Joe Stout, of Oaxaca, Mexico, is the author of several nonfiction
books, including Why Immigrants Come to America and
The Blood of the Serpent: Mexican Lives. He also
has published two novels and numerous essays about Mexico.
child, they said, was old enough to collect leña
— kindling — from the rugged Chiapas hillsides
and to mount and ride a burro. His peasant parents called
him hombrecito — little man — and trusted
him to care for the few chickens and goats that provided the
family with sustenance.
moonless night, awakened by the barking of dogs, he crept
past his sleeping brother and sisters to investigate the commotion.
How long he was gone depends upon who is telling the story
but the boy returned trembling and screaming about horrible,
evil things out there in the dark.
weeks — months — he refused to leave the family's
tiny thatched hut after nightfall. Nor could he explain what
the ‘horrible evil’ was, only that it was there
and he was mortally afraid of it. Finally his father, exasperated
by the little hombrecito's fear, took him out of
the hut and up the hillside to prove to him that no horrible,
evil things existed in the dark.
the stories vary. Some say there was a flash of lightning,
others the howls of wolves or the leap of a jaguar. The father,
startled, turned, momentarily losing his grip on the boy's
father spent the rest of the night and the days following
calling and searching but the homebrecito of the
family didn't appear.
least not in human form.
of that part of Chiapas still catch sight of his ghost. Many
insist that it is important to heed his appearances because
he foretells disasters and other horrible events: hurricanes,
fires, contagious diseases. Or, more recently, criminal or
drug dealer attacks.
many Mexican ghosts (of which there are hundreds) the hombrecito
is neither good nor evil: He merely is.
the Western Hemisphere, pre-European inhabitants incorporated
the existence of non-corporal forms into their daily lives.
Ghosts, spirits and those thought to have died but who have
retained earthly forms appear constantly in both Mexican folk
tales and in nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first-century
Mexican literature. So prevalent is the belief in otherworldly
contacts that, throughout Mexico, families, churches, businesses
and politicians celebrate November 1 as El Dìa de los
Muertos — the Day of the Dead.
EVIL PRIEST OF MEXICO
ghosts of persons who died violently remain on earth to guard
treasures or haunt the places where they were last seen. A
victim of the ‘Evil Priest’ is one of these.
to accounts passed orally from one generation to another,
several hundred years ago, this evil priest hoarded the gold
coins given to his church as offerings. When one of his parishioners
learned of the thefts he confronted the priest and demanded
that he return the coins. The priest killed him and draped
his skeleton over the buried chest in which the treasure was
his deathbed, the priest recanted and confessed his sins,
including the thefts and slaying. A caretaker overhead the
confession and unearthed the chest but — as he tried
to open it — a glowing ghost emerged from the skeleton.
The caretaker dropped his shovel and tools and fled, so frightened
by the apparition that he refused to reveal where or why he
had seen it.
storytellers insist that other adventurers who attempted to
uncover the treasure disappeared and never were heard from
good and evil, frequently appear in ghost reports. So do beautiful
woman betrayed by husbands or lovers.
of the latter, La Llorona (The Weeper), driven mad
after her partner abandoned her, killed their two children
and for more than two centuries has wandered the countryside
seeking them. Or, according to some versions, kidnapping young
children to take their places.
CALIFORNIA’S ROADSIDE SEDUCTRESS
mysteriously beautiful woman appears beside a highway in Baja
California Sur and disappears after motorists who give her
a ride crash into cliffs or roll down canyons. Whether she
was betrayed by a husband or lover seems not to be known.
seems to be nothing ghostlike about her appearance —
or her seductiveness — when she is offered a ride.
questioned "What were you doing out there, beside the
highway, alone?" she merely smiles and whispers, "I'll
tell you later." But later for the driver is a disaster,
not a rendezvous.
ghost of a beautiful Mexico City nurse is more benevolent.
fell in love with a young doctor and was certain the romance
that united them would last forever. But she didn't know that
the doctor was engaged to wealthy heiress.
day he left "to attend to family business" in another
part of Mexico, "business" that turned out to be
his honeymoon. The news so devastated the jilted nurse that
she could neither eat nor sleep and she wasted away despite
all attempts to revitalize her.
continues to haunt the hospital in which she worked and often
heals patients assigned to the room in which she died.
ghosts seem merely to want companionship, like Consuelo, who
died before she was able to attend her first grand ball and
reappears where a young lover or husband has gone to divert
himself without his partner. Only he can see her as they whirl
around the dance floor together; however, to others he seems
to be dancing alone.
