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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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 responsibilities.

“La comadre 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 grave.

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
University of California at Berkeley

In the Heath Anthology
The Devil Woman (1959)  [n.b., A version of a story told by Flo Sais.]
La Llorona, La Malinche, and the Unfaithful Maria (1973)
El indito de las cien vacas/The Indian and the Hundred Cows (1980)
El obispo/The New Bishop (1980)
La comadre Sebastiana/Doña Sebastiana (1980)
Los tres hermanos/The Three Brothers (1980)

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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.

Secondary Sources