Legends are not only a valuable repository of a people’s culture, but also a powerful social mechanism intending to check undesirable behaviour.
“La Segua” is a Costa Rican legend that chastises improper and loose female behaviour, as well as drunken and unfaithful activity of men, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes within a Latin American context. The story takes place in Cartago, the old capital of Costa Rica (before it was moved to San José in 1823).
Cartago was the oldest Spanish settlement in Costa Rica, dating back to 1563; the fact that the story of La Segua takes place in Cartago is significant, since the tale is fundamentally colonial in nature, and as such, it includes both indigenous and Spanish elements which inevitably complement but also clash with each other.
The gist of the story is the following. There was once a beautiful Cartaginesa (female inhabitant of Cartago) of mixed Indian and Spanish blood. She is usually depicted as having beautiful white skin which contrasts with her jet black eyes and cascading long hair. One of the versions of the legend says that she fell in love with a Spanish officer who tricked her and broke her heart.
The exact manner in which he “tricked” her is not entirely clear, but there is a clear suggestion that it involved some improper advances, sexual in nature, and extremely forbidden for a lady from a good Catholic family. After the Spanish rogue had disappeared, the lady went insane, and an awful curse befell her, turning her into a monster, forever destined to wonder lonely roads.
La Segua*, as the monster is called, poses as the beautiful lady that she once was, and she waits by the roadside for unsuspecting men who would be riding their horses after a long night of heavy drinking in town. Attracted to the beauty, they accept to give her a ride on their horse, but as they turn around, instead of beholding the enchanting companion, they come face to face with a horrendous monster with the skull of a horse and fiery red eyes.
The warning is clear: men should stay away not only from heavy drinking, but most importantly, from attractive lonely women who can tempt them away from their family life. Women are not exempt from the warning. In order to not be transformed into a heinous apparition, cursed to wonder forever, single women should not give in to advances of men.
Furthermore, La Segua’s fate is as bad as it is, because like La Malinche, the Mexican Indian woman who served as Cortés’s translator and lover (Cortés was the ruthless,main Spanish conquistador of Mexico), she is betraying her people by falling in love with a Spaniard, the oppressor.
Even though La Segua was of mixed blood, in a colonial context that would not place her on the same level as people of “pure” Spanish descent. Therefore, La Segua does not only betray the honour of her family because of her licentious behaviour, but by sleeping with the enemy.
After presenting this Costa Rican legend, the question about the “Gothic” nature of this tale remains. Yes, there are Gothic elements, such as a curse, the supernatural, fear, the monster, the unsuspecting rider on a lonely road,coming upon this awful creature which almost scares them to death, etc. But should this particular legend, and other tales that are folkloric be considered Gothic, simply because they contain these elements?
Are these legends, belonging to an oral tradition, too distant to our written and now filmic traditions to be considered Gothic? I will be presenting two more Costa Rican traditional tales that will hopefully stimulate a discussion along these grounds.
A lot more scary creatures, drunken men and disobedient women are in store, but until the next legend, we can all consider the issue of just how “Gothic” or not a legend may be, and perhaps even think about European examples that might clarify the issue somewhat.
*Segua seems to derive from the word “Sihua,” meaning woman in Nahuatl. Nahuatl is a group of Mesoamerican languages of Aztecan or Nahuan origin. Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, and currently 1.5 million people in Central Mexico speak a Nahuan language.
There is an Indian legend of the Sihuanaba or Segua in Nicaragua, and in it, the Sihuehuet or “beautiful woman” has a love affair with the son of the god Tlaloc. She has his son, but in order to meet her lover, she is a bad mother, constantly leaving her son alone.
Her father-in-law, the god Tlaloc, turns her into the Sihuanaba or “hideous woman” as punishment for her improper behaviour. In other words, the legend of the Segua is one of many examples of of cultural syncretism, a mixture of indigenous and Spanish traditions which flourishes during and after colonial times in Latin America.
About the Author — Ilse Marie Bussing.
Ilse Marie Bussing has written 8 articles on The Gothic Imagination.
“I am a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh. I taught Comparative and American Literature for five years at the University of Costa Rica before deciding to come to Scotland and specialize in what has always been my passion–Gothic literature. My current research focuses on the role of the haunted house in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction. I am interested in looking at how literature and architecture converge in the haunted house and in how this building seduces the characters that walk within it. The study is interdisciplinary, since it considers both literary and architectural theory.
I argue that the the household did not need to pass through the filter of Gothic fiction in order to become haunted, since its architectural and symbolic qualities were already responsible for its haunted potential. I will be considering how Gothic literature takes advantage of this architectural/organic situation,magnifies it, and turns domestic space into a haunted house of fiction. I am also very interested in exploring Latin American Gothic, beginning with a few examples of Costa Rican legends and continuing with contemporary literary texts and films. I believe that the cultural context for these texts often blurs their “Gothic” status (what is dark or Gothic in Victorian British Lit. is not necessarily so in a Latin American context and vice-versa…). I am sure that comments from readers will contribute to this discussion.”
This article La Segua: A Warning to Drunk and Unfaithful Men is republished here with written permission of the University of Stirling.
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