This course explores the rich and varied forms of folklore and folklife customs of several American folk groups. This semester, we'll be focusing on folklore from African-American, Hmong-American, Appalachian, European-American, Mexican-American, Haitian American, and other traditional communities. In addition, we'll take a look at folk groups who are united by ties other than ethnicity; these can include, for example, children, workers in various occupations, graffiti artists, Gay and Lesbian people, quilt makers, persons with disabilities, and military, political, or religious groups. As the semester unfolds, we will explore diverse types of lore and performance, which may include (to name a few) ballads, instrumental music, folktales, legends and myths, urban legends, proverbs, humor, folk speech, needlework, textile arts, superstitions, religious traditions, and healing practices. We will also investigate the history, methods, philosophical orientations, and contemporary goals of folkloristics, (the formal academic discipline of folklore studies). The class format will include lecture, video, slides, live and recorded music, and class discussion. One of my goals (as well as one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching this class) is to cultivate an awareness of the wealth of folklore which we use in our everyday lives. Student contributions of personal and family folklore form a necessary and welcome part of our endeavor.
The URL for this course is:
Please contact me by meeting with me in person before or after class, or on an office hour. Please help other students by freeing up channels and saving phone and email time for genuine emergencies.
VISITOR POLICY In accordance with College regulations, no visitors are permitted in the classroom. All persons in the classroom must be registered students.
ELECTRONICS No recording devices or cameras are allowed in class unless authorized by the Disability Resource Center. This policy reflects the professional concerns of individual privacy and academic security. No cellular telephones are to be used in class for any purpose. Violation of these policies is disruptive to teachiing and learning.
Emergency Evacuation Plan In the event of an emergency during class that requires evacuation of the building, please leave the class immediately, but calmly. Our class will meet at a pre-announced assembly point to make sure everyone got out of the building safely and to receive further instructions. If you are a student with a disability who may need assistance in an evacuation, please see me during my office hours as soon as possible so we can discuss an evacuation plan.
Accommodations for Students with Disabilities If you need disability related accommodations for this class, such as a note taker, test taking services, special furniture, use of service animal, etc., please provide the Authorization for Academic Accommodations (AAA letter) from the Disability Resources Department (DRD) to me as soon as possible. You may also speak with me privately during office hours about your accommodations. If you have not received authorization from DRD, it is recommended that you contact them directly. DRD is located in Analy Village on the Santa Rosa campus, and Petaluma Village on the Petaluma Campus.
You may leave emergency messages at 527-4455.
ABOUT THIS COURSE
As an opening statement, here's the official "catalogue description" of Anthropology 21:
"Survey of the forms and functions of American oral traditions and folklife customs. Analysis of myth, legend, proverb, riddle, humor, life cycle events, and other folklore/life traditions in American community and neighborhood settings. Cultural comparisons will include no less than three of the following groups: African American, Asian American, Chicano/Latino American, European American, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and Americans of Middle Eastern Origin."
This formal description may raise as many questions as it answers, and we will consider many of them between now and finals week. For example, what does it mean when we refer to "American" traditions? What, really, is "tradition," and what makes tradition "American?" What do we mean by "culture" and what makes a comparison a "cultural" one? Beyond such generalizations, what properties do the customs of the six groups mentioned in the SRJC catalogue share? Conversely, which characteristics are unique? Let's back up a bit and see what some other "folks" have had to say. Jan Brunvand, famous for his studies of urban legends and the editor of our text, offers this:
Folklore. "...those materials in culture that circulate traditionally among members of any group in different versions, whether in oral form or by means of customary example, as well as the processes of traditional performance and communication." (Jan Harold Brunvand. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction, 3rd. ed. [New York: W.W. Norton, 1985])
Fair enough, but we shall have to look at quite a range of "materials" and we will need to categorize them, however broadly.
