Letters From Around the World
La Tunda, Child of the Devil and Other Traditional Afro-Ecuadorian Stories
Stories from the Afro-Ecuadorian oral tradition remain fresh and delicious after centuries. A West African heritage flavors some stories while others seem homegrown from Ecuador’s lush northern Pacific lowlands where blacks have lived for nearly 500 years.
One much-told Afro-Ecuadorian tale takes us back to the 1530s, during early Spanish colonial times. A Spanish merchant ship traveling from Panama to Peru foundered on reefs on Ecuador’s northern coast. The cargo included 23 enslaved blacks who jumped from the deck, swam ashore, and headed inland.
Yet, the devil’s plan went awry when he fell deeply in love with a gorgeous young black woman and married her. Indeed, wedded life transformed him from a dispenser of hellfire to a hearth-bound husband. From the union of the devil and the sexy negritacame a host of infernal creatures, including the legendary la Tunda, a black woman with huge lips and a clubfoot.Not long thereafter, the survivors began fighting with the Indians on the land. After one horrific battle, the cries of the dying reached hell and woke the devil from his long nap. The racket went on so long that the annoyed devil decided to exterminate both sides. Disguising himself as an African prince named Macumba, the devil went to Esmeraldas and alternated between letting both sides win— just a little at a time—till everyone died.
As a child of the devil, la Tunda couldn’t bear children of her own, and so robbed those of black folk in Esmeraldas. To persuade youngsters to follow her, la Tunda could make herself look like a child’s mother, beloved aunt or older sister, but once la Tunda beckoned her victims into the forest, she farted in their faces! Soon thereafter, the stink would render the victims so docile that she could easily lead them to her lair. Wise parents never let their children run around without dogs, who were known to frighten la Tunda. (She also feared the bombo, a large double-headed drum.)
In the mid-1800s, officials of the newly minted Republic of Ecuador fared little better in the region. Indeed, parts of Esmeraldas remained beyond Quito’s bureaucratic reach well into the twentieth century. Afro-Ecuadorian writer Julio Estupinan Tello, author of El negro en Esmeraldas, published in 1967, noted that when workers built the Ibarra-San Lorenzo Railroad, they came upon a settlement of blacks where people “lived half-naked and spoke their own dialect.”Esmeraldas, Ecuador’s northernmost province, has the highest percentage of Afro-Ecuadorians. During the 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, Esmeraldas’s vibrant black culture and distance from Quito, the capital, helped thwart the viceroy’s efforts to put the province under his thumb.
Moritz Thomsen’s 1969 book, Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle, describes “…a village called African about twenty miles up the coast from Rio Verde (with) six grass houses and about five hundred coconut palms. As you sail past the town and think of its name the village takes on an added freight and exoticness. It’s a misplaced village, and it is completely outside of history.”
Granted, these two settlements represent an extreme, but Esmeraldas’s vigor and isolation into the early 1900s helped its oral tradition remain intact. (This cultural integrity brings to mind that of the Gullah people of the Georgia and South Carolina low lands who, thanks to few outside influences, developed a distinctive culture and a language that includes many African words.)
The late Afro-Ecuadorian writer and diplomat Adalberto Ortiz once spoke to me about la Tunda’sorigins. “It is interesting to observe how some monsters of the forest, like la Tunda in Esmeraldas or Patica in Colombia –similar to the Quimbungo of the Bantus— were transplanted to the new continent from Africa,” he said.
Ortiz also pointed out that tales of tio tigre (Br’er Jaguar) and tio conejo (Br’er Rabbit) represent a West African cultural heritage shared by blacks throughout the Americas. In the U.S., Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus books contain animal stories that he heard from enslaved blacks in Georgia. Whether black Ecuadorian, Peruvians or Cubans tell them, the stories show how a smaller weaker animal outwits a stronger one.
Other supernatural creatures that haunt Afro-Esmeraldenos seem to have origins other than West Africa. Take la gualgura, a chicken that can swell to the size of a house. Some stories say that la gualgura, a little black chicken, can change into a man at night. He wounds or kills people who stay out late. To protect themselves, they must make the sign of the cross over their ears.
El bambero, a tiny man with a huge head, is just the right size to ride on a boar. He carries a sack of medicinal herbs, including marijuana, on his back. El bambero makes sure that hunters kill only the animals they need, and that they don’t leave animals to a painful death.
Another creature, el Riviel, started out as a normal man. He was a decent person, but liked liquor too much. Roaring drunk one night, he went to a cemetery, burned its huge crucifix and challenged the dead. The dead, enraged, caused him to have a fatal accident.
The man died and went before Saint Peter, who refused him entrance to heaven because of his sacrilege. Yet, el Riviel wasn’t bad enough to deserve hell, either. His soul must wander till Judgment Day, or until he finds a victim to take his place.
Anthropologist Norman E. Whitten, Jr., professor emeritus at University of Illinois, Urbana, knows a less Christian version of the el Riviel story. “Before his death. El Riviel went to the cemetery and cooked and ate a corpse,” Whitten wrote in Black Frontiersmen: A South American Case, published in 1974. “He saved the ashes from the corpse and drank them just before he died, thereby avoiding God’s punishment.”
El Riviel can move freely on land, on the sea, in hell, in the sky, and even other worlds, Professor Whitten’s version says. He fears guns, the atarraya —a kind of fishing net— and the bombo, and tries to trick the living into handing them over to him.
Another story also centers on giving reverence where it’s due. It is said that if you fail to greet theFernanSanchez tree, with its dark rose-colored flowers have a dark rose color, you will fall ill with malaria.
In Esmeraldas today, television and CDs have swept aside storytellers. Oil companies and mining and timber interests, many of them U.S.-backed, are pushing Afro-Ecuadorian off their ancestral lands. Hope lies with activists like Juan Garcia Salazar, who are forming groups to support black culture and protect the land. Their projects include recording oral histories and traditional stories so that these spoken treasures may be preserved.
A native Philadelphian, Constance Garcia-Barrio has roots that reach back to Fredericksburg, Virginia, home of her great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or Maw, born into slavery about 1851. Some details of Garcia-Barrio’s novel come to her as oral heirlooms from Maw, who lived to age 113. Garcia-Barrio spent some summers of her childhood on Maw’s farm.
Garcia-Barrio, an associate professor at West Chester University, West Chester, PA, has held writing fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Her credits include Pennsylvania Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. The National Association of Black Journalists gave her a magazine journalism award in 2000 for her article on African Americans in circus history. This past summer the Interact Theatre Company chose her short story, “The Sitting Tree,” for its “Writing Aloud” series.
Widowhood and approaching retirement have given her a second wind, and she means to sail on it.