My cousin Joe, a San Francisco native who is currently directing a feature film that is deeply rooted in the city’s history, told me the following story, which takes place in a San Francisco neighborhood called Hunter’s Point:
“So this happened in Hunter’s Point, the very furthest edge of the city. Before it was a black neighborhood it had been like, Italians and some Chinese like fisheries and there were uh, Italian fishermen out there.
And apparently, right across from uh, where we’re gonna film our movie, there were two victorians and uh, two sisters who lived in each of them. And, they would apparently- the story, it was told to me by one guy who said they had these huge shouting matches that they would come out once a month and they would have these- this huge fight in front of the whole neighborhood and he claimed it was because their periods were timed…and they would have this huge fight and they’d go back into their homes and everything would be fine. But one day they had a fight that was so big, one said ‘I’m gonna burn your house down! I hate you!’ And then she lit her sister’s house on fire, and then her house caught fire ‘cause they were right next to each other and their houses burned to the ground. So it was kind of biblical or something.
But that was told to me because there’s like all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point that people have kind of tried to understand why they happen, and the guy that told me this–one of them, two guys told me–one who told me was like a former um, fireman and he said that uh, there were all these mysterious fires in Hunter’s Point and he thinks they’re arson. He thinks they’re uh, landlords trying to burn out their tenants. So anyways that’s somehow linked to this weird story of sisters–Italian sisters. But yeah, I like imagining that ‘cause now it’s a- it’s a burned out lot.”
This story can be classified as a legend, because it may or may not be true, and is supposed to have occurred in a real place. It is also a sort of origin story, because it explains the presence of an otherwise mysterious landmark– in this case a burned out lot–that neighborhood residents are familiar with. Hunter’s Point is, as Joe says, at “the very furthest edge” of San Francisco, and as such is one of the last neighborhoods in the city to begin fall victim to gentrification. The tensions over shifting neighborhood dynamics are such that some residents theorize that corrupt landlords are committing arson to keep up real estate prices, and these tensions may contribute to the popularity of legends describing former neighborhood conflicts.
“D” is a 19 year old female student at The University of Southern California. She is a Chemistry major and interested in pursuing Pharmacy after college. She is Vietnamese on both sides of her family and describes herself as very close with her sister, whom she shares many Folkloric traditions with. She played soccer up through high school and is currently active in the rugby community.
“D: So uh… me and my sister our rooms used to be right next to each other so we would knock on the wall, and each time you knocked it corresponded with a different meaning. So like three knocks was asking if you were awake, two was yes, one was no, and than from there four was like ‘come to my room’, there was just a whole bunch of different signals we sent to each other. So from there, when we didn’t live next to each other we would just say “ONE” or “TWO” during conversations and we would know what the other person meant. It’s one of our things now.
Me: Do you guys still do that?
Me: Do you remember about how old you were when you started doing that?
D: Uh… we were about my sister was probably 10 and I was 8.
Me: So why the knocking, where you trying to hide that you guys were talking from your parents?
D: Yeah haha, they caught us sneaking out to talk to each other a few times, and the knocking made it so they couldn’t find out about it. ”
As “D” pointed out, she had a desire to speak to her sister and had previously been caught sneaking out of her room, and used the system as a way to avoid detection by her parents, while still allowing her to communicate with her sister. The fact the code is still used today even though they do not live near each other anymore, shows they still remember the system they had previously used while using it in a manner that allows them to accommodate for their current state of affairs.
Once there were seven sisters and when it came time for marriage, the proposed sister decided to runaway for she did not want to be married. When her sisters saw her escaping, they followed her one-by-one and when the first runaway fell in a well, the other six followed. The constellation therefore shows the seven sisters in the well (cluster)
Indian stories, these were collected from a nomad camel driver named Haleh in the Thar desert in Rajasthan (he was Muslim, his village was near the Pakistani border). Haleh spoke only Marwari and his words were translated and related by Mayuri Bhandari. This story relates the creation of the star constellation known in North America as “the Big Dipper”. In this story, the well is the four star, square cluster (occupied by four of the sisters) and the tail is the line of the remaining three sisters waiting to throw themselves in it.
