Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
One of Central America’s best-known horror stories features a woman dressed in white who you might see on a dark night, walking alongside the water. In the version I know best, the one told in Honduras, they call her La Sucia, which means “dirty.” But the story usually starts by emphasizing her prettiness, her youth, her hardworking nature. At just fifteen, she catches the eye of a local boy and finds herself standing before the altar, the entire town in attendance at her wedding. But there has been a mistake. It is somehow discovered that she was never baptized in the Catholic Church, and the priest refuses to marry her.
Her betrothed will not wait. He leaves her. Consumed by disappointment, the young woman goes crazy—that’s how it’s usually told. She wears her wedding dress until it turns to rags and on the day it’s announced that her betrothed has married another, she throws herself off a ravine.
Now she haunts the rivers, they say. La Sucia, known in Mexico or other parts of Central America as La Siguanaba, appears at night, especially to drunk men or to men who have been unfaithful to their wives. From a distance she looks beautiful. But as the men run toward her, she transforms. Her face becomes monstrous. Some say she kills the men; in Honduras, she usually makes them go crazy.
In many retellings, it’s the men who are the focal point of the story. The version of La Sucia told by the Honduran radio program Cuentos y Leyendas de Honduras spends over fifteen minutes establishing the lecherous character of two men before, in the final minute and a half, one is scared straight by a single glance at La Sucia and renounces his wandering ways.
Sara Curruchich’s new song “La Siguanaba” flips this focus. Curruchich, a Guatemalan singer-songwriter and outspoken activist in defense of women and indigenous people, sings in mingled Spanish and Kaqchikel:
They call her a Siguanaba,
They call her a witch,
They call her an animal,
Because she fights against the violence of a patriarchal system.
In Curruchich’s version, the woman “was forced to marry an older man / who thought that women should be dominated / and that their bodies were a sexual object.” However, “She fled, because she knew that her body belonged to her alone / no one should beat her.”
Guatemala and Honduras are among the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. Already this year, twenty-nine women have been murdered in Honduras, including Keyla Martínez, a young nurse who died in police custody after being arrested for breaking the COVID-19 curfew. Outraged Honduran women took to social media to tell the story in first person “because Keyla could not,” and share their own experiences of gender-based violence.
Violence against women is, of course, not strictly a Central American problem. A 2015 study by the CDC found that over 43% of women in the United States report experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. This is a staggering statistic. And like the viral hashtag #YesAllWomen sought to show, it is difficult to find any woman that has not experienced some form of harassment, objectification, or fear just for inhabiting a female body.
I used to practice clever comebacks to the catcalls I heard. My tongue would roll around the words, but I almost never opened my mouth. Not wanting to offend, I have smiled at crude jokes I should have called out. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I’ve dismissed the lingering hug, the unwelcome kiss on the cheek. We all know what can happen to women who refuse to be compliant—they’re called emotional, hysterical, and if their transformation sends men running, maybe monsters.
“Most people think of [La Siguanaba] as evil,” Curruchich said in an interview, “but I would really like it if that was questioned, if we reflected on the Siguanaba, and if we could even draw from her strength.”
I love her vision of a woman who is more than a lovelorn victim or even a bogeyman for cheating spouses, but instead someone who exudes power and self-assurance. This Siguanaba “walks the streets / in her white huipiles… and her word, and her gaze carries the strength of the forest and the mountain. She will never again be silenced.”
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).