A Quiver of Ghosts
A Quiver of Ghosts
By Scott Corrales
[From the upcoming monograph INEXPLICATA - The Paranormal]
The ghostly traditions of Latin America have not received much attention in the English language media. Perhaps the stereotypes of fun in the sun and Carmen Miranda-type dancers make it hard to believe that hauntings form an integral part of the traditions of countries from Mexico to Argentina, with some apparitions dating back centuries. In Mexico alone we find La Llorona – the ancient Aztec goddess known a Cihuacoatl, the serpent woman, worshipped in the darkness of the temple known as Tillán by a secretive priesthood who approached her statue on their knees – whose banshee-like wails filled the streets of Tenochtitlan at night, foreshadowing the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.
During the Colonial period of Mexican history, the creole population of viceregal Mexico City quailed in terror at the same nocturnal wailing, saying that it was the revenant of La Malinche, the late lover of the conquistador Hernán Cortés, bemoaning her betrayal of her own people. Dressed in white, her features covered by an impenetrable veil, the figure would wander the streets of the old city. According to the scholar José María Marroquí, the lateness of the hour would be broken by “the clothing, the air, the slow and steady stride of that mysterious woman and her penetrating, shrill and prolonged moan, terrifying those who saw and heard her. Some brave hearts would try to follow her, availing themselves of the moonlight, only to see her vanish upon reaching the lake, vanishing into the waters. Unable to glean more information about her, or whence she came from, she became known as La Llorona.”
Yolotl Gonzales Torres, the noted Mexican ethnographer and religious scholar, notes the following in her Diccionario de mitologia y religión de mesoamerica (Larousse,1991): Cihuacoatl displays “three characteristic aspects: screams and lamentations in the night, the presence of water, since both Aztlan (the place of origin of the Aztecs) and Great Tenochtitlan were encircled by water, and by being the patroness of the cihuateteo, who scream in the night, being women who died during childbirth and come to earth on certain days appointed to them in the calendar, haunting the crossroads, being fatal to children."
Artemio del Valle-Arizpe mentions another ghostly woman during the colonial period – one that we would classify today as a “shadow person” – wandering the streets as a dark cloud, but emitting small streams of multicolored light. A colonial gentleman decided to put an end to the mystery, boldly facing the apparition and challenging it to uncloak itself. When the dark figure moved forward, unimpressed by his challenge, he stabbed it with his sword, only to see the darkness advance along the length of the blade – streaming multicolored lights as it did so – and eventually engulfing his hand and forearm. The terrified caballero issued a scream and fell to the ground in a dead faint.
In more recent times, video evidence has emerged of a ghostly presence in the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Blue Tiles) on Calle Madero in downtown Mexico – in La Llorona’s old neighborhood. During construction work in the early years of this century, workers reported seeing a shadow descending the stairs, vanishing on one of the landings. Another presence was seen entering the building’s courtyard, which is occupied by the popular Sanborns restaurant.
Learning about the existence of ghosts in Puerto Rico is perhaps even more disconcerting for the casual reader, as one would think the sunshine and tropical breezes would serve as a barrier against the repetitive activity of restless spirits. Quite the contrary, according to folklorist Calixta Vélez, author of a number of books on children’s games. In a statement to the island’s El Nuevo Día newspaper (29 Oct 2010) Ms. Vélez observed that ghosts have always been seen in Puerto Rico, adding: “This all forms part of our oral tradition. Ghosts have always been seen in various parts, although whether this is true or not is an entirely different matter. The human mind is extremely powerful, and since we are not merely flesh, but incarnated spirits, many situations can come about. Paranormal phenomena are defined as events that are hard to explain both by science and religion.”
Spirits, notes the expert, remain on the terrestrial plane after bodily death. “Spirit transcends matter and remains on Earth for a few days after death, especially those who die suddenly. They remain where they are because they have not realized that they are no longer supposed to be there. Some remain longer, others less so. This is why they are seen so often on highways, because their deaths were so sudden.”
Religion, she believes, is charged to making sure that the spirit goes to where it is supposed to, hence the Catholic tradition of praying the Rosary for nine days after a person’s death, as it is necessary to tell the person that it is time to go. Far from being afraid, says the folklorist, if confronted by a “wandering spirit”, we should tell it that it no longer belongs to this plane and must depart.
In 1901, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published a remarkable account of ghostly activity in Puerto Rico only a few years after the U.S. invasion of the island. Bearing the title “He Drives Up To The Castle and Cares Nothing for Sentries”, the newspaper article is centered on St. Gerónimo Castle, a 17th century Spanish fort built on the Ensenada de Boquerón, a body of water that separates the Condado Lagoon from the Atlantic Ocean. The contemporary tourist trade has come to know it as the ancient structure almost on the grounds of the Caribe Hilton hotel, or visible from the sands of the beach on the property of the Condado Plaza hotel.
Things were different in 1901, however: “Major Seldon A. Day, with two orderlies, is the sole occupant of the picturesque spot,” notes the article “and he has been quartered there since General Miles first entered San Juan. He and his dogs, cats, ponies and a Brazilian mountain lion seem to be under some sort of influence which pervades the place. For the last two winters the Major has had a houseful of guests. nearly all or more or less literary fame, who came to this secluded spot to commune with nature and take notes and weave weird stories of love and war, underground passages, haunted fortresses and the like.”
