Original Text: “Si pierdes algo, amarra un trapo negro a la pata de una silla para que San Dima te ayude a encontrarlo.”
Transliteration: “If you lose something, tie a cloth black to the foot of a chair so that San Dima can help you to find it.”
Translation: “If you lose something, tie a black cloth to the leg of a chair so that San Dima can help you find it.”
The source says that Cubans have many different superstitions for finding lost items, but this is the one she’s heard of the most. She said San Dima is the patron saint of finding lost things. When I tried searching more about Saint Dima, though, I was unable to find anyone by that name. I also asked what the significance of the black cloth and the chair were. Apparently, it’s a black cloth because the item is lost somewhere it can’t be found, somewhere “dark” to the finder. She didn’t know exactly why it’s tied to the leg of a chair, but she speculated it had something to do with being close to the floor and how lost things are usually on the floor.
This belief sounds like it stems from Santeria, a Latin American religion that combines witchcraft with Christian beliefs. The original practitioners of Santeria were African slaves that had been taken to islands like Cuba and whatnot by the Spanish. In order to protect themselves from being punished for practicing their native rituals, the slaves exchanged the names of African deities for Christian saints. As such, many of the deities’ abilities were carried over to the saints. It’s possible that San Dima received their power for finding things from whatever African deity their name was used to replace. While Santeros aren’t the only ones who practice this belief, it seems very likely that that’s where it stemmed from.
“From the 15th of December to Christmas Eve, we have posadas. We re-enact the journey of Joseph and Mary to find a place to stay.”
The source says that his local church would hold the posadas every year. The re-enactments would take place twice a day, one performance in the morning and one in the evening. It sounds similar to the Stations of the Cross and the re-enactment of the Nativity scene. It’s all about getting into the “true spirit of Christmas,” which for the source and other church-goers was always about accepting Jesus into one’s life and being more like Jesus. It’s strange, though, because the posadas don’t feature Jesus. So maybe this tradition is more about family in general and how everyone journeys to one home on Christmas Eve to come together and celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The fact that it ends on Christmas Eve is also significant. While the most obvious reason is because Joseph and Mary “found lodging” by December 24th, the less clear reason is because of the value Latin Americans place in Christmas Eve. For other cultures, Christmas Day is the most important day. That’s when everyone gathers with their family for food and games and whatnot. But Latin Americans host what’s called Noche Buena or “The Good Night” which takes place on Christmas Eve. What most other cultures do on Christmas Day, Latin Americans do on Christmas Eve. Why? Who knows! I asked the source what he thought about this, and he said it’s because Christmas Day is for you to spend only with your immediate family rather than every cousin and great aunt and uncle.
“Estrampandose, which I just learned from my mother, is an um Ecuadorian term that I heard my family say before. It has two meanings, either like it’s like you’re falling apart and you’re like collapsed. Like, you fall and you collapse, and it’s like, ‘Se estrampó.’ She like almost died when she fell, type thing. What I do all the time. Or it can mean, like, hardcore making out, like, to the point that it hurts. So, it depends on the context, but that’s a word. Estrampandose.”
It seems this word is similar to the English slang of “She ate it,” which people use in reference to someone falling. As in, “She ate the floor.” But the second meaning is what’s very interesting. When you take the word estrampandose, it sounds like the Spanish word trampar, which means “to step.” So how does this connect at all to making out? It totally makes sense in the case of falling because when you fall, sometimes it’s because of a misstep. In the context of the making out, it seems the word has totally been turned into slang.
But also, why wouldn’t Ecuadorians just use the regular word for falling? To fall, in Spanish, is caer. I guess it’s because estrampandose has more flair to it? Like the source said, they use it to describe a nasty fall, not just any fall. It’s applied in situations like she described, when someone basically almost dies from how hard they fell. Of course, that was probably an exaggeration, but estrampandose captures the exaggeration better than caer does. The word is far more grandiose, which I guess might be why it developed in the first place. The people felt they needed a bigger word to describe falling, so they came up with that. And then, somewhere along the line, it also came to describe making out. Curious evolution, indeed.
Original Text: “En el día de los Reyes Magos, se pone un bebé en la Rosca de Reyes. El que corta el pedazo con el bebé tiene que hacer una fiesta con tamales el día de la Candelaria el 2 de febrero.”
