Busted Halo

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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June 8th, 2011

The Boogeyman & Mexican Soap Operas


boogeyman-flashI have been failing as a Mexican for a while now. I have not been passing on important cultural traditions to my children. This isn’t because it slips my mind; I have consciously been avoiding it.

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.

The Author : Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft
Vanessa, a Notre Dame grad, loves the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic education, and overbearing Mexican mothers, which she may or may not be. She lives in Austin with her husband and five daughters and is a freelance writer. You can find Vanessa at v.kraft.im or follow Vanessa on Twitter @laluped.
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  • Selina

    I can totally relate. I feel as a second generation American, majority of the Mexican culture that my mother grew up with was lost with me, and is exponentially going to get lost in the raising of my own children. And to top it off, I married an immigrant with strong cultural heritage, which is very different (in many circumstances) from mine.

    For me, the Mexican memories I have of my family always centered on our faith. The prayers we said as a family, the way we worshiped in our churches, and how we found our connection with God, showed me the heart of my family from Saltillo, Mexico. My family always gathered around food and was always to warm and affectionate. I am doing my best to pass this on to our daughter, along with teaching her the fraction of Spanish that I do know.

    My husband’s family has no religion or Christian connection to God, so they don’t really interfere with how we want to teach our children about Christ and the Lord. However, I feel sometimes our deep devotion to God might keep us disconnected to the Asian culture and their traditions that I honestly don’t understand. I am working on the desire to want to know my husbands culture better, but for the most part it centers on non-Christian practices, and I find them hard to accept. I am prayerfully asking God to show me how to raise my daughter and our future children to love and honor both Chinese and Mexican cultures.

  • James

    Christine, I was referring to the apparent desire to have one’s children identify with one parent’s ethnicity over the other’s. I notice a pattern in families that when the mother is of Latin, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, and the husband is not, the Latin, Mediterranean or Middle Eastern identity gets pushed on the kids to the exclusion of the father’s ethnicity and traditions. (My explanation is sometimes that the “louder” culture wins.)

    The culture that yells a lot at the dinner table, frequently kisses on the lips, and pushes food on people who’ve said they don’t want it, isn’t necessarily “warmer” than the one where people appear more restrained. This is the widespread perception, however. So it is annoying when the spouse from the former type of culture energetically attempts to crowd out the culture of the other parent.

    Note also that these ethnic traditions, when taught out of geographic context, get reduced and distorted in the next generation into caricatures that embarrass people from the original country. If you don’t believe me, take a real Italian to your local Italian festival, or a real Polish person to your local pierogi festival, or better yet, watch the horror on the Polish person’s face when you take him to a polka mass. They are deeply embarrassed and will point out the many “traditions” that don’t exist in their home country, though the Americans might think they are genuine.

  • Christine

    I must respectafully disagree with the post from James. Although my parents were born and raised in Italy, they never imbued us with their rich cultural heritage. My brothers and sisters and I did indeed form our identities from our environment: superficial pop culture, devoid of the traditions and meaning that I’m only just starting to appreciate as an Italian American.

  • Jessica


    I think it’s more of an El Paso thing. I grew in El Paso and then moved to San Antonio and came back to El Paso. My daughter was in SA until she was 7 and I never had reason to mention the folklore. I spoke some spanish to her and she was in Balet Folkorico classes to learn that aspect of the Mexican culture. Then we moved to El Paso and she learned all these things from kids at school. I don’t think it relivant to teach our children about “La Llorona”. My kids are also Bi-racial, but I’m not going out of my way to make sure they know everything “African” about them.

  • James Leo Oliver

    Every culture suffers from the insidious growth that occurs within all that seemed so wonderful in childhood: television, movies, books, radio, comics, etc. God bless you and your family.

  • James

    To make it even more confusing, in Spanglish “La Llorona” means “The Judge” (“la Your Honor”).

    Overall, I find this article offensively chauvinistic.

    I assume (but am not sure) from your married name that your husband is not Mexican. If he is not, then why is it important for the kids to be Mexican? You didn’t merely talk about imparting some of Mexican culture to your kids, but of having “little Mexican kids”.

    What you are worried about is not familiarizing your child with HER roots, because her roots are where she is and come from both parents. You are worried about imparting to her YOUR roots, seemingly exclusive of those of your husband.

    Why not let your child develop her own identity from her environment and from whatever she gets from both sides of the family? Why is it imperative that she be a “little Mexican kid”?

    My mother was raised by immigrant parents, and we learned about their culture, but there was never any attempt to make us identify with her ethnicity or my father’s. We just learned things as they came up, and they didn’t try to form us into any nationality but that of our birth.

  • Monica Gonzalez

    Hi Vanessa,

    our mexican tradition is so beautiful and rich. Telenovelas are just a small part of it. By the way there is almost always a priest that helps the hero and Our Lady of Guadalupe statue or Church…can yous see that on the soap operas? no!!!! Our culture will alway be in hand with Our Lady of Guadalupe, even in the telenovelas.

    The tricky part is choosing want is rigth. Telenovelas are never a good way to expose your kids to Spanish or other language. There are tons of great Mexican poets and writers..great novel-prize writers too.

    Cri-cri (mexican song writer) has plenty of beautiful Spanish songs. There are also some early 80’s kids band that play good spanish music.Have your try NET music?

    Instead of “protecting” our kids to their roots, is embrace what we need. Learn more about our tru culture and you will see that the boogeyman and telenovelas are only a very small, small part or our it.

  • Paul

    Dear Vanessa
    I was laughing a lot reading your blog. I believe you want your daughter to pick up “good” things no matter what. I completely understand your reasons and one day with my children, I would do the same.

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