“Hacer Conejo” – an expression meaning to bail out on the check at a restaurant incorporates folk simile, folk gesture and humor. Holding up two fingers (index and middle fingers in a spread out V) behind your head means you are thinking about doing “conejo” and lets the others in your group to get ready to run without paying the bill. It is also a way to freak out a friend who is still eating and scare them in to thinking you are about to bail out. When I asked my grand Aunt Marlly, who had married my Grandfather’s brother, she said she had never hear of the story and the expression that it sounded rather sordid. I realized that the story was attached to what social economic level you grew up in. My grand aunt came from an upper class family, while my Grandfather and all of his brothers came from a poorer lower class family where being able paying the bill was not always possible. My Grandmother came from an impoverish class that would never even think about eating in a restaurant in the first place, but she was aware of the expression and knew people who had gotten away with it. The trick was to be a very fast runner and not to have eaten too much.
Analysis: This folk simile, to my maternal grandfather, is more of a humorous gag expression, meant to scare or outrage the other diners you were with. Making the gesture is a way to get a point across without tipping your hand. I personal think is kind of funny, especially when I explain it to other people. In the U.S. the folk gesture of the rabbit ears made with the fingers has a different meaning and when I explain what it means in Colombia, I usually get a laugh or extreme fascination.
My Grand Aunt Marina, my grandfathers sister, swears the following legend of “La Llorona” is absolutely true. She knows there have been other stories about La LLorona but hers is the “god’s honest truth”, the real story. She told it on Good Friday at a dinner at my grandmother house
When they would go out to the country for a family camping weekend near the Magdalena River, my aunt said “that on nights with a full moon if you went to the river at dusk or dawn you were sure to see a Llorona/The Crying Woman. She tells me that a young woman drowned her own children in the river because her husband did not care for them and had abandoned them for younger woman (Marina rolls her eyes at this point of the story and murmurs “typical”). Marina continues but more feeling her voice… “no matter how hard she tried to forget her husband, he had left them without any money and had taken all of their meager belongings. She tried to find work but with four young children to take care of, it proved to be impossible and in a moment of desperation after hearing her children cry all night from hunger, she drowned her children at dawn, letting the river take away their bodies downstream and when she saw her child were no longer with her she cried out in grief and after no longer able to bear the pain she kills herself. St. Peter finds her at the gates of heaven and deems her unworthy for purgatory or even hell because of the gravity of her sins and was sent back down to earth and to find her children. For this reason she roams around at dusk and dawn, crying as she looks for them.” Marina assures me that she had heard La Llorona on many occasions down by the Magdalena River but only saw her once. This is where Marina gets super serious and lowers her voice to almost a whisper… “One early morning she woke up and saw it was only dawn, she tried really hard to hold back her need to go to the bathroom but was unable. She thought if she was quick enough nothing bad would happen but on the way back to the campsite through the misty dawn she saw a woman wearing rags down by the river crying. She says she felt her blood run cold and ran to the campsite arriving in a cold sweat!” Seeing La Llorona is considered a bad omen and Marina says she was inconsolable all day, finally the family headed home that day to find that grandmother Celestina had passed away. She never went camping to the river again. Marina finishes the story with tears in her eyes because she says that she felt some kind of responsibility for Celetistina death. My Abuelo thinks this is absurd mainly because Celestina was very old and lucky to have survived as long as she did. He cannot collaborate his sister’s story because he was already living in the U.S. but Marina swears it is the God’s honest truth “te juro ha dios” and she is very Catholic. My Abuelo said he did have a dream where his grandmother Celestina talked to him at length, telling him all that was to come in his life, the night before she past away.
Analysis: Although there are some aspects of the supernatural and personal loss, overall I found the story very melancholy and haunting. The way she spoke of La Llorona made me believe that she believed what she had experienced was true. She was so upset during the retelling, she had to get up and leave to the restroom, when she came out she was dabbing her eyes and refuse to tell me any more stories. I feel fortunate to have been allowed to have such a personal retelling.
