The Catrina

la Catrina

If there’s something you can be sure of about us Mexicans is that we’re not afraid of death, but that doesn’t mean we’re all reckless and pulling stunts that endanger our lives all the time. No, we just see her and embrace her like an old friend that’s been waiting for us.

Death for us is not a “goodbye” but a “farewell, see you later”. We get sad when someone close to us dies and we often say “the thin one took them” but nevertheless we know that someday we’ll see them again, we even know that once a year those who are gone come to visit us.

You’ve probably seen her more than once: the Calavera Catrina (The Elegant Skull), the skeleton wearing elegant dresses and a big hat adorned with feathers. She’s our most famous representation of death, but she wasn’t born that way. While this is not exactly a legend, its existence dates several decades back and is linked to so many things it could very well pass for one.

The creator of the Catrina is José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political caricaturist (or a “monero (doodler)” as we call them colloquially) famous for always including skeletons in his socio-political critical caricatures. He drew them to allude to the critical social situation in times of Porfirio Díaz’s government. Back in those times, though, she wasn’t called Catrina, but “La Calavera Garbancera”.

In times of Díaz’s government those that denied their indigenous origins, claiming to have European ascent, were called “garbanceros” (Chickpea carriers). These claims were ridiculous since given their physical features and skin tone it was fairly obvious they were not even remotely European. Years later, the famous muralist Diego Rivera painted the Calavera Garbancera in his mural painting “Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central”. It was the first time the famous skeleton made its appearance dressed up as a high society woman and it was Rivera himself who dubbed her the “Catrina”.

Since then, the famous caricature’s been present in our lives and has been included in every celebration of Día de Muertos turning her (almost) into the main protagonist of the famous date.

There’s no legend as such about the Catrina, but it’s always nice knowing where she comes from and more now than ever, considering her now worldwide fame, as well as the latest fashion of wearing face paint depicting one of our most famous Día de Muertos sweet treat: decorated sugar skulls.

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Don Juan Manuel

Don Juan Manuel

A few nights ago, I found myself walking around the streets of downtown Mexico City looking for a place to have dinner in. While I walked along República de Uruguay street I was approached by a man in a heavy black cloak who asked me for the time. While perplexed at his appearance, I told him it was 11 p.m. He thanked me with a polite bow, turned around and left.

During my whole meal I couldn’t get the face of that gentleman out of my mind, until my curiosity was such that I had to ask the waiter what he knew. I told him what had just happened to me and I described the man’s out-of-this-time outfit. The waiter told me in a kind voice that I had nothing to worry about. “It was probably just Don Juan Manuel” he said, “he always asks a passerby for the time at precisely 11 o’clock at night”. Not quite understanding what I had just been told I asked him for more details and the kind waiter sat in front of me to tell me the legend I’m about to tell you.

Don Juan Manuel was a very fortunate man. He was the Viceroy’s right hand in Mexico, back when it was called Nueva España (New Spain), and he lived surrounded by wealth and comfort. He was even married to a beautiful woman called Marina, but there was sadness in both their hearts for his wife was unable to bear children. While trying to find some relief for his suffering, Don Juan Manuel went to live in a convent for a while.

To live in seclusion in a convent is a synonym to being completely isolated from the rest of the world, so Don Juan Manuel had one of his nephews brought over from Spain to take charge of the businesses he would leave unattended. Some people who were either enemies or jealous of Don Juan Manuel started spreading a rumour that his wife, Doña Marina, was cheating on him with his nephew.

When Don Manuel found out, in a blind rage and without regard to his being secluded in a convent he summoned the Devil himself and offered his soul in exchange for being able to get revenge on the ‘traitor’. The Devil, with a crooked smile and an evil laugh told him “go out at 11 p.m and kill the first man that you pass on the street”, and so he did.

When the clock chimed 11 times, Don Juan Manuel went out to the street and killed the first man he encountered, using a silver knife. In that moment the Devil appeared next to the dead body. He looked at him and gave the same cold, crooked smile before telling him

“This is not the man you’re looking for, Manuel. Go out every night precisely at eleven and kill the first man you encounter, and I’ll tell you when you’ve had your revenge”.

Blind with rage, Don Juan Manuel obeyed the Devil’s orders and for several nights, a man could be seen clad in a thick cloak standing in the shadows, waiting for an innocent man to walk by. When a passerby walked his way, he’d approach him silently and asked for the time. When he heard the answer he’d reply “Blessed be you who know the time of his own death”, and murder them in cold blood.

That’s how Don Juan Manuel spent his nights until one morning he received a visitor who informed him that his nephew had been murdered the night before. Horrified at his own actions, he went looking for shelter and consolation with the convent’s priest, who he told all that he’d done in the past nights. The priest told him that in penance he should go out for three nights and pray the Rosary three times in the public square, on the gallows.

Horrified at his own sins, Don Juan Manuel went to the public square to pray the 3 Rosaries, but it wasn’t as easy a task as he first thought. He had visions and hallucinations. The first night he saw with his own eyes a group of angels carrying a casket that contained his own body. He returned to the convent in fear.

The following night, bent on fulfilling the penance he had been tasked with, he returned to the public square, sitting right next to the gallows. Soon after starting his prayer, he heard a voice coming from nowhere. A hellish, cold voice, adorned with ghostly echoes that pronounced “one Hail Mary and one Our Father for the salvation of Don Juan Manuel”, followed by a sinister cackle that chilled him to the bone.

No one knows, however, what happened on the third night. When the sun came out, Don Juan Manuel’s body was discovered, hanging from the gallows in the square. Many like to believe that angels came to save him from the Devil, others say he went insane after his visions. What is completely true, though, is that it was the very same Don Juan Manuel who asked me for the time that night.

