Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Origins: "El Cuco"

We all know of El Cuco, the mythological monster, our parents all warned us about and sometimes even utilized to put the fear of God into us and make us do their will. The other day I was thinking about El Cuco and wondering if perhaps its origins came to us from our Yoruba ancestors since the term sounds African. I was surprised to learn: (it was originally an European pumpkinhead!)

The Cuco (Coco, coca, or cuca) is a mythical monster, a ghost, witch; equivalent to the boogeyman found in many Hispanic and Lusophone [Portuguese-speaking] countries.

The myth of the Coco originated in Portugal and Galicia. According to the Real Academia Española the word "coco" derives from the Portuguese language, and referred a ghost with a pumpkin head.

Traditionally, the coco, or its feminine counterpart "coca", is represented by a carved vegetable lantern made from a pumpkin with two eyes and a mouth, that is left in dark places with a light inside to scare people. The vegetable lantern is similar to the Jack o' lantern. Coca the dragon is another representation of this scary being and is present in the folklore of Portugal and Galicia.

The name of the "coconut" derived from "coco" and was given to the fruit by the sailors of Vasco da Gama because it reminded this mythical creature.

The legend of the Cuco began to be spread to Latin America by the Portuguese and Spanish colonizers.

There is no general description of the Cuco, as far as facial or body descriptions.

The legend of the Cuco is widely used by parents in Spain and Latin America in order to make their children go to sleep. Parents usually tell small kids that the Cuco will take them away if they don't fall asleep early. This method has been in use for decades now.

Popularity and other names
The Cuco method is very popular among parents from Dominican Republic to Argentina. In many countries, the character has different meanings: in Mexico, for example, parents prefer to call Cuco the similar name "Calaca", which also means skeleton there.

In Brazil Cuco appears as a female, 'Cuca'. Cuca appears as the villain in some children books by Monteiro Lobato. Artists illustrating these books depicted the Cuca as an anthropomorphic alligator.

In Northern New Mexico, where there is a large Hispanic population, El Cuco is referred to in its Spanglish name, the Coco Man. His image is construed with Brazil's sack man; he carries a bag to take naughty children around Christmas time, and demands repentance in the form of Catholic prayers.

The Bogeyman (or boogeyman) could be considered an English equivalent of the Cuco, since both monsters attack children who misbehave.

POPULAR SONG FOR THE CUCO: duermete niño, duermete ya...que viene el cuco y te comera (sleep child, sleep now...or else comes the coco to eat you)

* Photo credit: Self-portrait by Jamie Wyeth


  1. Thanks for a great post, Valerie! As a kid, I was often threatened with "el coco," as he was called in Cuba. Of course if el coco failed to calm me, the "chancleta" soon followed.

  2. Thanks, Raul! I wasn't hit hit the chanqleta, no my mom often followed up with a "cocotazo."

  3. great fun article.

  4. Anonymous11:34 AM

    This makes me smile since one of the first children's books I illustrated was called, "Mayte y el cuco." http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1558854428/sr=8-1/qid=1149274250/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-4835933-5888725?%5Fencoding=UTF8

    (Thanks to Jo Ann for linking to this post!)

  5. Cuca, in Monteiro Lobato's stories, is not a pumpkin' head man, is like a lazard witch. Cuco, in Brazil, is the name of the Cuckoo Bird. Do you know Neil Gaiman? In "A Game of You", the Cuckoo Bird (here, the Cuco) control the dreams inside of a girl.

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