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Culture Focus

In Between Stories: How Storytelling Reveals Our Culture 

Illustration credit: Vy Le

“It was the goblins”, my Mexican great-grandma used to reply as someone in the household thought an item went missing. “Let’s pray to St. Claire to find it!” As we walked in my hometown of Puebla, my dad also had intriguing statements about the paranormal. “They say a demon lives in this house, and if you walk past it at midnight it is going to ask you a favor,” he commented once when we found ourselves across said property. The list goes on, and I have always stood in front of them fascinated by their stories. 

While in the United States, I have missed this supernatural take on life, and I ask those around me to share their ghostly experiences with me. I recall on time as an exchange student in Indiana when I asked my host dad whether he had seen any “weird” occurrences in the highway; he was somewhat bewildered at first, and after a moment of thinking he said no and changed the topic. In college, I have asked friends to narrate any paranormal experiences they have encountered; the responses range from “I don’t believe in that” to “yeah, it was so cool!” if they choose to share their stories, their accounts are often on the more playful side, and the spookiness ends right after some giggles.

During Fall, I recall the scary stories my family and friends told me while growing up because it is around this time that I am reminded the most about such accounts. Halloween and Day of the Dead, two festivities a few days apart, provide me the opportunity to reflect on the approaches to the supernatural in both Mexico and the United States; the differences between them reveal how each society holds distinct set of beliefs in regards to life, death and our relationships with each other.

In my home country, death is seen from a lighthearted lense. As most of the population is Catholic or at least grew with that mindset, people share the mindset that death is not the end of life, but the beginning of a new one; rather than looking at it somberly, Mexicans enjoy having fun with the idea of dying and coming back to visit. For instance, each year individuals from all backgrounds write “calaveritas” (little skulls in Spanish), which are small poems that narrate a fake but funny death account of a famous person or historical figure. The “catrina” itself, a skeletal aristocrat lady that has become the symbol for Day of the Dead and Mexico worldwide, is a caricature of the elite in pre-Revolutionary Mexico. Indeed, the interaction between death and life is playful, but there is also a certain degree of solemnity.

The legends, ghost accounts, and stories of those who passed away show that to Mexicans the past is important. To us, the people and places we interacted have a history and we belong to it, which makes it worth sharing; this reason is why we focus on narrating stories.

If one travels around Mexico, each region and town has its own. La Llorona, a legend of a woman who killed her children, has local variations and it is often transmitted by word not only in Spanish, but also in many of the native Mesoamerican languages. Our connection to the past makes our culture a story-telling one, but it this reality reveals one of our flaws

Staying attached to the past can have its problems, mainly the reluctance to move away from the past. These stories just show how much the past weighs on the life of Mexicans. Tradition is part of us, but our attachment may grow to the point that we do not want to see into the future. I have often heard back home how people complain when change comes that, “if it works, why change it?” People are often unwilling to alter their way of life, no matter if its good and bad for them. While I praise, the past’s ability to develop a collective identity, it may stop us from progressing.

The American take on the paranormal contrarily reveals a focus on the livable present and foreseeable future. Similar to Mexico, Hallowen used to be a religious holiday to honor the dead, but now it has morphed into a night of fun. With costumes and parties that often have little to do anything with the dead, and people don’t really think about those who have passed away but rather on more worldly satisfaction. Even at my church there was a Halloween dinner and my friends put a lot of effort into becoming famous celebrities for it. 

Overall, this disregard for the dead and the past result from an interesting culture. In the United States people are more private about their lives, especially when it comes to religion. Unlike Mexico, here there is more diversity and it is unlikely that someone next to you shares your faith. Furthermore, Americans are somewhat more skeptical about the paranormal, and I think it is because people are more empiricist than people in Mexico; a story generally won’t convince an American until they themselves witness such accounts, whereas at home figures of authority are often regarded as sources of truth no matter their validity. 

The general empiricist nature of the American mindset also drives them to be curious and try to find an explanation for the phenomena. People are willing to go ghost-hunting and scientifically prove the existence of creatures and entities, even though it may just be for fun; entire shows and teams go out to gather such evidence of paranormal activity while other more “experimental” groups do so for the drive and experience they allegedly feel from an encounter. While this approach to phenomena does not reflect the sense of collective identity in Mexico, it does promote change.

Americans generally are willing to question accounts and conduct research – whether it is formal or informal – to prove them right or wrong; here people are willing to step out of their comfort zone to try out new things, and society does not frown upon it. I appreciate growing up in both cultures because it has let me see their takes on the dead, the paranormal, and the past.

I know there are exceptions to all I have said, but that’s what I have witnessed in the ten years I have spent moving across borders. While I appreciate the American inquisitiveness, I have come to admire the Mexican storytelling culture more because it just creates a larger sense of collective identity that I know will help the world. Perhaps the scariest story of all is how Globalization is making us lose our individual and regional uniquenesses, often replacing it with a more rational mentality as seen in the United States. People are forgetting their origins and identity, but  I hope storytelling helps counter that process before everyone everywhere becomes the same person. “There are ghosts and entities out there son,” my mom always tells me, “but it is humans and their actions of which we have to be most afraid.”