How to make a beloved Southwestern folktale your own
by Karen Vargas
Did I tell you about the time the devil went dancing?
He went dancing at seven bars in one night, all across northern New Mexico, and one of the bars was my Tio Martin’s. The bar was called Los Compadres and it stood across from Taos Pueblo, across the highway, and just north of the Rio Pueblo.
They say the Devil started out that evening at the El Monte Carlo Lounge in Questa, then headed south to Arroyo Seco stopping at Abe’s for a shot and a beer. He then headed over to my Tio Martin’s bar in Taos, then further south to The Old Martinez Hall in Ranchos. After that he drove forty miles through the canyon and danced at Alicia’s grandpa’s bar south of Española, near Nambe. I can’t imagine that he didn’t stop at the Saints and Sinners in Española for another shot and a beer, but that place doesn’t have a dance floor. Still, he had to have gone dancing somewhere in Espa, and anyone from there could tell you exactly where. After that he headed to Santa Fe, possibly to The Bull Ring, but I could be wrong, but I’m probably right. Somehow he made it back up the mountain to the Cleveland bar outside of Mora, but I don’t know how he had time to do that except for the obvious fact that he was the Devil.
I first heard this story in the 1970s, so in the version I had in mind, the Devil had gone disco dancing. But in my grandparents’ version he was dancing the traditional couple’s dance, la Ranchera, cheek to cheek with an unsuspecting woman, at Tio Martin’s, and in my mom’s 1950s version he was swing dancing with some bobby-soxers at Andy’s La Fiesta. But my Devil was much more like Saturday Night Fever.
We were only twelve when my best friend Annette Lujan and I were stuffed into her big brother’s car trunk and snuck into the drive-in theater on Cerillos in Santa Fe. Saturday Night Fever had just come to town. We weren’t old enough to get in because the movie was rated R, so we lay side by side like two kidnapped girls “staying alive” and doing whatever we had to do to see Travolta dance. Because he was devilish.
After that we took disco lessons at the Boys and Girls Club, listened to the all the Bee Gee’s songs on Donnie Sandoval’s eight track while cruising the plaza on Saturday nights in his red El Camino. We wanted to be ready the next time Travolta came to town. We knew all of the songs by heart, the dance steps too, and if the Godzilla-sized Tony Manero would have jumped off the big screen, hustled on over to the car, opened the trunk, lifted us out, and asked us to dance, we would have known exactly what to do. We would have danced with him, Devil or not.
Unfortunately, the next time Travolta came to town, he was Danny Zuko in the movie Grease, so we were not ready at all. We had to start over with all new songs and new dance moves that we perfected after school in the family den with Annette’s dad—he knew all those 1950s old dance moves. We’d be ready for Danny Zuko the next time.
In Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero was dreamy. He was the kind of crush that we could only imagine in our dreams. He wasn’t a devil, but he was devilish, for sure. Especially when he danced. What good dancer isn’t? Seductive moves can put you in a trance, steal your heart, maybe even blind you if you’re not careful. That kind of dancing can make you do things you wouldn’t normally do, like join in, dance with a devil, maybe get pregnant, then have to drop out of school, throw away your entire life, and for what? This is what adults warned devils could do and what women and young girls should not. But we saw the power of those moves transform a working-class Tony Manero from a nine-to-five paint store clerk to the greatest dancer of his generation. What could possibly be wrong with that? Weren’t we, too, supposed to look beyond our own circumstances?
Saturday Night Fever came out in 1977, a year after the bicentennial. It seemed everyone was wearing red-white-and-blue clothing, flying flags in their front yard, and setting off fireworks. But to me, the bicentennial was nothing but a precursor to the real party—disco.
Of course we listened to other music, like our parents’ Rancheras and Freddy Fender. We also listened to Redbone, Ohio Players, and The Jackson Five and had posters of all of them on our bedroom walls. At that age we had crushes on them all and were completely boy crazy. We’d been told the story about the Devil and what he could do to bad girls, but we had a really hard time believing it. We wanted something better, something more.
We were drawn to other movies that had nothing to do with an American Dream that manifested itself as destiny and conquest. We were Indigenous kids, after all, living in the great Southwest and Indian Country with our own unique histories.
