USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Mexico’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Thanksgiving Tamales

Subject: Traditional foods at Thanksgiving holiday celebrations. Tamales.


“Interviewer: So, you just mentioned that you make Christmas dinner every year?

Interviewee: Yes, I make Christmas dinner and I make Thanksgiving dinner every year… so I started making the turkey on Thanksgiving, so which is why I love Thanksgiving so much now. I always loved it but now it’s like… I have to go every year. I have to go home because I make the fucking turkey. And I also bake all the fu- all the pies. Apple pie and the turkey every year… So, my mom has to make the stuffing. I will not let her like not make the stuffing. My dad, if he’s up to it, up for it, he will make like roasted potatoes with like butter and like herbs, like red potatoes, like particularly. My brother will probably do some sort of vegetable side dish… my sister usually doesn’t help that much, uh, I don’t know why. But my eldest sister, now that she has her own house, she like, like brings mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese.

But… I would like there to be tamales. Tamales are the kind of thing you get like once or twice a year. Um, and once or twice a year, one of those times is going be Thanksgiving and the other one has to be Christmas… So like winter, winter holidays. It’s just like the special occasion of it, you know. They’re not difficult to make…, it takes long, it’s just a process, ya know. We’re just like, it’s Christmas coming up so we’re going to make a lot of tamales, so it’s not like they make them for every meal. They freeze them and then bring them out for this holiday. And they’re just as good frozen…once you’ve reheated them.

Tamales has to be there. There is no way you can’t make more than enough.”

Background Info: Z. Cantú is a twenty-year-old college student majoring in Theater at the University of Southern California. She is from Brownsville, Texas and is bilingual in Spanish and English. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as teens where they met and started a family. She has grown up with a melding of American and Mexican traditions.

Context: My roommate first mentioned that she enjoys making Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner while speaking about her ethnographic foods course. I asked her to go in depth to her experience preparing and consuming the food on these holidays for my collection.

Analysis: My roommate’s experience with Thanksgiving is especially interesting when placing it within her experiences of growing up in American culture but having parents who grew up in Mexico and did not celebrate Thanksgiving. To her family, Thanksgiving has become a mandatory homecoming, a time to reconnect every year. In this process, the observance of the Thanksgiving holiday has been removed from its American context and has been reworked to be one that defines her parents’ new family and their new life together in a new place. Furthermore, most of the families in the Brownsville area do not celebrate Thanksgiving because it is not part of their national background; in other words, the practice of Thanksgiving is not part of their reinforcement or performance of identity. For the Cantú family, however, the holiday is observed to exert their identity as a family unit that is composed of both Mexican and American heritage.

This is best observed by the food that is literally placed on the Thanksgiving table. There are the foods typically seen at an American family Thanksgiving: turkey, green beans, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, for instance. However, the Cantú family modifies their American identity by including tamales at the table. For my roommate, this is a crucial part of the holiday season; the consumption of tamales marking a time of celebration and reunion. Without tamales, the performance of her dual-heritage would be incomplete. Since the food consumed physically represents the diversity of her family, to not include one element would not be fully embodying all parts of herself and her family.


Mexican Legend of El Cucuy

Subject: The Legend of El Cucuy.


“Interviewer: So [La Llorona] wasn’t used to keep you from going outside after dark?

Interviewee: No, there was a different one for that… it was, uh- uh, El Cucuy. I don’t know what the hell El Cucuy is. Cu-cu-y. I don’t know how to spell it, but it’s- I still say it to kids. I say it to kids now, because I have, I live in a two-story, uh, uh, house back home… we have a two-story house. And whenever, when like my little cousins or whatever, when little kids are over at our house, they’re always like, ‘Can we go upstairs?’ or whatever. And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, there’s- El Cucuy’s up there” and they know exactly what it is and they’re like, ‘oh no, we changed our mind’ kind of thing. It’s very strange, I don’t know what it is… Yeah, I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know what it is. I never ima- I always imagined him like having a grim reaper kinda look. I was always scared of the grim reaper, gosh that’s such a white person thing.

Interviewer: So, do you have a story around El Cucuy?

Interviewee: Not really. It’s just kind of a thing. Everyone says, ‘El Cucuy’. Everyone.

Interviewer: So, on the internet it says, ‘… he is the Mexican boogeyman’.

Interviewee: That sounds about right… It takes kids. It takes kids.”

Background Info: Z. Cantú is a twenty-year-old college student majoring in Theater at the University of Southern California. She is from Brownsville, Texas and is bilingual in Spanish and English. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as teens where they met and started a family. She has grown up with a melding of American and Mexican traditions.

Context: This account was given to me by my roommate in a conversation late at night. I asked her to recount it for my records a week later.