Dolls’ Island

muñecas

Xochimilco, a nearly magical place in Mexico City, is the only remaining vestige of the ancient city of Tenochtitlan. Navigating its canals can give you an idea of how the promised land of the Aztecs looked like.

Nowadays, this place is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the capital city. It’s well known for its trajineras(traditional barges) and the beautiful rides they give through the canals so tourists can see the chinampas, floating plots of land where flowers, trees and crops are grown and harvested.

Among Xochimilco’s places of interest you can find the Isla de las Muñecas, the Isle of the Dolls, a cursed isle visited only by the bravest and those who wish to hear the tragic story of Julián Santa Ana.

Mr. Santa Ana was the owner of the isle for 50 years and during the last 10 he spent his time collecting dolls he found in the garbage which he used to “decorate” his property. This dolls have given the isle a grim and gloomy look, and if you get close, the air feels heavy and melancholic. Julián Santa Ana never gave a concrete explanation for his collecting of the torn and broken toys, but when asked he would merely answer “to haunt the haunters”.

When Mr. Santa Ana died in 2001, his nephew Anastasio Santa Ana inherited the cursed isle and he’s the one who now recounts the story of the dolls. Julián came to inhabit the isle in his youth and he later claimed that a girl drowned close to the shore of his property. The body was never identified so she ended up a Jane Doe who never received a holy burial and ended up in a mass grave. From that day on, Julián told his relatives that during the night he could hear a girl crying, a child’s footsteps and even a child’s voice calling his name. In an attempt to “scare away” the spirit, he started gathering all the dolls he found in the rubbish or floating abandoned on the water.

Those that knew Julián claim he slowly began losing his mind; more than once they found him sitting or kneeling down, talking to someone no one else could see…

In 2001, Mr. Julián drowned off the isle’s shore, in the same spot where it’s been said the body of the little girl appeared dead. Nowadays you can pay for a trip to the Isle of the Dolls, but be careful for the lancheros will often take tourists and visitors to a fake isle to avoid even coming close to the real one.

muñecas 2

Fireballs

IMG_1568There are no names of streets or people in this story, there’s only what’s been passed by word of mouth and what can still be seen in some parts of Mexico City and some remote little towns all over the country. Since ancient times, grown-ups have developed the habit of pulling little children away from windows after nightfall and you are about to learn why.

Much has been spoken over the years about mysterious, resplendent balls of fire; these fireballs are commonly visible close to hills or small towns surrounded by forest in cloudy or stormy nights. In Mexico, young and old folk alike know what exactly these balls of fire really are: witches. It’s been said for centuries in Mexico and in many other parts of the world that witches can turn into balls of fire that wander around town streets looking to kidnap children that are looking out the window during the night or to hoodwink young men that wander the streets alone. Some say these same fireballs emit eerie laughs, chill-inducing cackling and unintelligible whispers.

These witches-turned-fireballs can be seen most often in the city of Guadalajara, in the State of Jalisco. Its townsfolk have passed down the story of an unfortunate man who stumbled across one such floating ball of fire one night while wandering alone in a dark alleyway. Entranced by the crimson flames he never noticed he followed the fireball all the way to the base of a hill, all of a sudden the fireball disappeared but it was too late for the man to take notice of his surroundings. Nobody knows what happened exactly, but when the man was finally seen again several days later he was unable to utter a single word… the witches had stolen his voice.

If you don’t believe my story just browse the Internet for a few minutes, there are lots of videos that show these fireballs. You might say you have a “perfectly logical explanation” for this phenomenon, but if you ever come across one of these balls of fire I strongly recommend you shut the window close or start walking in the opposite direction or else you might not live to tell the tale…

The Black Charro


charronegro

If you ever find yourself travelling through the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Veracruz or Hidalgo, try not to wander the streets after the Sun has set on the horizon. Many claim that when they wandered through the main avenues by themselves with the Moon high in the sky, a sinister laugh pervades the desolated streets and a long shadow extends up on the walls.

This is El Charro Negro (The Black Charro/Horseman). Those who have seen him say he’s a tall, thin, good-looking man clad in a fine black charro outfit who’s always riding a sullen horse as black as the night.

Many claim it’s the Devil himself, disguised to hoodwink his victims, other say it’s just a wandering soul looking for a little bit of company…

The story of Adela, a woman considered fairly liberal for her time, has been passed down by word of mouth. While other ladies would prefer to stay at home during nighttime, Adela would take long nightly walks and visit some paramours of hers. One of many similar nights, Adela ran into a man dressed like a charro riding on horseback. Said man, aided by flattery, sweet-talk and charm, convinced Adela he’d take her on the back of his horse to wherever she wanted. Dazzled by the man’s captivating personality, Adela agreed to the ride but as soon as she sat on the back of the horse, it suddenly turned into a red-hot fiery wraith and the flames started licking at Adela’s flesh voraciously.

Adela’s screams of pain and horror immediately put the close by neighbours on alert and they stepped out to see what was happening… but it was too late. The Black Charro had taken the unwary woman down to the furthest recesses of hell at full gallop.

There’s another version of this story which, word has it, only happens to male victims. Witnesses both young and old, who claim to have seen El Charro Negro, affirm he settles for walking down with them while on the road, making small talk. If, by chance, there happens to be a church on the roadside, the Charro will kindly take his leave and start walking down a different path but if he offers to help carry luggage or offers a bag full of gold coins he must be turned down sharply, otherwise the traveller will suffer the same fate as Adela.

This story has been passed down on the streets of several states in the Mexican Republic since the 1930s and still nowadays there are people who claim to have been joined by the dismal character, but there’s none left who dare accept the ride or the money.