Better Not Cry: Cuca is Watching


The holiday season triggers lots of emotions. Some of these feelings are honest to goodness compassion, and love of our fellow man. Some of these feeling are guilty baggage, we feel emotionally blackmailed into doing things we don’t want to do for the sake of other people’s feelings.

In the case of small children, this emotional blackmail comes with the highest stakes of all, the prospect of an abundant and glittery array of presents from old Saint Nick.

Elf on the Shelf is already monitoring many American households, and he’s ever vigilant for catching juvenile indiscretions. (In case you didn’t know, Elf on the Shelf is a small stuffed toy that parents hide in a child’s room. Then they trick the child into thinking North Pole Intelligence is watching them every waking moment. In some homes he’s even filled with a nanny cam, so parents can have proof of juvenile offenses before handing out those pricey toys.)

From literature like A Christmas Carol, to songs like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the message we send kids during the holidays is clear: put a smile on your face, even if you don’t feel happy. Be kind to others, even if they’re mean to you. And do it for the whole month of December, because the naughty list awaits those who fail to achieve niceness at any cost!

Most cultures have some form of mythical creature that seems to have one purpose: scare kids into listening to their parents! During the holidays with threats of lumps of coal, or gifts aplenty on the line, behaving takes on greater significance.

monster watching

In Hispanic households kids are looking over their shoulders and under their beds for Cucuy and Cuca. These are Latin American versions of the bogeyman, and bogeywoman, respectively. It is this creature who watches our young. They hide in the shadows, in closets and on rooftops, waiting for signs of a child’s bad behavior. When the child acts up, Cuca is there to grab the offending child and spirit them away forever. Or in some cases they just eat them.

Either way, Cuca is bad news!

Most scholars believe this myth originated in Portugal as a pumpkin headed ghost. That makes this monster technically Lusophone in origin, a cultural distinction that might not matter to most of you, but I felt I should mention it. Pumpkin heads are common monsters in much of Europe, and people in North American should be aware of them from widespread popularity of the Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.

Mother’s try to protect their children with warning woven into early childhood stories.

As in the case of most myths, this story spread across Latin America through colonization, and is now found in every country. However, each version of the myth is slightly different, with changes to name, El Cucuy being one of the most common. To the physical attributes, some have bat ears and tails. To the methods of inflicting harm on children, some versions hall them away while sleeping, others rip them from a mother arms.

Childrens book cover

The most common country to feature the female version is Brazil. Although most countries include the grammatical structures to designate this monster in either gender, something you don’t see much of in the Anglicized versions of the boogeyman or pumpkin head myths.

In Brazilian lore, the Cuca is sometimes depicted as a human-alligator monster, or as dragon. In most of the other visions of the myth the monster lacks a face or a clear shape, perhaps in part because this monster is shapeshifter. It not uncommon to see Cuco described as shadows without substance, only taking on a form after a child makes a mistake. Then they take on an appearance too horrible to describe, and with a mouth full of sharp teeth.


Some cultures view this monster as the dark counterpart of the guardian angel myth, and believe the only way to drive them away is with prayers.

In many cases, this monster finds a path into a child’s heart at an early age through lullabies. Like this one:

Vai-te Cuca. Vai-te Cuca
Para cima do telhado
Deixa o menino dormir
Um soninho descansado”

Leave Cuca. Leave Cuca
Go to the top of the roof
let the child have
A quiet sleep

Or this one, sung to the tune of Rock-a-bye baby:

Duérmete niño
Duérmete ya
Que viene el cuco
Y te llevará.

Duérmete niño
Duérmete ya
Que viene el cuco
Y te comerá.

Sleep my baby,
Sleep, baby, do!
The bogeyman’s coming
And he will take you.

Sleep my baby,
Sleep, baby, do!
The bogeyman’s coming
And he will eat you.

Although this version of the bogey-person is not as well-known as others, it’s a staple of life in most Hispanic families. Now with Christmas mear weeks away, I’m sure many rambunctious kids are watching their manners, eating their vegetables and doing their homework.

After all, they never know who might be watching!



Leave a Comment

  1. I never heard of the female form but we were sure scared off the cucuy. He was year round for us Ann’s meant to scare us into doing things or not doing things but was not used in connection to Christmas with us.


    1. Hi Corina, I think for many people it’s a monster without a clear gender. But you’re right, a year round monster in my house too. However, I always felt that extra pressure to be good at Christmas. I didn’t want a lump of coal in my stocking.


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