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: http://www.elsalvadormipais.com/leyenda-del-cipitio