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The Colorful World of Latino Folktales

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Research Paper

Mexican Folktales

Section I: Introduction

In order to understand and appreciate the Mexican culture and enjoy their folktales, one must go back many centuries and discover how the Mexican culture began. Mexico has three main eras that span about 12,000 years. Around 10,000 B.C., MesoAmerica or middle America, was established by nomadic people who learned to grow maize. Several cultures, including the Mayans, Olmecs, Teotihuacan, Toltecs, Zapotecs, lived and died during that era. The last culture and probably one of the most important to Mexican history, are the Aztecs. They inhabited the area of Mexico city around 1325 A.D. until 1519 when the Spanish Conquistadores conquered them. During this conquest, the Spanish people “ruled and influenced” the main area of Mexico with their culture and religion (Vigil 2000). This lasted until 1821 when the lower class people turned against the upper class rulers and became the Independent Nation of Mexico that is still there today.

A little bit of religion, politics, and social life from each era has influenced Mexico’s culture. From the large markets, cultivation of maize, beans, and Chiles, the Mexican flag, and to Catholicism, Mexico has acculturated into a great nation. With this greatness, comes great folklore. “Mexico is deeply and passionately a land of folklore…over half of her people live folkloric lives” (Vigil 2000). Do Mexican folktales really capture the true essence of Mexican culture?

In order to answer the above question, there are several areas to be explored keeping these three questions in mind: Why are realistic tales the main type of folktale for Mexican folktales, what type of illustrations accompany Mexican folktales, and what makes Mexican folktales authentic to their culture?




Section II: Folktales

The following three folktales, Adelita, The Legend of the Poinsettia, and Juan Verdades, will be explored in great depth to allow the reader to appreciate the Mexican culture and determine if they really do capture the true essence of this culture.

Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story

Summary: After the death of her mother and father, Adelita is badly mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters until she finds her own true love at a grand fiesta (Verso 2002).

Type: Realistic/Wonder - because it could happen to someone and it ends with the character saying "we shall live happily ever-after."

Characters: These characters are rounded, but one-dimensional giving the look of almost "real" characters. The main character is Adelita, followed by care-taker Esperanza, Senor Javier, step-mother Dona Micaela, and the step-sisters, Dulce and Valentina. The step-mother and step-sisters follow the traditional Cinderella by having cold and mean personalities. Adelita is warm and caring, as is Javier and Esperanza.

Setting: The story takes place in a village in Mexico, a long time ago. This information is given quickly in the first paragraph of the story. Even though it does not give a date, this story is so realistic, it could have happened during today's times.

Plot: The storyline generally follows the traditional Cinderella where the mother dies at birth and soon after the father. Adelita is left with a wicked step-mother and two evil step-sisters. The one major difference is in the "magic" of the fairy god-mother - there isn't one. Instead of the magical fairy god-mother, there is a little old care-taker named Esperanza that shows Adelita where her mom's dress is so she can wear it to the fiesta and then takes her in her cart. There are no magical elements like a pumpkin turning into a carriage. In fact, Adelita makes a reference at the fiesta of being in disguise and calls herself "Cenicienta - or Cinderella" and in the end, Javier says "and just like Cenicienta and her Principe - Prince - we shall live...happily ever after-too!" These references makes this story seem more believable.

Theme: The major theme I got out of this "Cinderella" story is the same as for most Cinderella's: Good always prevails over evil.

Rating: 5 out of 5

This story captures the Mexican culture in almost every detail- from the colorful illustrations to the clothes worn by the characters! The author, Tomie dePaola, weaves Spanish words throughout the story to enhance this culture. This "Cinderella" story is not like the traditional Cinderella. This folktale seems more realistic, like it could have happened in Mexico.


The Legend of the Poinsettia


Summary: When Lucida is unable to finish her gift for the Baby Jesus in time for the Christmas procession, a miracle enables her to offer the beautiful flower we now call the poinsettia (Verso 1994).

Type: Realistic/Pourquoi - because most of the story could have happened to any family and it tells why Mexicans use the poinsettia at Christmastime.

Characters: These characters are rounded , but one-dimensional, which is typical of author and illustrator, Tomie dePaola. The main characters are Lucida, papa, mama, Padre Alvarez, and the old woman. The author portrays this family as loving, caring, and family-oriented.

Setting: In the first paragraph of this story, we are given the place where this story takes place - in a small village high up in the mountains of Mexico. It never tells us a date, not even a "long, long, ago." The story could be set in just about any time period in a small village in Mexico, even today.

Plot: As Lucida helps her mama make a new blanket for the Baby Jesus figure in the Christmas procession, her mama gets sick and cannot finish it. As Lucida tries to finish on her own, it becomes tangled and ruined. Lucida is very upset that she cannot give a gift to the Baby Jesus. An old woman tells her everything will be okay and that "any gift is beautiful because it is given." Lucida takes in a bundle of weeds and they turn into the beautiful Poinsettia flowers. Every Christmas in Mexico, this culture uses the Poinsettia to decorate.