GHOST OF PANCHO VILLA
ghosts of priests and deceased monks commonly protect believers
and ward off evil. The ghosts of military heroes and political
figures also abound, particularly during national elections.
They cast hundreds of ballots, usually for incumbents, even
though no one sees them vote.
ghost of controversial revolutionary hero Pancho Villa thunders
through northern Mexico waving a pistol and riding a jet black
horse. For years, a myth circulated that Villa had not died
and that another person's body had been placed in his grave.
He was seen in Sonoloapa, in Torreón, in San Pedro
de las Colonias, in Chihuahua. Finally, it became apparent
that a living man could not appear so frequently in so many
places. It had to be his ghost.
historians believe that Villa had his head shaved and the
map of his most extravagant treasure tattooed on his scalp.
After his death, grave robbers decapitated his corpse to learn
where this wealth was buried. The headless Villa rampages
after them seeking the missing part of his anatomy.
ghost Villa is also said to be a seducer, as is the mischievous
Don Ludo, who reputedly steals young women's maidenhoods while
they are sleeping. Like many otherworldly creatures he can
alter his appearance and become young and handsome or appear
disguised as a bird or a cat.
his days of revolutionary banditry Villa sacked the British
and United States owned mines of Durango and Chihuahua, emptied
state treasuries and leveled the richest haciendas that existed
in Mexico at that time.
drinking or boasting about his exploits, he would throw off
hints about hidden treasures: ten million in gold in Pulpito
Pass concealed beneath the corpses of the ten men who helped
bury the cache; even more in a cave in the Barranca de Cobre
in the Sierra Madre; almost as much in Maniquipa Canyon in
Chihuahua; and at least as much buried on the slopes of Mount
Franklin, visible from El Paso, Texas.
only Villa's ghost guards these treasures but also the ghosts
of those who were murdered to keep from revealing the hiding
friend Trillo Torres of Parral apparently knew of at least
one of these locations. Torres told treasure seekers that
the way to one of his lost fortunes was marked by the blood
of the Indians that Villa hired to haul and bury the gold,
then had executed. Torres refused to attempt to retrieve the
treasure because the ghosts of the Indians surge from the
rugged canyon in the form of vampire bats to attack those
who come close to the treasure.
GHOSTS OF YUCATAN
Villa, the avenging spirits of the Yucatàn are not
precisely ghosts but gremlin-like apparitions called aluxes
(pronounced ‘alushes’). Several years ago while
I was attending a cookout in an impoverished little town in
the center of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, several locals
told me they had seen dwarflike creatures less than a meter
tall splashing in the rain or antagonizing and frightening
aluxes are guardians of the crops and play malicious
tricks on those who do not believe in them. They love sweets
and insist on recompense — cakes, jellied fruit, honey
— for the protection they offer. Not only that, but
they can drive humans insane with their laughter and babbling.
Yucatecos insist that aluxes inhabited Yucatán
for thousands of years before the first humans arrived; an
older participant at the carne asada declared they
could bring rain, start or end insect plagues and cause the
earth to shake. Still another averred that they loved to play
tricks but couldn't be tricked in return because they could
read a person's intentions.
all Yucatecos or visitors to the state believe in their existence,
however. Apparently a tourist named William Ditchbrun was
one of these.
few years ago Ditchbrun failed to return from a guided tour
to the archeological site Uxmal. Three days later, hypothermic,
exhausted and suffering a broken ankle, the sixty-nine-year-old
Englishman told rescuers he'd been led astray by child-like
voices that kept calling to him. He had followed them into
the rugged mountains, aware that they belonged to tiny figures
whose presence he could sense but couldn't see. They wouldn't
let him sleep, chattering at him in mocking voices. They threw
tiny pebbles at him and when he almost had caught up with
them he tripped and broke his ankle. Only then did they leave
Mexican ghosts do not leave the places they lived or died.
replete with ghosts is Guadalajara's Panteón de Belén
that visitors can take nightly tours through the array of
monuments and tombstones to catch sight of them or feel their
ghost of Juan Soldado visits his final resting place in a
cemetery in the border city of Tijuana.
glowing and the sounds of laughter emanate at night from panteones
in many parts of the country, particularly in Veracruz and
fact, midnight in almost any rural Mexican cemetery will make
a believer out the most dubious adventurer for the emotions
that the wind, the mist, earthly and unearthly noises and
changes of light can bring.
is best to bring gifts with you," an Oaxacan neighbor
of mine advised, "otherwise . . . "
left the rest to my imagination. I always take something with
me when I visit a church, or graveyard, or abandoned settlement.
could be someone's home.
also by Robert Joe Stout:
Care of Business