The Beautiful Dark Side of the Third World by Oscar Recinos

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” – Stephen King, 1947-

oscar gr 3 2014To Guatemalans, the supernatural always seems more just and predictable than the natural. With the supernatural world, there are rules, there are causes and consequences. If you live in the country and you have a beautiful virgin daughter with long black hair and big eyes, it’s no wonder El Sombrerón appeared the other night and sang for her. But there is nothing predictable about where and when you’ll be mugged or fired or cheated on.

Guatemala’s legendary demons represent a purpose behind evil. At least when facing these demons, people have a choice. They either cower or they fight back. A boy can believe there is another reason he is poor, that it’s not just because his parents were poor and they sent him to the field instead of school.

Eighty-five percent of our population trembles at the sight of a book or the prospect of public speaking, but knows exactly what to do in the face of spirits. We can fight back. I mean it literally. Follow the rituals and procedures and you’ll be fine. If you don’t want to see El Cadejo you should refrain from drinking too much. If you believe the myths are true, you have only to be a good person all around to vaccinate yourself against these supernatural experiences.

Fighting back against humans is a gamble in comparison, because there is no formula to predict their individual weaknesses or reactions. Some might run away if you fight, some might just kill you and still rob you. There is no justice with humans. You can do your best and you still have got no guarantee of what might happen.

In summary, fiction is usually better and more palatable than reality for most Guatemalans. From the perspective of someone with an IQ of 146 (to my detriment) and a superior education by many standards, it’s remarkably the same pattern.  I’d rather hear inexplicable, odd footsteps outside my door – and I do! – than face a gang of muggers. I’d rather hear La Llorona -which I believe I have! – than lose the love of my life. I can survive a run-in with El Cadejo better than another of Father’s disapproving looks.

~Oscar Recinos

From imposing volcanoes to ever-smiling people, Guatemala lies at the helm of Central America. A very small and relatively unknown country, it is home to 22 different races, each with their own language (or dialect) and apparel. It is also home to some of the most interesting legends you’ll ever find.

At the top of the list for most visitors is La Antigua Guatemala (The Ancient Guatemala), with its cobblestone roads and centuries-old ruins. It is the oldest city in Latin America, and it was the first capital of the country, hence the name. Even though now it’s considered part of the patrimony of Humanity, this City of Perpetual Roses was once known as Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala. When the Spanish Conquistadors brought their own illnesses, belief systems and social order they also brought their own spirits, demons and ghosts. Little did they know they were entering a territory which had a dark side that not only matched but overwhelmed theirs. A few happy culture clashes produced a whole new breed of ghostly entities. La Antigua is not only the birthplace of many of these beings, but it is still considered a sort of “Holy Ground” for them.

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La Llorona
(The Wailer or the Weeping Woman, amongst other translations)

Surely the most known entity across Latin America, she has been claimed as originating from most Hispanic nations, and Guatemala is no exception. According to our version, she was a married woman who used to live in Santiago back in the XIX Century. She was married to a man whom she didn’t love, and who went away on business quite often and for long periods of time. She fell in love with a carpenter (other versions say a mason) who came over one day to do a job for her when her husband was away.

Her love for him was answered, and she soon found herself with child. She estimated that when her husband returned the baby would be about three months old. She felt more and more desperate. Her husband was well-liked and respected in the community, so she knew she faced prison time – at least – if she ever was found out. She gave birth to a boy whom she named Juan de la Cruz, the same as her carpenter lover.

A few days before her husband was due to return, she couldn’t take it anymore so she took the baby to a river and drowned him. Shortly after her husband left her because she was always depressed and increasingly odd. She wasn’t taken by the carpenter either because he knew what she had done to their child. She eventually went mad and started going out at night wailing for her son, whom she looked for in the river she drowned him. Eventually she passed away, but her spirit still comes out at night looking for Juan everywhere there’s water deep enough to drown a baby.

I’ve never considered myself superstitious, but I can tell you I’ve heard her. As a Guatemalan, I say it was her because I couldn’t find a rational explanation. But that’s a story for another time.

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La Siguanaba

My absolute favourite – meaning the one that frightens me the most – is La Siguanaba. When the Spanish saw that the Maya were frightened of horses, which they’d never seen before, they used this animal to aid them in keeping the indigenous population monogamous, as the Catholic religion they were forcing upon them demanded. The Spanish started telling the Maya men that a terrible demon went after the souls of men who were sought out several women at the same time or were cheating on their wives.