Theme: one major theme is that any gift is the gift itself, because it is the thought that counts, not how much or how big.

Rating: 5 out of 5

This story represents the Latino culture very well with it's rich, vibrant colors, text mingled with Spanish , family-oriented , and religion.

Juan Verdades: The Man Who Couldn’t Tell a Lie

Summary: A wealthy rancher is so certain of the honesty of his foreman that he wagers his ranch (Verso 2001).

Type: Realistic - because this story could happen.

Characters: The main characters are Juan Verdades - the foreman of the ranch, Araceli - the daughter of Don Arturo, the wealthy rancher, and the future wife of Juan Verdades, and Don Ignacio, another wealthy rancher. Even though these characters are one-dimensional, they all have depth and personality. Juan is a loving, caring individual with morals; Araceli turns out to be a warm and helpful woman, but she started out with the motive to help her dad, not fall in love with Juan; and the two wealthy ranchers are friendly and hard-working.

Setting: The story never tells the reader when and where this story takes place, but it is obvious from the illustrations it is either somewhere in Mexico or very close by like New Mexico or somewhere in the Southwest. The time is not important in this story because it could happen any time, anywhere, to anybody. The houses are adobe-like, and the characters live on ranches. There is one illustration with mountains that look like the "mesas" in New Mexico.

Plot: One of the wealthy ranchers is very proud of his foreman and says he cannot tell a lie. The other rancher makes a bet with him that he can get the foreman to lie. If he lies, the rancher gets the other's ranch in return. Juan Verdades is tested by the rancher and his daughter and in the mean-time love is in the air - Juan and Araceli, the daughter, fall in love. In the end, the rancher realizes he has a wonderful and trustworthy foreman and is happy that the ranch stays in the family and his daughter is happy.

Theme: One of the themes from this book is that honesty does pay off or goodness is always rewarded.

Rating: 5 out of 5

This story is so well written and illustrated, it is one of my favorites. The illustrator creates realistic pictures of the characters and the background, yet gives a soft, chalky-type color that only enhances the soft, warm quality of the illustrations. The illustrator also uses just a hint of white in each picture that makes the pictures that much more realistic and draws the readers attention to focus on the other colors. The author uses shadows in some of the pictures to give them more depth and to create a life-like picture.

Other important information

In many Mexican folktales, birds have been apparent in the illustrations and text. After a little research, a website tells why birds are important in this culture. “Many myths have linked birds to the arrival of life or death…in some cultures, it was thought that the soul, once freed from the body, took the form of a bird…the feather cloaks that Central American and Mexican priests and kings wore may have been connected to the idea of a soul journey…some legends involve birds that change into or inhabit the bodies of humans. The Central American god Quetzalcoatl, a combination of a bird and a serpent, appears as a culture hero or a god in human form in Toltec, Maya, and Aztec myths (Birds 2006). This explains why after reading many Mexican folktales, doves or birds were illustrated throughout. After thousands of years, this detail is still evident in the Mexican culture.

From the above three folktales, corn/tortillas and Chile peppers, bright festive colors, doves or birds, the Virgin of Guadalupe, poncho’s and sombreros, and family love are all evident and representative of the Mexican culture. These details have lasted for centuries making them authentic to this culture.

Section III: Body of Paper

Do Mexican folktales really capture the essence of the Mexican culture? Can a person read these folktales and immediately get an idea of what that culture is all about? The folktales discussed above are only three of many that talk about and illustrate the Mexican culture. Each folktale is considered a “realistic” type of folktale according to Huck (Huck 2001) because they all could have happened to anyone, anytime period, and anywhere. The illustrations also have that “realistic” look, making these stories look and feel more real. The illustrators use just the right type of paper and art to bring them alive. Finally, each folktale is filled with many details that represent the Mexican culture from thousands of years ago, to today.

Realistic tales are tales that could have happened. They might be about a real person, a real place, or a real subject. Most of the folktales from Mexico, not including Aztec or Mayan tales, were considered realistic because they all could have happened to anyone. There was no magic, no talking animals, or fairy tale elements. Other folktales from the Aztec or Mayan culture, and Central and South America, were pourquoi tales or “why” tales (Huck 2001). Since the Mexican folktales are so realistic, including the illustrations, the author’s purpose is to authenticate the culture. They want the reader to know and appreciate the culture for who they are.

