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How El Cucuy kept you safe all these years

Illustration by Raul Alonzo
Texas Standard

The Texas cryptids we’ve tracked the past few weeks all have backstories of some sort. A woman scorned, a man whose life was taken unjustly or a creature with an appetite for goat blood.

But there’s one with no rhyme or reason — which may make it all the more frightening.

It’s that instinct you get to pull your exposed dangling foot back under the covers. That light anxiety you feel when your hand drapes over the side of your bed, waiting for something to grab it.

Its name is El Cucuy and he’s waiting for you when you don’t go to sleep. At least that’s what parents and grandparents have told generations of children to keep them in their beds.

“As a deterrent or a way to police behavior,” says Domino Perez, a professor of English at the Center for Mexican-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “All you need is a scary man who’s going to get you if you do something that you’re not supposed to do.

» RELATED: How moms use the legend of La Llorona to keep their kids in line

"Maybe he lives under the bed. Maybe he lives in the closet. Everything is about keeping that child inside the house where it’s safe.”

El Cucuy is basically the Latin American or Hispanic version of the Boogeyman. And if you grew up hearing this story, you had many sleepless nights.

“I was very frightened of the Cucuy,” Perez says. “I developed an elaborate set of rituals when I was a child. You know, it was okay to have one arm out of the blanket, but you couldn’t have more than that. You had to be covered up all the way to your head.”

It’s something many, including myself, still do — whether it be instinct or habit.

“There are ways in our lives that we recognize that there are these external threats and that we, you know, how we protect ourselves. Where we park, you know, how we walk. Those kinds of things get ingrained right through storytelling,” Perez said.

Xavier Garza is the author of “Creepy Creatures and Other Cucuys,” and for him, the Cucuy is more of a general name to describe the infinite amount of scary things that go bump in the night.

Cucuy encompassed all of them,” Garza said. “It encompassed La Lechuza, the witch owl. All the Cucuys, they all carry that whole basically ‘pórtate bien’ — ‘you better behave or the Cucuy’s going to come and teach you a lesson.’ You know, and they’re all like morality stories.”

What the Cucuy looks like depends on who you talk to. Garza describes the Cucuy as a shapeshifter.

“It takes the form of whatever it is that you fear the most,” he says.

Kristen Cabrera
Texas Standard

Author David Bowles describes something similar in the book “Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas.” He describes the Cucuy as “a shape, emerging from the darkness, formless, faceless and ever so cruel. Hungry to gobble up little ones still awake in the still of the night.”

Garza says it makes sense why El Cucuy is targeted toward youngsters.

“The older people get, the more his power diminishes,” he said. “Which is why he preys on children, the young, teenagers. Because, you know, when people get older, they realize there is real monsters out there.”

But for some folks, especially around San Antonio and Central Texas, El Cucuy’s story has transformed into a different cautionary tale.

Stephanie Bergara grew up in East Austin. She’s the singer in the Selena cover band Bidi Bidi Banda.

“There used to be a club between Austin and Lockhart — Del Valle and Lockhart — called the Rocking M,” she says. “And it was like where people would do quinceañeras and bodas and parties and things like that.”

One night, she says, there was a dance, and a very handsome stranger walked into the club and asked this woman to dance. They danced all night and she was having a great time. Towards the end of the night, as they were dancing, she looked down at his feet. Instead of human feet, the man had a chicken foot and a pig foot. She screamed, and, as the rest of the men in the club chased him out, he vanished.

“That’s ‘Dancing With The Devil,’” says Perez. “What you see in that instance is a conflation of the two, of El Cucuy and the devil.” 

The Texas folklore legend almost always takes place at a specific existing or previously existing dance club. There are usually even newspaper clippings around the sightings. Garza is very familiar with this story.

“Go to El Valle, you mention the devil of the dance and they’ll say, ‘The Boccaccio — that nightclub in the Valley that burned down, I believe — oh, yeah, it happened in Boccaccio,’” Garza says.

Some will claim they were there or a friend of a friend was there, and he swears that it’s true, Garza says. Or if you go to San Antonio they’ll mention El Camaroncito Bar or a bar once called “La Gloria,” even though the building’s been torn down. But the fact that it’s no longer there adds to the power of the story.

It’s a classic Tejano tall tale, but how did these two stories get connected? Perez has a theory.

“The stories are similar in that they have a similar function and so they both focus on a woman or they both focus on a man – cautionary tales. And so because a lot of the elements are similar, you can see the way in which they get conflated or mixed up a little bit. But it all depends on the family’s story,” Perez said. 

The evolution of El Cucuy has creeped up through the state. In North Texas, the wide range of the Cucuy’s grasp has touched an unlikely place – a food truck in Denton called El Cucuy Burritos.

Owner Mark Kimberlin’s long love of the spooky and Mexican artwork’s colorful embrace of the creepy was his inspiration. Each menu item is named after a Cucuy: you have El Cucuy, La Chupacabra, La Llorona …

We even have one called ‘La Suegra,’ you know, because we get to have all the scary stuff in there,” Kimberlin said. 

Kimberlin says El Cucuy has brought him closer with the community.

“It creates that conversation when helping the customers, you know, pronounce the names of the food,” he said. “That’s always fun and you get a little laugh. [Customers say] ‘Am I saying that right?’ or ‘That’s really cool. I like what you did there. You know that that reminds me of the stories.’”

As stories evolve, he notes, so do cultures.

“It’s something that we all participate in daily,” Kimberlin said. “It’s things that we see, things that we hear, those that are around us. And, you know, we’re slowly all becoming a centralized culture, especially here in Texas.”

But even as El Cucuy’s story changes with time, like its sweet appearances in the children’s book “El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!,” there is still one song which will be engrained in the dreams and probably nightmares of children across the world for generations.

Duérmete niño, duérmete ya. Que viene el Coco y te llevará.

Duérmete niño, duérmete ya. Que viene el Coco y te comerá.

Roughly translated, it's:

"Sleep my child, sleep now. The Cucuy is coming and will take you away,

Sleep my child, sleep now. The Cucuy is coming and will eat you."

Ayden Castellanos is all too familiar with that lullaby.

“I had that song sung to me. I know many people who had that song sung to them,” says the Susto Podcast host. “There is this theme of the Cucuy again in different cultures.”

In Latin America and Spain, El Cucuy can go by many different names.

Author David Bowles sums it up in his book perfectly, including the onomatopoeia of the name variations: “It has many names … Cuco, cucu, cucuy, coco … stuttering sounds from the mouths of a very few fearful children who have seen it in the shadows and lived, for a time, to tell the tale.”

Castellanos remembers one Cucuy in South America that does have backstory.

“There’s this one called El Silbón from Venezuela,” he says. “His thing is that he murdered his parents and he was doomed to carry the bones of his father on his back. And so if you hear bones rattling at night, that means that it’s El Silbón around.”

In the end, these cautionary tales serve a purpose for children and those growing up. And though it won’t hurt to look under your bed and in your closet once in a while, Garza says as we get older, we end up realizing what the real dangers are.

“Don’t be afraid of the cemetery,” he said. “The people that are there are already dead. Be afraid of the people that are not in there. Those are the ones that can hurt you, you know?” 

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her:
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