The United States Congress once took a stab at defining folklife: "The term "American folklife" means the traditional expressive culture shared within the various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, regional; expressive culture includes a wide range of creative and symbolic forms such as custom, belief, technical skill, language, literature, art, architecture, music, play, dance, drama, ritual, pageantry, handicraft; these expressions are mainly learned orally, by imitation, or in performance, and are generally maintained without benefit of formal instruction or institutional direction." From P.L. 94-201 The American Folklife Preservation Act (1976) That places us upon somewhat firmer ground, (although much of the folklore that has come to me has been passed along with great formality). Let's look at another point of view: "In its cultural context, folklore is not an aggregate of things, but a process--a communicative process, to be exact . . . folklore is artistic communication in small groups." Dan Ben-Amos, Western Folklore, July 1977. I have a lot of regard for that statement, because it gets us away from "stuff" and into a way of seeing. (Shakespeare would say, "To see feelingly.") Next, please consider this remark by one of my favorite writers, the great folklorist Archie Green: "Built into the experience of most Americans is a set of strong polarities which divide the chosen from the neglected of the earth. We are conscious of differences in class and status; we contrast formal and informal learning; we categorize in terms of birth and belief. Folklorists bring such polarities into focus by collecting and commenting on a wide range of expressive symbols, behavioral codes, and traditional values. Matters of diversity and unity continue to throb in the national pulse." Archie Green, in Folklife and the American Government: A Guide to Activities, Resources, Funds, and Services. Compiled by Linda C. Coe. Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (1977) p. 9.
If Dr. Green is correct, folklorists are capable of doing useful service indeed. He also observed:
"In recent years some students have shifted their definitions of the folk from the classic notion of a peasantry – agrarian, semiliterate, hand-skilled – to a relativistic formulation of any unit of two or more persons who produce folklore. . . . Regardless of whether the folk is perceived in classical or contemporary terms, the United States never had and still lacks an indivisible folk. Rather, we are Mormons, Cajuns, mountaineers, sailors, Wobblies, and their cousins by the dozens. We cluster in ethnic, linguistic, geographic, ideational, and occupational groups which to some degree are self-enclaved, inward-looking, continuous, and stable. Such factors enable members of modern society to maintain an identity which is at the same time national and also local or parochial". Archie Green in Only A Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs(1972).
Finally, here is another comment:
"I am convinced that we generate and transmit folklore not because we belong to a particular nation or to a particular group -- not because we are Westerners, loggers, Catholics, or Finns -- but because we are human beings dealing with recurring human problems in traditional ways. . . . To be sure, folklore usually is expressed in and is given color by the groups to which we belong; it can serve, therefore, as a means of understanding and increasing our sympathy for these groups. But the source of the lore, we should always remember, lies not in our differences, but in our common humanity, in our common human struggle to endure." William Wilson, Journal of American Folklore April 1988.
Here's a glimpse of my life through a conversation I have had many times with colleagues, students, and friends.
"What do you teach?" "I teach American Folklore and Folklife." "Ooh, folklore. . . that sounds like fun!"
I respond with a sort of polite smile. . . and a mild inward sense of resignation. The study of folklore is hard work, work to which I have devoted much of my life. Folklore can seem dark as well as quaint, and be daunting as often as it is easily apprehended. Anyone who has taken my class knows that I believe that the academic study of folklore, of "myth, legend, proverb, riddle, humor, etc," can help us to understand and solve the political, environmental, and social challenges that form a compelling, sometimes frightening part of our agenda. I hope that I have persuaded my students to share this belief, and that I can persuade you as well. That being said, I will go out on a limb and confess that I find the topic fascinating and, yes. . . fun.
STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES
Student Learning Outcomes: 1. Analyze the oral, material, and customary folklore of diverse American cultures.
2. Apply folklore collection techniques when analyzing folklore materials.
3. Describe and explain the pervasiveness and importance of folklore and folklife in everyday settings and the importance of folklore as a communicative process.
Objectives: Upon completion of this course, students will be able to:
1. Describe and explain appropriate terms and concepts used in the study of American folklore and folklife.
2. Explain the origins and functions of folklore and folklife customs.
3. Evaluate the role of folklore in the portrayal and affirmation of ethnicity, identity, and gender and in the cultural concept of race.