Transliteration: “On the day of the Kings Magicians, you put a baby in the Thread of Kings. He who cuts the piece with the baby has to make a party with tamales the day of the Candelaria on 2nd of February.”
Translation: “On the day of the Three Kings, you put a baby in the Thread of Kings. The person who cuts the piece with the baby has to host a party with tamales on the day of the Candelaria on February 2nd.”
This is a Mexican tradition, similar to that of New Orleans’ King Cake. You bake a baby doll (not an actual baby, of course) into a cake known as the Rosca de Reyes or “Thread of Kings” as it translates into English. The person who gets that piece is then in charge of hosting the celebration for the Feast of Candelaria. The Feast of Candelaria celebrates the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Tenerife, Canary Islands. The source fondly remembers celebrating both Three Kings Day and the Feast of Candelaria when he was younger. Much like Christmas, it brought the family together.
Both of the holidays involved in this tradition speak to Mexico’s roots in Christianity. The Feast of Candelaria, however, is made uniquely Mexican in this tradition because of the making and sharing of tamales, a food native to the country. While other Latin American countries do make tamales, none of them celebrate the Feast of Candelaria like Mexicans do. I also find that this speaks to Mexicans’ fondness of celebrations. This tradition guarantees that someone else is going to throw a party in the next few weeks. That’s three big celebrations in a row: Christmas, Three Kings Day, and the Feast of Candelaria.
“Okay, so basically, ummm, una bola de verde is a platano ball, but you will put meat or vegetables or chicken or whatever you want inside of it. Ummm you can put, you can make it in like bola form which is, like, you put it in soup, ummmm, or you can, like, fry it, and it’s an empanada de verde. So good. So good.”
This traditional Ecuadorian meal is quite mouthwatering. It translates directly into “Ball of Green” or “Empanada of Green” depending on which form you use. For the bola or ball form, you take a green plantain or platano, as it’s called in Spanish, chop it up, and flatten the pieces. Once they’ve been flattened, you take ground meat or vegetables, put it on top of the flattened plantains, and wrap the plantains around the filling, rolling it into a ball. Then, you deep fry the filled plantain balls until crispy. The other method is to flatten the whole plantain, put the filling on top, and then fold the plantain over itself, creating a whole moon shape. Then, you put this in the oven and bake it, turning it into an empanada.
Plantains are an Ecuadorian staple. Because they grow so easily in Ecuador’s climate, the country has an abundance of them, and they make hundreds of recipes using plantains. However, most people use them when their still green. The greener the plantain, the less sweet. Sometimes, if people want the dish to be sweeter, they’ll wait for the plantain to ripen longer, and they’ll use it once it’s yellow or blackening.
“So, in Ecuador, around New Year’s Eve, around the holidays really, we have this tradition of burning el año viejo. And what that is is that artists from around the country will each work on, uhhh, these piñata-type things, uhh, and they’ll be different characters, and the characters will range from Kung Fu Panda, Bugs Bunny to Donald Trump, Obama, uhh, like political figures to cartoon characters like they cover the whole spectrum,and their life-size and little and and they cost, they cost money to get these. And inside they have explosives. Umm… *laughs* And on New Year’s Eve, ummm, what everyone will do was, is that you’ll gather around el año viejo, umm, and at midnight you burn it, uhh, so you light a match and the thing will go off. Umm, and it’s supposed to be like quemando like burning all of your grievances from the past year and like starting anew from like the ashes. So that’s what we do. It’s fun.”
Burning el año viejo or burning the old year is a tradition that I’ve heard of in another societies, as well. In Cuba, for example, people will make effigies out of straw that represent the past year, and they will burn them on New Year’s Eve. Ecuador seems to take it a step further, though, by bringing in artists to make special effigies. It seems the burning has become less rigid in their culture, since they’re burning even cartoon characters or whatnot. The symbolism has been lost. It sounds more like a celebration, something to do out of habit, than something that’s supposed to be symbolic. In fact, it almost seems like a joke, especially if they’re burning effigies in the shape of political figures such as Trump or Obama.
Yet nonetheless, the source acknowledges the sense of burning away “grievances” and whatnot. So while the tradition may not look the same as it maybe did in the past, it still holds the same meaning. It reminds me of the phoenix when it bursts into flames and is born again from the ashes. Perhaps it has some kind of connection to there.
