Occupation: Medievalist, Professor
Residence: Los Angeles
Date of Performance/Collection: April 18, 2018
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish
The informant, LF, is a 45 year old Panamanian woman. She went to college in the United States and lives here now, but she grew up in Panama City. Here is a cautionary legend she recalls from her childhood:
“This is a story that has to do with masculinity, I guess, and it is about men who are in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.
The men in the story are usually drunk, family men are coming back home from womanizing- whatever it is, they’re not supposed to be doing it. It’s always very late at night, and they are driving home, minding their own business- almost always driving under the influence. They’re driving through a lonely place on a deserted street when they see a woman on the side of the road. She’s beautiful beyond belief, so the men pull over to offer her a ride. And of course the woman says yes.
So the woman gets into the car. When they drive past a cemetery, the woman will say that that is her stop. When she gets out- the men want to touch her sometimes, taking advantage of the fact that her back is turned. But when they touch her, the only thing they can feel through the fabric is bones. When she turns back to look at them, she’s just a body without any flesh.
The story is called “La Descarnada”, which means “the one without flesh”, or “the flayed woman” in Spanish. At this point she will then turn around and run into the cemetery. The men are said to lose their minds, either forever or temporarily. If they survive the experience, they change their ways and learn to stop staying out so late, picking up women.”
Why do you know or like this piece?
“I know it because during the Holy Week, there used to be no TV. Well, there was TV, but it was just the same movies over and over, like “the Robe”- really old movies, black and white, all related to Catholicism. And when I was a kid, I didn’t know those movies were good! So I was bored. The radio would only play classical music- there was nothing to do. So us kids would gather around and tell stories, usually with the lights off. It was the Holy Week, so you couldn’t hear anything. You only heard dogs barking in the distance, or cats meowing, it was really scary. That was one of the stories that was told in our storytelling circles. I think I first learned it from my mom or my grandma, one or the other.
When I was a kid, I thought it was just a scary story. Now that I’m old, I recognize that it was a cautionary tale from women to men, like “don’t do this, you’re going to find something you don’t want to find”.
My thoughts: This legend reflects attitudes towards gender in Panama, and what is expected from both genders. Latin American societies consider womanizing to be a display of being macho, as well as heavy drinking and even driving under the influence to prove that you are “man” enough to handle it. These behaviors are self-destructive, so this cautionary legend warns against them. The fact that the story is often told by women reflects that they want men to remain faithful to them and be at home with their families instead of out drinking. Legends like this one can be powerful because they can dissuade people from acting dangerously or immorally since it is ingrained in them from a young age- in this case, this story would be passed from mothers to their children.