4. Apply knowledge of field collection techniques and analysis to folklore materials in American cultures.
5. Compare and contrast folkore and folklife genres, concepts and theories in no less than three of the following groups: African American, Asian American, Chicano/Latino American, European American, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and Americans of Middle Eastern origins.
Topics and Scope I. The place of folklore and folklife studies in Anthropology A. History and development of folkloristics B. Theoretical perspectives 1. 19th century perspectives 2. Contemporary perspectives
II. Concepts and terms important in folkloristics A. Culture and popular culture B. Folk group, nation, ethnicity, race, gender, etc. C. Genre, version and variant
III. Origins of folklore and folklife customs and events A. Psychological B. Cultural
IV. Role of folklore and folklife events in at least three of the following: African American, Asian American, Chicano/Latino American, European American, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and Americans of Middle Eastern origins A. Family, social, and age groups B. Religion C. Heath and healing D. Political and economic life E. Other
V. Survey of folklore genres in at least three of the following: African American, Asian American, Chicano/Latino American, European American, Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, and Americans of Middle Eastern origins A. Narratives (legends, folktales, myths, etc.) B. Folkspeech and proverbs C. Jokes, games, graffiti D. Superstitions, beliefs E. Folk songs, ballads, dance and drama F. Folk medicine G. Other
VI. Field collection techniques, analysis, and presentations. A. Fieldwork rules and ethics B. Collection techniques 1. Interview and observation techniques 2. Written and graphic recording 3. Sound recording 4. Visual recording 5. Material lore collection C. Analysis 1. Thesis and argument 2. Supporting data D. Presentation 1. Written report forms 2. Visual and oral forms
GENERAL COURSE TOPICS These topics are interwoven throughout the semester, but will be introduced in lecture according to this general scheme.
1. The History of Folklore and Folklife Studies: Introduction to course; Discussion of folklore genres and folk groups; folklore of your childhood; folkloristics and anthropology; field methods and definitions; history of folklore as an academic discipline; 19th century approaches; folklore as historical record; magic, religion and superstition;proverbs; ballads.
2. How Folklore Travels and changes: Myths, folk tales and legends; Trickster stories; diffusion and migration; folktale scholarship: the Historic-Geographic method versus structuralist approaches.
3. Folklore, History, and Cultural Representation The anthropological concept of culture; folklore as expression of group identity; corridos: music of the Southwestern border; retablos; (personalized religious art); infanticide as a folkloric theme; la Llorona; folklore, racism, and cultural conflict; childrenï¿½s folklore; graffiti.
4. Folklore and the Individual. Hmong traditions, medicine, and healing; textile arts; Vodun traditions and devotional arts; folklore as a personal expression.
"Everything action in company ought to be done with a sign of respect to all that are present."
Please read this carefully, and understand that I do not wish to make an issue out of classroom discipline, but rather to move things in the direction of a respectful and encouraging classroom environment.
1. Class attendance and participation: You may miss up to three class sessions, for whatever reason, without a point penalty. Additional unexcused absences are excessive and can lower your grade by one full letter grade. I do not need notification of these absences. 2. No make up exams will be given, and no late work will be accepted, unless I have prior verification of an illness or timely verification of an emergency. Perhaps this should go without saying, but disruptive behavior will "cost you." I’ve got a "thing" about private conversations during class, outside reading material, lack of attention to films, late arrival and early departure. This means that I expect you to be in class, to prepared, to take careful notes, and to pay attention to whomever has the floor. 3. I expect consistent note taking. 4. EXTRA CREDIT: There are no extra credit assignments in this course. 5. Finally, please note that this syllabus is subject to minor change (at my sole discretion) in order to respond to current events as they affect this field of study.
PLEASE AVOID THESE FORMS OF DISRUPTIVE CONDUCT 1. Reading in class: put your book away. There is no need to bring it to class, and please do NOT read it (or anything else!) during class. You should be listening and writing, not reading, in class
2. Sleeping during class. I do not expect to have to stop class and ask whether you are awake. Be awake-- and appear to be awake.