INFORMANT: “So, La Llarona, sometimes in English it’s referred to as “the Woman in White,” and basically it’s a story about a woman who, um, was in love with a man but he didn’t love her back so it was unrequited love, so she drowned her two children in the river in order to be with the man that she loved, but he didn’t want to be with her. So after being refused by him, she then drowned herself in a river in Mexico City. And so, basically with the whole heaven and hell aspect of life, she’s kind of stuck in the in-between, and she kind of wanders around at night in Mexico City, so today a lot of parents use this story as a way to keep their kids from wandering out at night. Or else La Llarona will come and kidnap them. Basically she is said to appear at night around rivers in Mexico, and that’s it. I heard about it in Spanish class and then I went home and asked my mom about it, and she was like ‘oh, yeah.'”
COLLECTOR (myself): “How did your mom learn the story?”
INFORMANT: “I think growing up. It’s a traditional Mexican story that a lot of Mexican parents will tell their kids growing up.”
This legend appears to be a Mexican story within the widespread genre of ‘legends parents tell their children to keep them in line.’ This breed of legend seems to exist in almost every culture – I suppose childrens’ fear of the supernatural is culturally ubiquitous, because they’re more compelled to obey their parents if there’s a supernatural risk involved.
This story was also an interesting case because my friend Taylor is Mexican-American but not very in touch with Mexican culture. She told me that she felt her mother purposely tried to separate her from her Mexican heritage, so she was never told this story as a child, even though her grandmother told it to her mother. In fact, Taylor didn’t hear about the legend until she read about it in Spanish class. On a related note, Taylor did not know Spanish until she took classes in school, another point that makes her feel alienated from her heritage.
ANNOTATION: Several films have been made about the legend of La Llarona, including the Mexican movie La Llarona (1960) and Her Cry: La Llarona Investigation (2013).
Information about the Informant
My informant is an undergraduate student majoring in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is half-Columbian and was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Christian denomination.
“It’s called, um, ‘El Mano Peluda [sic?],’ and that’s supposed to mean ‘The Hairy Hand.’ And, um, I think that was so I wouldn’t get up at night, or, like, move around or make too much noise. But basically, um, when you’re sleeping, this hairy hand would come in through the windows or through the vents or something.”
Collector: “Just a hand?”
“It’s just a hairy hand. That’s it. Um, and I actually Googled it. Apparently, it’s some guy had his hand cut off during the Inquisition and he revenged–he said he would get revenge on the people who were the culture that killed him. So, um, the hand would come out of its grave and it would grab children or it would grab their legs from either under the bed or it would crawl up their blanket. It was just really scary. Um, and yeah, occasionally my mom would use it as kind of like a, um, you know when you rile up little kids, you say something like ‘The hand’s coming, the hand’s coming,’ and she’d grab my leg and I’d go like, ‘Oh my god!'”
This, unlike the other stories this informant told me, does not seem to be a case where the parent scares the child in order to get them to behave, but is more of a ghost story with purpose of entertaining/scaring rather than coercing. This story does give the figure in it a backstory, according to my informant’s research, which also supports its position as more of a ghost story than a story to get children to behave with. The strange part of this is the commonality of the concept of a “hairy hand,” with disembodied hand stories all over the world constantly needing the hand to also be hairy. This is possibly a remnant of the historical theory that criminals were closer to our purported ape ancestors and thus displayed features that are more akin to those of primates, including excessive body hair.
For another “hairy hand” story, see:
Gilbert, Jane . “Letterboxing on Dartmoor: An Addictive Pastime… for the Brave!”. Time Travel-Britain. Web. 01 May. 2014. <http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/country/dartmoor.shtml>.
“Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.”
Trans: A monkey in silk is a monkey no less
This proverb is one frequently mentioned by my mother and in Lima, in general. The interesting thing is that it is used to convey a slightly different (somewhat racist) message than its English equivalent. In the English proverb, the meaning is that a person’s worth is determined by who they are inside, not by what they’re wearing. In their words, appearances can be deceiving. In the Peruvian sense, however, this proverb is used to denigrate the “new money” class, the rapidly growing middle and upper middle class composed of indigenous people. Since these people are frequently self-starters who come from poor backgrounds and have no social graces or taste, they are ridiculed by the European class with sayings like these that denote that in spite of their new wealth and position, these “cholos” are still the same illiterate farmers (and should be treated as such).