popular that he even had a tv show! And a song. You can see him pretty much anywhere.”


My thoughts: There are some very familiar elements in this story that are reminiscent of other Latin American legends, suggesting there is great intertextuality and variation by country. I was intrigued by the description of La Sihuanaba, who reminded me of two different Hispanic legends. She resembles La Descarnada, a legendary figure from Panama that another informant shared with me. Both stories seem to have the same cautionary purpose- to warn men not to womanize because they may end up encountering this monstrous woman. Her origin story also reminds me of La Malinche, another disgraced native woman who was transformed into a ghost legend (in her case, into La Llorona). These legends probably all derive from one story and then evolve as they are spread across Central America.

The legend of El Cipitio is reflective of Latin American views on gender, as discussed briefly by the informant. It warns women about infedility and how they will be punished for cheating or having an illegitimate child. It also depicts the male figure, El Cipitio, as a predatory figure who wants to steal young girls- this also reflects the common advice “don’t talk to strangers”, as well as deterring them from going anywhere dangerous like the jungle or the mountains on their own.

For more on El Cipitio, see this article, “El Cipitio” from El Salvador Mi Pais, a version of the legend in Spanish that expands upon the Nahuatl origins of this story:



El Carbonero

The informant, EM, grew up in the San Miguel neighborhood of San Salvador, El Savador. Growing up, he had a great interest in music and learned to play many instruments, as well as singing in a choir. Here he fondly remembers a folk song that is a great source of pride in his country that he learned growing up:


The song is called “El Carbonero”. This is considered by Salvadorans as almost a second national anthem. It translates to “The Coal Merchant”, and it tells the story of this guy who comes down from the mountains to sell coal.

This song is pretty much performed everywhere for different events, like Independence Day, or any cultural event where kids from schools- starting in elementary school all the way up to high school- whenever they want to perform something that represents who you are as a Salvadoran. Basically everyone would know the lyrics and know how to dance the song. In that sense it’s pretty popular and people know it. If a famous singer comes to perform in El Salvador- let’s say…Shakira! – or someone like that, then they would include “El Carbonero” as part of their set and the audience will go crazy. Artist try all kinds of different versions. It’s pretty much done by every foreign performer who comes.

From an ideological point of view, the lyrics of the song- it’s letting you know that, this is what we do, and we work hard. You know, being a coal merchant is kind of a messy, dirty job. All the people who dedicate themselves to it- even their faces are black, and their hands…everything is black from the coal. It also tells you something about the country and its origins. There’s an analogy in the song- the coal is something that el Carbonero is bringing to you that will light up your house and keep you warm. Coal has a positive connotation here since its good for you family and good for your home, and you identify with the hard working people.

The song begins with the verse

“soy carbonero que vengo
de las cumbres si señor
con mi carboncito negro
que vierte lumbre de amor.”

Which translates to

“I am a coal merchant who comes

fromthe high places, yes sir,

with my black coal

that turns to lights of love.”


My thoughts: Folk songs can often be seen as sources of nationalistic pride, as seen in the documentary Whose Song Is This? The song, El Carbonero, reflects that Salvadorans are proud of the working class- the country has a long history of economic hardship and poverty, so the working class is celebrated as opposed to the wealthy. The song also takes pride in the rich natural resources of the country, celebrating the coal that is brought down from the mountains. Even though these things may not seem glamorous to outsiders, they are symbolic of the endurance of the country’s people through a turbulent history. The informant also mentions how folk songs evolve over time and may be interpreted by established artists and transformed to different genres for popular consumption.



EM is a 45 year old Salvadoran man who moved from El Salvador to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, a city with a strong Salvadoran presence. EM shared with me the significance of a traditional food from El Salvador, the pupusa:

“Ok, so, this is what people consider the national dish in El Salvador. It’s called pupusas. It’s a corn tortilla stuffed with different things. It could be pork, it could be cheese, it could be beans…now, people even have hot dogs as part of it! That’s something I haven’t experienced since I don’t live there anymore, but it’s happening- people are trying out new things. American pupusas even have stuff like spinach or mushrooms added to them to appeal to people who may not have tried them before.