Analysis: My roommate employs the figure of the El Cucuy without having a full understanding of what the creature is or how it functions. However, by being raised around it, “everyone says, ‘el cucuy,’” she knows how to use the figure to scare children into listening or behaving. The piece of folklore is part of vernacular tradition so she never received a formal story or description of the monster. This allowed her to create her own imagery of what El Cucuy is and does based on her own anxieties surrounding the grim reaper, revealing her inclusion in both Mexican and American cultures.

My roommate’s experience with the legend is a unique example of how folklore develops multiplicity and variation. While her usage and account seem traditional, her image of El Cucuy makes it distinct, and is revealing of how she embodies her identity. In her account, she, under her breath, remarks that thinking of El Cucuy as the grim reaper is a “white” thing to do. By being exposed to the folklore and legends of both cultures, Mexican and American, she developed images for these legendary figures that are neither one nor the other, they are hers. Her unique image of El Cucuy would not be revealed when she uses the monster to frighten her cousins, and it is even likely that her cousins each have their own image of what scares them in mind. This seems to be an instance of implicit multiplicity and variation in which folklore takes on diverse meanings on a person to person basis. On the outside, the use and feeling evoked by the legend appear consistent, but the person’s internal understandings of the legend is unique.

For Further Reading: For readings and photographs of El Cucuy from the original folklore, visit This will provide evidence of how this account differs from traditional descriptions (especially physical) of El Cucuy.


Mexican Legend of La Llorona

Subject: The Legend of La Llorona.


“Interviewee: There’s two versions of this that I learned, and it always- it always ended up with the children in the river… So, basically, the one of them that I learned was that her- so, La Llorona was like really annoyed with her two kids, they kept on crying and she didn’t know how to deal with them so she drowned them in the river, right like She was just like annoyed and she like- she just lost her temper and like drowned them, essentially.

Um and then the other one was like her husband like left her, and um like she was left with the kids and every time like he visited like, or visited- not visited but like that he- that he saw her on the street, he was like with another woman or whatever. I know, classic story. Man leaves woman for another woman. And every time, he would like ignore her, and like just care about the children and ignore her. So, she felt like resentment for the children, so she drowned them in the river.

And for both of these stories, when she realized what she had done, she like searched and, uh, it was too late obviously, she threw them in the river… um… she threw them in the river and when she realized what had happened, it’d been too late, and she just like went around, for the rest of her life looking for her boys… Woah! I think they were boys. Yeah! That’s interesting. I think they were two boys. Um, looking for her kids. ‘Mis niños. Mis niños’. Yeah, that’s like the classis thing that they would say…

Interviewer: In what context would you hear them?

Interviewee: Always like in Spanish class… my parents didn’t really like, well I guess they did… I think there was a movie about it too. Um, and yeah, like in school and like other people would tell their version of the story. I don’t know where I first heard it… but the most recent one was always in high school. Like Spanish class, high school.”

Background Info: Z. Cantú is a twenty-year-old college student majoring in Theater at the University of Southern California. She is from Brownsville, Texas and is bilingual in Spanish and English. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States as teens where they met and started a family. She has grown up with a melding of American and Mexican traditions.

Context: This account was given to me by my roommate in a conversation late at night. I asked her to recount it for my records a week later.

Analysis: In Z. Cantú’s accounts of La Llorona, multiplicity and variation are explicitly visible since she gives the two most common legends associated with the figure that she has heard in her lifetime.

In the first account provided, La Llorona is depicted to be cold and murderous, the opposite of how mothers are typically portrayed in cultural models and how they are expected to behave. In the second, La Llorona’s motivations are more human; however, she is still subverting the traditional model of the mother in which the woman is caring and warm. The portrayl of La Llorona aligns more with the archetype of woman as a witch, as opposed to matron. This connotates her character with the histories of witches and unfeeling women, which then compounds upon the content of the legend, strengthening the three categories of women as slut, mother, and witch.

Furthermore, this legend supports traditional societal structures and morals by addressing the story primarily to children. At an early age, young girls are being exposed to good and bad models of womanhood. Their age compatibility to the children being killed would then augment fear and hatred of the woman’s behavior. It also can be used by adults to control their children by evoking the authority and fear of La Llorona. This reinforces family structures and perhaps even sends the message to children to be appreciative for their parents, as opposed to the unfeeling murderess.

Folk speech

Get Yourself Together

Original: Ponte las pilas

Phonetic: ˈpõn̪.te las ˈpi.las

Translation: Get some batteries

Full Translation: This piece of folk speech is telling whoever it is directed at that they are”out of batteries” or out of energy or work ethic, and that they need to refill or else they won’t be able to functional. It boils down directly to “don’t be lazy”

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This proverb was recited in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

Background: My informant can’t remember exactly who he heard this saying from, but is relatively certain it was in a familial setting. To him, it’s simply a natural way of telling someone that they’re being lazy, and that they should consider putting more effort or attention into whatever they’re doing. To him personally, he sees it as a harsher way of telling someone to get more motivated. He’s only used it friends and family, and considers it as almost borderline rude.

