The summer night is thick and black, like an inch of coffee left to coagulate in the still-burning machine, and as powerfully enervating to the children who yearn to sip it. Media noche is close; the buzz of hours, the drunken energy of the family gathering nearing a fever pitch.
We want out.
My cousins, taller and more beautiful than I, are as dark as the air outside–black eyes, black hair, skin the color of a date seed. They are willowy, mischievous Mexican elves. And I? I am as split as the approaching midnight hour, the hairs-breadth moment separating one day from the next.
I am the cultural fault line, my parents a West Side Story of Mexican and…not-Mexican. I am small and solid, my honey-blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes making me anomalous, making me other. I am nine years old.
The family from Calexico, Santa Fe Springs, Chino Hills, L.A. are gathered here in my father’s house. The occasion might have been a birthday. The tissue skin and papier-mâché limbs of the butchered piñata lying abandoned in the backyard attested to some sort of celebration, a ritual sacrifice of a candy-filled beast built to spill and entertain. We children had eaten of its guts, had slaked our thirst with stolen coffee and warm cans of Coca-Cola and were quickly spinning out of control.
I suggested we sneak through the back door in the master bedroom and go out to the barn, almost two acres away. No one voices it, but the words sit fat on our tongues, heavy with ‘Almost Midnight’. We move single file down the darkened hallway, into my parents’ silent room, the full moon outside filling the windows with silver light. We move into the bathroom and towards the door where, like Hermes, I lead them into the shadows.
The Santa Ana winds are up tonight, “those hot dry [winds] that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that, every booze-soaked party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” The silk oak trees that line the path to the barn lean over us, leaves hissing with the force of the baking winds. My cousins cluster around me, grapes on a vine of fear.
April whispers to her younger brother, Pauly, what if he’s in the trees? Iggy, the elder, cruel brother snaps at her, Shut up, Ape. There’s no Cucuy. The moon is high and bright, wavering in the heat waves of summer and the devil winds. My smirk is hidden as I move a little ahead of the group. Of course there’s no Cucuy, I say to myself, knowing better.
The cousins have seen the neighbor’s baby goats through the chain link fence, animals as foreign to them as camels to an Eskimo. They forget their trepidation and run over to gasp and giggle, making what they believe to be goat-sounds to attract the animals to them. The goats stare at them blearily and resume sleeping.
City Mexicans, my cousins grew up in asphalt barrios and only see chickens inside enchiladas. To them, my father’s house is a Disneyland of barnyard life, their children’s book images of FARM superimposed on my two and a half acres of animal sex and animal death.
We are of the land here and under the watch of the cousin of the creature they fear in the city. They forget their city Cucuy easily, thinking his influence weak away from civilization.
Looking up and to my right, I can see the country cousin clearly, a shade of black darker than the shadows and the sky. He is tall and slender, vaguely ape-like, crouched among the tree’s branches.
His head dips a bit, acknowledging me with his bulging maroon eyes, the color of blood returning to the heart. They are watering a little, wet with mucous in the corners. His face is flat, save for a slightly pronounced snout and jaw that spreads slowly in a grin, revealing jagged, uneven teeth. Wolf teeth. Vampire bat teeth.
The Cucuy is a mishmash of creatures. HIs face is at once human and lupine, his elongated ears poking up through matted black hair that spills from his head to his belly and down his muscular shoulders and back.
Hanging from that powerful upper back are dark and leathery wings, stiff as wasp wings. He is as hairy and dark as the coconut my ancestors likened him to:
que viene el coco
y te comerá.
el coco-he comes,
and he will eat you.”)
The Cucuy’s left ear is swollen and red. It throbs against his head in time with his quickening pulse, dribbling opaque yellow wax. He reaches down and grasps his stiffening penis, staring now at the rump of my cousin who, enraptured with the goats, has knelt and is bent over, her fingers entwined in the chain link fence. The Cucuy is all of degenerate masculinity, but he is not choosy.
He takes pleasure in young boys, too.
