Thursday, December 8, 2022

StorySpotting: Women with their feet backwards (9-1-1)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

9-1-1 is one of those shows that consistently deliver exactly what you expect from them: first responder drama, feel-good moments, kittens and children rescued, and Angela Bassett being an unadulterated badass. Now, with some folklore.

Where was the story spotted?

9-1-1, Season 6, Episode 4 (Animal Instincts)

What happens?

In one scene this episode we see a young girl telling a very animated bedtime story to her mother. It's about an evil ciguapa with backwards feet, threatening a boy in the woods. A brave woodsman and his spotted dog with five toes run to the woods, and chase the ciguapa away.
The girl asks her mother if ciguapas are real. "I don't know. That's what abuela says. I've never seen one." "Not even when you lived in Santo Domingo?" The mother doesn't answer.
Soon after, the girl's abusive father breaks into the home, and she calls 911.

What's the story?

As the girl's words allude to, the ciguapa is a creature of Dominican folklore. It is usually described as beautiful, either tall or petite, hairy or feathered or nude, but most accounts agree it has backwards feet, with the toes pointing towards the back. Because of this, and their elusiveness, the ciguapa are very difficult to track or catch. Beliefs say they can only be captured during the full moon, with the help of a black and white spotted five-toed (cinqueño) dog. Legends also claim that if captured, they die of sadness.

The ciguapa have their origins in pre-European indigenous cultures, and their continued resistance during colonization. They became a very important symbol in Dominical literature, both in children's and adult genres. For example, there is a beautifully illustrated children's book, titled Secret Footprints, about a ciguapa girl who ventures into the world of humans. (In this version of the story - see the image to the left - they live underwater, afraid humans would capture them for their beauty.)

One ciguapa story is recorded by Francisco Javier Angulo Guridi, from the 1860s. In this one, the author encounters a young man who lost his beloved bride to the jealousy of a ciguapa. In his description the ciguapa are an ancient group of beings who live in the heart of the mountains. They are beautiful, with creole skin, dark eyes, and long lustrous hair; they can run like the wind, and leap from tree to tree like a bird. They only communicate with cries and howls, and they are very timid, hiding from humans. However, they get jealous when they see people in love. If a female ciguapa gets jealous, her cry kills the man in love, and if a male ciguapa does the same, the woman dies. In some other legends, the ciguapa seduces humans, drains them through excessive lovemaking, and then kills them.

Sometimes the ciguapa are also accused of other fairy- or trickster-like behaviors, such as stealing food or tangling the mane and tail of horses.

Some legends connect the ciguapa to the Ciguayos, indigenous people who lived on the island. One talks about a princess who retired to the caves in the mountains to avoid being killed by the European colonizers. Her people started walking backwards, as to confuse their pursuers with their tracks.

Apart from the Dominican Republic, the ciguapa also exists in the folklore of Cuba, in a slightly different (black-skinned) version.

You can read more about the ciguapa in this book, or this one.


I am not sure why the writers of 9-1-1 decided to include the ciguapa story in this episode. Maybe it was just to signal the Dominican origin of the characters; maybe it was a folklore parallel to the story of women fleeing danger and persecution. Either way, it was a neat little detail, and it made me go down a research rabbit hole I learned a lot from.

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