Telling Our Stories: When Mexican Folklore and Oral Tradition Meet Sci-Fi

When I tell people about my latest book, The Last Cuentista, the first thing they ask is how a story like this even happened. I can see where a merging of Mexican folklore and sci-fi might seem incongruous to most. But to me they’ve always been interlaced.

My love of sci-fi began in black and white. Family holidays were spent with heaping plates of food, and Rod Serling ushering in a Twilight Zone marathon. We’d seen every episode so many times, we all raced to be the first to blurt out,“That’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed…” or… “It’s a cookbook!”

So yeah, science fiction felt like home.

That love of science fiction continued with Star Trek TOS and The Next Generation, and I’m proudly raising the next generation of Whovians.

But as far as books, I still remember the day my school librarian handed me A Wrinkle in Time. I soon moved on from L’Engle to Le Guin to Bradbury. But as pivotal as these books were to a kid like me, they were all missing… something. None of those books had characters that reminded me of me.

Still, I didn’t lack for those stories. Often spoken around the kitchen table, my grandmother or aunt would tell love stories from Mexico with tragic endings, cautionary tales, and epic folklore which had been passed down to them the same way.

I grew up daydreaming about the haunting love story of Popocatépetl and Itzaccíhuatl (aka Popo and Itza). The tale dates back to pre colonial Mexico. Popo, a warrior, was in love with the daughter of the chieftain, Itza, and asked for her hand in marriage. The chieftain agreed, but only if Popo agreed to fight for him in a war and return victorious. Of course Popo jumped at the chance to earn Itza’s hand in marriage, even if it meant risking his life.

In the version I know, in Popo’s absence, a jealous suitor lied to Itza and said Popo had perished in battle. Itzaccíhuatl quickly died of a broken heart. When Popo returned, he was devastated at the loss of his beloved and took her body to a snowy mountain tomb where he lit a torch and died himself. The gods transformed the tragic couple into volcanoes, where Popocatépetl and Itzaccíhuatl watch over Mexico City to this day.

Some more commonly known legends are those with scarier elements. Even most people who are not of Mexican descent know of La Llorona (the weeping woman), who will steal you away or drown you by the river if you are wandering about after dark. But depending on where you are in Mexico, or even north of the border, most folklore agrees La Llorona was an indigenous woman who fell in love with a Spaniard. Forbidden from marrying her, the Spaniard either abandoned her or married a Spanish woman instead (depending on the version). In her grief, La Llorona drowned their children in the river. Destined to a purgatory of inconsolable grief, La Llorona searches to this day for her children. Most people concur she resides near rivers. But I didn’t grow up near a river. A lot of people didn’t. But that major detail doesn’t deter Mexican grandmothers, mothers, aunts and uncles from convincing you La Llorona can be in the desert too, and will take you as a substitute for her own children if you are out after bedtime.

But the tale that frightened me most as a child was that of El Cucuy. El Cucuy is the equivalent of a Mexican boogeyman, but exponentially scarier than the abstract American boogeyman. He’s hairy, stinky, has bloody claws and fangs, and glowing eyes, a demonic cryptid of sorts. And I was convinced he lived in the tiny spare room at my grandma’s house. “Go to sleep, or El Cucuy will come get you and eat you,” she’d say sweetly, and close the bedroom door. Well, that backfired! How was I supposed to sleep after that threat? But threats of El Cucuy or La Llorona to make children eat their dinner or go to bed are a backbone of legendary discipline in Mexican culture, and one children accept without question.

But magical realism and folktales aren’t just for story time or to make kids behave. In my family they were woven into the fabric of everyday life. A simple stubbed toe wouldn’t heal properly if my grandmother didn’t rub my foot and say a magical rhyme about a frog tail, “Sana sana colita de rana. Si no sana hoy, sanará mañana.”

As a child, I believed all of it.

Even though I didn’t begin writing with the intent of including Mexican folklore and mythology in my Sci-Fi novel, all of these ingredients came together in The Last Cuentista. A lifetime of stories tapped me on the shoulder and quietly invited themselves into my book. Some of them came from such deep dark corners of my mind, I wondered if some were real stories. During research, I discovered all were in some way rooted in “an original version”, some even from Spain. But as often happens, stories take on the voice of the storyteller. So, as they made their way across Mexico to different regions, cities, towns, and villages, they were imbued with the spirit of those places and people they encountered. The versions I heard were likely influenced by the generations before me who had moved from Mexico to the U.S. and what they encountered in the world around them. A perfect example is the tale of Blancaflor. Originating in Spain, the story of Blancaflor has changed over time. Just like the threats with monsters and wailing women, promises of a bedtime story such as Blancaflor were used to lure children to bed. Blancaflor is a tale which storytellers over time have embellished to elaborate lengths. And stories like this are as varied as the many regions of Mexico in which they have traveled.

With each retelling, details are changed or lost, and sometimes characters altered. In the version of Blancaflor (literally meaning “white flower”) I was told, she had milky skin and golden hair. A prince traveled on a mission to save his father’s life. He drifted into a forbidden realm where an evil king gave him three impossible tasks he must perform in order to save his life. Knowing it was impossible, the prince gave up until Blancaflor, the king’s daughter, came to the rescue. She assisted the prince in completing the three tasks, for which the king awarded the prince her hand in marriage. But it was a deception. Blancaflor knew her father would not let her go so easily, so she asked the prince to steal the fastest horse. Of course, he stole the wrong one, and once again Blancaflor worked her magic to grant speed to the decrepit old horse. As she suspected, the king still followed them, intent on killing them before they could escape. In the version I was told, they arrived at the prince’s kingdom safely and the prince ruled the kingdom with his wife Blancaflor at his side.