My mom really enjoys telling me about The Chupacabra story- meaning “goat sucker”. Ironically, she wrote a paper about the Chupacabra for her college Folklore class. In her contemporary retelling the Chupacabra, or “Chupee”, it is a defender of powerless Latinos against of white people in positions of authority who abuse their power in California and throughout part of the southwest. It was no coincident that in May of 1996 reports of Chupacabra reached an all time high in terms of sighting in light of heighten social anxieties. Chupee was talked about on the radio and television with spoof interviews. Local issues about undocumented workers, border patrol incidents, Proposition 187, and the potential demise of affirmative action worried the Latino community. Projecting fears onto a blood-sucking creature was a safe way to air concerns. San Bernardino had a massive spike in Chapacabra sighting after an unarmed Latino woman was dragged from her car and beaten. It caused the LA Times to run a front-page story about the Chupacabra and publishing the photo attached.
My mom thought it was awesome that Latinos living in the U.S had appropriated a Mexican legend and had unleashed it on Southern California, Arizona and parts of Texas. Several cattle in Texas were found dead with puncture marks on their necks. For the first time white ranchers were suddenly scared because they were dealing with an unknown entity. My mom was shocked when the LA times ran a front page article with a drawing of the Chupacabra. But it validated what she was thinking about the multiple sightings.
Analysis: I think the Chupacabra in this context sounds very interesting with lots of potential. My mom said while doing research for her paper she discovered that Chupee, “goat sucker” was written about in Mayan texts going back as far as 1400 B.C. This contradicts the contemporary belief that the Chupacabra was first spotted in Puerto Rico in 1995. Many Mexicans familiar with the Mayan legend reputed the origins and insisted that it was in fact part of ancient Mayan Mythology. Apparently it was their Mayan ancestor who were now seeking revenge against the white aggressors that almost wiped out their civilization. Many of the undocumented migrant farm workers at that time in California were of mostly indigenous descent. This perhaps was a way for a group of highly marginalized people to empower themselves with a creature that was mysterious and potentially deadly.
There was a proverb often repeated to me growing up by my grandfather. Whenever I had a problem I could not figure out, my grandfather would say just use your “Malicia Indigina” which literally means “ indigenous ways of knowing” and would follow it up with “Si no las sabes, las inventa” which mean “if you don’t know how to do something, invent a new way of doing it.” Or “if you don’t know, then innovate or improvise” which to me always sounded like “go fake an answer”, but he would explain that is was in our blood (Chibcha/Muisca indigenous heritage). Allegedly, they were a very intelligent people and could always figure out a solution to any problem if they just thought hard enough about it even if it was not the common answer, it would work nevertheless. The Chibchas/Muiscas were renowned for their skills because they were one of the very few indigenous tribes in Colombia to survive the arrival of the conquistadores and Spanish settlers. They were famous for getting rid of the conquistadores by giving them a map of “El Dorado” that they knew to be an area infested with jaguars and anacondas. It was a very effective ploy until they made the son of one of the chief to go with them to insure a safe return but instead the Chief sent a group of skilled hunters and killed all the conquistadores the first night with poison from frogs while they slept. After disposing the bodies, the Chibchas brought back the chief’s son and they were left alone for a long time. This story was told to me by my grandfather who was told by his father who was told by his grandfather who was a chief. The Chibchas are currently making a comeback after decades where their verbal language was outlawed punishable by physical violence (caning, whipping etc.). Now there are local schools where Chibcha is now taught as a language and children do not have to hide their heritage. Chibcha is considered the language but the tribe is the “Muiscas” but over time most of the members referred to themselves as simply “Chipchas”.
Analysis: This is considered a personal proverb that does not apply to those who lack indigenous genetic makeup. It seemed as a way to empower a group of people that were extremely marginalized and almost wiped out. However, being 1/16 Chibcha meant I could never receive simple empathy when struggling with a difficult problem, I was expected to somehow tap into my biological hidden powers and magically produce an awesome answer to every single difficulty that crossed my path. I always found this kind of annoying but perhaps contributed to sharpening my creative abilities.