“Every night, promptly at midnight,” the article goes on, “or so Major Day tells his guests, a team of white horses attached to a coach dashes up the driveway and into the court. From the coach alights a transparent figure attired in the uniform of a Spanish officer of 150 years ago. He enters the fort noiselessly and the coach drives clattering down the lane. The sight is such a familiar one to the old artillery chief, that he no longer, so he claims, cares a rap whether the antiquated Spanish captain visits him or not, but whenever a new guest arrives the host insists that he remain until the ghost appears. At first, two years ago, one of the sentries fired point blank at the driver, who had refused to halt on command. The ball passed through his breast, according to the soldier's tale, but the coach did not even tremble. The guard did, however, and afterward served a term in the guard house for deserting his post.”
The article adds the intriguing note about a tunnel connecting San Gerónimo to the great fortress of San Cristobal on the walls of Old San Juan – a distance of two miles. “These underground passages are a part of the general defense system of San Juan built by Spain years ago. They have not been explored. As the evacuating army destroyed the records October 17, 1898, and their exact location has been lost. But in the minds of army officers these passages do exist, the entrance to nearly all are known and are pointed out to visitors al Fort Cristobal and Morro—stone built holes in the fortifications through which one may pass for a certain distance until further progress is prevented by heaps of fallen masonry and rubbish. In one of the entrances in plain view, back of the Executive Mansion, near the water's edge, the visitor may go forward about fifteen feet, when a massive iron door, rusted on its huge hand wrought hinges, is encountered.”
Frequent visitors to the military structures of the ancient city may find this hard to believe, although a tunnel – shown to visitors every day – exists within the structure known as the Casa Blanca, the masonry home of Juan Ponce de León, built as a shelter for the population of San Juan against raids by pirates and Carib Indians. The tunnel links this structure with La Fortaleza, the white colonial structure that has served as the residence of the governors of Puerto Rico from 1822 to the present.
The final paragraph of the article is no less tantalizing. “Only a few weeks ago one of a gang of workmen repairing the foundation of a building on the Plaza, was surprised to find himself suddenly precipitated twenty feet below the level of the ground. He had sunk through a thin crust roofing of an underground room. Examination disclosed well-built concrete arches, subterranean galleries and hallways. Members of the older families still relate stories to their children about these passages, and it is claimed by some that the recently disclosed room was used as a dungeon in the seventeen century. The proprietor of the building was so besieged by curiosity seekers that he closed up the place without thoroughly examining it. Governor Allen and dozens of others visited the spot, but were only rewarded with a glance of a dark opening and whiffs of most foul air. Some people claim to believe that dozens of skeletons of old time martyrs or kegs of treasure may yet repose in this walled up underground room.”
Do the ghosts of these “old-time martyrs” haunt the city? Quite likely. The existence of these tunnels, moreover, is corroborated by the discovery of similar networks of tunnels on the other side of the island, under the Porta Coeli church in San Germán, which was attacked by French corsairs so often that the town was relocated several times until it reached its present location.
Among the mysterious locations of the ancient walled city of San Juan we find the Devil’s Sentry Box – La garita del diablo, in Spanish –whose legend was made popular by the 19th century author and educator Cayetano Coll y Toste. In the writer’s romantic late colonial story, Dina, a young woman given to taking her evening strolls along the fortifications attracted the attentions of an Andalusian soldier surnamed Sánchez, who took to playing love songs on his guitar under the girl’s balcony.
“There is within San Cristobal Castle a sentry box, far from the fortress itself, that faces the north and appears to plunge into the sea,” Coll y Toste tells us. “It is a strategic place for watching the coast toward Escambrón and the ever-suspect marine horizon. One evening, when it was Sánchez’s turn at guard duty, Dina felt an irresistible urge to speak to him, as he had become the mainstay of her fancy…waiting for her aunt to fall asleep, the girl opened the door to the street and slid away, behind the city wall, to the sentry box, its black basalt standing against the foggy outline of the sea coast.” The lovers met, and the author coyly ends by saying “let us leave the sweet mystery of life to the sweet mystery of the night!”
Daybreak and the changing of the guard, however, showed that the sentry was gone, leaving behind only his rifle and bandoliers. Superstition held that the Devil had taken him for breaking his sacred oath to watch the city walls, yet others – perhaps more wisely – noticed that Dina had also inexplicably vanished, so the legend must have a more terrestrial explanation. But popular tradition prevailed, and the Devil’s Sentry Box still stands for all to see.
Interviewed by the EFE news agency on 31 October 2008, paranormalist Virginia Gómez stated that three centuries of military actions against San Juan from French, Dutch and English armies had created “ideal conditions for spirits or specters to remain among its structures and subterranean tunnels.” These bombardments caused the deaths of thousands of people who are now wandering the through the ancient city."
Gómez agrees that San Cristobal Castle – mentioned earlier – is perhaps the greatest source of paranormal activity, with a number of ghostly stories being told about it. The El Convento Hotel in the heart of the city had been a monastery that took in the widows of soldiers and their children following the attacks. Guests and employees, she says, claim having felt, seen or heard nuns walking through the corridors, rooms and surroundings. Other notable buildings in the city, such as the Tapia Theater, dating back to 1832, also offer hauntings of their own.