The role of Mexican folklore in teaching and learning
One way teachers can connect with students of Mexican origin is by understanding the cultural knowledge they bring with them into the classroom, including the stories, proverbs, and legends they've learned. Learn more about Mexican folklore from this booklist and collection of online resources, and share this rich oral tradition with all your students.
The folklore of Mexico
Connecting with students and activating background knowledge are both important components of teaching students of Mexican origin. One way you can connect with students is by understanding the cultural knowledge they bring with them into your classroom, including the stories, proverbs, and legends they’ve learned. Many of these stories may be different from the stories you learned as a child, or the tales that American children hear today. By learning a little about the folklore of Mexico, you will better understand your students’ culture and will know more about their background knowledge.
Mexico has a strong oral tradition, in which knowledge is passed down through generations via storytelling and the use of proverbs. Oral culture is shared during work and leisure time, both inside and outside the home. Often, it imparts a lesson or tradition from the older generation to the younger. For example, older relatives may convey information to young family members about roles within the family, concepts of masculinity and femininity, and values and expectations, all through sharing stories and proverbs that have a moral or central message of their culture on a daily basis, including Mexican folklore.
Using Mexican folklore as you teach can also help you tie your instruction to Mexican students’ background knowledge. Many of your American students will share a body of cultural knowledge in which you may also be well-versed. For example, most American-born children know the stories of the Three Bears, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel, but Mexican-born students may not share that knowledge. By learning the stories that your students do know, you can incorporate that knowledge into your lessons and avoid frequent use of stories and proverbs that your Latino students may not be familiar with. Of course, using American and European folklore in the classroom is also important, but teachers should be aware that they may need to scaffold that knowledge for students who don’t have an American cultural background.
Sharing of folklore is also important for students who aren’t of Latino background; it increases knowledge and appreciation of other cultures. Students will love hearing the vibrant and new stories gathered from Mexican folklore, and will better understand the cultural knowledge of their Latino classmates. By presenting Mexican folklore in your classroom, you’re signaling to all students that it’s a valuable subject to learn about, and you’re expanding the background knowledge of non-Latino students.
Ways to use folklore in the classroom
There are many opportunities to share Mexican folklore with your students. Here are a few ideas:
- Use one of the many beautiful picture-book versions of Mexican folktales during read-alouds or storytime.
- Include books of Mexican folklore in your classroom collection. There are many bilingual books available on the topic if you have bilingual readers in your class.
- Encourage your school’s library media specialist to collect Mexican folklore if he or she does not already.
- Share several examples of Mexican folktales or proverbs with students, and then have them write and illustrate their own.
- Use Mexican folklore when addressing the following objectives in the Common Core Standards:
- Grade 3 - English Language Arts
3.RL.2 - Recount stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson, or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text..
- Grade 4 - English Language Arts
4.RL.2 - Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text
- Grade 5 - English Language Arts
5.RL.9 - Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics.
- Grade 3 - English Language Arts
All of these activities can be done with folklore from any culture. It’s a great idea to use the folklore of your students’ cultures in the classroom; they will benefit from both the recognition of their own culture’s stories and the increased knowledge of other cultures.
Popular Mexican folktales
Here are brief summaries of some of the most well-known Mexican folktales. One of the most intriguing things about folktales is the variation in the way they’re told by different people. Your students may have their own versions of these tales that differ from these, and you may come across different tellings of these stories in other texts. None of the versions is “right” or “wrong” — the variety in tellings simply reflects the diversity of human experience.
Pedro the Trickster/Pedro de Urdemalas Tales
Pedro, known in Spanish as Pedro de Urdemalas, is the central figure in several “trickster” tales. In many tales, he tricks unwitting victims out of large sums of money. In one of the most well-known Pedro de Urdemalas tales, Pedro manages to trick both God and the Devil. In one version, Pedro, an incurable gambler, helps a pair of beggars, who turn out to be God and Saint Peter. In exchange for his kindness, God grants Pedro’s wishes — a deck of cards that will always let him win, and eternal salvation for his entire family. After his death, Pedro is first sent to Limbo, then Purgatory, and finally Hell. In each place, he makes such a nuisance of himself that he’s thrown out. Finally, he sneaks up to the Gate of Heaven, where God turns him into a statue to keep watch over everyone who passes through the gates.
