Twenty Five Years Ago there were tales of many legendary characters and each one for a particular reason. The Alux, of whom I wrote last week, was intended for the villagers, especially the farmers who met strangers in the fields and bush, and they were to be kind to them for if they got the Alux angry, they would play scary tricks on the unkind people. Now there was another Maya legendary character, El Tata Balan, who was intended to keep “hard ears children” (stubborn children) away from the bush. You can bet your sweet lips that all the children were afraid of the Tata Balan.
In Maya language the word Tata meant grandfather. Quite unlike the Tata Duende, an old man who was very small, the Tata Balan was an old man who was very big. He was dressed in very rugged clothing and wore a large hat and roamed the bushes day and night. The Tata Balan , according to many eyewitnesses in the 1950’s, was a mean man, and he handled very roughly any little boy he caught in the forest. He was said to have no children, so he was eager to pick up any child in the bush and carry him off to be his companion.
The presence of the Tata Balan in the area was easy to detect. Usually there would be a dreadful silence as the animals and birds in the bush were afraid of him. Then the Tata Balan would produce three loud whistling sounds. It was said that when the whistle sounded faintly and in the far distance, in fact he was very close in the area. And when the whistle sounded loudly and closely, in fact that was when he was very far away. This strange device was used by the Tata Balan to trick the children, who would hear a faint whistle and would think that the bushman was going away.
One day Pedrito was cautioned by his father, “You are not going to get firewood. Instead I want you to help me chop and clear the weeds.” Chopping was a boring chore, and it did not include sailing, so Pedrito knew he had to find a way out. As soon as don Antonio went to borrow a paintbrush from his brother, who lived two blocks away, Pedrito quickly volunteered to go and cut firewood and his mother innocently accepted. Pedrito got his axe, and machete and hurriedly got into his sailing dory and off he went into the direction of Tres Cocos, where the firewood was abundant. Once he arrived there, he quickly drank the water of a coconut and ate the meat since he had not had breakfast. Ten minutes later, he was happily doing his mother’s chores and completely forgot his father’s request and warning.
Pedrito was whistling contentedly as he landed the axe on the six-inch mangrove tree trunk. Suddenly there was this intense silence- no birds, no crickets, no animal sounds. Only the slight rustling of leaves and the thud of the axe as it landed could be heard. Pedrito stopped, wiped the sweat off his forehead, leaned on the handle of his axe and listened.
Then the unexpected! A loud whistle-intense and penetrating and frightening. “Perhaps my dad is after me,” thought Pedrito. Again another whistle, but this time a bit farther and fainter. “Oh, it’s the coconut farmer going away,’ thought Pedrito. As he was about to resume his pleasant chore, another whistle, and this time very sweet and mellow and very faint. Pedrito turned round only to see some bushes move. He stared with wide open eyes in the direction of the moving bushes only to discover a mean looking bearded face rising above the shrubs. He had black rotten teeth and his huge hat almost covered his entire forehead. It was only then that Pedrito remembered the Tata Balan and almost froze in terror. Fortunately, Pedrito gathered courage and dashed towards the beach. When he got there in a matter of seconds, which to him seemed like hours, Pedrito was sweating cold. He was pale white as he jumped into his dory and paddled off the shore in frantic panic.
The journey home was twice as short and once home, Pedrito, in a stammering manner, related the morning’s happenings to his mom and dad. “It is the Tata Balan,” assured his father. “You should have made the sign of the cross to scare him off,” added his mother.
Since that day in July 1959, Pedrito promised himself never to go into the bush anymore, except in the company of his father. Ironically the Tata Balan kept children away from the bush but today we need a legendary character to keep children away from the discotheques or the game rooms.
– by Angel Nuñez, Columnist