There were the Billy Jack movies and we saw them all. They portrayed another kind of American Dream where the half-Navajo Billy Jack (played by a white actor) went to Washington and confronted political corruption for his people. He was on a mission, he was cool, and could do karate in blue jeans just like us. (We were also heavily influenced by the Bruce Lee movies at that time, another rare brown face staring back at us from the big screen.) I remember the native girls from Po-suwae-geh Owingeh standing outside the movie theater in tears and bell-bottoms, after The Trial of Billy Jack. Almost everyone left the theater crying that day.
Those old movies were flawed by today’s standards, but that’s all we had back then, so we took what we could get. There just weren’t many faces or lives like our own staring back at us from the big screen. Us Chicano kids had Chico and the Man and our traditional stories, and the native kids had Billy Jack and their traditional stories, and we all had the Christian Devil forced on us.
Anyway, I’ve been dancing at almost all of those bars in northern New Mexico but I’ve never seen the Devil, not once. At least not the one my family told me about—the one who walks in, dapper, tux and tails, dark suit, dark eyes, and no horns.
What happened to his horns? Think about it—horns would have been a dead giveaway. Maybe the devil goes to the salon for a facial and to get his hair done, and the hairdresser lops off his horns with a sharp razor so no one will recognize him. Horns are just like nails—it doesn’t hurt to cut them off, and they grow back. Maybe Celina, who does his nails, paints them in rainbow colors to match his hair. Maybe, in this version of the story, he’s going to the Gay Pride Parade, and then he’s off to the bars to seduce both men and women alike with his ecstatic dance and his suave demeanor.
Remember, things are not always as they first appear. My devil isn’t the same as my parents’ devil and as I grew older, I finally realized that one person’s devil isn’t always another person’s devil at all.
In my grandparents’ version, El Diablo walks into the bar, dances all night with the ladies, then, as he’s leaving, his tail falls out of the back of his coat. In another version, he’s kicking it up on the dance floor and that’s when everyone in the room notices that he has cloven hooves. But think about it: The shoes that Tony Manero wears in Saturday Night Fever are two-inch heels—easily mistaken for cloven hooves if you’re drunk enough.
No matter what version of the story you hear or tell, the most important part is the dancing. The Devil always dances with abandon. As he does, the crowd slowly emerges from the shadows, makes a circle around the middle of the dancefloor to watch. Disco Devil dances to a crescendo with the lights flashing and the music pulsing until the crowd’s cheers rise above it. Flying Devil shakes it all loose, floats toward the ceiling, and turns into a beautiful woman with wings like Paloma Negra. B-girl Devil breakdances at the taco cart and turns into a Frito pie. The possibilities are endless.
Use your imagination; the sky’s the limit. What I’m really saying is: Be brave. Embellish.
The baseline story is very simple. Devil walks into a bar, dances the night away, and before he leaves exposes himself for who he truly is, cloven hooves and all. Just remember, the bad guy can sometimes end up being the good guy, you just never know…
This is your story now.
Karen Vargas is a native of northern New Mexico. Her poetry and short stories have been published in Epoch, Catamaran Literary Reader, Drinking from the Stream, La Palabra: The Word Is A Woman series and a number of other books and literary journals. She has been the recipient of a Taos Resident Writers Award and a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation Residency. She attends the Institute of American Indian Arts in the Creative Writing Program.
Editors’ note: The “Bailando con el Diablo” legend is widespread among Mexican-American communities throughout the Borderlands and the United States. More than 30 variants of the tale admonishing the young not to disobey their parents have been documented from Texas to Baja California alone.
- To learn more about classics of Chicano/a folklore see Chicano Folklore: A Guide to the Folktales, Traditions, Rituals and Religious Practices, Rafaela G. Castro, Oxford University Press, 2001.
- For a classic study about the meaning of “devil” metaphors in the construction of Mexican-American community identity, see Dancing with the Devil: Society and Cultural Poetics in Mexican American South Texas, Jose E. Limon, University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
- For a contrarian version of the “dance with the devil” tale that takes place in Tucson, see Images and Conversations: Mexican Americans recall a Southwestern Past, Patricia Preciado Martin, University of Arizona Press, 1983.
- For a feminist interpretation of family drama, lust, betrayal, and the supernatural, watch the film “The Devil Never Sleeps,” by Lourdes Portillo, 1994.
- For a marvelous surprising queer interpretation of the “Bailando con el Diablo” tale, read the title short story “Zigzagger” by UArizona Creative Writing professor Manuel Muñoz, in the collection Zigzagger: Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2003.