3. Using cell phones in class for any reason.
4. Leaving the room during class. I expect you to arrive and be ready to sit in class for an hour and fifteen minutes.
POLICY ON MISSED EXAMS AND FINALS: I do not give make-up exams unless the missed exam was due to a verified emergency or unavoidable conflict.
THERE NOW, WE'VE GOT THAT OUT OF THE WAY!
WEEK ONE: AUGUST 19 LECTURE: Introduction To Folklore And Folkloristics TEXT: Chapter One: Folklore ONLINE: AFS Statement of Ethics IN CLASS: Folklore Of Childhood (TH)
WEEK TWO: AUGUST 26 LECTURE: The History of folklore and some major figures in the discipline (Antiquity through the early 20th Century.) BRUNVAND: Folklore;
WEEK THREE: SEPTEMBER 2 LECTURE: Folklore of Childhood TEXT: Chapter 2: Groups BRUNVAND: Family folklore; Popular Culture and Folklore; Children; Dozens; Graffiti; Games; Prank; Parody in folklore. FILM: “American Tongues.”
WEEK FOUR: SEPTEMBER 9 LECTURE: Magic and Superstition BRUNVAND: BRUNVAND: Superstition; Religion, Folk; African-Americans. Pregnancy and Birth. Midwifery[.
WEEK FIVE: SEPTEMBER 16 LECTURE: Folk Music TEXT: CHAPTER 8 (!): Examples Of Folklore Projects BRUNVAND: Ballads; Child, James Francis; Sharp, Cecil; Banjo; Fiddle music.
WEEK SEVEN: SEPTEMBER 30 LECTURE: Occupational Lore BRUNVAND: John Henry;Occupational Folklore; Botkin, Benjamin; New Deal and Folk Culture; Military folklore; Miners. SPECIAL TOPIC: The Dust Bowl
WEEK 8: OCTOBER 7 LECTURE: Hmong Folklore + Shamans And Shamanism TEXT: Chapter 4: Ritual FILM: “The Split Horn, A Hmong Shaman In America”
WEEK 9: OCTOBER 14 LECTURE: PROVERBS BRUNVAND: Proverbs; Folkspeech; Cursing
WEEK 10: OCTOBER 21 LECTURE : The Tarahumara and/or Retablos TEXT: CHAPTER 5 " Performance" BRUNVAND: Mexican American folklore; La Llorona; Corrido;
Sims, Martha. Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions [ July 2005 Utah State Uni. Press
Smith, Margartet Charles. LISTEN TO ME GOOD: THE STORY OF AN ALABAMA MIDWIFE Ohio State University Press; 1 edition (July 1, 1996)
Brunvand, Jan Harold. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing Company, 1996. (THIS IS AVAILABLE ONLINE AT THE SRJC LIBRARY AS AN "E TEXT" AND AS HARD COPY ON LIBRARY RESERVE (LIBRARY USE ONLY). HARD COPY TEXTS CAN ALSO BE ORDERED THROUGH THE BOOKSTORE, OR ON LINE FROM MANY SITES..
ADDITIONAL ONLINE READINGS AND VIEWING ASSIGNMENTS WILL BE GIVEN OUT DURING THE SEMESTER.
1. I expect all students to take complete hand writtten notes at each session, whether the material is a lecture, a student presentation, a film, or a group discussion. At a random point during the semester, I will collect your notes and review them. Students who have not taken serious and detailed notes will lose points.
2. I expect students not only to BE awake, but to APPEAR to be awake. This means that you are sitting up in your chair paying attention and actively engaged in what is going on. If I cannot tell without asking that you are awake, you will lose points. It is your responsibility to leave no doubt in my mind about this.
3. Attend class ONLY if you wish to learn and to contribute to this class and your own educational goals. If you cannot arrive on time, stay for the full class, and conduct yourself in a way that shows respect, please do not attend.
