I have never seen my Mexican-American heritage on display in a comic more than I have in DC Vertigo’s Border Town. Created by Chicanos, Eric M. Esquivel and Ramon Villalobos, the series is a look at what happens on the border between our world and Mictlan in Devil’s Fork, Arizona. Mictlan, based on Aztec mythology, is home to the myriad monsters, creatures, and urban legends from Mexican and Latinx culture.
At the forefront of this story are the teenagers who have chosen to fight it, Frank, Quinteh, Julietta, and Ami. But in issue #2, the most important for me was the artwork from Villalobos’ drawings detailing the nightmares of my childhood in such unique way complimented and brought to life by Tamra Bonvillain’s vibrant colors.
My grandmother passed away over 10 years ago and my grandfather passed almost four years ago now. With Dia de Muertos coming closer I find myself thinking of them. The two-page spread in issue #2, pictured above, has brought back memories of my childhood in their house, the scary stories my cousins and I would tell, and ultimately the ones my abuela, who we called wela which is slang for grandma, would tell us to make us behave.
It’s important to note that Villalobo’s art is so striking because the majority of these folktales are carried through oral tradition, with everyone’s abuela having different representations, flairs, and distinct cultural nuances to their stories. La Llorona in Mexico may be slightly different from the one in Texas and even among Texans, it may change. But for those who are not Mexican-American, grew up in the South West, or just don’t know who these figures are, I want them to hear the rich stories behind them and Halloween season is the perfect time for that. So I am going to break down who these creatures are according to mí wela’s tradition.
One of the most well-known legends among Latinxs featured in the issue, La Llorona, also known as the wailing woman, is the spirit of a Mexican woman who was the mother of two young children. She fell in love with a man but only because she hid her children from him. When the man found out about her daughters — my wela would change the number for how many of cousins were with me — he left the woman.
Filled with anger and longing for her lover, she dressed in white and took her children to the river behind there home in the middle of the night and drowned them. When she went to the man to win him again, he is repulsed and rebukes her. Stricken with grief, and having murdered her children for nothing, the woman kills herself. Now, she wonders the darkness, around streams, creeks, rivers, wherever there is the sound of water, crying for her children.
When we would stay outside past dark my wela would cup her hands around her mouth and cry into the night and yell out “donde estan mis hijas” from her open window. In the pitch black, we would book it to the house, running from the wailing woman, knowing that if we weren’t fast enough she would steal us away in the night and replace her children with us.
As much as this story has been used to terrify children, it has also become a powerful folk-song, most famously sung by Chavela Vargas and brought to American audiences in 2002’s Frida and last year’s animated movie Coco. As much as it may seem like a love song, it’s a song of mourning often used during Dia de Muertos festivities. There are also multiple Mexican folk dances, Ballet Folklorico, telling her story. Even in the states the legend of the wailing woman has translated to the tale of the woman in white and has been showcased in shows like Supernatural. In addition, tales of wailing women can be found throughout the world, like in Celtic mythology around banshees.
The fear of El Cucuy runs deep with many versions of his name in Spanish-speaking countries such as El Coco or the Coco-Man. The legend goes that out there in the world is a man with red eyes, covered in hair, and with the dog ears so big that he can hear every misbehaving child in the world. If he hears you, he will come in the darkness, steal you, and eat you whole. Yes, my grandparents and parents have been scaring me with the cucuy for as long as I can remember. He was our Boogeyman.
The beauty and terror in the cucuy is that you can never escape him. It isn’t just your words he hears, it’s also the doors you open in rooms you aren’t supposed to go to or the sound of the pan dulce being picked up from the table that you weren’t supposed to eat. You can’t escape him.
In fact, I haven’t met a Mexican-American who didn’t grow up without at least one cucuy room in the house. This is perhaps the center of Mexican parenting and one that would keep you refusing to get out from under the covers when something went bump in the night.
Now here is where we get into a more familiar territory. I don’t think any Latinx legend is as well known in the United States as La Chupacabra, the goat sucker. Known as the scourge of farmers and ranchers, the chupacabra is a creature that sneaks onto the land at night and kills the livestock of the owners. It leaves them mutilated. If you’re a Mexican child it waits in the trees to eat you if you don’t come inside. But really, this one was less of a story my wela told so much as it is a story that the US was fascinated with in the 1990s and subsequentially we started asking questions about.
In truth, La Chupacabra was first reported in Puerto Rico and is now known across the South West. So much so that I remember seeing reports of Chupacabra sightings on the nightly news in San Antonio. This is a cryptid that started in Puerto Rico but has since moved to northern Mexico, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, states on the border, and other places across Latin America.
These creatures are from Latin American, Filipino, and Spanish culture. They’re essentially little gnomes who, in Mexican traditions according to my wela, live in the walls of kids’ rooms. They wait there until you’re asleep and if you’re a dirty child who refuses to bathe they cut your toenails and almost always miss and cut off your toes. This is also one of two reasons why I refuse to sleep with my feet uncovered. There are still some states in Mexico, according to Border Town writer Esquivel that will allow you to break your lease without penalty if you claim duendes in the walls.
La Mano Peluda
Reason number two that I don’t sleep with my feet uncovered is La Mano Peluda, the Hairy Hand. If you’ve seen The Addams Family, then you know La Mano Peluda, or as my wela just called it, La Mano. According to her, if you got up out of your bed at night it would grab you by your feet from under the bed and pull you back in. But if you kept getting up, it would kill you. Ultimately this legend goes back to the Spanish before colonization. There was a man who was killed in the inquisition and for most of Latin America La Mano is his hand, tracking down his enemies and killing them in their sleep.
This one is interesting because my wela never called her by La Siquanaba, her and my tias (aunts) called her the Donkey Lady. The way the legend around La Siguanaba goes is that men, usually married, would stumble across a beautiful woman bathing in the river. Now in some legends when the unfaithful man comes upon she reveals that she is really an old woman cursed to look old and decrepit when men get close and she steals their souls. In other legends, she is a beautiful woman wandering at night looking for a man to seduce. When the usually unfaithful man comes to her she reveals a horse’s head instead of a beautiful woman and kills him, stealing his soul. Both of these iterations originated in Central America, Guatemala, and El Salvador to be exact but traveled into Mexico.
In my family, and this may only be my family, my wela and aunts used to tell a story about the Donkey Lady. It was a story they would tell the boys in the family. She would enter clubs looking to seduce men and steal their virginity or turn them from their wives. When the man would come close to her she would reveal that she was half donkey and she would steal his sinful soul to Hell.
Either way, don’t start hitting on women in Latin culture when you’re not supposed to. She might just kill you.
The ones my wela didn’t have much to say about are El Cadejo Negro, La Lechuza, or Las Pichilingis. You can find out about them from Esquivel and Villalobos as the series continues. It may seem weird, but our families have always told us these stories. They were our bedtime stories and our you need to behave stories.
For many Mexican-Americans, our childhoods were surrounded by a world of monsters and spirits that was magical. Some people wonder why I am infatuated with horror. It’s due in large part to my heritage and connection to the stories I was told growing up. It’s the same reason when people ask famed Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, where his dark fantasies come from he responds with, I’m Mexican.
If you want to explore more of these myths and monsters check out Border Town. The upcoming issue, Border Town #3 is up for preorder now and will release November 7th.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.