It is pretty much everywhere. I would say that it is a very humble, simple dish. Anyone can make it and eat it. There is no right or wrong time to eat it, so you can eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ot anywhere in between. In school, when I was growing up, we would have it at recess, for example. It’s also shared in the sense that you get many of them at a time and eat it all together with a group/

Something we eat alongside it is “curtido”, which is almost like a type of sauerkraut. Usually, the places where they have pupusas will have a place where you can get extra curtido, carrots, onions, all sorts of things that have been pickled in vinegar. It’s not necessarily pickled in the way things are pickled here, it’s not very sour, but it has gone through a pickling process. The repollo- cabbage- doesn’t take so long to ferment.

It’s everywhere, so you can find it in school. Around your neighborhood, there may be three or so places where you can go and buy them. They’re not that expensive. At least, when I was growing up, each pupusa was just a couple of cents. Now, it’s about 60 cents, compared to here where they’re three dollars per pupusa! But you could find them anywhere. There are restaurants in El Salvador where that is all they do. There are regions in El Salvador where you can find specific pupusas, like ones that use rice instead of corn for the dough- the masa. There are different types of stuffings such as squash, close to the coast you can find seafood, like shrimp. People sell them at street corners, local markets- it doesn’t have to be a specific place. Like here in L.A., you’ll even find them in places like the Piñata District. So things vary, and there are specific places in El Salvador that are known for the pupusas. The buses will even stop in the outskirts of those towns and someone will come with pupusas to sell on the bus. This was back when bus trips were six or so hours and people needed a meal- it was always pupusas. They’re less commonly done at home since you can buy them everywhere.”

Pupusa Stand at the USC Farmer's Market

Pupusa Stand at the USC Farmer’s Market

Close-up of pupusas with a popular side of plantains

Close-up of pupusas with a popular side of plantains

My thoughts: Thinking about Appadurai and the idea of high cuisine, it’s clear that El Salvador doesn’t distinguish between high cuisine and low cuisine- the food that is the national dish is described as “humble” and “peasant food”. This ties into other Salvadoran folklore that reflects national pride because they often focus on the working class. Also, in relation to globalization, we can see how pupusas have now become popular in other areas of the world, such as Los Angeles, were they may be altered to fit the tastes of Americans. Here at USC, the pupusa stand at the Farmer’s Market have spinach and mushroom pupusas that are reminiscent of pizza, but don’t actually resemble any Salvadoran recipes.

Folk Beliefs

Horror Stories from El Salvador

This story was told at midnight. The lights were off, and it was during a horror-story telling game. The windows were open, and a small lamp was on in the middle of the room. There was no moon. There was a window in the room as it was being told, and the lamp was reflected clearly. The stories are meant to be told for fun, according to the speaker. They were stories heard from the speaker’s mother, who had heard them herself when she was young. The stories have not changed over time, and are fun stories meant to amuse and frighten young children.


This story takes place back in the time before Western civilization arrived in the southern peninsula and took over with their new customs and traditions. In that location,  there lived a tribe that was apparently somewhat similar to Aztecs. At this point in time, their names were forgotten, but the tribe was definitely said to have existed. Apparently, the chief of the tribe would go out and start wars on a whim, because that was his nature. He would go out and fight wars with the neighboring tribes according to his whim and leave his wife at home. Supposedly, his wife was very beautiful, and they had a son together. However, what would end up happening was that while he was away, his wife would cheat on him. He was often away, constantly fighting wars, so he was not home enough to fulfill her desires. This happened on for quite a long time, until one day he found out. As soon as he found out, upon his return, he had her taken out of the village and had her killed near a river. It was a violent death, because she constantly returns as a ghost to haunt men and lead them around.  When men approached rivers, apparently she would appear to men as a beautiful woman. She would proceed to seduce them, and most of the men would be unable to escape her charms. Additionally, once she had them seduced, she would stupefy them. Once they were found by the other villagers, the villagers would see that the men were all brain dead. Ziguanaba continues to appear to men who approach the rivers, and if they are not careful, then they will also end up brain dead just as the men who fell to Ziguanaba’s allures were.

