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El cucuy has roots deep in border folklore


The Brownsville Herald

October 31, 2005 — Its name is whispered in hushed tones. For mothers, it is the ultimate threat that keeps their sons and daughters in line. For children, it is the bogeyman, the closet monster and their worst nightmares rolled into one hideous being.

It is el cucuy.

Walk down any market in Brownsville or Matamoros and you can hear mothers invoke its name.

“Portate bien o te lleva el cucuy,” they say. “Behave, or the cucuy will get you.”

With today’s children obsessed with video games, movies and other features of modern life, why do they still fear the shadows at night? Why does this age-old monster still haunt them?

Cultural Creature

The beast is known by different names to different people throughout Latin America. It has been called cucuy, coco, cocu, chamuco and a dozen other titles.

Anthropology professor Tony Zavaleta explained that the “shadow figure” is a common myth passed between parent and child. Fathers traditionally tell children that there’s nothing under the bed or in the closet, while mothers tell the child to fear cucuy.

“One of my earliest recollections, being a little kid ... is hearing the ladies raising kids always say ‘oo-ee,’” Zavaleta said. “That sound would alert the child of danger; it would alert them to the dark side. There was something out there that could get you.”

Pre-industrial societies create a conceptual fear creature to keep children away from dangerous places, a theme seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 blockbuster film “The Village.” These legends often continue as civilization develops, and new names are assigned to it.

“The cucuy is ours,” Zavaleta explained.

Social sciences professor Manuel Medrano said popular legend describes cucuy as a small humanoid with glowing red eyes that hides in closets or under the bed.

“Some lore has him as a kid who was the victim of violence ... and now he’s alive, but he’s not,” Medrano said, citing Xavier Garza’s 2004 book “Creepy Creatures and other Cucuys.”

“He’s childlike with red eyes, and somewhere between life and death.”

The legend came from Latin America but has remained a strong part of border folklore.

“These creatures develop a permanence by word of mouth, from generation to generation, usually from the grandmother to the grandchild,” Medrano said. “It’s got an appeal not only because it is mysterious, but also because it is a good way of maintaining a child’s discipline.”

This bogeyman takes different forms depending on the family.

“You take a traditional (legend) like La Llorona, and you are going to get different versions,” Medrano said, referring to the popular ghost story. “Some people say she has blond hair and a skeleton face. Other people say she has black hair and a horse face.”

Zavaleta said descriptions change from family to family, but bogeyman legends are common worldwide.

“In every culture, there is that mythological monster,” Zavaleta said. “In modern times, it could be the chupacabra. It’s always a feeling that there is something just waiting to get you.”

Mysterious Monster

As more myths fall to the clarity of science, many people are trying to find the truth to monsters that hide in the night.

“They told me not to go out at night because cucuy would get me,” said Bob Melendez, paranormal investigator in Brownsville. “I was afraid to look under my bed.”

Although he dismissed such stories as he grew older, Melendez has come to view the tales in new light after interviewing people who have seen things they could not explain.

“Now, I think, maybe the old folks knew something more.”

The chupacabra is not a recent phenomenon according to Lynn David Livsey, president of the Brownsville Enlightenment Society, a group dedicated to understanding the unknown.

“Most civilizations have an oral history,” Livsey said. “Since it was not written down, we can say they are fairy tales or they didn’t really happen.”

Stories of small bloodthirsty creatures with glowing red eyes, like cucuy or chupacabra, have been around for years under different names.

“Before the chupacabra incidents, there were stories of bat-like creatures living in the Sierra Madre,” he said. “Are people crazy with nothing better to do, or is there something happening?”

In September 2004, a giant squid was captured on film for the first time, further cementing the existence of this once-mythical beast. Livsey hopes the same can be said for monsters along the border some day.

“With research, one day we will find answers to these mysteries,” he said.

Medrano said people often try to explain the unknown using terms that are familiar to their culture, such as spirits, ghosts, aliens or monsters.

“When something unknown happens, oftentimes, you say ‘The devil did it,’” he said. “The chupacabra is a little more contemporary and a little more rural, while the cucuy is more urban and indoors.”

Independent filmmaker Henry Serrato premiered his mockumentary “Search for the Chupacabra” in the 2005 CineSol Film Festival. The film mixed real and rehearsed interviews with people discussing how the chupacabra has become a modern cucuy for some parents.

“Mexican’s don’t practice ‘time out,’ so they put the fear of the bogeyman, the chupacabra or La Llorona in their children,” Serrato said. “Overtime the chupacabra just got tied in with Hispanic culture, even though it has not been around as long.”

Although seen as modern “urban legends,” monster stories are still used in indigenous parts of Latin America to keep children and adults inside at night.

“Once night falls, that’s when the creatures come out,” Zavaleta said. “Those fears are universal, it’s not just children.”

Different theories may be offered to explain away unknown monsters, but witnesses say nothing can challenge what they’ve seen.

In the early 1970s, Alex Resendez, along with his wife and son, saw what has been dubbed the “Big Bird.” Like the chupacabra, the giant bird was linked to livestock deaths, and like the cucuy, children were told it could come for them.

“I saw the bird twice, one time here in Brownsville and one time by Mission,” Resendez said.

The big bird menaced people in the 1970s, and the chupacabra was a blamed for animal deaths in the 1990s.

Serrato wonders if it isn’t time for a new cucuy to take the spotlight.

“Maybe another creature to pop up again, maybe it’s due for an appearance,” he said.

Whatever name is called, and whether or not it is ever caught, the cucuy will continue to frighten little children, and keep wary adults watching the shadows at night.

Posted on Oct 31, 05 | 12:01 am

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