I am entranced with the rapid movement of his hand and hardly notice my grandmother coming up the path. She is tall, of Mexican and Italian descent and graceful even when staggering drunk. Dancer and curandera, she knows about boundaries and balance—she is the only one I know who can see him, too. She is speechless with anger at our sneaking outside and can only manage an enraged wail—
I jump with surprise. My cousins howl with terror and fall over themselves, screaming, Cucuy! It’s the Cucuy I TOLD you, Pauly, I TOLD you! Paul is already crying. Even the Cucuy is surprised and a little shamed. Emma, my grandmother, begins smacking my cousins’ behinds as they start with the excuses, inevitably turning to me, It’s HER fault! She said to come out here! She said it was alright!
Emma looks at the Cucuy in the tree, who hides his hand behind his back. Then she looks at me with bright, knowing eyes. She says to us all, El Cucuy is here and he’ll take you to his house and cook you and EAT you. He only comes for the stupid children who want to see things at night. ¿Quieres salir con El Cucui? Iggy turns, points at me and says, He won’t come for HER. She’s not Mexican anyway.
Oh, puro pedo! I sass back at him, my voice slashed with anger.
My grandmother swells with indignation and pursues us back to the house, flinging rebukes and brimstone on my cousin’s heads. I know none of it is meant for me. I am calm. El Cucuy is leaping from tree to tree, following us to the house. My cousins run inside to find safer distractions amidst the borracheros. I turn to El Cucuy, wave, then stick out my tongue.
When I turn back, I receive a stinging slap to my face. You DON’T tease El Cucuy my grandmother hisses in Spanish, knowing I command enough Spanish to understand her but not enough to respond. She turns, dignified, and walks away in search of the red wine she favors. Tears fill my eyes, blinding me, yet I can just make out the pink of El Cucuy’s tongue poking out at me in return.
The earliest written records of El Cucuy as a figure used to frighten children can be traced to the work of the Portuguese dramatist, Gil Vicente, in 1518 with the legend traveling on the ships of the Spanish conquistadors and later colonists to the New World. He was first named “El Coco”, because his hairy face and head resembled the dark spots and ‘fur’ of the coconuts found on the newly discovered islands and coastlines. This is the first instance of this generalized ‘boogeyman’ actually gaining a name, significant in its ties to the discovery of a new culture.
A second variation was added during the Spaniard’s early slave trading activities between Central and South America and Africa when a fierce and demonic god of the Bantu people traveled with them on the slave ships. The Spaniards translated the god’s name as “El Kuku” and, seeing that the beings were more alike than not, slowly merged El Coco and El Kuku together in their belief system, giving rise to the “El Cuco” variation of the name.
The earliest manifestation of “El Coco” is a man-monster with a deformed body who listens with his gigantic left ear, coming from his hidden cave or secret shack in the mountains to carry away disobedient children at their parent’s request. The elders of the community have named the monster, giving them the power to call on him at will, his seeming loss of anonymity making him more of a servant than a monster, yet he maintains his removal from society by residing in his bone-filled cave ‘far away’.
To the children, however, he retains his fearsomeness in full—his bulging, twisted left ear pricked and ready for the slightest whisper of a parent’s frustration. He also claims his natural liminality as a monster with his multicultural pedigree—he is a mixed-race creature, cobbled together from Spanish, African and Latin American lore.
He is made of the fruits and demons of black men, described as having black skin and dressing completely in dark or black clothes. He carries a large black sack over his shoulder to haul away children who do not respect the boundaries set by their elders regarding good behavior and proper conduct. This manifestation of El Coco/El Cuco persisted through the centuries, making its way from the Iberian Peninsula to Central America.
The manifestation of the monster as “El Cucuy” is Mexican only, this name heard in homes across Mexico and northward as far as New Mexico in the United States. He is still presented as the old and/or twisted man with the sack, guarding against childhood rebellion and disobedience. However, it is in the southwestern United States only that the form of El Cucuy diverges from that of the deformed, yet relatively harmless old man and appears as the winged hairy monster which waits in the trees, swooping down on unsuspecting children who have misbehaved with their bodies.
