How the Chupacabra Became an Emblem of the Latin American Cultural Imagery

Chupacabra BELatina Latinx

Those of us who grew up in Latin America in the mid-1990s remember as if it were yesterday when news channels began to echo the sighting of a strange animal in Puerto Rico. 

Amidst distorted images, newscasts devoted at least 5 minutes to what looked like a hyena with spines on its back, supposedly sucking grazing animals dry.

If you had grown up in the countryside, you would often find farmers checking goats for three holes in their chests, where the animal supposedly would have bitten them.

The first woman to see it, Madelyne Tolentino, told the media that she had seen the creature in the Puerto Rican town of Canóvanas, where up to 150 farm animals and pets had supposedly died.

It wasn’t until Puerto Rican comedian and businessman Silverio Perez christened the animal “Chupacabras” that the figure began to have an identity.

A worldwide phenomenon

The first time a series of cattle killings were reported was in 1975 in the city of Moca. The culture of the time gave rise to thousands of versions — from vampires to satanic cults.

But it was from Tolentino’s report and Perez’s commentary that the Chupacabra began to exist in the collective imagination of Latin America.

As if it were a collective hallucination, a few months later, other similar deaths were reported in countries of the region, from El Salvador and Honduras to Chile and Argentina.

In fact, many years later, in late 2018, several reports of Chupacabra-like attacks emerged in Manipur, India.

In Latin America, parents instilled fear in their children, assuring them that the risk was present in the streets. If the animal sucked the blood of cattle, it could easily attack the little ones.

Thus arose a legend that continues to resurface in family tales every Halloween.

Scientists to the rescue

In June 2010, scientists announced they had found the body of a creature that matched the legend and immediately came up with an explanation.

As National Geographic explains, the Chupacabra was once again a coyote suffering from a severe case of mange, a painful and potentially fatal skin disease that can cause hair to fall out and wrinkles to appear on the skin.

“I don’t think we need to look any further or to think that there’s yet some other explanation for these observations,” said Barry OConnor, a University of Michigan entomologist who has studied Sarcoptes scabiei, the parasite that causes mange.

A year later, and after five years of research, Benjamin Radford, an author, and researcher specializing in the paranormal published Tracking the Chupacabra. This book concluded that the legend had arisen from Tolentino’s bad trip after seeing the 1995 sci-fi horror film “Species.”

Tolentino had reportedly seen the alien creature Sil, which is almost identical to the account the woman gave to the media before her report.

Folklore and magical realism

Although scientists have found, as is their job, a rational explanation for the legend of the Chupacabra, in Latin America, tradition leaves room for everything. It is not in vain that we are the cradle of magical realism, that intersection between reason and the inexplicable.

The diversity of species and the vast jungle territory of Latin America have been the raw material for countless legends and myths that have not yet been dismantled and that populate our culture.

For example, in the rural countryside of Chile, the story of the Culebrón, a huge, hairy snake with a gigantic head like a calf, is still told. Legend has it that it comes out of dark caves or remote forests at night and eats basically anything in its path.

Old-timers also say that the snake has treasure radar and that it arrives at treasure sites 40 days after being buried. The snake will bring wealth to anyone who can tame it.

Similarly, in southern Chile, there is the Mapuche indigenous tradition of the Peuchen, a shape-shifting vampire-like creature. Most often described as a flying snake, the Mapuche believe that Peuchens can paralyze their victims by looking into their eyes to drain the blood from their bodies.

In the Amazon, there is also the legend of the legendary Yacumama, a sea monster in the form of a horned serpent believed to be the mother of all sea creatures.

So, although scientists always seek reason and logic, our culture breaks paradigms, preserves respect for the unknown, and fills us with beautiful (or horror-filled) legends.