| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Tales from the Hispanic Southwest
In his pioneering Cuentos Españoles de Colorado y de Nuevo
México (Spanish Tales from Colorado and New Mexico), 1977, Professor Juan
B. Rael points out that the majority of the 500 tales he collected between
1930–40 “represent a part of the cultural heritage that the first settlers of
this former Spanish frontier brought with them, a heritage which their
descendants have faithfully preserved through more than three centuries.” The cuentos,
or folktales, that Rael and his predecessor and teacher Aurelio M. Espinosa
collected represent a huge repository of oral narratives that are old world in
type-origin, but often adapted to the southwestern geographic and social
ecology in which they were performed. The stories Hispanics related included
morality tales alongside tales of picaresque rogues, tales of enchantment
filled with witches, ghosts, enchanted princesses and tales in which animals
with the gift of speech and wisdom reminded humans of their filial and social
Sebastiana” (Doña Sebastiana) and “Los tres hermanos” (The Three Brothers)
included here represent cuentos morales (morality tales) the function of
which is to instill a complex religio-social sensibility in young listeners.
There are scores of tales like “Los tres hermanos” in which characters who fail
to consider the needs of the thirsty and hungry, the unsheltered, the old are
justly served with moral ruin, death, and perhaps worst of all, eternal damnation.
In “La comadre Sebastiana” death is personified, actually given full status as
a character who functions to integrate the reality and certainty of death into
everyday experience. Death is not imaged as the terrorizing grim reaper, but as
a familial figure, una comadre or godparent, who maintains filial ties
with an individual over a lifetime. Notice also that the cuento contains
within its orthodox Christian configuration a space in which the social
injustices Christianity has instituted over the centuries are exposed. For a
poor man to openly chastise both Jesus and the Virgin Mary for failing to be
equitable comprises a stunning class-conscious critique of Christian hypocrisy
and the Church’s complicity with the rich. In this particular story, the
woodcutter is rewarded for his charity with the gift of healing. As a curandero
or folkhealer he assumes a revered position in traditional Chicano society, a
position he must not abuse for material gain. When he does, the results are
If these stories
appear somewhat stiff in this textual edition it is because the intimate
environment in which they were performed is lost in print. Cuento
telling was a special event in which families, relatives, friends gathered
after a long day’s work, ate together, drank a few beers perhaps while the
children roasted piñon nuts, and then listened with rapt attention as an uncle,
ranch hand, or grandmother told story after story in nuanced tone, rich hand
gestures, suspense-building pauses and meaningful glances at the children. The
storytelling session often ended late, with the children clamoring for one more
cuento (“uno más, tio, no más uno” / “one more, uncle, just one more”)
while the adults pulled them away and made for home. There would be other days
and more tales another time.
However much the oral
storytelling tradition has declined in recent decades, it remains a crucial
narrative superstructure for numerous contemporary Chicano writers. In fact,
New Mexico’s preeminent Chicano novelist Rudolfo A. Anaya’s Bless Me,
Ultima, Heart of Aztlan, and numerous short stories resonate with the
narrative apparatus that functions in the cuento tradition. One might
say that the orally performed cuento has rather naturally imbricated
itself upon the textual narratives writers like Anaya are creating.
“Naturally,” because Anaya was one of those children clamoring for one more cuento.
The informality, verbal intimacy, even the melodramatic delight one discovers
in Anaya and other Chicano writers seem a continuation of the tale telling
strategies of the cuento performance.
Genaro M. Padilla|
California at Berkeley
In the Heath Anthology
The Devil Woman
[n.b., A version of a story told by Flo Sais.]
La Llorona, La Malinche, and the Unfaithful Maria
El indito de las cien vacas/The Indian and the Hundred Cows
El obispo/The New Bishop
La comadre Sebastiana/Doña Sebastiana
Los tres hermanos/The Three Brothers
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Chicano Literary History: Origin and Development.
Article by Luis Leal outlining the place of Rael's Cuentos in Chicano literary history.
Juan Bautista Rael, 1900-1993: Pioneer Hispano Folklorist
A biography of J.B. Rael, accompanied by a photograph of an interview regarding cuentos.