2 Midterms 25% each Field Collections 25% Final 25% All work is letter graded.
NOTE: All TAKE HOME written material is to be handed in to me personally, in the form of hard copy, in class at the beginning of class, on the date assigned. No work is to be handed in to the Department Secretary, or by email, or placed under my office door, and no work handed in via these methods will be accepted for credit. The only exception to this hard-and-fast rule is in the case of student who are taking their tests elsewhere on campus by prior arrangement.
Plagiarism Policy Plagiarism is the representation of another author’s work as your own. It is an example of academic dishonesty. Students who hand in work which is not their own may receive a failing grade in the course.
TAKE HOME ESSAY QUESTIONS . Write on both. 1. James George Frazer gave us a valuable and enduring tool when, in The Golden Bough, he established his framework of sympathetic magic. How, then, do folklorists organize the study of magic and superstition? Write on the following, using numbered paragraphs. 1. Please explain Frazer’s system of sympathetic magic, with many examples, including your own, those presented in lecture, and those you have read about in your texts. . 2. What was the intellectual and historical context of Frazer’s ideas? Give attention to the ideas of William Thoms and E. B. Tylor here. Which other early folklorists shaped our discipline? 3. Frazer considered both types of magic “mistakes,” and gave “the name of magic to the whole erroneous system,” which he considered “one great disastrous folly.” Why did he think so? 4. Who were Frazer’s critics, and what did they have do say about Frazer’s ideas? Do you agree with them or not? Why? Are superstitions useful? How and why?
2. Please compare and contrast the definitions of folklore as presented in this class sand in your reading. You have read definitions of folklore in Sims & Stephens, in Brunvand, and in the course syllabus. Discuss several of them using brief but telling quotes, to illustrate the elements that these comments share, and where they differ. How is the study of folklore organized? Finally, make a comment about the importance of studying folklore. How, for example, would you support my assertion that folklore is pervasive in daily life, and how would you defend the study of folklore in terms of the “triviality barrier?”
THIS IS A TAKE HOME ASSIGNMENT. I will free up class time by letting you write these essays at home. Each essay should be introduced by a carefully planned outline. The outline is to be handed and it will be graded as part of your essay. There are suggestions for writing an outline here:
The essays are due at the beginning of class on 9/26, typed, on time, in a standard format with space-and-a-half standard fonts. Tell me as much as you know, and plan to spend considerable time outlining and writing your essays. GOOD LUCK!
FINAL EXAM PROMPT
TAKE HOME COMPONENT OF FINAL A nomination for an American Masterpiece of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Intangible Cultural Heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. There is considerable information here: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?pg=00002
Your task for te final exam is to make a nomination for an American masterpiece of Intangible Cultural Heritage from the United States and its territories. Naturally, you would want to see what other countries have produced along these lines, and in this case the list on Wikipedia is accurate through 2011. : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UNESCO_Intangible_Cultural_Heritage_Lists#Proclaimed_masterpieces FORMAT: 1. Name the proposed masterpiece. (Amish quilts, Cajun and Creole cooking, non-professional baseball, etc. . . ) 2. Describe it in detail, explain its origins, and perhaps mention some living exponents 3. Explain how this intangible cultural heritage is transmitted from generation to generation, how it is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides the people who maintain it with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. (This will be the most difficult part, where you “make your case.”)
This is “doable”in 2-3 single spaced pages, and I will review the assignment in class. We will meet in class on the day of the final and devote the final exam period to sharing our nominations.
