Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F E A T U R E
ROB JOHNSON AND THE HAUNTED VALLEY OF FANTASMAS
b y   t a m a r a   k a y e   s e l l m a n   ~   m a r g i n

I. DANGER, BORDER CROSSING
"In three great bounds he reached the center of the bridge and seized the young monk by the shoulders. Shell pinned him to the road and ripped his throat out with his teeth, the copper taste of blood running down his own throat." -- from "Altar," by Kathleen Alcalá, in Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers

AFTER I read this story, I thought immediately of the chupacabra.

The first sightings of the chupacabra -- an unidentified goat-sucking beast blamed for mutilating livestock throughout Mexico and the borderlands-- were reported in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas as early as the 1970s. The beast, according to the records of urban legend experts, manifests itself in many ways: as a vampirish bat-like beast which hops like a kangaroo, as a red-eyed panther with a long snake's tongue, or as a monkey-like creature with an alien's face, among other equally monstrous descriptions. The chupacabra rose to mainstream American consciousness and notoriety when, in 1996, CNN began reporting on the phenomenon.

Upon reading Kathleen Alcalá's story, I was reminded of an episode of the X-Files where I'd first heard the term chupacabra, then I was reminded again of other stories I've read about bloodthirsty, shape-changing jaguars, including Kathleen de Azevedo's "The Miracle of Santa Maia," published in 1991 in Suzanna Sturgis's Tales of Magic Realism: Dreams In A Minor Key.


IT'S LIKELY that Rob Johnson of McAllen, Texas, could give you the full scoop on the chupacabra if you asked him. After all, he claims to have a picture of one "chupey" caught near San Antonio which he describes as a "devil-bat, sometimes a lizard-like creature."

His "evidence" might be more credible than most. Johnson isn't your run-of-the-mill ghost-busting, Sasquatch-filming, UFO-sighting "believer." As Ph.D. and Professor of English and American Literature at The University of Texas Pan-American, Johnson has just compiled and edited a book of stories entitled Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers.

The collection specializes in, among other things, Mexican American urban legends. His job depends upon knowing the ins and outs of localized tall tales. They significantly inform a genre of Mexican American literature referred to, casually, as "border stories," both oral and written, which comprise a distinct category of pulp fiction. It's Johnson's goal to bring that genre before a mainstream readership he believes is ready for new interpretations in supernatural fiction.


THE WORD fantasmas is an abbreviation of the term, cuentos de fantasmas; literally, "ghost stories" in the Latino tradition. Johnson was inspired to collect an anthology of supernatural cuentos after teaching a creative writing class at The University of Texas-Pan American in the fall of 1996. His students responded to an assignment on retelling folktales by submitting short stories which contemporized numerous local myths, such as la llorona, la lechuza and el diablo. What emerged was a fascinating tapestry of borderland stories showing direct and unequivocal interaction between real-life characters and an active and culturally vital spirit world.

"As an anthologist and editor conditioned to classify literary works, I wondered what type of story I was looking at. Were these typical ghost stories and urban legends that every region featured, or were they a specific kind of typical writing?" Johnson asks in his foreword to the book.

After doing some extensive research, he was able to pin down the cuento as not specifically "magical realist" in vein (though most stories in Fantasmas bear elements consistent with magical realism), but embracing what might be described as an "imaginative" realism peculiar to writers in the four-county borderland in South Texas adjacent to the lush Rio Grande Valley and Mexico, better known as The Valley.

The term cuento de fantasma also refers to a kind of Mexican American pulp fiction combining folktales, legend and popular culture -- just the sort of story Johnson was growing more and more interested in.

"I've always loved the pulp end of literature. As a literature professor, I've come to understand that what is great about pulp literature is that it's not trying to be Great or conventional literature and thus is, at times, the only honest literature out there."


BUT THE cuento de fantasma is not just any old ghost story. In fact, the category takes on a broader interpretation to include tales about superstitions, curses and miracles; contemporized myths and folklore; spirit possessions and deals with the Devil; and horror stories and tall tales which, naturally, incorporate supernatural elements.

