How I Overcame My Fear of El Cucuy

How I overcame my fear of “El Cucuy”—or how I gained my independence without losing my family.

By Rena Payan

a team instructors

Credit: Aaron Gilbert, Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT)

It took most of my adolescence to wander to the back of my grandparent’s property in rural Merced, California. In case you didn’t know, “El Cucuy” (Coo-Cooey) ACTUALLY lived back there, and just for the record La Llorona also wandered around Lake Yosemite in Merced! Okay, so it seems farfetched in retrospect to believe that Merced was home to two (possibly more) prolific Mexican “monsters”—but man did I believe it when I was a kid. In fact it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I was able to sort through the scare tactics that are still such a lasting memory.

I was teaching outdoor education in Southern California when I first fully understood the legends of El Cucuy and La Llorona. I had known the stories all my life, had been terrified that I might be snatched away at any moment by either, but I had never really understood why I knew them. Then one day it hit me as I was talking to mother on the phone. She was telling me that I needed to start hiking with a helmet on—or maybe she was telling me that I could throw my cell phone at a bear if it was chasing me. Either way I had an epiphany! El Cucuy was NOT real! Imagine my shock! I realized in that conversation, which is not out of the ordinary, the beginning of a different outdoor life than I had ever had.  The realization that La Llorona was not lurking at the lake where I taught canoeing, or that El Cucuy wasn’t going to bust into my single-person tent while I was backpacking in Alaska, shifted something in me and my mother’s dynamic that day.

To fully understand this shift, one has to first understand why we learn these legends in the first place. These legends are well-intentioned lies that our parents, grandparents, tias and primos tell us to keep us safe. Just like hiking with a helmet on or carrying a cell phone into the back country, these stories are how we show love. When you are young and your parents don’t want you to wander off all they have to utter is the name El Cucuy, and when you get older and you want to go swimming, but nobody wants to sit around watching you swim in a dirty canal, they tell you about La Llorona so you won’t be tempted to try and go out on your own.

This was the shift in me and my mother’s relationship. All of that time I hid my outdoor adventures until after the fact from my family—all the time that I spent worrying that my mother would disapprove of my callused feet had been in vain. I realized that despite the fact that they didn’t fully understand my outdoor life, their efforts to curb my adventuring, their efforts to get me out of outdoor education and back to Merced—they  were the same reasons that they told me as a small child about El Cucuy. That it was because they loved me, beyond my interests, beyond my need to be outside, beyond my drive to do things that they knew nothing about; they loved me, whole-heartedly, without condition and beyond reason, they loved me.

When I came to terms with this I was able to share more with them about my outdoor life then I ever thought I would even want to. I no longer kept my life hidden fearing disappointment, tired of hearing warnings about things I didn’t think they could understand. I wanted to share with them what the outdoors did for me, how it gave me independence, taught me resilience, challenged me in ways I had never imagined,   and I finally felt that hearing this wouldn’t hurt them; wouldn’t seem like me wanting to separate myself from them, and although I would never be able to stop them worrying, it made me feel that their worry was no longer asking me to not adventure.

In short—

Children, go and explore, play, adventure, live and breathe outside. Don’t let El Cucuy or La Llorona stop you from enjoying the world that was created for you, but rather let the love that your family has cultivated in you inspire you to do these things WITH them. Take your parents outside; bring your primos to the outdoor spaces that you love, garden with your grandparents. Only then will the fear and the worry that they hope to inspire in you to keep you safe give way to the lessons that can be learned together from being outdoors.

Parents, don’t stop worrying, don’t stop trying to keep your children safe, but understand that the values and the lessons you have given them are only enhanced by being outdoors. The time you spent cultivating a sense of curiosity, building their resiliency, teaching them to work hard to reach goals, and to appreciate their own value are enforced and exemplified by spending time and challenging themselves outdoors. In fact the only thing that could further solidify these lessons is by exploring, playing, and learning in these wondrous places together.

 Vamos juntos.

wlt group photo

Credit: Aaron Gilbert, Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT)


All photos associated with this post, credit BAWT.

2 comment on “How I Overcame My Fear of El Cucuy

  1. Carolina Luevanos-Garcia Reply

    I am the crazy Mami/Tia living by the Sacramento River that got my kids home from the park at dusk with tales of el cucuy, and away from the levee at night for fear of La Llorona. But mind you, as a Chingona myself I teach my kids / nephews and God children that bears are afraid of us and the great outdoors is for adventure and exploration. Those legends can be taught hand in hand with fearlessness and the love of nature. It’s just like driving down I5 and mooing at the cows….it’s just something we have to do. ADELANTE!

    1. Staff Jose G Reply


      Thank you for sharing your story! I like your philosophy and approach. Legends along with fearlessness and love for nature. Pa Delante!

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