FIELD COLLECTION ASSIGNMENT: DATA, DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS
Field Collection Assignment: Data, Description and Analysis
1. Choosing a genre: What should you collect? This assignment requires you be a folklorist: you are to go out into the world and collect three examples (items) of folklore from three different living consultant/s. The are to be three separate people, and only one of them may be a relative. Your consultant may be a person you already know, or one you have sought out because of your interest in specific folklore that they possess. If you are having difficulty deciding what genres to collect, please search through your text for ideas, or come to my office hour to discuss your ideas with me. 2. Fieldwork Rules: Fellow workers, acquaintances, friends, or active bearers of folk traditions in your community may be willing to act as your consultants. Your informants are doing you a favor in donating their time and knowledge. Since they may feel intimidated by being asked whether they know any folklore, it might be helpful to start talking about your area of interest without mentioning folkloristic terms. You should let your informant know that you are a folklore student working on a class project, but don’t call yourself as an official representative of the College or of a research team. Please do not include any sensitive information which might compromise you or your consultants in any way. 3. Methods: You may want to limit yourself to note-taking (on paper) while collecting. Photographs, other visual data, and material lore may also be included in your collections (however, do not hand in any irreplaceable photographs or objects). No material will be returned. Please do not hand in tapes, CDs or video tapes. 4. Format and Content: include the following components in your analysis. a. Your thesis and argument. This introductory section should explain what you have worked with and what you have tried to prove, along with a summary of the scholarly work you have read on this topic. The main goal of this assignment is to give you firsthand experience in collecting and recording folklore, rather than writing a standard research paper. Nonetheless, you must support each field collection by referring to at least two published folkloristic works on that type of lore. What folklorists have worked with this material, what have they learned about it? You can use the Brunvand text as an initial resource here, both by reading the specific encyclopedia entry on your topic, or by using the bibliographies to get more information. b. Informant data: Include your consultant’s name, gender, age, and place of birth. Name any folk groups (e.g. ethnic, occupational, religious, social) with whom they identify. Discuss (succinctly) their personal history, roles which they play in their community or social sphere, and anything else you can glean about their personal philosophy or approach to life, This section should give your reader a detailed personal portrait of your informant. c. Item of folklore: Carefully and thoroughly describe the item of lore. Is it oral, customary, or material lore? Identify the specific category of lore you’re working with (e.g. folk poetry, games, legends, jokes, foodways, tall tales, textile arts, woodcraft, festivals, toys, etc.). d. Discussion/Contextual data: Discuss the lore you have collected in terms of its significance in your consultant's life. How is the lore transmitted, kept alive, or modified? What is its context of use? In this section, discuss the specific significance (personal, cultural and social each item of folklore holds for your informant. The key here is to find a surefooted point of balance between description and analysis. e. Conclusion. What have you learned from this, and where do we go from here? Consider the scholarly material you cited in (a) above: how do your findings support or refute what you initially learned when you began researching this topic? f. Works cited: Please follow standard citation format, and include a complete list of all works cited at the end of your collection.
PROMPT: Thesis Questions
¸ What is it about this lore that is compelling? ¸ What does this lore do for the people who bear it? ¸ What values does this lore indicate? ¸ What can we learn from this lore that is useful to us?
Topics for oral presentations must be pre-approved by me. You will be graded on your choice of topic, your sources, your organization and your presentation itself. I do not expect virtuoso public speaking skills, and I do not want prepared papers read aloud. Presentations will be 5-7 minutes in length. Please understand this this is an important part of your grade, and that it is a requirement of all students. It is a use of important class time, so be serious and committed. The essential requirement is to connect your report to formal scholarship and analysis of American Folklore and Folklife and to argue for the importance of what you deliver.
Anthropology 21 Checklist for Field Collections
1. Was the assignment complete? 2. Did your field collection reflect a clear understanding of folklore, including vocabulary and core concepts from the text and lectures? In other words, could you have written what you are handing in without having taken this course? 3. Is the reader offered a rich and detailed portrait of your consultants, and of the context in which this lore exists? 4. Is there a careful and thorough description of your items of folklore, again using vocabulary and core concepts? 5. Have you analyzed the specific significance (personal, cultural, and social) that each item of folklore holds for your informant? 6. Have you woven in –rather than simply listed-- any appropriately cited scholarly sources, which lend information or analysis relevant to your choices of lore? That is, can I tell by reading your work that you have actually read the sources that you cited? 7. Were your collections legible, well organized, and free of spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors?
Sample Field Collection
Researcher’s Name (Yours) ____________________________
GENRE: Legend: La Llorona
Name of consultant: Mercedes Falun
Place and date of collection Hopland, California on October 13, 2008 with a follow up visit on October 20.