La Llorona, also known as the Weeping Woman or the Woman in White, is a scary legend told to older Mexican children. There are many, many versions of this tale. In a common version told in the Southwestern U.S., a beautiful and haughty young woman marries a rich and handsome stranger who visits her village one day. At first, the couple is happy, giving birth to two children and making a home together. Eventually, the husband leaves La Llorona for another woman. In her anger and grief, she drowns her own children in the nearby river. She realizes right away what she’s done, and tries to rescue her children. In the attempt, she herself drowns. Her spirit is doomed to wander the river banks in a white dress, calling for her dead children. The legend typically ends by saying that La Llorona can still be seen today, her ghostly figure still wandering and wailing for her children.
In this long and complex tale, a young man makes a pact with a powerful demon, either to save his sick father’s life or to gain money and luck. The demon grants his wish, but tells the man he must come find him in a faraway land. The three years pass, and the young man honors his promise to visit the demon. The spirit tells him that if he can complete three tasks, he will be spared his life. The series of tasks is impossible — in some versions, the devil orders the man to move a mountain, then transport a pond using only a basket, and in others he is told to plant, harvest, and grind wheat all in one day, or find a ring lost in the ocean. In each version, Blancaflor, one of the devil’s daughters, helps the man complete the tasks. Her father figures out her scheme, and vows to kill them both. By the end of the legend, Blancaflor and the young man are able to escape from the demon on a pair of magical horses, and live happily ever after.
The Virgin of Guadalupe
This religious folktale tale is based on the beginnings of the Catholic church in Mexico in the 16th century. A man named Juan Diego is visited by the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. She instructs him to tell the bishops of the newly founded church in Mexico City to build a church to her on the hills of Tepeyac. He travels all the way to the city, only to be politely dismissed by the bishop. He returns to the Virgin and tells her to pick another messenger because he has failed. She insists that he is the one she has chosen, and he travels again to Mexico City. He tells the bishop once more about building the church in Tepeyac, but the bishop refuses to believe Juan Diego without some sign of a miracle. Dejected, Juan Diego returns to see the Virgin. She tells him that she will provide a sign if he will gather up all the roses on the hill. Because it’s December, Juan Diego expects to see no roses at all, but the hillside is suddenly covered with them. He gathers them up as instructed, and the Virgin sends him back to the city. There, he reveals the roses to the bishop. They have turned into an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, convincing the bishop that Juan Diego is telling the truth. The church is immediately built on the hill of Tepeyac, and in response the Virgin promises to protect the people of Mexico forever. A modern version of the Basilica of Guadalupe still stands there today.
Mexican folklore: a bibliography for educators
The popular tales summarized above only skim the surface of the rich Mexican folklore available for teachers and students. Here is a list of books, organized by grade level, to share with students. Although there are a variety of appealing picture books based on Mexican folktales, interesting and richly illustrated volumes of Mexican folklore are rarely published for young adult readers. High school students may find value in reading novels written by Mexican authors, which often capture the flavor of storytelling and everyday conversation, including the use of proverbs. For this purpose, the novels in the North Carolina Standard Course of Study written by Mexican or Mexican-American authors are included in this booklist.
- Aardema, Verna. Borreguita and the Coyote: A Tale from Ayutla, Mexico. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1991.
- Ada, Alma Flor and Isabel Campoy. ¡Pio Peep! Traditional Spanish Nursery Rhymes. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
- Ada, Alma Flor. The lizard and the sun = la lagartija y el sol : a folktale in English and Spanish. New York, Doubleday, 1997.
- Climo, Shirley. The Little Red Ant and the Great Big Crumb. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.
- dePaola, Tomie. Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 2004.
- dePaola, Tomie. The Legend of the Poinsettia. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
- Ehlert, Lois. Cuckoo : a Mexican folktale = Cucú : un cuento folklórico mexicano. Orlando: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997.
- Johnston, Tony. The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote. New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1994.
- Morales, Yuyi. Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003.
- Ada, Alma Flor and Isabel Campoy. Tales Our Abuelitas Told. New York: Altheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006.
