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The Many Interpretations of La Cucaracha

June 9, 2021 in General Education

You are probably familiar with the song La Cucaracha, a traditional folk corrido that gained its popularity in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. The corrido is a ballad in which the lyrics narrate historical events and other socially relevant topics. Did you realize that there is a reference to the smoking of cannabis in one of its dozens of verses? There are several theories about the origins of the song and its meanings which I will clarify in this article.

History of the Mexican Revolution

In a nutshell…

  • In 1909, Francisco Madero persuades peasant leader Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, the revolutionary general and guerrilla leader, to join the revolution against Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz.
  • In 1911, Madero is elected President of Mexico.
  • Victoriano Huerta leads a coup against Madero who is shot to death. Huerta declares himself president in 1913.
  • The US opposes Huerta and supports Venustiano Carranza who becomes the First Chief, fighting against Huerta who resigns and flees the country in 1914.
  • Alvaro Obregon leads the army of Carranza who is recognized by the US government as provisional president of Mexico.
  • Zapata and Villa view Carranza as a rival and back Gutierrez for president.
  • Villa blames President Woodrow Wilson for supporting Carranza and launches an attack on an American border town in New Mexico in 1916. That same year, Villa makes a deal with Obregon to stay out of politics. He reneges and has many attempts made on his life. Villa is finally assassinated in 1923.
  • In 1919, Obregon announces his campaign for the presidency, declaring a revolt against Carranza who is murdered.
  • In 1920,  Obregon is elected President and the Revolution ends.

The Story of La Cucaracha

Everyone agrees that on the surface, the story of La Cucharacha is about a cockroach that loses one of its six legs, leaving it to negotiate the world with its five remaining legs.

The ballad is actually a satirical metaphor for the social and/or political problems happening in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Some experts view La Cucaracha as a depiction of a corrupt politician, others as an adulterous priest and still others as a drunken murderer. It has been compared to the American classic “Yankee Doodle” in that it is a traditional satirical song in which the lyrics are periodically updated to reflect the current social and political situation of the time.

Pancho Villa is typically one of the first names that comes to mind when discussing the historical and literal meaning of La Cucaracha. It is thought that the revolutionary version was sung by Villa’s troops as they entered battle and includes the following reference to cannabis:

Lyrics:
La cucaracha, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar
Porque no tiene
Porque le falta
Marihuana que fumar

English translation:
The cockroach, the cockroach
Cannot walk anymore
Because it hasn’t
Because it lacks
Marijuana to smoke

Other Interpretations of the Meaning of La Cucaracha

  • It is thought to represent Victoriano Huerta. He was not only a notorious drunk, but also a “stoner” who was vilified for his daily cannabis use.
  • It is a symbol for Pancho Villa’s car. Legend has it that his vehicle broke down during an escape which was compared to the cockroach’s inability to walk.
  • It refers to the female soldiers known as Las Soldaderas. While most did not engage in combat during the Mexican Revolution, they provided support services, including carrying equipment, preparing meals and acting as nurses for the armies on both sides.
  • The term “roach” was inspired by La Cucaracha. Since there is hardly any cannabis left in a roach, some compare running out of cannabis to the inability of the cockroach to walk because it is missing a leg.

Historical References for La Cucaracha

Even its origins are questionable. While the song is typically considered to be linked to Mexico, more likely than not, it was written in Spain. Here is the list of its historical references and meanings:

  • One of the earliest written references appeared in an 1819 novel, La Quijotita y su Prima, by Mexican political writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi. One of the verses suggested that a naval captain brought the song to Mexico from Spain:

Lyrics:
A naval captain
Who came in a frigate
Among various tunes
Brought the one about “La Cucaracha”

  • Spanish author Francisco Rodriguez Marin wrote a book in 1883 about popular Spanish songs throughout the ages, Cantos Populares Espanoles, in which he cited lyrics from La Cucaracha. Several verses referenced the Reconquista which was a series of campaigns by Christian states to recapture territory from the Muslims in medieval Spain and Portugal. This end was accomplished in 1492 when the Moors surrendered La Alhambra in Granada to Spain.

Lyrics:
From the sideburns of a Moor
I must make a broom,
To sweep the quarters
Of the Spanish infantry

  • Incidents during the Carlist Civil Wars in Spain (1833-1876)
  • Incidents during the Second French Intervention in Mexico in 1861

Most experts agree that many verses of La Cucaracha were added during the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) to reflect the political events from both rebel and government forces. References were made to the major political figures, the events of the war and the impact it had on civilians. There were many different factions at war during the Mexican Revolution.

In this stanza,  the Huertists are making fun of the Carrancistas.

Lyric:
And the Carrancistas
Are on full retreat
And the Huertistan jackals
Have caught them by the tail

Here are two Zapatist stanzas:

Lyric:
Hear with pleasure these verses
Listen carefully:
Now the poor cockroach
Doesn’t even get a tostón (a 50 centavo or cent coin)

Everything has been very expensive
In this Revolution
Selling milk by the ounce
And coal by the gram

Which explanation do you think is most likely? Leave me a comment with your opinion.

Sources:
leafly.com, Did You Know A Version of “La Cucaracha” References Marijuana? Nicolle Callier, Nov. 15, 2016
straightdope.com, What Are The Words To “La Cucaracha” Cecil Adams, July 27, 2001
huffpost.com, La Cucaracha: No Pot, No Travel, Bob Schulman, updated Dec. 6, 2017
wikipedia.com, Corrido
wikipedia.com, La Cucaracha
loc.gov/rr/hispanic/mexico/timeline.html, Timeline for the Mexican Revolution – Distant Neighbors

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