I was really attached to my dad when I was growing up. If he wasn’t working, I was with him — listening to his stories and soaking in everything he said. He was smart, funny, had a knack for making people smile, and I wanted to be just like him, even down to his rich brown skin.
Whenever we held hands, I looked at our interlocked fingers and thought about how different we were. Though I was his daughter, I took after my white mother in the looks department.
As a biracial kid, I was often stuck between these two places — my external looks screamed “gringa” while my internal monologue was full of colorful influences from my dad’s Latinx culture.
I’d always been closer to my dad’s side of the family, so I was surrounded by cousins who looked nothing like me. They all had darker hair and skin; they had parents who taught them to speak Spanish at home. I never felt completely comfortable in the culture that I identified with the most.
But the same stories that made me fall in love with my Latinx culture were also the ones that helped me feel the most cemented in it as well.
Like many Latinx families, ours was a massive group of cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. When we’d have parties, I sometimes wouldn’t even know all the tias and tios I was told to hug when we arrived. Hordes of cousins would play games in the yard until we got bored and bothered the adults inside the house.
That was when one of my many uncles would frighten us with tales of the scariest monsters from our culture: La Llorona and El Cucuy.
La Llorona is a woman who discovers her husband has cheated on her with a younger woman. In a fit of rage and revenge, she drowns her children in the river, only to come to her senses after the deed is done. Distraught by her actions, she then drowns herself, but her restless spirit still wanders the Earth, loudly weeping and searching for children to claim as her own.
El Cucuy is a ghost-like monster or boogeyman, more terrifying for what he does than what he looks like. A faceless, shapeless manifestation of fear and darkness, he kidnaps children who disobey their parents and devours them whole. Always watching to see if you’re misbehaving, he is basically the anti-Santa Claus.
These were the urban legends used to terrify us into behaving as children. Other boogeymen couldn’t match the horror of El Cucuy and La Llorona.
Those times spent with my cousins — transfixed by stories of monsters lurking just beyond the safety of the front porch — are actually some of the most beloved memories of my childhood.
These horror icons from my youth have become some of my biggest connections to my Latinx heritage. Like our eternal love of Selena, tales of El Cucuy and La Llorona are just part of my culture. More than once, I’ve bonded over these terrors with other Latinx people, but these stories are more than a way to relate. For me, the fact that they are part of my history is proof that I too belong in this culture.
In a world that tells us to assimilate, these facets of our background are important reminders of who we are — especially for biracial children like me. Through this folklore, I cherish my cultural identity.
When you grow up feeling divided between two cultures yet never quite a part of either, being able to claim something from your identity is essential. Whether it’s understanding that there is no one way to represent your heritage or reclaiming a piece of your cultural past, there is power in that.
Now an adult, I still fumble over my Spanish and miss references from time to time. But I’m grounded in the knowledge that this is still my heritage. This is my identity. In the spirit of keeping those horrific, mystifying legends alive, I tell my kids the same stories. I hope it connects them with who they are.