La Lechuza legend serves as both a cautionary tale and a story of revenge
The story of La Lechuza usually goes something like this: A man is walking home alone, late at night. Maybe he’s been drinking. All of a sudden, he hears wings rustling – and maybe he sees glowing eyes staring at him from a tree.
If you grew up in South Texas or northern Mexico, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of this legend.
The roots of the legend
There are many versions of La Lechuza – but in all of them, she begins as a woman who has been wronged, according to Rachel González-Martin, a professor of Mexican American studies at UT Austin who specializes in folklore.
“La Lechuza lived at the far end of a small town, which people normally classify as somewhere in the desert area in northern Mexico. She lived alone, and that made townspeople suspicious of her,” she said. “One season, a small child, a little boy, goes missing from the town, and no one is able to find him.”
In this version of the story, the woman is accused of being a witch responsible for the boy’s disappearance. For revenge, she makes a deal with the devil to come back as a shape-shifting owl woman.
Ayden Castellanos, who grew up reading about La Lechuza, now hosts the “Susto” podcast about Latin and Hispanic folklore.
“The story that I heard growing up was a cautionary tale. It was maybe like a form of or a method to discipline kids, because I was told that if I was out late when I shouldn’t be, or if I was out causing trouble, that the Lechuza would find me. And she would swoop down and she would mess up my hair, scratch me up with her talons,” he said. “And if she was large enough, that she could lift me away and take me and do with me whatever evil plan she had in mind.”
Castellanos said he never saw La Lechuza – but he did hear something once, as a kid.
“I was up late at night, on a school night when I should have been asleep. I was watching TV,” he said. “There were dogs outside in the neighborhood … I was like, ‘Oh, they’re chasing an animal that’s going to get under the house or whatever.’ It’s like, it’s fine. I’ll leave it alone.”
But then one of the dogs yelped, Castellanos said, and he decided to see what was happening.
“As I’m going to pull the blind down, I hear ‘whooo. whoooo’… what freaked me out is I didn’t immediately think, ‘Oh, that’s an owl, that’s a bird.’ It sounded like a person imitating a bird,” he said. “I didn’t see it because immediately I rolled back over, shut the TV off, and I closed my eyes and I said, I’m just going to try and sleep through this. I don’t want to know what’s out there after all.”
‘El Pajaro Gigante’ terrorizes South Texas
In the small rural town of Robstown, right outside of Corpus Christi, the legend of La Lechuza is tied with that of another cryptid – one indelibly linked to the community’s culture: the Big Bird of Robstown, or “El Pajaro Gigante de Robé.”
In 1975, people walking along the county roads at night said they saw a huge, monster bird swooping down at them. Some told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which reported on the claims, that the creature was 2 feet tall, while others swore it reached 6 feet. But when it was reported the creature had the face of a human, then connections began to be made to the Lechuza legend.
Soon, sightings were reported in nearby Banquete and Alice. It became something of a wave of hysteria, but one that retained a sense of humor as Robstonians began to embrace their cryptid.
The magazine “La Lomita,” which was part of the rising Chicano movement in the area, published 25 theories about the bird, ranging from it being conjured up to scare people away from the new Familias Unidas organization, to it being a form of justice finally arriving to the town.
The bird was also made into an adversary in an issue of the comic book “Relampago.” Created by Margarito Garza, who later served as a Corpus Christi district judge, the comic featured a protagonist credited as the first Mexican American superhero.
Musical groups were caught up in the moment, as well. Tejano musician Wally Gonzalez released one song about the creature seen all throughout South Texas, but perhaps the most famous song that Robstonians cite even today comes from a group called Los Campeones de Raúl Ruiz, titled “El Pajaro Gigante de Robe.”
While the legend has retained a humorous status in Robstown culture to this day, there are aspects to the story that speak to the deeper elements of the Lechuza folk tale. “El Pajaro Gigante” has been described by the skeptical to have been conjured up by those walking home after a night of drinking – a motif González-Martin says is a particular aspect to the Lechuza legend.
The legend as a form of retribution
In a lot of the modern stories or sightings, La Lechuza goes after a particular kind of victim: Specifically, she “terrorizes men,” according to González-Martin.
“She particularly terrorizes men who find themselves walking alone, maybe drunk on a weekend night, or maybe drunk on a work night, coming home late, possibly coming home drunk,” she said. “Men that might be known to be into sort of lascivious behavior, people that are abusive, unkind, cruel people that might cheat on their spouses or even abuse their children or partners.”
This aspect of the Lechuza legend is what interests González-Martin the most. On the one hand, she says this is a story that reinforces gender roles.
“The woman who becomes ‘La Lechuza’ was someone that was living a life that in her community wasn’t typical,” she said. “And so in her nontypical-ness, she scared people.”
But on the other hand, González-Martin says the modern appearances of La Lechuza seem to serve women and girls who have been wronged.
“This story creates a kind of hope for women and girls in the sense that justice will be served even if it’s not through mainstream means,” she said.
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Castellanos said he was drawn to La Lechuza for a slightly different reason.
“I am a queer person, and this idea of being othered because of people’s perceptions of you … to me, the idea of a witch who is so powerful that she could shapeshift was that’s really cool. Like, she can probably do some really cool stuff. Why is she innately evil? Why is that such a bad thing?” he said. “At the end of the day, you know that she has this power, because if that power is able to allegedly be used for evil or for bad, then it can also be used for good.”
But perhaps if you’ve been up to no good, you may need to be concerned about La Lechuza. And if that’s you, probably best to avoid country roads at night in South Texas. Just in case.
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