My informant was born and raised in Fresno, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from India. He described the traditions his family has to celebrate the Indian holiday of Rakhi:
“Rakhi takes place in late August, and it basically resembles protection from one sibling to another sibling, mainly from a brother to a sister or a sister to a brother. I personally have a sister, and every August we celebrate Rakhi. What happens in Rakhi is we pass each other bracelets made of twine, sort of like friendship bracelets. And it’s not even just to my sister. My cousins from Canada, India, and like other parts of the U.S. like Chicago and New York, they always send us little bracelets in envelopes every single year. And um, we… My sister and I, we tie them on each other. We select a few and tie them on each other. And my parents do the same thing too, it’s not just for people our age. My mom has three or four siblings, and she always gets bracelets form her brothers and sisters, and same with my dad. Rakhi is really nice because it just shows the love between a brother and a sister, and it shows how much a brother protects a sister, and the love that a sister provides. And usually the guy gives his sister money, and the sister gives the brother some gifts.”
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are widely celebrated holidays in the United States, but in the U.S., the relationship between siblings is not commemorated in the way that Rakhi celebrates it. My informant is glad to have the chance to specially acknowledge his younger sister and to honor her in a traditional way. The actual actions involved seem relatively simple; the bracelets and gifts exchanged between siblings are not fancy and the phone calls shared between relatives would not take a huge amount of effort. Even so, it is wonderful to have a special day reserved for these small gestures that can make a big impact. It is interesting how this holiday perpetuates gender roles in a subtle way. The males are expected to protect the females; my informant says part of the reason the holiday is important is because it commemorates the way brothers protect their sisters. The females are expected to support their brothers in return. Even so, the underlying message of the entire holiday is the love siblings have for each other, and that is what my informant focuses on.
It’s a tradition in every sorority for each girl to get a big sister and a little sister. Getting a big and a little is an exciting part of being a new member and helps to bring you closer to girls in the house. New members always excitedly await the day when they finally meet their Big and Bigs cannot wait to get their Littles. In my informant’s sorority, the week-long reveal process involves lots of crafting and spoiling the Little with gifts, but the final reveal and adding a Little to the sorority family is always exciting.
My informant described Big/Little week as a crazy process. It starts the week before when both the new members and the actives who are intending to take a Little submit their requests. The sisters are paired based on mutual selection and on the Friday before Big/Little reveal, the Bigs find out their Little. In my informant’s sorority, Big/Little week officially starts at Monday Night Dinner (the weekly dinner that precedes the sorority’s chapter meetings). Bigs tape up colorful posters for their Littles and leave a small gift with a clue about who they might be. On the second, third, and fourth day of Big/Little week, Bigs leave little scavenger hunt clues around the sorority house for their new Littles to find a gift and another hint about their Big’s identity. Each day the gifts are more elaborate and the scavenger hunt is longer. On the night of Big/Little reveals, Bigs leave pajamas for their Littles to change into before the Littles embark on one last scavenger hunt to find their Bigs. Bigs (and the rest of their sorority family, Grand Bigs and Great Grand Bigs) hide in one of the bedrooms until their Little finally appears. There is lots of screaming and many pictures are taken. The whole sorority takes a picture together on the lawn and then sorority families leave to do something fun with their new Little. Usually this is something like going out to dinner, bowling, a movie, or some other activity of the Big’s choice. Even if the girls don’t get the Big they wanted originally, everyone ends up happy.
This is an important tradition in my informant’s sorority because it helps the new members feel more connected and helps to give each sister a smaller community within the larger sorority community. Bigs serve as mentors of sorts and try to help Littles with any difficulties they may have during the new member process. Bigs are also an instrumental part of the initiation ceremony.