Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft tries to balance her traditional Mexican-American cultural heritage and Catholic identity, personified by her grandmother La Lupe, with her roles as a young wife and mother.
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The Boogeyman & Mexican Soap Operas
Months ago my parents bought us some books in Spanish that contain traditional Mexican folklore. One story is “La Llorona.” It’s about a beautiful woman who threw her children in the river out of rage after her husband left her for another woman. After realizing what she did, she ran along the banks trying to catch them until she slipped and fell and died. To this day you can hear her ghost’s shrill cry as she wanders around after nightfall grabbing any children she finds to make them her own.
I know. Scary, right? Can you imagine reading that to a 2-year-old? And yet that story was really important to my childhood. It used to be one of my favorite stories to listen to. All of my friends knew it. It’s so old, La Lupe was told the story when she was a kid. Whenever I hear it, I feel connected to my past because of how long it has been around. And yet, I have not been able to bring myself to read it to Olivia.
Then there is the story about “el cucuy.” Like the boogeyman but Mexican. My childhood was filled with threats of the cucuy. If you don’t finish your dinner, el cucuy will come get you. Don’t wander off inside the store or the cucuy will grab you. You better behave or I’m going to call the cucuy. If I don’t teach Olivia this term, we’re going to go to El Paso one day and she’s going to have no idea what the heck La Lupe or anyone else is talking about. It’s just such a part of the language. I used to use it all the time when dealing with non-compliant little cousins.
Then, perhaps, my biggest problem. Spanish TV. It has become so trashy. Every woman is so scantily clad and it’s so gratuitous. Here are the soccer scores being reported next to 30 women in rhinestone-covered string bikinis and 5-inch stilettos jumping up and down. And the novelas are so smutty. The last time I tried to watch one there were many way-too graphic sex scenes.
But watching novelas with La Lupe are the best memories I have of her. Everyone knows never to bother La Lupe during her novela. When I was watching with her I felt like I was part of her club. I would run to the couch and sit cuddled up on her lap as we watched lots of foiled plots, untimely deaths, and plenty of hair pulling and face slapping. And I actually learned a lot from the novelas. All those years made my Spanish much better and I got to see what Latin American countries looked like.
In Mexican culture, why do we depend on the threats of ghosts and boogeymen to get our restless niños in line? Why is watching a soap opera such a big deal? Why do the traditions seem so inappropriate? If I want any chance at having little Mexican kids, I have to figure out this out. What if they get scared and actually think a ghost is going to grab them at night? What if they think I’m actually going to hand them over to the cucuy? What if they think novelas are reality and life should be like that? I’m scared of messing up. I’m scared of exposing them to the wrong thing. I’m scared of being a bad parent.
But why didn’t these folk stories or these TV shows mess me up? Because I knew better. I never feared La Llorona or el cucuy. No one does even though everyone I was around grew up with the stories. They understood them to be just that – stories. Our Mexican culture is so full of quirky little superstitions. It is full of many other-worldly traditions. Dia de los Muertos. Praying for the souls of the dead. Believing that el diablo is always around trying to tempt you to this and to that. Having a relationship with those who have passed away. I still to this day talk to my Grandpa Chino who died when I was three. The idea of the dead or ghosts or demons was an ever-present part of my life. So a story about a wandering ghost didn’t seem that out of the ordinary nor was it that frightening (especially when you know the rest of the story – that if you’re ever caught by either one, La Llorona or el cucuy, just say a quick prayer and you’re free).
But I haven’t even started teaching them any quirky superstitions. I haven’t once made them rub Vicks on a bruise. I haven’t even buried the girls’ umbilical cord stumps in the backyard. I haven’t made any of my culture present to them.
I need to start. I need to creatively begin teaching Olivia all of these things.
I can read her the folklore books but maybe I just need to redirect her attention to certain parts. Instead of focusing on the children drowning in the river, I can talk to her about the intensity of emotions and how sometimes we get so angry we do things we don’t mean. Instead of saying the cucuy is going to get her, I could say she shouldn’t make the cucuy mad like most moms tell their kids they don’t want to make Santa mad. I can make praying for the souls of the dead part of our nighttime prayer. I can teach her how important it is to remember those who have passed on before us. And on top of these things I can start introducing Olivia to all the really great stuff in Mexican culture, like the music and the dancing and the food. There’s still no way that I am letting Olivia watch novelas, I don’t care how good her Spanish would get, but I did find a good Spanish channel. It’s a new public television network V-me. It’s like PBS but in Spanish so it’s a lot cleaner than its Univision counterpart. So, hopefully, if I start teaching her about all of this, it will all come together in her head and make sense. It won’t be random stories that I tell her here and there but instead will become our way of life.
I can’t keep trying to “protect” Olivia from certain parts of her Mexican roots. If I approach it with hesitation and fear then that is exactly how she is going to react. It’s pretty silly of me to want so desperately for the girls to grow up with a strong sense of being Mexican and yet, be so scared of what their reaction is going to be. I need to give them a little credit that they can handle what I throw at them. Like every culture, they have to take the good with the bad, the scary with the sweet, the boogey with the man.