Analysis: This example is perhaps unique amongst the folk speech that I have recorded. Many phrases are hard to assign to a single period due to the general difficulty of tracing word-of-mouth materials. However, this example appears to have contemporary origins. Since its referring to batteries specifically, it must have originated sometime in the past fifty to one hundred years, making it a relatively recent piece of folk speech. In terms of the phrase itself, I think that its short length – three words – makes it an easily repeatable phrase, which makes it hard to forget as a result. This could potentially explain its widespread use in Mexico, despite its seemingly recent origins.


The Jungle Joke Competition

Interviewer: What’s the jungle joke that you mentioned earlier?

Informant: Ok, so, the king of the jungle, a lion, decides that he wants to hear the best joke in the jungle. He gathers all of the animals of the jungle around him and announces that whoever tells a joke that gets everyone to laugh will win. But, if their joke does not make every single animal laugh, then they will be killed.

The elephant immediately begins to tell his joke, thinking that he will no doubt win the competition. After he finishes, the crowd is silent. No one thinks the elephant’s joke is funny, and so the king of the jungle murders him.

Next, the parrot comes forward. The parrot tells his joke and half of the crowd erupts into laughter. The other half is silent though, so the king of the jungle kills him too.

Then, the giraffe steps forward. The giraffe pauses, then begins his joke. When he finishes, every single animal in the crowd laughs – except one, the turtle. The king of the jungle pauses for a moment, waiting for the turtle to join in, but the turtle never does. So, the giraffe is killed too

Finally, the jaguar strides forward and tells his joke. The jaguar, who mostly likes to hunt, doesn’t know many jokes, and his joke is terrible. Only one animal laughs – the turtle.

After the King of the Jungle kills the jaguar, he asks the turtle why he laughed. The turtle says “the giraffe’s joke was hilarious!”

Context: My informant is a nineteen year old college student. Though he was raised in the United States, he was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and his first language is Spanish. This joke was told in a college dorm room, with the informant sitting across from me.

Background: This informant heard this joke from his parents, both of whom are from Chihuahua, Mexico. He enjoys it and remembers it because of the turtle and his delayed reaction. He and many of his friends and family use “Don’t be the turtle” to chide someone when their reaction is delayed or they did not respond to ones question or statement.

Analysis: I personally enjoyed the joke a lot. It doesn’t rely on wordplay or any sort of cultural knowledge, all the listener has to know is that a turtle is slow – this makes the joke relatively accessible. At the same time, the use of a somewhat brutal method of punishment, that is, death, for a bad joke, also makes the stakes higher for the animals and adds to the hilarity of the situation, since, at the end of the day, death is a ridiculous punishment for not making everyone laugh. I also found it interesting that the motif of threes finds its way into this joke as well. Though there are four animals, the giraffe, the animal to tell the best joke, and whose joke elicits laughter from the most animals, is the third to tell a joke.

Tales /märchen

The Boy and the Devil

The following informant is a stay at home mom from Upland. Here she is telling a tale her grandmother used to tell her when she was a young girl. This is a transcription of our conversation, she is identified as KA and I am identified as K:

KA: This is a story that I heard from my grandmother, it happened in Mexico and it was about a little boy, that he was out, like in the ranch area and he had… sorry, was walking and he came across this man on a horse! And the boy asked him hey can you give me a ride? and the man said yeah I’ll give you a ride! So he got on the horse, and he started riding on the horse, and then he is talking to the man, and the man starts telling him “oh” … I don’t exactly remember, it’s been a while, but he he just… actually he did not really talk to him too much, but he started noticing that his head was changing like a horse, and his feet were dragging and his legs, well… it was the devil, it was the devil. so, the boy just jumped off and ran. So, it was kind of like, you know, he came close to the devil.

K: how old where you when you heard this story?

KA : um, i must have been maybe like 10,

K: Do you know why she was telling you the story, was there a take away?


KA: Well its saying that because the devil comes in different forms, he could come as anything, he could come as a friend, he could come as like you know a human being, which in the story he was like a human being, and it turned out to be the devil, because the head started to enlarge like a horse and then that is when he noticed that he got all scared and took off. and also like you don’t go with strangers you know

Context: this informant told me this tale while I was at her house, she sat down on the couch and started to tell us a story


I think this is meant to be a cautionary tale, as evidenced by what KA said about don’t go with strangers. I think it could possibly be an appropriate way to address these issues with young children, without introducing them to all of the harsh realities of the world.