Consultant data: Mercedes Falun is a 72 year old mother of 5 and grandmother of 13 who came to the United States from Urupan, Mixoacan in 1965. She is a short, stout matriarch with serious eyes and a lively sense of humor. Fluent in Spanish, English and Purepecha, she has worked as a housekeeper, cannery worker, and gardener. Her home is in a run down building in a trailer court, but it is surrounded by ornamental plants, religious statues, and a vegetable garden full of corn, chiles, squash, tomatoes, and culinary and medicinal herbs. The small living room is centered around a television, with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and one of John F. Kennedy. I met Mercedes through friends in Ukiah, who told me she was an excellent singer and a curandera who treated people for a variety of illnesses including mal de ojo (evil eye). I went to visit her with my friends, taking my guitar and violin and a camera. Mercedes and Norberto, her husband of 35 years, were cooking carne asada on a Weber grill under a walnut tree among 15 or 20 relatives and friends. We spent a long afternoon eating, singing and getting to know one another.
Mercedes is active in her church as a social worker, helping members of her community find work, negotiate the “system,” and strengthen family and community ties. She sees herself as a witness for her people, who may have little support in the difficulties they face. Because of her language skills, she translates for people whenever she can be of assistance. As a curandera ¸she never charges a fee for her services, but people who come to her bring gifts or send family members to work in her garden or around the house. Mercedes says of herself, “I was taught by my parents that you have to repay life for what it has given you, and I have seen time and again that you don’t have to be rich to be important to people or have officio.” (This term means having a role to perform, something that gives meaning to life by expressing and affirming identity.)
Item of Folklore Mercedes tells the legend of La Llorona informally and with a serious tone, but with an underlying sense of nostalgia and humor. “In Uruapan, there are many lakes and streams and we were warned as children not to go near them at night or especially around twilight. There was supposed to be a ghost there, a woman who had killed her children by drowning them. She was in love with a man who put her down when his family told him to marry another woman. She actually went to his wedding and tried to break things up, so they threw her out. She drowned her children and then hanged herself. Many people, especially the old ones, heard her crying out at night for her kids. I never heard her myself, but my aunt heard her. We loved the story because it scared us but of course it made us want to go where she was and see if we could hear her, too. Now that I have travelled a bit, I know she is found all over Mexico. They say she is even in Clearlake and around the Russian River, and one of my granddaughters says her friend knew someone who heard her by the bridge down in Cloverdale. People like to make fun of these things, but they have been around for a long time and they are not going away even in this modern day world.” Mercedes’ guests weighed in with their own versions, all specific to a particular place and all connected with memories of childhood.
Discussion: The legend of La Llorona contains some compelling human themes. The terrifying act of infanticide, of killing a child, recognizes the fearsome fact that a parent, even a mother, can possess the capacity for extremes of violence against their own child. Tragically, infanticide crops up in the news from time to time. Infanticide is an ugly fact of life in the contemporary United States but it’s also a phenomenon that is widespread and ancient, occurring in groups of varied types of social organization from band type hunter- gatherers to stratified state-level societies. A common motif in this legend is that La Llorona killed her children as revenge against her unfaithful lover who abandoned them. Searching for this theme through time will bring you all the way back to the story of Medea ( a legend from ancient Greece, set down in writing 2400 years ago by the dramatist Euripides in 4th century BC. La Llorona is punished by God: her soul is not allowed to rest. The term for this motif in folkloristics is revenant … a person who has returned from the dead. Other motifs in this legend include betrayal, the banshee-like “Dead Wail,” and the murderer’s penance. The practice of infanticide in European countries has been well documented, both in the ‘ancient world’ and through Medieval and modern periods. (Nichols and Pinholster: 1972: 33-41) In early Renaissance Florence, for a European example, the practice was tacitly carried out in institutions known as foundling hospitals: these were “charitable institutions” administered by the church, where poor people could abandon babies (without ever coming face-to-face with the nuns receiving the infant). According to demographers who studied records from these hospitals, the great majority of these babies simply perished. Similar phenomena existed in the 18th and 19th century in France or London, for example, where working people would, of necessity, place their children in the hands of “wet nurses” who would supposedly care for their children; (however, since the wet nurses took on an impossible number of children, they doomed many to death from contagious disease and malnutrition). 