A furtive mouse became our family’s big cheese this week. I’m talking about El Ratoncito Pérez, a.k.a. el ratón de los dientes, the mythical character of Spanish-speaking countries, equivalent to the Tooth Fairy of fond childhood memory.
He came on the scene invisibly a few nights ago after my seven-year-old granddaughter lost her second baby tooth as she chomped down on a juicy slice of watermelon. She had anxiously anticipated the moment ever since the lower tooth became wobbly several weeks ago. It was an especially poignant occurrence because her first lost tooth went down the hatch with a mouthful of popcorn, thereby going unrewarded.
This time around there was joyful chanting and dancing about as she showed off the pearly treasure. At bedtime, she carefully tucked it under her pillow. And some time after her eyelids closed, Ratón Pérez showed up surreptitiously to trade it for a 20-peso prize.
Folklore connecting fantastical beings with infantile tooth loss goes back to ancestral times. The origin of the Ratón Pérez is attributed to Spanish author Luis Coloma who was hired back in 1894 to pen a tale for eight-year-old Alfonso XIII, for obvious reasons. The association with a big-toothed rodent seems to make far more sense than that of a sprightly winged creature, but that’s not really a matter worthy of serious debate.
Belief in Señor Mouse does bring to mind other imaginary characters that differ in Mexican in Anglosaxon cultures
For example, the mysterious gift bearers of the Christmas Season. In this part of the world children hang their hopes on el Niño Dios (the Baby Jesus) and Los Reyes Magos (the Magi) delivering toys and candies during the holidays. Commercial promotions have introduced them to jolly Santa Claus, but to most he remains little more a decorative figure.
Only in recent years has the Easter Bunny gained some recognition as a symbol of Spring, perhaps holding a vague link to the concepts of rebirth and resurrection. Kids have no expectations of waking up on Easter Sunday to baskets filled with fake grass, jelly beans, marshmallow peeps and chocolate treats, much less egg hunts in the backyard.
Dressing up their offspring as witches, ghosts, vampires and Frankenstein monsters and wandering the streets to trick-or-treat is still frowned upon by many Mexican adults who cling to ancient Dia de Muertos customs imbued with deep spiritual meaning. And the Great Pumpkin of Peanuts fame is all but unknown.
The spooky figure youngsters are taught to fear is El Coco, a Latin version of the bogeyman. Parents commonly make reference to this mythical ghost-monster with an appetite for infant flesh as a deterrent to misbehavior.
There is some dispute whether the gruesome deeds of El Coco derive from oral traditions of the Spanish or the descendents of the Aztecs who employed the Nahuatl word cocolíztli to speak of the mortal diseases introduced by their conquerors.
El Coco is defined as cruel child-eater and abductor that may devour the disobedient nipper in one snap, or carry it off to a place of no return. To drive the point home little ones may be rocked to sleep with the dire words of the lullaby: “Duérmate niño, duérmate ya; allí viene el Coco y te comerá” – translated “Sleep child, sleep now; here come the Coco and he will eat you.”
As a doting grandma, I’m glad my daughter doesn’t dwell on that to keep her little girl in line. She is a strict disciplinarian, but also a loving parent who got a kick out of slipping a few coins beneath the pillow and tiptoeing away with a tiny tooth in hand.