The illustrations in the three folktales discussed earlier are very realistic. The illustrators have created characters they appear to be real. The setting in each folktale is so detailed, it brings the reader into the story to be part of it. The colors in Adelita and The Legend of the Poinsettia are bright, but soft. In Juan Verdades, the colors are warm, with a hint of white in each one to bring out the “surrealistic” qualities. Adelita and The Legend of the Poinsettia are written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. The text she uses is “Esprit Bold” with acrylics on 140 lb Arches that are handmade and cold pressed on watercolor paper (dePaola 1994). Juan Verdades is written by Joe Hayes, but illustrated by Joseph Daniel Fiedler. The text he uses is 15 point Golden type bold and the illustrations are Windsor and Newton alkyd on paper. It almost looks like an oil painting. The illustrations enhance each folktale so much that words almost do not have to be written to tell the stories.

The realistic folktales, along with the illustrations, make Mexican folktales that much more authentic. Each author and illustrator includes many examples of items that represent the culture well. For example, each folktale has illustrations of either corn or Chile peppers in the kitchen. From as far back as 12,000 years ago, the main source of food for the inhabitants of Mexico was corn (Vigil 2000). The people discovered and cultivated it and are still today using it for many favorite meals, including corn tortillas. In Juan Verdades there is an illustration of tortillas on a table and the text says “Araceli…went to the kitchen to prepare coffee and fresh tortillas for the foreman” (Hayes 2001). In The Legend of the Poinsettia, Lucida is helping her mom “pat out tortillas for their meals” and there is an illustration showing this (dePaola 1994). In Adelita, there are illustrations of tortillas in the kitchen and Adelita grinding corn. The text even says “I will work for no money, just a place to lay my head and a bowl of beans and a tortilla” (dePaola 2002). There is other evidence of tortillas or corn in other Mexican folktales, like The Day it Snowed Tortillas, The Runaway Tortilla, and The Legend of Food Mountain.

Another source of food that comes from and represents the Mexican culture is Chile peppers. In the three folktales that were discussed in depth, every one of them have an illustration of Chile peppers either in their kitchen or hanging on a wall somewhere in the house. Corn and Chile peppers have been a source of food that has represented the Mexican culture for centuries.

As with corn and Chile peppers, Sombreros and ponchos are represented in these folktales too. In Juan Verdades, all of the men are wearing sombrero’s and ponchos. Other folktales like Uncle Nacho’s Hat, Love and Roast Chicken, El Cucuy, Juan Bobo Goes to Work, and The Runaway Tortilla all show men wearing either ponchos or sombreros. If you visit Mexico today, the men are usually wearing them too.

Bright festive colors fill almost every Mexican folktale. Most of the Mexican culture has some sort of fiesta every year and with each fiesta comes bold, bright colors. There are many folktales that use the colors red and green which probably comes from the Mexican flag because it has red, white, and green on it. In America, many people can find homes that have Mexican families because they usually have some bright color on the outside.

Another very important aspect of the Mexican culture that is evident in the folktales is religion. Almost every Mexican folktale has some illustration and text having to do with religion in some way. In Adelita and The Legend of the Poinsettia, both have a picture or shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In The Legend of the Poinsettia, the priest is introduced, the Mass is mentioned, and the church is part of the setting. In Adelita, a picture of the Crucifix is evident and mentioned in the text. In Juan Verdades, there is an illustration of the Cross. In the end of this folktale, the women of this story look like the Virgin of Guadalupe because of the way their heads are tilted to one side, they have cloaks over their heads, and their faces are pure. Religion plays a very important role in the Mexican culture today and has lasted for many centuries.

Section IV: Conclusion

After many centuries of different cultures living, surviving, and struggling in Mexico, an overwhelming amount of culture still exists from each one, in everyday life of the “folkloric” Mexican people and in the folktales that portray their lives. Since the authors create “realistic” folktales with “real-life” situations and illustrations and since they portray many details of their culture, the folktales really do capture the essence of this culture.

Section V: Bibliography

Birds in Mythology. 2006. Mythology.html (accessed April 18, 2006).

dePaola, Tomie. 2002. Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story. New York: Putnam.

dePaola, Tomie. 1994. The Legend of the Poinsettia. New York: Putnam.

Hayes, Joe. 2001. El Cucuy! A bogeyman cuento in English and Spanish. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Hayes, Joe. 2001. Juan Verdades: The man who couldn't tell a lie. New York: Orchard Books.

Hayes, Joe. 2003. The day it snowed tortillas. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.

Huck, Charlotte S., Susan Hepler, and et al. 2001. Children’s literature in the elementary school. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Kimmel, Eric A. 2000. The runaway tortilla. New York: Winslow Press.

Knutson, Barbara. 2004. Love and roast chicken: A trickster tale from the Andes Mountains. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books.

Montes, Marisa. 2000. Juan Bobo goes to work. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Rohmer, Harriet. 1998. The legend of food mountain. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press.

Rohmer, Harriet. 1989. Uncle Nacho's hat. Emeryville, CA: Children's Book Press.

Vigil, Angel. 2000. The Eagle on the cactus: Traditional stories from Mexico. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


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