Ziguanaba’s Child

Ziguanaba had a child with the chieftain of the tribe before she cheated on him and died. Apparently his name is Zipitio. He was not good looking, and therefore could not find love, because nobody would look at him. He was incredibly short with a large pot belly and always wore big hats. Unfortunately for him, he easily fell in love with the beautiful girls of the village, but they never spared a glance at him because he was so ugly. However, when he falls in love with a girl, be becomes incredibly frightening. He throws flowers at them and leaves flowers for them no matter where they go. He is a jealous type though, because if they have a boyfriend, he is known to get really angry. If he sees the girl that is the subject of his affection with her boyfriend, he will get angry with her and begin throwing his own fecal matter at them. Throughout his short life, he was unable to be loved by a girl, and that strong desire keeps him alive as a ghost even now. He will still appear and fall in love with beautiful girls that pass by. He will try to grab their attention by throwing flowers at them and presenting them with flowers at every turn. However, if they have a boyfriend, then problems will occur due to his incredibly petty jealousy. In the event that the girl that caught his eye and her boyfriend are together in front of him, he will throw foul matter at them to express his displeasure even now.

La Llorona

In a small village, there was a married couple. In the beginning, they were very happy with each other as the image of a perfect husband and wife. Indeed, they even had children together who she cared about very deeply and loved to take care of. However, as time passed, she found that she did not truly love her husband anymore and she became bored with him. As a result, she cheated on her husband all the time. Nobody said anything out loud, but rumors spread about her promiscuity, thinly veiled behind vague analogies and metaphors. One day the husband found out about the rumors and confronted her about them. She had no choice but to admit to it privately before it became a village wide scandal. That was precisely what happened. Although people were not inclined to say anything originally, as soon as she was discovered by her own husband, the townspeople were very willing to call her out for her supposed crime. For being a harlot, she was given a very painful death sentence. The village decided that the appropriate punishment for a harlot was to be stoned to death. When the day came, all the villagers banded together and killed her. The last thought on her mind was her regret that she could no longer take care of her children. She did not regret cheating on her husband, because he was a bore to her. But her beloved children who had done nothing wrong were to be without a mother. Now, it is said to not walk around alone in the dark. If you are not careful, she will appear before you and cry out “Where are my children?”

Cadejo Blanco/ Cadejo Negro

Be careful when it’s dark out! The forces of life have a special interest in rewarding or punishing you depending on what kind of life you have lived. If you are a good person a white dog will show up. Its name is Cadejo blanco. It is a sacred protector, but it will only manifest its presence during the night. It will wander around you, and it will ensure that you are safe along your way.  It will ward off evil spirits and it will keep harm away from you. However, it is mandatory that you are by yourself. If you are walking about with other people, then it will not appear. However, it has its own form of danger, because it cannot protect you from itself. You are forbidden from looking directly at it. If you do look directly at it, then you will fall asleep and never wake up with irreversible brain damage. Otherwise, it will do you no harm. As said before, this will only appear if you are a good person. If you are a wicked person, then a black dog will appear. Its name is Cadejo negro, and it will also appear only at nighttime. However, it does the opposite of Cadejo blanco. It does not protect you. It does not necessarily bring harm to you, but it is possible that it will. If it feels like it, then it will attack you or curse you so that evil spirits will haunt you continually. It will follow you until you reach sacred ground or the sun rises.

As the collector, I see these stories as meant to amuse or to frighten. They are rather fun vignettes with small morals embedded, such as living a chaste life or living an honorable life. Other than that, these stories are ghost stories that seem to have multiple versions, as I have heard some of them before. This also seems to reflect how historical occurrences may shift and become the subject of rumors and folklore, often becoming more fantastical in nature. Interestingly enough, the basic features of a horror story seem common to many cultures, rather than being limited strictly to a few. I suppose in a way, these stories are not horror stories at all. Although they do involve ghosts, they are more cautionary than actually frightening stories.