Rituals, festivals, holidays


I interviewed my informant, Brianna, in the study lounge of the band office. Because of her upbringing in Mexican culture, she was able and eager to share a lot of folklore and folk traditions. One thing she wanted me to document was Posadas, which she learned about from her grandmother and her mother. The following is the information she shared with me during the interview:


Posadas are special events leading up to Christmas. It’s a movement of the community or church that happened once a week a few weeks leading up Christmas day. The community members follow someone dressed as Mary and Joseph to someone’s home. The home welcomes them in, and they have a big party.


My informant made sure to note that in her mother’s village, they put the woman portraying Mary on a live donkey for added effect.


She used to do it in her neighborhood back home (San Siro, San Luis Potosi). Everyone was invited for food and a party. A portion of the people were invited early for food, usually close friends and family. Then the whole town is invited after the dinner for the party and music.


This all leads up to Christmas day. On Christmas, everyone celebrates at home — which is where everyone celebrates the birth of Jesus. A certain ritual also involves putting a doll figure of baby Jesus in a manger. My informant noted that her grandmothers was 10X bigger than the other dolls because it’s the most important thing in the display.


I asked my informant if she had any other thoughts, to which she responded: “The first time I did it, I was in Mexico, so it was pretty wild.”



I have never heard of such extravagant pageantry to celebrate the Christmas season. This festival in particular is very important because it brings the community together and affirms their identity. It’s unclear whether everyone partakes in the celebration because they are Christian, or just because they are part of the community. Regardless, Posadas is obviously a very important annual event that encourages synthesis through performance.


Folk Beliefs

Hitchhiking Ghost


This story is a Mexican ghost story focusing on a hitchhiking woman. Truck drivers would be driving and see a woman hitchhiking so they would pick her up and let her sit in the back of the trunk. However when they look back later the woman would be missing and the truck drivers would freak out.

Background and Context:

This story was told to me in a casual setting in middle of the evening on a weekend. The informant is a Sophomore at USC and is Mexican American but grew up in Southern California. She was told this story by her mother in her teenage years. While her mother told her this story her father is the one who originally told her mother. My informant also told me it is a story specific to her father’s hometown in Mexico, Guerrero. This story she believes to be true as many truck drivers claimed to experience this phenomena.

Final Thoughts:

My thoughts on this story is that it does not hold any specific message but is used as entertainment. I thought this story was interesting because my informant told me it was specific to a city rather than the whole country or region. What I also found interesting is in the story the taxi driver does not realize she is a ghosts until she disappears, there is also no mentions of bad luck, tragedy or horror that most ghost stories tend to have. It is also unique that this story originated from different many different truck drivers with the same story. When the story has a origin from multiple sources who do not know each other it makes it more realistic for myself.



Isla de las Muñecas, Mexico

This legend was collected from a friend, who was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico and is 21 years old. It is about la Isla de las Muñecas (island of the dolls), an island just outside from where she grew up.


The story she had heard was about a reclusive man who lived in the banks of a canal in the island who saw the corpse of a little girl and her doll floating there. He said that he could hear the girl’s screams, so he hung the doll in some nearby branches so that the spirit of the girl would be appeased. Soon, he started to collect dolls and hanging them in trees until the entire island was covered in them. Since his death, it has become a tourist attraction and people even continue to hang dolls there. Some people believe that if you walk there at night, you can hear the little girl’s screams.


My friend was so fascinated with the story that she went to the island herself so she could see it in person. She says she didn’t hear any screams but that she could definitely feel a very weird energy while she was there; she says she couldn’t eat right for weeks after her visit to the island.


I think it’s really interesting how strong the belief in ghosts is in Mexican culture. It is very evident in their movies and literature, and even in holidays such as el día de los muertos, or the day of the dead. It is also a result of the strong religious background of the country itself that leads back to the Spanish conquest.


Mayan creation story, Mexico

This myth was collected from a friend, who was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico and is 21 years old. She told me about the creation myth of the Mayan civilization, which she learned about in school.


According to her recollection of the myth, the gods created the earth and the sky first, and then animals and living creatures, as well as birds and other flying animals. The gods wanted to be worshipped, but the animals couldn’t talk, so their first effort failed. Thus, they tried to make humans. They tried to make the body out of mud, but it would crumble. In their next attempt they incorporated wood, and they were successful. They reproduced, but they had nothing in their hearts and minds to worship the gods with. The gods were still unsatisfied, so they made a big flood that destroyed humanity. In their final effort, they mixed corn with water and it worked.


My friend is Jewish, and she sees a lot of links of this myth to her own religion’s creation myth, such as the world being created from nothing, and a great flood. She also credits this story for the view of maize, or corn, as sacred in many parts of her country. According to her, it can be found not only within the food but in literature, religious sculptures, art in general, and even in some holidays.


I think it’s really interesting how Mexico as a country embraces certain aspect of pre-Christian religion and finds ways to incorporate them into their everyday life. Being Jewish myself, I could also see the clear links between the two stories and the blending of different cultures into one story is very interesting.


For a more detailed description of this myth, see