Cuca – The Brazilian Folklore Character (and the Internet’s New Gay Icon)

Informant: Okay. So. This one definitely spooked me when I was… a child? Because there was a – there used to be a – well, there is a popular Brazillian writer who wrote a bunch of stories, and – I don’t remember when or what year, it was a long time ago – but he wrote stories that were really popular like… a Brazilian classic child story, similar with what you guys have here like… Secret Garden or something like that. People were super attached to the characters, and a lot of his characters were based on folklore. I didn’t read these books but everyone knew them, and there was a Brazilian TV show based off them that was really bad. But! For a small child who knew nothing of the world, it was, like, amazing. One of the villains was based off the myth of this, uh… Alligator lady, who was literally an alligator, but stands up, and has hair. And the story behind it, her name was – I can also, when you go back to type this up, tell you how to spell these, because they’re all Brazilian – but her name is Cuca, and she’s literally just an alligator with a wig, essentially. And her thing is – I think she was created to scare children into not being bad with their parents? And it’s basically because – the myth with her is that she would – if you were bad, bad to your parents, disobeyed your parents, went to bed late, something like that – she would get you, straight up snatch you. And she supposedly never slept, so kids who didn’t go to bed at night, she’d still get you. And there was a song that went with it.

Me: What was the song?

Informant: Well, it wasn’t really a song, it was more like a chant thingy. A few phrases that basically translate to “She’ll get you from one side, she’ll get you from the other.” Repeated in Portuguese over and over again. Just to scare kids. And… it worked. I went to bed. It scared me. I have anxiety now. (She laughs)

My informant is a 19-year-old college student at a small liberal arts college in Washington state. She was born in Brazil, and grew up there, moving to Florida in late elementary school, back to Brazil for a few years, then finally settling outside of Seattle in our last two years of high school. Her father’s American, and her mom’s Brazilian. Portuguese was her first language, and she still speaks Portuguese at home with her mom. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this piece was collected via an interview that took place over FaceTime. 

I’m very unfamiliar with Brazilian folklore, which is why I was so interested in hearing her stories from her childhood. I was still curious after this interview, so I went to look up more information about the character, and found out that the internet has adapted Cuca as a gay icon, along the lines of the Babadook. She has become the subject of many memes, most of which are screenshots from the portrayal of Cuca on a Brazilian children’s show, an adaptation of the children’s books Sítio do Pica-Pau Amarelo, which translates roughly to “Yellow Woodpecker Ranch.” She’s portrayed with an alligator suit in the style of Barney or the Disney characters, with a blonde wig and a cocktail-esque dress with a fake bust added on top. Many have made the connection that in this getup, Cuca looks like a drag queen, and thus the memes began. My informant was not aware of this, and after I forwarded her a few articles (this was after the interview), I believe she is rethinking her entire childhood, as a character that she grew up thinking would literally eat her alive is now a symbol of gay pride.