“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.
Original Text: “Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando.”
Transliteration: “More worth parrot in hand than one-hundred flying.”
Translation: “A parrot in your hand is worth more than a hundred parrots flying.”
According to the source, this proverb means that “things you already have are worth far more than those things you only have a chance at.” It can apply to money, friendships, jobs, etc. Basically, it’s used to discourage people from gambling with their lives. It expresses a disdain for uncertainty and favor for things that are already known/owned for sure.
For example, imagine you have a stable job, but there are several opportunities that might prove to be better, but you can’t know for sure. A Cuban might say to you, “Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando.” In this case, they’re telling you that it’s better to stay with the job you already have than to go after one of the other ones.
Like Cuban Proverb #1, this one places a lot of emphasis on wealth and staying with what you already have. In Cuban Proverb #1, we saw that anyone who is born of one socio-economic class will probably not move up. In a way, this proverb puts down anyone who might think of doing so. It doesn’t say this in a manner of, “Don’t do it because those are the rules,” but rather in a manner of, “If you try, you might only make it worse for yourself.” I suppose it’s not always like this, though, since this proverb applies to more than money, but when it is used in the context of wealth, it seems to discourage movement between social classes.
At the same time, though, it contradicts with Cuban Proverb #2, which basically says that slackers will fall behind. Well, if one were to ignore the flying parrots, then wouldn’t that be a form of falling behind? They’re sending mixed messages, which could be confusing for the child that grows up hearing all of these. What are we to understand of Cuban culture then? There seems to be a want for economic safety, which makes a lot of sense for those who fled Cuba for the US. After managing to gain a standing in the US, it would be best not to lose it. But at the same time, it also seems there’s a want for more. They left behind their lives. Their country was stolen for them. Do they maybe feel that they are owed something more in life because they’ve been wronged?
I posed this question to the source, my mother, who said I was looking too far into it. She says Cubans just like to feel nostalgic by reciting the proverbs they heard growing up in Cuba. According to her, sometimes they don’t even know what they’re saying. They just say it out of habit.
Original Text: “No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano.”
Transliteration: “Not for much waking early dawns more early.”
Translation: “No matter how early you wake up, the sun still rises at the same time.”
According to the source, this proverb is similar to the proverbs “What’s done is done,” and “You can’t change the past.” To put this proverb in simpler terms, it means that it doesn’t matter what you do. The sun will always rise at dawn, and there’s nothing you can do to change that. The source says he uses it when people are worried about things they’ve done that can no longer be corrected. He couldn’t remember specifically when or where he’d first heard it, but he remembered his mother using it when he was young. He’d go to her crying about something that he’d done poorly in school, and she’d tell him not to cry because it’s in the past, and there’s nothing he could do about it anyway.
This collection particularly interests me because of the source’s interpretation. The proverb is stated in terms of something that will happen in the future (i.e. the sunrise), but when he explained how he understood it, he explained it in terms of the past (i.e. “You can’t change the past.”). When I first heard the proverb, I understood it to be making a statement on destiny. I understood it as being, “No matter what you do, you can’t change the rules of the world. The sun is still gonna rise at x time. So and so is still going to die. Etc, etc.” The source, however, makes it sound like a statement on regret. We shouldn’t worry ourselves about things that have already happened because the past can’t be corrected.
In either case, the proverb is understood as making a statement on how people can’t change things. But why did he and I understand it differently? Personally, I hate the idea of destiny very much, which might be why I jumped to that conclusion, ready to tear apart this proverb. When I asked him why he saw it as a statement about regret, he said he thinks it’s because that’s how his mother always used it, so he kind of inherited her view and never quite thought of it any other way. He understood my view, though, and wondered if maybe he’d start to see the proverb that way, too.
“On New Year’s Eve, you’re supposed to mop your house. Then, once you’re done, you take the dirty water in the mop bucket and you throw the water out your front door. It gets rid of the bad luck so that you can start fresh in the new year.”
This Cuban New Year’s tradition has a superstitious element to it much like their beliefs of the evil eye. For Cubans, it seems bad luck can actually be a physical thing that you can acquire and then get rid of. The source said her mother used to do this jokingly. They didn’t actually believe in it, but every New Year’s Eve, they’d participate in the tradition if only for laughs and to actually get the house clean.
I asked the source where she thought this tradition started, and she said it sounded “like something santeros would do.” Santeros are what Cubans call people who practice Santeria, a Latin American religion that involves witchcraft. Much like Wiccans, santeros cast spells in order to protect their families, ward off bad luck, attract romantic partners, etc. However, what I also find to be great (and comical) about this tradition is that involves one of the ultimate Cuban pasttimes: cleaning.
Sure, the metaphorical idea of cleaning your house to wash away the bad luck sounds pretty legitimate, but to me, I see this tradition as being a way for Cuban parents to get their kids to help them clean the house. Cubans are VERY clean people. Just about every Cuban family I know employs a cleaning lady on a weekly or monthly basis. At the end of the year, though, those cleaning ladies are hard to come by. Many take two weeks or so off to be with their family during Christmas/New Year’s/winter break. After Christmas, whoever hosted the celebration is going to have a fun time cleaning up after everyone. And if they’re supposed to have their house ready for a New Year’s celebration, too? Forget it. Time to bring out the Cuban New Year’s tradition and get everyone in on it because mama can’t be the only one with bad luck in the house.
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.
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).