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The “Monstrous Woman” Trope in Latinx Folklore

The Donkey Lady of Texas

The Donkey Lady is a story from the Southwest; she was a woman who was a spinster in San Antonio, TX. She only had affection for her donkey “child” and she was eventually attacked by locals, making her the monster because she stepped out of the bounds of normalcy/roles relegated to women by rejecting being a wife and a mother in favor of her donkey.

Monster Theory

Jeffrey Cohen’s thesis IV on monsters VI states that fear is really a kind of desire is related to the process of monsterizing the Donkey Lady; we might fear this group of people (or specifically a person), but there is also desire present at times. (Perhaps it was a spurned lover who burned down her house; maybe she didn’t want to get married and society had a violent reaction to that.) Racism and desire also exist side by side when monsterizing others. I think history does have a habit of turning those that are different/that we fear into monsters then giving ourselves permission to subjugate them, unfortunately even sexually so that those doing the raping/killing can feel better about their own hideousness as humans, for hurting those they Othered. It’s easier to blame the monster for the violence enacted upon it: it’s a monster, it had it coming. Problem is, these are humans we’re talking about and subjugating other humans in any way is a truly monstrous act.

Haunted Narrative Dualism

San Antonio has a history of its hauntings literally screaming out about the abuse systems that created ghostly narratives, and it reminded me of New Orleans’ own relationship with the horrors of its past with slavery. In Putting the Supernatural in its Place (2010)Frank de Caro explains how the ghostly narratives are really about confronting the horrors of slavery, having the silenced shout back and push back after death against the system that made it possible. Slavery was all about monsterizing others; there was still this association of black = sin, white = good operating in antebellum South. Slavery was a part of that era’s soul, sewn into every single aspect of life back then—men were judged by their ability to keep slaves in line/choose them and women were judged similarly in terms of the house/home with barking orders at slaves. Slaveowners actually told themselves this was better for black people, that they were doing them a favor (because they didn’t see slaves as people, more like animals that could speak who needed a firm hand. Being able to speak meant nothing when it came to being a person in antebellum South.)  White was considered good, while black was bad, which was seen back in medieval times. 

Tracing Back to the Salem Witch Trials

Spinsters were automatically Othered because when we look at past communities who cried witchcraft, it was always the women who were unmarried, poor, and old that were first accused of being a witch. Witches also seem to be another form of monster; they were always different and their supposed binding to Satan for their powers made them much more so because it goes against the religious norms of the time periods when folk beliefs about witches were prevalent. By not performing their “functions”, as it was seen, women were declared inhuman because they weren’t procreating, weren’t serving men as wives—spinsters were just existing, which apparently breaks other social norms. It was normally in bigger communities that people were murdered over witch folk beliefs since in Newfoundland, people would rail against the weird, witchy woman but the community was much too small to be murdering them, as seen in Barbara Rieti’s book, Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells (2008). In communities like Salem, there were more people and the resources shrank because the spinster wasn’t fulfilling a function in their society, so they were accused first to get rid of the drain on the communal resources.

Monster Qualifiers

Other qualifiers for monsters: 1. Remote location/ 2. Unusual physical form/ 3. Bizarre behavior. Witches definitely fit into these ideas; after all, to feel good about destroying them, people had to tell themselves they weren’t human and/or dangerous. Usually, spinsters lived away from society where they weren’t accepted, so in a way, they were remote. They were not young or beautiful most of the time, so they had an unusual physical form that was different from the women of the town/village, probably also from abject poverty. They also engaged in what was perceived as bizarre behavior, which might have been the imaginings of people who were going to talk about them anyway; it might have also been due to mental illness that these women behaved differently and were considered strange. Strange is perceived as monstrous if it threatens our notions of decency and/or religious values, which is dangerous to be. I think every time a group in history has been subjugated or seen as “purged” in genocide, it’s because the people involved first told themselves it needed to happen because that group was full of monsters. People are fascinated by monsters but only if the monster stays in the cage we put it in; then it’s entertainment [I’m thinking specifically of Jurassic World (2015)]. Most narratives I can think of is a never-stop-we-have-to-find-it kind of thing because the subjugators fear retaliation of the monster (which makes me think of Beowulf and Grendel’s mother). This happened with slavery when people would escape (they were dragged back to slaveowners or they were killed trying to escape) and also in Jurassic World (2015)-when it escapes its bonds is when people scramble to either kill it or put it back in the cage. I think if enough time passes, it could become legend if it’s a big enough continual threat to society: “Don’t go into those woods; the monster is out there!” Or even, it could be seen as a way to control unruly young members of society; many legends function to keep children in line.

La Llorona

We see this especially with La Llorona; she was a mother who murdered her children, rejecting the mother role; her punishment besides wandering, continually searching for her children as a spirit is to be a warning to children generations after not to wander themselves. It’s the women still living outside pre-set cultural boundaries that must be dealt with, must be punished but for all we know, La Llorona is not to blame due to mental illness or an unfair judge of what happened to her children. Maybe she didn’t even kill them or have children and yet she’s remembered as a horrible monster for the ways she escaped the confines of what women should be: good mothers and docile. A woman who cannot be controlled is a threat.

La Malinche

La Malinche was a native woman to Mexico who interpreted for conquistador Hernán Cortés, eventually leaving her country behind, everything she knew for her Spanish lover and was branded a traitor for it, which is her brand of monstrosity; this continues in the Mexican use of the word “malichiniste” as an insult to mean to betray one’s own people. It also pertains to her perceived sexual treachery, that the males from Mexico are somehow tainted by their “violated mother”, which somehow both blames her and implies she was forced into sexual relations with the Spanish conquistador. La Malinche chose for herself to leave and this also broke the rules of machismo culture that only became apparent after her departure: be a good mother, dutiful wife, docile, and never leave your homeland behind.

References

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. 1996. Monster Theory: Reading Culture.

Original post by Victoria Jaye on Mar 21, 2021, USU Canvas.

Rieti, Barbara. 2008. Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells.

Strickland, Debra Higgs. 2003. Saracens, Demons & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art.

Thomas, Jeannie. 2015. Putting the Supernatural in its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal.

Torrez, Mercedes. Disability, Transgression, and Fetishized Fascination in Reimagining the Cultural Haunting of San Antonio’s Legendary Donkey Lady.

https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/blog/interview-cocurator-dams-malinche-exhibition

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