This black and hairy masculine figure is the Cucuy of my childhood, while the Cucuy of my cousins is the benign old man with a bag. My father and his sisters were born in America and raised in Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbs. Their parents, however, came to America young, living as indigent laborers in the fruit and vegetable fields of southern and central California.
My grandfather was extremely religious, as was my grandmother, but she was of the same ilk as the traditional mother-women of Mexico, mixing Catholicism with equal doses of indigenous magic and folklore. Armed with these, a mother could easily protect her children against the loose morals and vices of the new land, this America throbbing with potential and sin.
From these mothers, sisters, aunts, women who were themselves a blend of nature and civilization, there came a new Cucuy, one increasingly bestial, ever more virile. These women used this Cucuy to scare their children into or away from the same behaviors of the bag-carrying Cuco/Cucuy, but also added new transgressions; disobedience and sloth were no longer of the greatest concern. Parents needed a way to scare children away from things which could only be explored alone, solitary activities becoming punishable by a visit from the slavering, winged Cucuy.
He was a creature of mixed and disparate parts and generous organs in search of young women and men who touched themselves at night or expressed curiosity towards the functions of the bodies of others or worse, of their own family members. The mothers never needed to call him, which was part of the terror. We were simply told that he could HEAR our hand slip into our chonies to touch ourselves.
He could hear the removal of the screen from the window as we snuck out to meet a friend or love interest. El Cucuy crouched in the highest tree, eager to swoop down and tear us to pieces, first shoving our privates down his gullet, and then eating the rest of the body at his leisure. El Cucuy could hear our lustful thoughts and private desires, his great ear vibrating as he listened. He heard EVERYTHING.
The Cucuy of my cousins was the city Cucuy, the wrinkled, warped man who came with his sack when they wouldn’t do the dishes or help vacuum the living room. When my Tías Teri or Margaret would threaten to summon the Cucuy, my cousins would laugh and scamper away. For them, he was the entertaining figure of a popular asustadote told to shock and amaze children on a stormy night. My cousins, with their city-raised parents and city-raised Mexican friends found no fear in the sterile tale of an old man with a bag. Neither did I. The geriatric Cucuy’s desert cousin was the one to fear, the wild, black Cucuy of my backyard.
The desert Cucuy my grandmother warned us about was a figure of brutal sexual dread, filled with the power of the old gods and the earth who listened for miscreance with an enthusiastic ear. He was a jumble of animals and cultures, flying across lands and borders to snatch you straight from your bed. My grandmother and I, and others like us, knew this monster and did not fear him for our sakes.
We could see his face clearly, knew his body and smell—we straddled the borders of existence as he did. Our blood was as mixed and muddled as his, our lives springing from the hard, hot desert sand. This did not make us safe, by any means. It simply made us equal and gave us the advantage of seeing him coming, an advantage my more pure-blooded city cousins didn’t have. He was invisible to them.
Sometimes, when I was older, I would tease him. Make him come to me, loving the rush of danger, courting the madman-monster. I would run my hand slowly down my belly to the waistband of my underwear. Then quickly look at the window to see if he had heard. He had. His face filled my vision, blocking the moonlight. I would grin at him and his lips would stretch back over his snaggled, sharp teeth.
Our hands became busy as we stared into our same eyes. Eventually he changed form, becoming the sex and the fear he represented, Red Riding Hood and the Wolf bleeding into real life. I occasionally get a glimpse of him in dreams. He will never be lost to me.
This monster, this Cucuy, is mine.
Llegó muy poquito a poco.
(He came, bit by bit, a little at a time.
1 Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind” From: Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology . David L. Ulin, Ed. Library of America; September 26, 2002
2 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XV Copyright © 1912 by Robert Appleton Company: Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15404b.htm
3 Asustadores de Origen Europeo http://encina.pntic.mec.es/~agonza59/europeos.htm#Coco