Latino American Folktales
Edited by Thomas A. Green. 2009. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. 174 pages. ISBN: 978-0-313-36299-6 (hard cover).
Reviewed by Eric Morales, Indiana University
[Review length: 1191 words • Review posted on April 2, 2012]
Stories from the American Mosaic is a four-volume series edited by Thomas A. Green that seeks to collect and comment on folktales from some of the different ethnic traditions in America. Geared towards high school students and the general reader, this particular volume is meant to “represent the cultural diversity in the American Latino” (vii). Folktales with their clear narrative structures are indeed a wonderful means by which to introduce people to different cultures, a very laudable goal.
The structure of this book follows the standard format of the series, beginning with a preface written by the editor, followed by the collection of stories, separated into four thematic chapters, ending with a selected bibliography for further reading and an index to locate key terms. The chapters are of different lengths and consist of thirty-five folktales, divided into the following categories: Origins; Heroes, Heroines, Villains, and Fools; Society and Conflict; and the Supernatural. The stories are collected from previously published sources, and most tales are somewhat modified for the contemporary reader. They are, however, not edited for political correctness, with only racially charged terms that are highly offensive being replaced. This is done in an attempt to retain as much of the feel of the original version as possible. Each of the tales is preceded by a valuable headnote providing historical and contextual information, and each tale concludes with a helpful citation supplying the original publication information. There are no accompanying photographs or drawings.
The contents feature fictional tales, legends, myths, and personal experience narratives. Tales have different narrative flows, reflecting the writing styles of the various authors. Subject matter includes Aztec mythology, the dissemination of Catholic influences, localized hero figures, and the prevalence of European literary traditions throughout the Americas, which supplanted many indigenous literary traditions due to a colonial bias that considered the latter to be unimportant. Elements touched upon in the collection that illustrate the assimilation of European motifs in the Americas include the rule of three, the victory of the younger sibling, and the replacement of stock animal characters, such as Coyote being used as the trickster instead of Fox, or Jaguar used in lieu of Lion as the largest land predator. According to Green, “Native North, Central, and South American influences are apparent in the Latino repertoire by virtue of the inclusion of characters such as Coyote and Tigre (Jaguar) in fictional tales” (vii), as well as by historical figures such as Montezuma.
The stories in the book, however, are not a representative collection, and their skewed provenance detracts from the overall value of the anthology. Of the thirty-five stories, seventeen take place in Mexico or come from narrative collections about Mexico; fifteen are situated in the American Southwest, twelve of which occur specifically in New Mexico; and the last three tales are from Cuba, Guatemala, and Chile. Latino Americans inhabit every state in the United States of America and have roots in regions as varied as South America, Central America, parts of North America, and the Caribbean. To have thirty-two of the tales deriving from such a small geographic region neglects the diverse cultural heritages of these populations, and it is not easily corrected by the use of the above-mentioned stock characters, which largely come from North America. Further complicating matters, the tale of “Maria the Ash Girl” that Green attributes in the headnote as being pulled from Chilean folklore is credited as coming from a source called, “Filipino (Tagalog) Versions of Cinderella,” published in the Journal of American Folklore. Not only is this tale functioning as the sole representative story of South America, but also it is disconcerting that its source is from a collection concerning a Pacific island chain.
The sources from which these stories are pulled also function as a point of contention. Eight tales are taken out of the M.A. thesis of folklorist Gabriel A. Cordova, Jr., entitled Magic Tales of Mexico; six are taken from the repertoire of journalist Charles F. Lummis; and four are from edited collections by folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Half of the book, then, comes from the efforts of these three individuals, with the thesis of Cordova providing nearly a quarter of the entire compilation. Featuring tales from different locations and pulling from a wide range of authors would ameliorate many of the problems. For instance, Peruvian folklorist of German descent, Adolfo Vienrich, compiled a collection of fables in their native Quechua language that he published in 1906 in a book titled, Tarmapap Pachahuarainin (Fabulas Quechuas/Quechuan Fables). Tales from various such collections would go a long way to helping the book reach its objective, but such additions necessitate a greater familiarity with cultures and languages from Latin America.
The editor, Thomas A. Green, is an anthropologist/folklorist from Texas A&M University. He has done a good amount of work in the study of folktales, but his interests in Latino narrative traditions, as evidenced by his published body of work, are somewhat lacking, and that alone raises the question of whether he was the proper choice to function as the editor. Moving away from the preponderance of stories coming from North America and the over-reliance on a select few authors, having an editor with a stronger background in Latino narrative traditions might have elicited the presence of other common Latino folk characters, such as El Coco/Cucuy, Don Cacahuate, El Sombrerón, La Patasola, El Chullachaqui, La Marimonda, and so forth. It might have also engendered more contextually relevant information for the headnotes, which, although valuable, still have room to be improved upon. The headnote for the story of La Llorona, for instance, fails to account for the near-endless variations in existence across Latin America, and, as a consequence, the included tale is presented to the young reader as canonical rather than just a variant.
On a more fundamental level, there are numerous practical issues that should be addressed. The book would benefit greatly from further editing, as there are many typographical errors as well as minor grammatical mistakes. There are also inconsistencies in the convention used to present translations: parenthesis for the translation are used in some parts of a tale while brackets are used in others; italics are not always used on the first occurrence of a Spanish word; and some Spanish words do not have translations provided at all. In addition, not all of the stories correspond well to the chapter headings, and two of the stories are nearly identical. The entire plot of “Sister Fox and Brother Coyote” is contained within the “Tale of the Rabbit,” the key differences being the names of the characters and that the latter story is episodic, thus containing more events. This repetition of plots is needless and detrimental, as it prevents the opportunity to showcase other folktales.
Overall, the stories have value in and of themselves, as they illustrate the confluence of European narrative traditions within Latino cultures, and also, for the most part, they are a rather enjoyable read, which does reflect well on the editor. This collection of tales, however, although interesting and informative, would perhaps be best suited as a companion piece to a more well-rounded anthology.