Mystical Mexican creatures and beliefs are part of the fabric of Mexican culture. Take this comment from a new friend of mine for instance: “Well, my daughter sleeps with me because there have always been duendes (elves…gnomes?) close by trying to take her from me at night.” “I’m sorry,” I said. “Could you repeat that?”
It took a bit of convincing from my new friend – in every way a modern, fashionable, intelligent woman – to make me understand that it actually was not a joke. The fear she’d had of little elves coming to take her baby was real.
The Halloween/Day of the Dead season always gets me thinking about that line between the reality that we can see in front of us, and a subtler, possibly hidden and quite possibly non-existent reality below its surface. Our dead return, perhaps only in our heads and our hearts, but they’re with us in a way that they usually are not. Their presence is felt nonetheless, and I can attest to the fact that at least my own consciousness is momentarily ever-slightly more open to possibilities that I don’t typically entertain during the rest of the year.
One of the most delightful discoveries I’ve made over the years in Mexico is the steadfastness with which even highly-educated Mexicans believe in all manner of mystical creatures, most local in nature. If they happen to be from or live in a small town, that belief is magnified, and I suspect that it’s more robust in places like Veracruz that have a stronger tradition with the supernatural than some of the more conservative central states.
As an easily-charmed agnostic, I’m fascinated by the stories and insistence of personal experience, and my mind delights in entertaining the possibility of the real existence of these creatures. After all, can so many peoples supposed first-hand experiences be made up?
Although not based on exhaustive anthropological research, but rather from the experiences that locals in my area have personally told me about, here’s a catalogue of what I’ve heard so far, in alphabetical order:
Duendes, also called chaneques in a more local description, are little sprites that live in the woods. They thrive on tricking humans and getting them turned around in the forest. A favorite game of my daughter’s and mine, in fact, is to play when we walk through the woods that we’re duendes setting traps for unwitting humans. Yes, there is cackling and hand-rubbing involved.
The familiar character of the trickster god or spirit are present in cultures all over the world, and I find Mexico’s version particularly interesting. In addition to playing tricks on and turning humans around in the woods, some extra-mischievous duendes will even switch out your baby for a changeling if you’re not paying close attention. Is your baby suddenly different? Could be the work of a chaneque. (And I’m realizing now that if that’s the case, my husband and I have raised quite a charming little changeling from the age of two weeks).
One of the more well-known Mexican legends, la llorona is a beautiful woman with the face of a skull dressed all in white who wanders the streets at night, crying for her children. There are different versions of her origin, but one of the most commonly held is that she herself killed them – perhaps, in a fit of psychosis, to exact revenge on a Spanish husband who abandoned her – and now wanders the night wailing, delirious with grief. Legend has it that if you approach her and she faces you, then you die instantly. Because of this, it’s confusing to me that so many have claimed to have seen her and somehow survived it, but when it comes to ghost stories, sometimes it’s better not to ask too many questions.
By far my favorites, nahuales are creatures that only appear at night, a more expansive form of the werewolf (think of it as variations on a theme). I’m unclear about how aware the daytime human versions of these creatures are of what they become at night, but here’s what happens: at night, there are certain people who turn into animals and go out to wreak havoc on the town.
One of my favorite stories was from a friend of my husband’s who is from a small town. He told us that his neighbor was a nahual who became a wild boar when the sun goes down. He swore he’d seen her. A neighbor told him that he’d hit the boar on its leg with a machete the night before. And the next morning? The woman’s arm, the same one that would have been the hurt leg, was bandaged up. So, there you have it folks. Case closed.
Well, my fellow expats, what other stories have you heard? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below.