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  • The Latin American Story Finder: A Guide to 470 Tales from Mexico, Central America, and South America, Listing Subjects and Sources by Sharon Barcan Elswit
  • John Bierhorst (bio)
The Latin American Story Finder: A Guide to 470 Tales from Mexico, Central America, and South America, Listing Subjects and Sources. By Sharon Barcan Elswit. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 318pp.

With the number of Hispanic students in U.S. schools now standing at more than 12 million, or a quarter of the total student population—and growing—a Latin American story finder worthy of the name would fill a need. Anglo students, for example, share a body of knowledge with which teachers may also be familiar; most know the stories of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” or “Puss in Boots.” But Mexicans or Puerto Ricans may not share this knowledge. Using narratives that Latino students do know, such as tales of the foolish bungler Juan Bobo (John the Fool), well-known in Puerto Rico, or the widely told Mexican legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe, teachers can introduce these stories to those who do not know them and their Latino students can enjoy a sense of give and take. This, then, would be one of the many opportunities opened up by The Latin American Story Finder, which was prepared by a New York City children’s librarian.

Each of the 470 folktales included in the collection has these features: a synopsis of the tale, averaging 170 words; a list of up to 25 key words or subjects touched on in the tale (such as bullies, braggarts, class conflict, cheating); the source (in a readily available edition); and the culture (for African or Native American tales) or the country of origin (for tales from Spain or Brazil). In addition, nearly half the stories are accompanied by a list of variants, sources where they can be easily found, and a brief synopsis if the variant is significantly different from the main entry. More than 100 tales are from indigenous groups, including Aymara, Chibcha, Cuna, Guaraní, Mazatec, Mixtec, Yanomami, and Zapotec. Ancient cultures (Aztec, Maya, Inca) are also represented.

The tales are organized into sixteen groups, starting with “Beginnings” and continuing on with “Journeys to Other Realms,” “Winning and Losing with the Gods,” “When Cultures, Classes or Species Collide,” “Tricksters and Fools,” and others. [End Page 409]

Although the book includes only tales available in English, it also features many bilingual editions, prominently listed—for example, The Lizard and the Sun / La Lagartija y el Sol (from Mexico). But many Hispanic students will say, “I’m not Mexican” or “I’m not Puerto Rican.” For this reason the author is careful to group the list of variants by country of origin. For instance, the tale called “The Two Marias,” from Mexico, is accompanied by a “Variation from Argentina,” three “Brazilian variations” (translated from Portuguese), a “Chilean variation,” and two further “Mexican variations.”

Often the language is layered. A student from Mexico may appear to be Hispanic, yet an inquiry could reveal that the parents or the grandparents speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, as more than a million Mexicans today actually do. An appendix in the back of the book lists the various native languages that are covered, grouped by country, and these can be located in the subject index together with the stories that originate with them. Moreover, a glossary of special terms includes words not only from Spanish, such as compadre (friend, godfather) and brujo (wise man who can perform magic) but also from many indigenous languages, such as tilma (woven blanket or cloak) and huipil (dress).

Not omitting the indispensable Virgin of Guadalupe, as well as Juan Bobo, the book gives what amounts to a short course in the classic elements of Latin American folklore:

El Dorado (the golden man) (Colombia): a chieftain, his body dusted with gold powder, bathes in a sacred lake. (The story, which merged with folklore, may once have been historical.)

The Fifth World (Mexico): Aztec gods create the world four times before they perfect a race of humans who know how to worship them properly.

Juan Bobo (Puerto Rico): The Puerto Rican “noodle...


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pp. 409-411
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