In The Last Cuentista, I decided Petra as the storyteller could make that story her own. One in which she draws from her own surroundings on the ship on her way to the new planet, Sagan. And one in which she can change the details and the characters to reflect her journey in life. In Petra’s version, Blancaflor’s skin is brown. Blancaflor is still far more capable than the prince. The villain in Petra’s version is not the evil king, but a sadistic woman with iridescent skin like her nemesis on the ship. Petra further makes the story her own by ensuring Blancaflor is not used as a pawn in marriage. Instead, when they return to the prince’s kingdom, the prince’s father sees Blancaflor would be more suited to be his heir and next ruler where she does so with the prince as a sidekick consultant of sorts.

The way common stories became unique family heirlooms is an important part of my love of stories. This is what I wanted to show with The Last Cuentista. As the storyteller, Petra alone gets to decide how stories she loves from her culture blossom with the difficult and complicated events in her life. For me, one of those events was growing up Latina in a town where the KKK still existed. For Petra it’s a journey across the stars, loss of family, and an enemy bent on destroying all memory of Earth.

Both folklore and modern stories live inside of me, and now it’s my turn to make the stories my own before passing them to the next generation.

Researching Mexican Sci-Fi, I wasn’t too surprised to find the list was indeed pretty sparse. Cosmos Latinos: An Anthology of Science Fiction from Latin America and Spain was a collection of shorts originally all in Spanish, translated to English, and published in 2003, but includes only a few works from Mexican writers, and those few writers cover a span of over one hundred and fifty years.

So, I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear of the upcoming release of Reclaim the Stars, a collection of short stories by Latinx writers. It was compiled and edited by Zoraida Córdova, and releases from St. Martins press February 2022. This anthology has been on my most-anticipated list for a long time.

As far as Mexican-American writers like myself, David Bowles melds his love of Mexican mythology and folklore with a love of Sci-Fi in The Witch Owl Parliament, illustrated by Raúl the Third and available from Tu Books (Lee and Low) in both Spanish and English. This book is a brilliant weave of Steampunk, religious undertones, magic and sci-fi. This graphic novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read. The story opens with a una Lechuza (an owl) portrayed as an owl-witch! Immediately this book felt like home to me. A witch disguised as an owl was a vague memory of a cautionary tale I’d been told at some point as a kid, “An owl in your house is actually una bruja (a witch) and she is coming to steal your soul!” There are several versions of this tale across Mexico and the Southwest of the horror una Lechuza can reap on her victims, so from the opening I was completely on edge, as will be those who’ve heard this Mexican folklore as well. In Bowles’ story, the lechuzas attack the main character, Cristina, a curandera, or healer who has strong connections to earth and nature and uses folk magic to help others. In order to save her, her well-meaning brother combines alchemy, ancient magic, and steampunk robotic innovation, transforming her into a cyborg. In a clever twist to her curandera nature, she becomes a hybrid of healing, green magic, and warrior. Growing up in a border town, David surely heard Mexican folklore and urban legends which is how a mix of folklore of lechuzas, magic, shapeshifters and very real curanderas found their way into his steampunk graphic novel.

In The Storm Runner series, J.C. Cervantes with Disney-Hyperion, the main character, Zane, is pulled into a magical world infused with Mayan mythology. J.C. Cervantes draws on the tales of Ah Puch, the god of death, darkness and destruction. And because this skeletal god can create chaos wherever he goes, what better inspiration to create tension in this action series. Just as I had, J.C. heard stories passed down from her grandmother which heavily influences The Storm Runner series and all her writing. J.C. states, “Magical realism is so integral to Mexican culture, most don’t question its magic or mysticism.” An example of this J.C. grew up with was the idea that there is a deep well of power passed down through women in her family from one generation to the next. This idea is woven into her upcoming YA book Flirting with Fate (April 2022) where women can pass blessings to their descendants on their deathbed. J.C. says she has no doubt that, “this idea that death is sacred opens a door to the enigmatic. And this comes from Mexican culture where death is celebrated differently.”

We only have to look so far as Dia de los Muertos. Where many in American culture might view the skeletal representations of humans (calacas) as creepy or scary, in Mexican culture it is viewed as a colorful and celebratory holiday in which death intertwines with the joy and happy memories.

As writers, sharing parts of ourselves and our culture can be scary. And for me, writing The Last Cuentista was the most vulnerable I’ve felt while writing. The two things I was once most nervous to share with others, my love of sci-fi and Mexican folklore, are at the heart of this book. What would people think? Would it even make sense to others? But I thought of my grandmother, and how she, as a storyteller, made the stories her own. Suddenly, within the pages of this book, I find myself back in that treehouse of trust.

In return, would you share with me the folklore, mythology and magical cautionary tales told to you by your grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins? Would you share them with others? As more of us weave our own culture and family’s experiences into our stories whether it’s sci-fi or another genre, whether it’s written or a story we tell by the fire, we will all connect with one another. That is what stories give us.

Donna Barba Higuera grew up in Central California and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent her entire life blending folklore with her experiences into stories that fill her imagination. Now she weaves them to write picture books and novels. Donna’s first book, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, won a PNBA Book Award and a Pura Belpré Honor. The Last Cuentista is her second novel.


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