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Sonoma County residents preserve history through Latino folklore, storytelling

While storytelling within Latino communities has evolved over the years, the practice of storytelling remains relevant as ever.|

Latino Heritage

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

Laura Larqué takes pride in storytelling, but La Llorona, a widely known Mexican tale, is a story that makes her cringe.

“The problem with some folktales — especially after the Spanish invasion — is they are very racist,” said Larqué, longtime history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College. “Folktales like La Llorona don’t give me any Latino pride.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Larqué said she heard the anti-Indigenous tale of La Llorona, or the weeping woman, “all over the place.” Fortunately, there are many other folktales told through the lens of Mexican or Indigenous communities instead of colonizers.

Before stories were written down, they were told. Whether it was to children at bedtime, over family meals or around the glow of a fire. Oral stories entertained, reinforced ethnology and added value to communities. While storytelling within Latino communities has evolved over the years, the practice of storytelling remains relevant as ever.

“Stories help the common folk to be acknowledged,” Larqué said. “Stories carry history, culture, values and memories.”

The following folktales, told orally by Sonoma County residents, explore legendary heroes and heroines, the creation of humans, the value of animals and food, love and wonder. Some heard these stories from their parents and grandparents. Some studied these stories as scholars or as a way to connect with their heritage.

These stories were edited for length and clarity.

Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl

One folktale Larqué enjoyed sharing is the Aztec love story of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, which has a few different versions.

There once was an emperor with a smart and good princess daughter named Iztaccíhuatl. The emperor wanted his daughter to marry someone who matched her intellectually, but she fell in love with one of his warriors, Popocatépetl.

The emperor assigned Popocatépetl to fight in a war, and before he left Popocatépetl promised to marry Iztaccíhuatl when he returned. The emperor agreed to the arrangement. Popocatépetl was a brave fighter in battle, but two cowardly men went back and told everyone Popocatépetl died.

Iztaccíhuatl was so saddened by the news of her love’s death that she died of heartbreak.

When Popocatépetl returned, he learned of Iztaccíhuatl’s death. Heartbroken, he took her body up the highest mountain and kept a fire beside her. Iztaccíhuatl became the mountain.

Popocatépetl starts another fire at the next mountain over, which became a volcano. And that is how a mountain and a volcano came to embrace each other.

El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez

Her grandparents’ adherence to cultural assimilation led to no Mexican folktales told in Amanda Martinez Morrison’s family. And only her mother, one of five children, knew Spanish.

The lack of connection to her cultural heritage contributed to Morrison getting a doctorate in anthropology with a specialization in Mexican American studies.

“There's a sense of loss through the pressures of assimilation and American racism. So I clearly was doing something to reconnect and learn more about what was lost,” said Morrison, 46, ethnic studies lecturer at Sonoma State University and cultural center coordinator at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The Mexican side of her family is from El Paso, Texas. Through her studies, Morrison shared a tale of the legendary Gregorio Cortez (1875-1916), who inspired many songs and poems. Mexican singer Ramón Ayala has a popular rendition of a Gregorio Cortez-inspired song.

Gregorio Cortez was a farmer and rancher in Texas accused by a white sheriff of stealing a horse. Gregorio spoke Spanish and the sheriff spoke English. Although Gregorio proclaimed his innocence, during the confrontation the sheriff’s deputy mistranslated his words and it sounded like he was being defiant.

As the misunderstanding escalated, the sheriff shot and killed Gregorio’s brother, Romaldo. Gregorio quickly shot back and killed the sheriff.

With two people dead, Gregorio fled, leaving the rest of his family behind because he knew he would be lynched and not be given any kind of justice or a fair trial because he was a Mexican in Texas, a racist place.

He went on the run for 12 or 13 days and evaded the famous Texas Rangers, a powerful force who Mexicans back then feared. News of his bravery and superior horsemanship were immortalized in song and Gregorio became a symbol for standing up for your rights and against racist violence.

“El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” is viewed by scholars as an early example of Chicano or Mexican-American literary practice, Morrison said.

“Before many Mexican-Americans were getting access to going to college and becoming poets and scholars, we had this folk tradition of political resistance,” Morrison said.

Los Rebeldes terrorized small town

A tale told again and again from one generation to the next in Ricarda Suarez’s family is a true and tragic story, but despite the sadness it’s a story that makes her proud of her Mexican roots.

Suarez, 16, is a senior at Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa. She moved here in 2016 after spending five years living in Tarandacuao, a town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato.

What happened to the town is remembered by everyone there. It goes like this:

The tranquility of the small town of Tarandacuao la Constancia was shattered on July 25, 1937, when a group of anti-agricultural bandits called Los Rebeldes violently attacked everything in their path.

They stole horses and cattle, vandalized and stole from homes and businesses, burned historical archives, took women against their will, and ruthlessly killed people who got in their way. The priest fled the town church as the bandits went on their killing spree.

The little town was left in ruins and suffering. To this day everyone still knows someone who was affected by the attack, but over the years they rebuilt their stability and unity.

The resilience of the townsfolk inspires Suarez, especially in how they now welcome new people despite their past collective trauma. Visitors today are drawn to local festivals and the town’s ojo de agua (watering hole).

“After what the people endured they are still as welcoming as possible,” she said. “By being open they’ve grown as a society.”

Mayan ‘people of the corn’

Silvia Soto, 48, of Petaluma, prefers not to use the term folktales, due to its “heavy anthropological connotation” and instead calls it storytelling. She said some researchers looked at folktales as something stuck in the past, but she doesn’t view it that way.

“In indigenous studies, we take these stories as living, breathing things that by no means speak about a backward way of life. Rather, what I would say is it’s a revolutionary way of relating to time and place because their stories have been in the community for forever,” Soto, a Sonoma State University assistant professor of Chicano and Latino Studies, said of old Mayan tales.

Soto immigrated from Zinapécuaro, a town in the Mexican state of Michoacán, to Northern California in 1986. Since 1994 she has researched Mayan culture in Chiapas, a state and Mayan region in southern Mexico.

“When Mayan people talk about who they are as people they talk about being people of the corn,” she said.

These Mayan tales are derived from a combination of Soto’s archival research and her conversations with locals in that area.

When it came time for the first mothers and the first fathers — the creators — to populate the world, they sent little animals like raccoons, rabbits and mice to fetch ear corn. The ear corn was brought to the first mothers who made corn dough, and out of that dough was how humans came to inhabit the world.

Mayans say a higher being, the animal world and the natural world must be honored in people’s lives.

In another time humans once relied on little ants to travel to the depths of the earth to rescue corn kernels. That responsibility was placed on ants because they were tiny enough to fit in the smallest cracks of the earth. The ants succeeded in rescuing the corn kernels and brought them back to humans, who were saved from starvation after they planted the kernels and had a good corn harvest.

Mayans say to honor even the tiniest beings in the world. What may seem like a useless little animal may one day save you. Respect the natural world. Humans and animals must collaborate for each other’s survival.

Latino Heritage

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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