This spirit always appears to lonely travelers at night. Her back is invariably tuned to the approaching victim. She takes the shape of the man’s girlfriend or wife so he will get closer. She is either wearing a see-through dressing gown or is completely starkers. She also may be bathing in a river or large body of water. She combs her hair with a wooden or gold comb. When the furious man approaches demanding an explanation, she laughs and runs off, still showing the back side only.

When the man follows, he realizes his better half is much faster than he’d ever imagined. Some of them notice that she appears to be running on thin air. Then she suddenly stops and stands there. When the man realizes he’d followed her to the edge of a deep gully it’s too late. She turns around and faces the man, who in turn stares at the face of a horse. The men are eventually found at the bottom of the gully, dead, all covered in deep scratch marks.

The only way to save oneself from La Siguanaba is to start cutting or pulling out a special kind of grass which is said to have been used by the Devil to make her hair. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why many a Guatemalan carries a machete at all times. It comes in handy at a time like that. You can still find people who will swear to God they’ve seen her. When facing a man who’s gone pale with watery eyes and a breaking voice, who am I to say it didn’t happen?

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El Sombrerón

El Sombrerón is not considered intrinsically evil, but brings nefarious consequences to anyone who crosses his path. He is the spirit of a coal salesman. His coal is carried by four mules which he guides himself by their bridles. He is short. So short, in fact, that many who’ve seen him have mistaken him for a child, albeit a bit of an odd one. He wears a huge hat not unlike a Mexican sombrero. Given the disproportionate size of the hat, his face is always covered by it. No one has ever seen his face.

El Sombrerón likes to court young, beautiful women. He only goes after virgins with long, straight hair, usually black. He woos them with the aid of a guitar he always carries tied to his back. He is so emotional and his lyrics and voice are so beautiful that even he himself sheds tears after serenading the young victim. He does his job so well that the ladies overlook his size and his apparel – and the fact he’s a deadly spirit – and fall for him

He serenades the same girl for a few nights. She learns to come out to the balcony or window when she hears his approaching steps, which she recognizes thanks to the spurs he wears. Eventually he will braid her hair in knots so tight that the only way to get rid of them is by cutting the hair. But beware, if you do this she will become depressed and let herself go. El Sombrerón takes offence at this and stops courting the girl. It’s a lose-lose situation for the girl once he’s chosen her.

El Cadejo

(It has no translation and the origin of the word isn’t clear to me)

Another one that isn’t exclusive to Guatemala. El Cadejo is really two separate entities. One is a black creature and the other one is white. Other than colour, both look exactly the same. He’s usually depicted as a dog with goat hooves and eyes that look like the business end of a pair of lit cigarettes. According to the Guatemalan version of the legend, the black one is the good guy and the white one is bad. Some Guatemalans, however, say the opposite is true. Unique to our version, El Cadejo looks after drunkards, but his protection comes at a price. If he licks the drunk’s lips they’ll never be sober again. In this way El Cadejo “wins” a soul.

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La Tatuana

(I strongly suspect it’s a variation of the word ‘Tattoo’)

A very powerful witch, La Tatuana takes a lower rank compared to the others because hers is a story that happened only once. She wasn’t a spirit like the others, but a witch, and a very powerful one at that. As it usually happens, there are a few versions of the story. As far as I know, she is exclusive to Antigua Guatemala.

One version says La Tatuana was a slave purchased by an old warlock. He took her in as his apprentice, and taught her all kinds of dark magic. When he released her, he tattooed a ship on her arm with his fingernail. He told her that the ship was not unlike a protective charm and that it would set her free whenever she was locked away.

Some years after that she had a “misunderstanding” with a neighbor who accused her of witchcraft. The accusation was well-received, as everyone knew Manuelita La Tatuana was in fact a witch. She was locked away in prison whilst awaiting judgment. Of course she knew that the penalty for witchcraft was death and so she knew she needed to escape. She grabbed a piece of coal and painted a ship on the wall exactly like the one she had on her arm. She then uttered a few words, got on the ship and flew away through the bars of her cell as she turned to smoke and eventually disappeared leaving a strong smell of sulphur behind. She was never seen or heard from again.

These are but a few of the rich and varied faces of the dark side of La Antigua, where the tried and true still prevails over passing fads. Bakeries, museums, hotels, and restaurants – just to name a few – proudly boast these names, which have both fascinated and terrified Guatemalans forever. I can just hope they continue to give nightmares and live in the minds and hearts of my people for generations to come.

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