Donate Now

A Closer Look: The Cucuy Will Find You

Playwrights’ Corner

On Friday, November 8th, The Lark will hold a public reading of Jaymes Sanchez's new play The Cucuy Will Find You, as part of our Playwrights' Week 2019 festival! The Cucuy, in Mexican-American folklore, eats bad children. But what, Jaymes's play asks, does it mean to be a good child? For a successful 30-something, like REY/REYNA, who has a fraught family history and lives far away from home, the answer is complicated. To give you a closer look at Jaymes's process, fellow Playwrights' Week writer Shayan Lotfi interviewed Jaymes about what the Cucuy represents for him, how he imagines the aesthetics of the non-human character, and writing bilingually. Check out what they had to say below, then join us for the reading!

SHAYAN LOTFI: The first obvious question about this beautiful piece is the Cucuy - a mythical monster-like creature often used in the Spanish + Portuguese speaking world to scare children into 'being good'. Your protagonist Rey has an evolving relationship throughout the play with the 'arrival' of Cucuy, which you mine for comedic and emotional effect in a very effective way. Early on, Rey attempts to lessen Cucuy's power by telling him "You’re the guy that tired, drunk, irresponsible Mexicans use to scare their hyperactive children into shutting the hell up in the back of a 1992 Ford Aerostar." What is your background and relationship to the folklore of Cucuy, and how did it evolve over the years?

JAYMES SANCHEZ: Every Mexican-American kid in Texas has been told by a parent, grandparent, or other adult authority figure that "if you don't behave, the Cucuy is gonna come get you and eat you." It's an obvious ploy to scare children into giving their parents even a brief moment of peace and quiet. But I think this simple scare tactic implies a more complicated question of what it means to be a good child. It's easy when you're seven: just shut the hell up every now and then. But familial responsibility is a lot more complicated for adults. I think this is especially true of Mexican-Americans and other Latinx folks because we are often torn between old-school collectivist ideas of responsibility and the more individualistic ambitions of the American dream. I think the Cucuy represents the tension and negativity that arises as a result of trying to navigate so many different influences at such a confusing time in human history. Life is so complicated and there are so many conflicting ideals on how we should be living it, and it's easy to feel like one is not living up to any of those ideals particularly well, and thus letting everyone down. 

SL: The crux of the story lies in Rey's decision (or indecision) to return home to visit their father and grandmother, who is ill. The play is smart and nuanced when it comes to the messy interlinkages of intergenerational relationships, in this case Rey's resentments towards his father affecting his ability to engage with his grandmother in a substantive (and physical) way as she gets progressively sicker. Where did the idea of linking this specific mythical figure to notions of obligation and guilt as it pertains to ones' family come from?

JS: Grief and guilt are vital to this play, and are directly related to the conversation about how to be a good child. When I was grieving the loss of my own grandparents, one thing that I noticed when talking to people of various backgrounds about their grief is that so many people wonder if they ever did enough for their lost loved ones. Even people who had cared for a loved one in their last years questioned whether they had ever been good enough for that person. That fascinated me. For this play, I wanted to create a family dynamic that magnifies these universal feelings of obligation, guilt, and grief. Who would feel this sense of obligation most intensely? I think a person who was an only-child essentially raised by a grandparent because of trauma involving their parents would. And I think that complicated family history would present the most significant and painful obstacles to fulfilling those perceived obligations. But I also don't want this play to moralize. I don't want to give the impression that one must do certain things in order to be a "good" child. I'm not convinced that such a thing exists. But I do want to honestly represent the pain and guilt of feeling like you just haven't done enough. The Cucuy in this play represents those inescapable feelings and how they can really eat away at a person.
SL: You also create this meta-theatrical moment where you have Rey deconstruct Cucuy to him (and the audience) as being a culturally-inauthentic colonial inheritance: "You’re not part of my culture! You’re just some weird fairy tale from white-ass colonial Europe. You’re a borrowed boogeyman, and you’re only here because my former ignorance allowed you to be." Did your feelings (as a playwright) on why / how to use Cucuy in this piece evolve as you were writing it?

JS: Sort of. Mexican culture is irrevocably tied to colonization, and I kind of just have to accept that every now and then. When this idea first showed up it was essentially "what if the Cucuy was a real, person-like entity that just showed up at some brown guy's house and said you're a bad child and I'm gonna eat you now." I loved the idea because it felt like something so distinctly Mexican-American, that captures something essential about brown people in south Texas. I'm surprised that I was surprised to find out that the Cucuy is probably an inheritance of colonization. But that doesn't make it any less real to the people who invoke it. And it doesn't make everything that the Cucuy represents in this play any less real or any less distinctly Mexican-American. Rey is an ambitious brown millennial from a family in which every previous generation has stayed in south Texas, gotten married, and had children in their early twenties. The Cucuy is the insecurity about not doing those things that so many Latinx millennials feel. That understanding made me feel more ownership of the concept even if it did turn out to originate in Europe.

SL: You devote quite a bit of space in the character breakdown in how you envision Cucuy on stage - played by a 30+ Latinx woman and who physically grows throughout the play, possibly via puppetry. Do you plan on using your time at The Lark to explore the physicality of this character and how it can look / feel / appear on stage? 

JS: I hope so! Puppetry was my first idea mostly because I find puppetry to be a lot of fun to watch. I even made some very rough sketches of what the size progression could look like. But I am also excited to hear other ideas as well. And there really is no substitute for seeing a performer in space. Aside from just the suggestion that the Cucuy grow in size, I haven't prescribed any of the aesthetics of the Cucuy. This is something that I hope is fun for the actor to play with. The Cucuy is a non-human force of something, so there really is no particular way that the Cucuy has to move, or behave, or BE. So I hope to learn a lot just from seeing the actor take up space in this role. 

SL: As someone else who also incorporates foreign languages in their work, I was particularly interested in when you decide to translate Spanish for a non-Spanish speaking audience (which in this case is rarely). With this piece, and your work more generally, how much do you consider what / when to translate elements of your work (whether it be language or cultural exposition) to an English-speaking audience? 

JS: The language question is something that I find really interesting but that I'm still trying to calibrate for this play. Combining English and Spanish is just a fact of life for Mexican-Americans in Texas (and most other Latinx people I've encountered). My main focus is always getting the specific patterns of south Texan Spanglish down. I don't consider clarity for a general audience until later in the process. Honestly, this is partially because of my own blindspots, assuming that everyone can understand this hybrid language that I've been immersed in for my whole life. But I do also think about whether and to what extent confusion about the language and culture is productive for a general audience. I think this is where the cultural aspect of your question comes into play as well. I sometimes have this "othered" feeling in the theater when a show is so clearly wrapped up in whiteness, affluence, and other forms of privilege, and I know that there is some kind of cultural short-hand I'm not picking up on. I wonder if it's possible to flip that dynamic around to create a play that everyone can understand and enjoy, but with small moments of connection for people familiar with the language and/or culture. I'm still trying to figure out the most productive combination of translation and confusion.