By Brooke O’Connor
Around the world, we find stories of “Little People” known as fairies, gnomes, goblins, sprites and a myriad of other names. They are usually associated with spiritual or supernatural powers. Some are considered helpers for nature and humans, while others may be maleficent.
Mexico has its own brand of creatures from pre-Hispanic culture, called duende in Spanish. Each region has a different species, with particular personalities and names. It’s interesting to note that in Spanish, if someone has charisma and charm, they are said to have “duende.”
Most creatures are described as small like a child, but with an old man’s face. Some can disappear at will, and some will camouflage into a full-sized (but short) old man. It is said, if an old man asks you for food, or a little money, it could be a duende. If you don’t pay the ask, there will be chaos. Maybe your crops won’t grow, or your car will break down. Mostly they’re causing mischief, but there can be danger. The duende seem to be attached to certain natural areas, but can be coaxed to leave with proper gifts and respect.
The most well-known of these legendary Mexican creatures are the alux (plural aluxob) from the Yucatán. The Aztecs called a similar but younger creature chanekeh (chaneque) or ohuican chaneque, which means “those who inhabit dangerous places” or the “owners of the house.” In Oaxaca, the Zapotecs call them huíchaa; they are nocturnal creatures and can be shapeshifters, taking the form of a jaguar, bat, snake, etc.
The similarities of these creatures with those represented in other stories from around the world is astounding. Almost enough to make you believe they may be real. In fact, I believe they may have been playing with me as I researched for this article.
A Witness from the Yucatán
My first exploration into this topic was over a long brunch, with a table of people from six countries. Each person shared their childhood stories, cultural perspective, and indigenous names for the creatures. Our friend from the Yucatán was most animated as he recounted what happened to him. He’s almost a grandfather now, but he doesn’t just have faith in their existence; he knows. We’ll call him José for the sake of anonymity.
José grew up in a traditional Mayan family, away from the cities, and in harmony with nature and the cycles of life. As a boy, he was regularly part of hunting expeditions. Sometimes at night, he was told to stay in the truck because the jungle is dangerous. The men were never gone too long. He was raised on the stories of the aluxob, who were curious, naughty, and liked to scare people. Humans must be careful not to infringe on alux territory, and offerings should be given to placate them.
One night, José locked the doors of the truck, as usual. He waited for the men to return. Normally, he waited an hour or less, but hours passed by. Then he heard a sound. He looked out the windows on every side, expecting to see men returning. He saw nothing. No movement in the bush, no words or human voices. The only thing he heard was a garbled whispering, in a language he didn’t understand.
He kept looking out each window, until he heard scratching on the bumper, and the vehicle started to rock back and forth. Then the whispering, became an unhuman cackle, and he hid under a blanket until it stopped. At some point, the rocking and cackling became whispers again. Then silence. No rustling of the bush, but he had a sense he was alone.
He stayed under the blanket for another hour. The men came back tired, and empty handed. That was unusual. José’s family is convinced the aluxob were not happy they were hunting that night. The family didn’t bring an offering, and they trespassed. They never did it again.
And from Huatulco …
I was intrigued by José’s story, and asked a local guide if he had any legends to share. He said he didn’t have legends, only experiences. I’ll call this guide Marco.
Marco grew up in the hills before Huatulco became a tourist area. He ran barefoot with his friends, and explored every inch of what we now call the Magic Waterfalls. His family taught him the dangers and beauty of the jungle: how to identify a poisonous snake, what trees to use for medicine, and the signs of the duende.
Sometimes there was screaming coming from the gullies at night. It sounded like a young child, injured or desperately lost. The cries happened when young men were walking on the road in the dark, alone. They knew the screams were a trap. Huíchaa tried to trick them, and they hurried home. Sometimes Marco saw an old man, someone unfamiliar, following him on a path. After a few minutes, Marco turned around to see the man had become a dog and went into the bush. Marco’s friends had similar stories. This was part of growing up in rural Mexico.
People may say these are imaginations of basic and uneducated minds. Yet Marco got a higher education in the U.S., then returned home to be of service to his people. He is convinced there is something not human, and not animal, living in the jungle.
Even in Oaxaca City
When I went to Oaxaca City, and met with an elderly guide, I posed the same questions about local myths and legends. This man speaks Zapotec languages, and Spanish as well as English. His profound knowledge of pre-Hispanic culture was invigorating and humbling. He avoided my questions at first. I thought it was a language barrier. Then I used a translator to be sure he understood me. He looked into my eyes, exhaled slowly, and told me I should stick to thoughts about the alebrije.
Alebrije are not legendary pre-Hispanic creatures, but an artistic endeavor from the 1930s. A man named Pedro Linares was very ill, and had dreams about fantastical creatures while he was sleeping. When he recovered, he used cardboard and papier-mâché to create the hybrid animals. He painted them with the psychedelic colors from his dreams, and caught the eye of a gallery owner in southern Mexico. Famous artists like Frieda Kahlo promoted his work, and soon the traditional wood carving artists of Oaxaca were producing alebrije from soft, easily carved copal wood. We see this beautiful art form alive and well today. We have some brilliant artists in Huatulco. Alebrije are not duende, so why would the elderly guide tell me to only think about them?
After returning to Huatulco, I researched everything I could online. Unfortunately, the Zapotec languages are very different from Spanish or other languages I know.* Most information about huíchaa are passed down through oral tradition. Videos and written material are mostly in Zapotec, and our modern tools don’t translate them. What I could find in Spanish, I translated and cross referenced. Yet in the back of my mind, I saw the elder guide, and his piercing eyes telling me to back off. However, I committed to this article, I wasn’t going to stop.
That’s when things started to happen.
I was at the beach for a morning swim. The dry bag was packed and locked, after I got out of the car. I didn’t open it again, until it was time to get back into the car. The bag was in view, as I swam. With my daily exercise done, I grabbed the bag, and walked to the parking lot. At the car, I realized the keys were missing. I emptied the bag. I only put four items in the bag. How could keys get lost? The car won’t lock if the keys are in it, so I knew they weren’t inside. No holes in the bag. The bag was securely folded down and locked shut when I retrieved it.
I retraced my steps to the beach, baffled by how the keys could be anywhere but inside a locked bag. I reached the exact spot where I’d left my things. There in the sand, were the keys, half buried, with a small footprint over the top. I wish now I had taken a picture. I was so shaken by the keys being in the sand, it didn’t occur to me at the time.
I examined the bag, it’s water tight. There’s no way the keys fell out. There were no children on the beach, it was early morning. A child wouldn’t have been able to close the bag. It was a bit of a struggle for me. The bag showed no signs of being opened, and the emergency money was still there.
Various things in my house have gone missing also. I will eventually find them, in some obscure place. We have no children, guests or pets moving things. It’s hard not to wonder if I’ve stirred the duende world.
I’m not saying I believe in huíchaa, but from now on, I will be leaving a small token of my appreciation every time I go to the beach. I hear they like fruit. If the huíchaa don’t eat it, the iguanas will.
*Ed. Note: The Córdoba branch of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) has an online Zapotec/English/Zapotec dictionary, good for looking up individual words (https://www.iifilologicas.unam.mx/cordova/zapEsp.php).