- Anaya, Rodolfo. Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1997.
- Bermejo, Belén. Refranes populares (Traditional Proverbs). Luis Vives Editorial, 2002.
- Coburn, Jewell Reinhart. Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition. Auburn, CA: Shen’s Books, 2000.
- Gollub, Matthew. Tío culebra (Uncle Snake). Santa Rosa, CA: Tortuga Press, 2002.
- González, Ralfka. Mi primer libro de dichos (My First Book of Proverbs). Emeryville, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1995.
- Hayes, Joe. ¡El Cucuy! A Bogeyman Cuento in English and Spanish. El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2001.
- Kimmel, Eric. The Two Mountains: An Aztec Legend. New York: Holiday House, 2000.
- Philip, Neil. Horse Hooves and Chicken Feet: Mexican Folktales. New York: Clarion, 2003.
- Aldana, Patricia. Jade and Iron: Latin American Tales From Two Cultures. Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1996.
- Delacre, Lulu. Golden Tales: Myths, Legends and Folktales from Latin America. New York: Scholastic, 1996.
- Gerson, Mary-Joan. Fiesta Feminina: Celebrating Women in Mexican Folktales. New York: Barefoot Books, 2001.
- Hayes, Joe. La llorona (The Weeping Woman). El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2004.
- Madrigal, Antonio H. The Eagle and the Rainbow: Timeless Tales from México. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1997.
- Anaya, Rodolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1972.
- Bierhorst, John. Latin American Folktales. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
- Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1994.
- Kimmel, Eric. The Witch’s Face: A Mexican Tale. New York: Holiday House, 1993.
- Rivera, Tomás. And the Earth Did Not Part. Quinto Sol, 1971.
For further reading
These resources were used to compile the folklore bibliography, and can also be very helpful in finding folklore of other cultures to share with your students.
- Bacon, Susan M. and Nancy A. Humbach. “Legends and Folktales”. Teaching Cultures of the Hispanic World: Products and Practices in Perspective. Ed. Vicki Galloway. Mason, OH: Thomson Learning, 2001. 161-175.
- Ballesteros, Octavio A. Mexican Proverbs: The Philosophy, Wisdom and Humor of a People. Burnet, TX: Eakin Press, 1979.
- Barr, Catherine and John T. Gillespie. Best Books for Children, Preschool – Grade 6. Eighth edition. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2006.
- Barr, Catherine and John T. Gillespie. Best Books for High School Readers, Grades 9 - 12. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2004.
- Bierhorst, John. Latin American Folktales: stories from Hispanic and Indian traditions. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.
- Burciaga, José Antonio. In Few Words: A Compendium of Latino Folk Wit and Wisdom. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1997.
- Devlin, Wendy. “A Taste for Dichos” Mexico Connect, This article discusses the way dichos, or proverbs, are used in everyday life. She also provides a sample of the many Mexican proverbs.
- Gillespie, John T. Best Books for Young Teen Readers, Grades 7-10. New Providence: R R Bowker, 2000.
- Glazer, Mark. A Dictionary of Mexican American Proverbs. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
- Magic Tales of Mexico — This site contains several Mexican folktales for older students, collected by Gabriel A. Cordova, Jr. in the 1940s and 1950s. The tales are presented side-by-side in both English and Spanish.
- Mexican Folklore — Storyteller S.E. Schlosser has compiled versions of a variety of Mexican fairy tales, scary stories, myths, and legends.
- Paredes, Américo. Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Austin: Center for Mexican American Studies, University of Texas Press, 1993.
- Paredes, Américo. Folktales of Mexico. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
- Schon, Isabel. The Best of Latino Heritage: A Guide to the Best Juvenile Books About Latino People. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2003.
- Schon, Isabel. Recommended Books in Spanish for Children and Young Adults: 200 - 2004. Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2004.
- Taggart, James. The Bear and His Sons: Masculinity in Spanish and Mexican Folktales. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.
- Thomas, Rebecca L. Connecting Cultures: A Guide to Multicultural Literature for Children; Fiction, Folktales, Poetry, Song. New Providence: R R Bowker, 1996.
- Valdés, Guadalupe. Con Respeto: Bridging the Distances Between Culturally Diverse Families and Schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.