“Como perros en misa”- Like dogs in church. This saying is used when one is having the worst day possible where you feel attacked from all sides with no warning. Back in the day in Colombia, churches used to have their door always open and on hot days, stray dogs would sometimes seek refuge inside a cool tile church only to be physically kick out by a variety of feet, leaving what should have been a sanctuary, bruised and confused. So when you ask someone how was their day and they answer “Como perros en misa” you now know that they have had a surprisingly terrible day. The correct response is “I am so sorry, that sounds horrible” as you would expect to react to a puppy being kicked without reason.
Analysis: There have been times this semester when everyday for a whole week I felt like a “perro en misa” because everything would go wrong and an undesirable event would happen like surprise reading quiz. The American version would be something like “ when it rains, it pours” but that along with “Mercury is in retrograde” seem more impersonal and generalized, while “perros en misa” is more specific and means that you are personally are being brutalized, not the whole world.
Another Colombian beauty folk belief is that if you have been out late partying the night before and have bloodshot eyes the next day, then squeezing fresh cut lemon juice into the eyes will take out the red and make them seem well rested. My mom confirms that this folk belief is absolutely false after seeing her cousin, Monica, try this home remedy at home. My mom thought Monica was kidding about using actual lemon juice in her eyes and became horrified when Monica did it. Not only did Monica run out into the hallway screaming and she also smashed into a wall, almost breaking her nose, blood flying everywhere resulting in further trauma, causing her to get two black eyes. The next day everyone was calling Monica “Mapachecito” which mean “little raccoon” My mom stills cries laughing when telling this story, calling them “lemon tears”.
Analysis: It appears that among Colombians there is no folk belief that will not be tested or tried if it relates to beauty. Even if they had heard stories that it did not work, people will still try it, blaming the user for “not doing it right”. Considering the vast amounts of money Colombians spend on plastic surgery and placenta creams (another folk belief) it is not surprising that these folk beliefs are the most enduring ones in the culture even when presented with empirical evidence to the contrary.
My grandmother tells the story of the head shaving folk belief. Apparently even though my Grandmother received her cosmetology license in the U.S., and throughout her training they never told her it was true and she never saw any evidence that it was true but she firmly believed in the Colombian folk belief that if you shave a person’s head who has curly hair at a young age then the hair will grow back straight especially if they are very young. So my Grandmother, who hated my mom’s curly hair because it was too hard to style, tried many times to sneak up on my mom while she was sleeping and shave her head when she was a young child (4-8) but always failed because my mom would always wake up screaming. To this day my mom is an extraordinary light sleeper.
Analysis: Even with empirical evidence some folk belief is so strongly ingrained that people will act when it seems against someone else’s best interest. The concept of shaving a five year old girl’s head seems to border on abusive, but the folk belief was so ingrained that even to a highly trained professional the folk belief still remains plausible. Perhaps this is why, even among highly trained brain surgeons like Ben Carson, belief in creation myths remains so strong.
My mom told me about the Colombian Proverb; “Que come solo, se muere solo”- Those who eat alone, will die alone.
My mom maternal Grandmother, Maria, who had diabetes, mostly raised my mom. So when my mom was eating a cupcake or a pastry as a child, her grandmother Maria, would tell her “those who eat alone, will die alone” as a way to guilt trip her into sharing the forbidden treat with her. She felt guilty giving her grandmother something she knew she wasn’t supposed to have but certainly did not want to risk dying alone. In her young mind, she says, that sounded awful. It worked too well, to this day my highly logical mom intensely dislikes eating alone and would rather skip a meal to wait to eat with anyone but especially enjoys eating with everyone. If she has to eat alone, she says the food is distasteful and makes her feel sad. She says dying alone is not something she fears anymore, she simply does not like eating alone.
Analysis: I found this proverb interesting that even the most logical and rational person can be scared at an early age and have a proverb turn into folk belief that lingers into adulthood. I found the proverb slightly similar to the American expression “You are born alone, you die alone and everything else in between is an illusion.” However the American version denotes nihilism while the Colombian version demonstrates a strong desire to be included even if it’s just a bite.
