Oral traditions, such as folklore and myths, are important methods of telling stories, particularly for people who had their beliefs stripped away by colonizers. Some stories are rooted in mythical origin stories meant to be passed through the generations. Others come from real, modern events and inspire a moral or story. Some myths are just a scary story children are told so they will behave, but are deeply ingrained in the culture and history of a group of people.
Stories are often used as methods of resistance. Resistance of colonial powers, of an oppressive system, and even of master narratives that are instituted by oppressive systems. This article will examine two folkloric stories that I am most familiar with, having grown up in a Puerto Rican household.
Francisco Antonio Lopez Garcia was born in the 1940s, in a small town in the mountains of Puerto Rico (where exactly is a little disputed). By the late 1960s, he was arrested for murdering his wife, and sentenced to 185 years in prison. However, he escaped within the first two years of his sentence. Shortly after, he was recaptured and sent to prison, only to escape again in 1981. This time, he remained uncaptured and free on the island until 1995. During this time, he killed numerous of his own family members and committed several kidnappings of young women. In 1995, he was found on a coffee plantation in Castaner, Puerto Rico (the tiny town I’m from), and killed. It is unclear how many of the crimes attributed to him were actually committed by Toño, as many locals on the island claim that the police used him as a scapegoat for numerous unsolved crimes across this area.
My grandparents lived in Castaner at this time, and my grandmother tells me that she remembers the newspapers everyday reporting on Toño. As a woman at the time, she recalls that she was scared every night and made sure to lock her doors because it was said that he would sneak into houses and sleep in the beds. She told me once her friend woke up and the bed next to her was ruffled and unmade, even though no one had slept in it. She was sure it was Toño Bicicleta. My grandmother says she saw him a few times, a short man always on a horse. She is also certain that he had people helping him across the island. She says there’s no way that he escaped prison that many times and remained out for so long without help. My grandfather says he played games with the police.
Although Toño was indeed a real person and a real threat in the mountains of Puerto Rico, my grandparents also recall that Toño’s presence in the community always hung over everyone, and it made everyone overly suspicious and cautious. Nowadays, there are sayings that you have to lock your doors, or else Toño Bicicleta will come in. Rooted in modern events and news, the story of Toño Bicicleta lives on in modern folklore-like sayings, with the hope or result that you remember to lock your doors at night… or else Toño will get you.
El Chupacabra is probably a more widely known mythological creature, again with origins in Puerto Rico. Although it’s probably better known because of reports of El Chupacabra’s first appearance in 1995, there have been reports of it worldwide from Maine to Chile, and even India and Russia.
In March 1995, the presence of a blood-sucking monster was first reported because eight sheep were found dead overnight, each with puncture wounds that looked like teeth, as well as being completely drained of blood. A few months later, 150 farm animals, including sheep, goats, and chickens, were reportedly also found dead and drained of blood. This is when our first report of a supernatural creature being seen killing the animals came in. These reports- only a few months apart- caused a sort of domino effect, where from this point on cases were reported from as far back as 1975, where animals were drained of blood through teeth-like incisions. Reports of El Chupacabra are even reported today, with a video surfacing in October 2019 that appeared to show a reptile-like creature feeding on a goat (although it has since been deleted). When I was little and I heard the stories, I was sure I’d seen its red eyes and reptilian body in the thick trees by my grandmother's house, and even under the bed inside the house. Or maybe I was just a paranoid child.
Whether you believe in El Chupacabra or not, it’s an interesting story to think about. If it’s true, perhaps we should all be looking in the mountains of Puerto Rico for it. If not, maybe we should question why the people of Puerto Rico turned to a supernatural phenomenon to explain dead animals drained of blood. Or why those animals were drained of blood in the first place.
True or not, the stories of Toño Bicicleta and El Chupacabra both represent an interesting glimpse into the lives of the Puerto Rican mountains and countryside. Even older and more mature, my grandmother makes sure her door is locked multiple times throughout the day, claiming the memory of Toño roaming is enough to make anyone paranoid. I vividly remember being afraid to sleep at night when I visited mi isla, because among the soothing sound of the coquis, I was sure I could hear El Chupacabra smacking on some goats (despite the fact that my grandparents didn’t even have any goats, just chickens).