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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Bilingual folklore book sheds light on Puerto Rican cultural identity

By John McPhaul

Tales of pirates who turn into Robin Hood-like characters to upend Puerto Rico’s colonial social order, stories about a local version of Cinderella with a jibaro twist and tales of a boy trickster who helps his mother fleece members of the upper class, all are contained in the bilingual collection “Cuentos folklóricos de las montañas de Puerto Rico/Folk Stories from the Hills of Puerto Rico” edited by Puerto Rican-born professor Rafael Ocasio.

Ocasio said the tales were originally collected by the famed archeologist Franz Boas in his scientific survey of Puerto Rico in 1915 sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences and the Puerto Rican government.

Boas’ team fanned out across the island with instructions to survey Puerto Rican traditions generically and ended up collecting the folktales, the richest source of which were peasant (jibaro) children, Ocasio said.

The stories handed down by oral tradition over generations include numerous stories about good-hearted bandits who steal from the rich and give to the poor, including the cultural hero pirate Roberto Cofresi.

Another cultural hero is Juan Bobo, a child trickster who, sometimes with the assistance of his mother, “tries to make ends meet by playing tricks,” Ocasio said. “He plays dumb to gain financial success at the cost of the upper class.”

Also common among the stories are those of “encantados” (enchanted ones).

“The encantado characters have been cursed by witches or angry parents, waiting for people with good hearts to come to their rescue,” Ocasio said.

Rather than fairy godmothers or other supernatural beings, the rescuers are regular people who accidently break the encantado spell.

The local folklore anthology recasts Western fairy tales such as a Snow White and a Cinderella-like character named Cenizosa, “translated as ‘someone who is covered with ash,’ which would describe a jibaro from the countryside covered with ashes from wood burning stoves,” Ocasio said.

Cenizosa is often depicted as someone who assists the encantados who don’t know that they are dealing with a supernatural being.

“It is clear that like Cinderella, Cenizosa is a peasant girl,” Ocasio said. “It is also very clear that people understood that Cenizosa was an orphan.”

Ocasio said that taken as a whole, “these stories reflect a cultural identity and can often be seen as a Puerto Rican national identity without connection to other cultures.”

“Boas was not thinking about the United States when he collected these stories,” he said.

Ocasio said the book is selling well in Puerto Rico, “which is an indication of how important these stories are.”

Ocasio, who was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in New York and earned a doctorate in Latin American literature from the University of Kentucky, maintains strong ties to the island. His mother and sister live in Old San Juan.

The folklore anthology is his first book on Puerto Rico.

A professor of Spanish at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, Ocasio has written more than half a dozen books on Cuba.

“I consider myself a Caribbeanist,” he said.

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