Both my Grandparents say growing up they were told about the story of “El Coco” it was only when they came to the US was when they heard about El Cucuy from Mexican friends and El Cuco from Puerto Rican and El Salvadorian friends) The story is basically the same regardless of the source, El Coco lives under your bed, in your closet or in the darkest corner of you room — and he will come and get you if you misbehave. Or at least that’s what many Latino kids are told growing up, and in that way El Coco/Cucuy is the equivalent to the American bogeyman. This was confirm my by Mexican Aunt Anyssa and most of my Colombian relatives. There is a wonderful web site featuring the great bilingual storyteller Joe Hayes retelling legend of “El Cucuy” I highly recommend the web site: http://www.cincopuntos.com/products_detail.sstg?id=4
However, my Grandfather had a personal variation, called “La Mano” or “The Hand”. His own grandmother, Celestina, who was widowed and never spoke but lived with my Abuelo’s family, which consisted of his parents and six other siblings. She had been a healer and a seer. Story has it that she foresaw her husband’s death and started to buy mourning clothing one month before her husband died that she wore till she died. It was told that in her grief she had convinced the mortician to give her husband’s hand, which she allegedly kept under her bed in a box. My grandfather’s mom, Margarita, who after trying to get 7 kids to bed would often resort to the threat that if they did not go to sleep “La Mano” would come out from under Grandma’s Celestina’s bed and attack and choke them, so they should behave and be quiet so “La Mano” could not find them. The threat was very effective. One night My grandfather told me “he got up to get a drink of water he was trying very hard to be quiet when he heard a rattling sound coming from Grandma Celestina’s room, he stopped cold and felt cold sweat pour down his back as the rattling turned to scratching as if it was trying to scratch it way out. Suddenly the door pops open and no one is there but a small object was on the floor slowly moving toward him. He felt frozen to the ground and could not move or breath. He saw a couple of skeleton digits come into the moonlight and he was certain he was seeing “La Mano”. He ran back to his room, sandwiched himself in the middle of his two sleeping brothers, thinking if the hand came, it would get them first! Even though my grandfather moved to another hemisphere and was living in Los Angeles, several decades after grandma Celestina had passed away, he came across a movie poster while waiting in line for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for a horror movie called The Hand (1981) where a comic book artist loses his hand in a car accident and his hand is never found, The hand begins to follow the artist and kills anyone who angers the artist. Apparently, Grandfather almost fainted when he saw the poster but literally ran out of the movie theater when the trailer for “The Hand” began. He spent 20 minutes pretending to go to the restroom and buying everything the concession stand had to offer. He refused to sit anywhere but the aisle in case he had to bolt. He reported having nightmares for two weeks after, not about Darth Vader but about “La Mano”. As he was telling me about the legend, he became very pale , he kept clearing this throat and his voice quivered throughout.
Analysis: Urban Legends of things that hide in the dark to scare children into compliance seems to be a common universal theme. However, if they made a movie out of a hand hiding in the dark that can come and kill you, then maybe there is some kind of motif about hands that I am not aware of but one that does cross cultural lines.
“En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo” or “sartén de palo” or “cuchara de palo” translates to “in the house of the blacksmith his knives/spoons/pans are made of wood. An example of an English version, “In the shoe makers house, the children go barefoot” share the same point to be made. This is one of my Grandmother’s most commonly used proverbs. The second part of the saying, changes depending how strong the feeling you want the statement to convey. Obviously, if the hypocrisy/irony is so great, like a teacher’s child dropping out of high school, because the teacher spent so much time with their students, to the detriment of their own child, then you would say “Sartén de palo”, because having a frying pan made out of wood shows the greatest negligence in terms of an item a blacksmith could have in his home. If the harm were less, then you would say spoon, because a wooden spoon is not that bad. Wooden knife would be worse but not as bas as the wooden frying pan, because a frying pan would eventually catch on fire rendering it useless much like the teacher’s kid who drops out of high school.
Analysis: This is a Colombian proverb I hear often growing up about various family members and friends. Favorite Colombian past time is to tell stories about the misadventure of their friends and family. This kind of story telling is meant to be “teachable moments” so you do not repeat the mistakes of others. It is often told during dinner, which makes dinnertime a two-hour storytelling session because others would feel compelled to contribute similar examples relating to the proverb.