El Cuco or El Coco

The Story of a Latin American Monster

This is a wondeful article by one of my favorite Hispanic bloggers Valerie Russo the owner of Literanista. She sent me this Latin American legend we all know, and many grew up hearing. When I think about the times when I heard it, I can’t believe my parents told it to me…now-a-days you probably wouldn’t tell your little ones a story like this one.

Origins: “El Cuco”

We all know of El Cuco, the mythological monster, our parents all warned us about and sometimes even utilized to put the fear of God into us and make us do their will. The other day I was thinking about El Cuco and wondering if perhaps its origins came to us from our Yoruba ancestors since the term sounds African. I was surprised to learn: (it was originally an European pumpkinhead!)

The Cuco (Coco, coca, or cuca) is a mythical monster, a ghost, witch; equivalent to the boogeyman found in many Hispanic and Lusophone [Portuguese-speaking] countries.


The myth of the Coco originated in Portugal and Galicia. According to the Real Academia Española the word “coco” derives from the Portuguese language, and referred a ghost with a pumpkin head.


Traditionally, the coco, or its feminine counterpart “coca”, is represented by a carved vegetable lantern made from a pumpkin with two eyes and a mouth, that is left in dark places with a light inside to scare people. The vegetable lantern is similar to the Jack o’ lantern. Coca the dragon is another representation of this scary being and is present in the folklore of Portugal and Galicia.


El Cuco or Coco
by Jamie Wyeth

The name of the “coconut” derived from “coco” and was given to the fruit by the sailors of Vasco da Gama because it reminded this mythical creature.

The legend of the Cuco began to be spread to Latin America by the Portuguese and Spanish colonizers.

There is no general description of the Cuco, as far as facial or body descriptions.

The legend of the Cuco is widely used by parents in Spain and Latin America in order to make their children go to sleep. Parents usually tell small kids that the Cuco will take them away if they don’t fall asleep early. This method has been in use for decades now.

Popularity and Other Names

The Cuco method is very popular among parents from Dominican Republic to Argentina. In many countries, the character has different meanings: in Mexico, for example, parents prefer to call Cuco the similar name “Calaca”, which also means skeleton there.

In Brazil Cuco appears as a female, ‘Cuca’. Cuca appears as the villain in some children books by Monteiro Lobato. Artists illustrating these books depicted the Cuca as an anthropomorphic alligator.

In Northern New Mexico, where there is a large Hispanic population, El Cuco is referred to in its Spanglish name, the Coco Man. His image is construed with Brazil’s sack man; he carries a bag to take naughty children around Christmas time, and demands repentance in the form of Catholic prayers.

The Bogeyman (or boogeyman) could be considered an English equivalent of the Cuco, since both monsters attack children who misbehave.

Popular Song for The Cuco

Duermete niño, duermete ya…que viene el cuco y te comerá (sleep child, sleep now…or else comes the coco to eat you)

Literanista is a published poet, a writer, and book blogger by night. Valerie Russo is the owner of the blog: http://www.literanista.net


  1. José F. Echegaray says:

    “duérmete nene, que viene el cuco,
    a darte unos cantazos con un bejuco”
    I guess we may call this two-verse song an antilullaby for its nasty, insensitive treatment of the tender psyche of an infant.
    I heard it being sung to a sleepy child,in rural Camuy, Puerto Rico.
    It follows the exact melody we find in the following excerpts from a “nana” or “canción de cuna” (cradle song) which I believe originated in Andalucía, Spain. This one was sung to me at bedtime by my granma:

    “Ay Turulete, ay Turulete,
    El que no tiene vaca, no bebe leche”

    “Ay Pepe Pepe, ay Pepe Pancho,
    tírale a la paloma, que está en el rancho”

    • Marcela Hede says:

      José I didn’t know the lyrics of the song you mentioned above in the first line. Yes, very harsh on a child’s psyche. As a matter of fact, the famous comedian George López makes fun of these Hispanic traditions that include strong lyrics by telling the story of his grandma narrating the famous “Llorona” story. I now can’t believe we listened to it calmly. And yes, the lyrics “duérmete niño, duérmete ya, que viene el coco y te comerá” are pretty common throughout Latin America, and nobody thinks we are harming the children. We just love hearing the song!

  2. José F. Echegaray says:

    Hi, Marcela. Thanks for your interest in “El Cuco” subject. The 1st. version of El Cuco I posted (above) is a local, northwest- Puerto Rico variant of the basic Hispanic “lullaby'”. Yet you know another which I din’t and as the late Tom Lehrer used to sing (in the sixties):
    ” ….and there might be many others,
    but they haven’t been discovered.”
    He was referring to the Elements in the Periodic Table.
    And then ,Marcela , most importantly, WE latin American people are discovering each other. as elements (parts of a greater Whole). WE must keep that in mind, always.

    Here’s another PuertoRican variant for the use of El Cuco concept:
    “Se buscó un novio más feo que El Cuco”

    (“She got herself a boy friend (or girl friend)
    who is uglier than El Cuco”…..)

    Another thing to consider,dear Marcela : Keeping in silence
    is not necessarily equivalent to keeping in calm.
    Fear can be externalized or internalized. Internalized fear does the greatest damage. When it is instilled in an infant’s psyche
    it exerts a programming-like effect-for life-, which contributes to obedient behavior – one of the main tools all Colonial Powers employed and still employ for the exploitation of the colonized.

  3. I think this is a very scary storie!!!! Wow!!

  4. The TV show Grim is doing an episode about it now.

  5. Ray Ables says:

    Except the pumpkin originated in America so they would have used a different gourd.

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