The stories in Fantasmas are varied, generous and fun. There's the one about the wayward adolescent daughter Mariana, who ignored her mother's plea to stay home one Friday night and, consequently, was swallowed by a mysterious hole in the ground (and if you guessed that her mother placed a curse on Mariana the moment she stepped out of the house, you're on the right track). Then there's the story of a group of women holed up in a roadside tavern on the coldest night of winter, exchanging stories of miracles until one occurs practically before their very eyes (or does it?). And then there's the one about the potion from the botanica that didn't quite work like it was meant to -- or maybe it worked all too well...

These are stories that universally "absorb all kinds of pop culture forms and genres, urban legends and folktales," Johnson explains. "These are not writers who make a distinction between high and low culture."

That doesn't keep the cuento from enjoying numerous literary aspects.

For one thing, these stories share in common a strong moral layer. It's more obvious in some stories than in others (the wayward Mariana should have listened to her mother, for instance), but the message is there in every case. This is natural when you consider the strong Catholic beliefs of Mexican Americans; Good versus Evil and God versus The Devil are subjects for regular community discussion.

Indeed, these stories reflect a dual cultural consciousness on the part of the writers. How else can one move through life in these United States as a Mexican American? (Or anyone who is "hyphen American," for that matter?) Johnson points to double consciousness, a concept introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois which observes how writers struggle "to know at all times how you are being perceived by the members of the dominant culture."

"This goes back very far in the twentieth century in Mexican American literature," explains Johnson, "to the corridos (a kind of folk song indigenous to South Texas), and also to printed stories, such as the recently recovered stories of María Cristina Mena, who wrote in the teens."

While most White American authors can write safely from the socially acceptable vantage point of the mainstream, American writers of color (or other minority worldviews, like homosexuals and feminists) must also decide how much they want or need to honor their separate "outsider" identities.

So what happens in a collection of supernatural stories like Fantasmas is that you end up with urban legendry about evil packing shed bosses, alcoholic men driving possessed runaway dump trucks named Posita and a Mexican American woman exacting revenge on a controlling gringo husband more interested in exploiting her than in loving her.

The stuff of everyday life? Well, maybe.

But what most sets these stories apart is not any revisionist postcolonial dialog it might inspire, or even a discussion about modernized folklore. Rather, it's the fact that these stories all originate in or were written by authors who live along this unique southern hem of the United States.

Kathleen Brogan, author of Cultural Hauntings: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature, captures it best when she describes cuentos de fantasmas as stories from which "we hear haunting voices issuing from the borders between cultures, genres and languages, between a world we know and another at which we guess."


THERE'S NEVER been a better time for introducing the cuento to mainstream American audiences, which already have an insatiable appetite for ghost literature. Factor in the changing face of America, from a nation culturally subordinate to Western art and ideology to one finally acknowledging voices from the East, the South and the indigenous population, and what you arrive at is a society ready to expand its notion of fantastic literature beyond the traditional gothic.

Johnson points to evidence already illustrating this cultural transformation-in-progress: "Leslie Marmon Silko has a huge, difficult, brilliant novel called Almanac of the Dead that shows how slowly and surely, and according to ancient prophecy, the Indians are reclaiming their original land from Europeans...In South Texas, that has already happened, and in other border areas of the United States, I think you are seeing not exactly what America will look like in a 100 years, but more of what it will look like."

As well, we are getting a glimpse, in Fantasmas, of what this new population will be writing and publishing.

At Margin, we receive enough regular submissions approaching the supernatural from a multicultural angle to recognize that this is the literary shape of things to come. Peek inside: "For Sale" by Lianne Mercer, "The Blood Cake Vendor" by J.L. Navarro, "Without Wings" by Lia Scott Price, "Obsidian" by Susan San Miguel and "Tierra y Libertad" by Carol Zapata-Whelan are examples of other stories and writers published at Margin reflecting influences characteristic to the region and/or the cuento.