20th century examples are found in Brazil, from fieldwork done by anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes, who worked with the poorest families in the shanty-towns. There, some babies simply would not be fed—they were seen as sickly, fated by God to die in infancy, as not intended for this earth (they were given the folk term “angelitos”). [Nichols and Pinholster: 1972: 77-82]. This may seem shocking, but if you have to count out each and every mouthful of food that you give to your children, it’s a reality of life. Pamela Jones [1988: 195-211] collected many versions of this legend in Oregon, while working for W.I.C. social services. She was interested not so much in the well-known story itself, but in how her clients saw the figure of La Llorona. These variants, localized and known as oicotypes, showed a wide range of views on the part of young mothers who were struggling in the United States. “The mother was always going out dancing, she left the children alone and they died.” She was a mujer libre, very beautiful.” “She killed the children because she didn't like children crying all the time.” “She did it because she had no husband.” “Her children drowned by accident while she was washing clothes in the river, she didn’t mean to do it but they blamed her.” “She just went crazy with grief.” “She did it because her boyfriend wouldn’t stay with her because of her kids.” According to Pamela Jones, the retelling of the legends, localized and brought forward in time, serve several functions. They release parental frustration, express unconscious anxieties about childcare, and indicate –with sympathy—the difficulties of raising children in poverty Bess Lomax Hawes  studied a collection of Llorona versions from a Juvenile Hall Detention Facility. She found sign superstitions such as a dog howling which would foretell the ghost’s appearance, and ways to keep her at a distance, such as burning a palm cross at the doorway. She also noted the ghost as a siren temptress, related to water creatures widely found in European and Native American folklore.
Conclusion: Mercedes and her friends told their versions of the legend as the evening shadows fell though the walnut trees. After the last version was told, there was a brief silence as though spirits were passing. People shrugged and smiled, said their goodbyes and turned to the dishes and tidying up. For Mercedes and her circle of family and friends, the legend is a palpable link to the homeland, as well as a way of warning children away from genuinely dangerous situations. I am indebted to Mercedes as my consultant for bringing this legend to life and for reinforcing the importance of folklore in day to day situations. For some, the legend may be seen as a Mexican and Central American cultural symbol that models negative and despised femininity, where La Llorona is the archetypal evil woman condemned to eternally suffer and weep for violating her role as a wife and a mother. She is a failed woman because she has failed at motherhood. The tale serves to shape Mexican and Chicana women's conduct by prescribing an idealized version of motherhood. Through my visit with Mercedes and my research on Jones’ and Hawes’ interpretations, I find this view distant and simplistic. La Llorona is a complex, layered account with many meanings and interpretations, and the most valuable of these are the ones that come from the tellers and hears themselves.
Works Cited Bess Lomax Hawes, “La Llorona in Juvenile Hall.” Western Folklore 27. 1986
Pamela Jones. “ ‘There was a Woman’: La Llorona in Oregon.” Western Folklore 47. 1988
Robert Nichols and Neal Pinholster, Infanticide in Many Cultures. Hawthorn University Press, Indiana. 1972.
This is the homepage for one section of ANTHRO 21 at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Information on this page applies to this particular section and has been placed here by the instructor of this section.
Other sections of this course might be taught by different instructors, might be delivered by different means
(such as in the classroom, on the Internet, or via television), and in any event might not use the same information presented on this page.
For a full listing of all sections of this course, visit the
complete schedule of classes.
You must be a Santa Rosa Junior College student in order to take any section of this course.
If you are not already an SRJC student, you must first apply for admission to the college.
After you have been admitted to SRJC, then you must officially enroll in this course through
the Admissions and Records Department. Read the SRJC Online Orientation for more information on eligibility, registration, fees, etc.
SRJC is committed to making courses accessible to students with disabilities. If you experience difficulty with accessing required or reasonably necessary
course materials, please contact the instructor or the Disability Resources Department.