The Internet may, in fact, have a tremendous, if indirect, role in all of this. Not only has the World Wide Web injected globalization into suburbia via neat Gateway packaging, but it has also helped to nourish an already well-established appetite for the urban legend, one of the key storytelling forms specific to cuentos de fantasmas.

The urban legend isn't, of course, exclusive to Mexican culture. It's a universal phenomenon, one with a long, pre-Internet history.

For example, Americans have long shared -- over camp fires, party lines or water coolers -- various versions of the classic urban legend, The Hook. And who hasn't heard how pop culture icon, Mikey, of Life Cereal fame, met his death after downing a package of Pop Rocks with a Pepsi chaser? And if you still believe there are alligators in the New York City sewer system, or that the Great Wall of China can be seen from outer space, then you've played an integral role in keeping the urban legend alive and well in America.

Now the Internet has taken over as the new breeding ground for the form. If you received a copy of Gabriel García Márquez's dying words in an e-mail in 2001, then you've witnessed the ease in which modern fables can be created, then rendered utterly believable, and in warp speed, through the outrageously simple act of electronic publication.

The aforementioned chupacabra is one of the web's urban legend darlings. While "chupey" does not appear overtly in Fantasmas, it is still perhaps Mexico's premier urban legend celebrity; some attribute its origin to the Mexican government itself as part of a vast conspiracy to distract citizens from issues of political corruption among high-ranking leaders.

Fantasmas, with or without the chupacabra, enlists several popular, traditional motifs from Mexican legend, including la llorona (the Weeping or Wailing Woman), la lechuza (a shape-changing witch assuming the identity of an owl at night) and el diablo (a living incarnation of the Devil).

As with mainstream Americans, the Mexican American community has generated these modernized "tall tales" out of a need to master those things in daily life which threaten community: bloodless technology, for instance, or the notion of uncertain political destiny, or the more practical problem of institutional oppression (an enduring headache for many Mexican Americans), among other things.

As the stories are told and retold, the most sensational details become exaggerated. Over time, storytellers adopt or discard elements of the current pop culture in an effort to ensure credibility. Parents hand the stories down to their children, newspaper articles report deviant happenings and eventually, a fantastic spin of gossip, innuendo and hearsay is transformed into a legitimate community myth, always told with the disclaimer, "It could have happened...it could have happened to you..."


BUT THE urban legend is only one defining element of the cuento. Johnson also raises an interesting discussion about the underlying importance of using ghost stories to illuminate certain kinds of social truths relevant to Mexican America. In his foreword he writes, "Supernatural stories by minority writers tell the story that the colonizer has both physically and psychically repressed. As Sandra Cisneros says of those voices silenced by the colonization of the Americas, 'There is the necessary phase of dealing with these ghosts and voices most urgently haunting us, day by day.' "

The larger struggle for mainstream readers of the cuento may be in appreciating that, even if they don't believe in ghosts or curses or superstitions or miracles, they still must respect that these authors do.

Suspension of disbelief, though, can come stubbornly in a nation of consumers jaded by Hollywood special effects; lurid stories of cults (and now, terrorist cells); virtual reality; corruption in the Catholic church and other threats to faith in humanity, God and/or the spiritual world.

Which is why Johnson thinks mainstream America needs a book like Fantasmas. He suggests that Americans as a whole, "the most materialistic people in the history of the world," drop out of that materialism occasionally and let the spirit world enter into daily living.

"Fantastic literature erases the line between those two worlds and let's us talk about things and show things that we otherwise would ignore or fail to recognize," he says.

Living inside a community which regularly allows for the coexistence of material reality with the supernatural, he admits his thinking has been easily influenced by his devotion to place. "People here regularly see ghosts and take as a matter of fact all kinds of supernatural occurrences...The Valley is special in that respect, but I think it's actually true of most places in the world (outside of big cities)."

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