La Cucaracha: No pot, no travel

Story and photos by Bob Schulman

La Cucaracha came from old-world Spain.

1492 was a red letter year for Spain. It started off with a bang on Jan. 2 when the Christian armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella trounced the Muslims at Granada – topping off the reconquest of the country and ending 800 years of Muslim rule. The royal duo made the headlines again on March 31 when they issued Spain’s “Edict of Expulsion” – booting the Jews out of Spain unless they converted to Catholicism by July 31. Then, backed by the monarchs, Christopher Columbus on Aug. 3 set sail from the Spanish riverside village of Palos de Frontera to cross the Atlantic and discover “the New World” on Oct. 12.

Oddly enough, there’s a song the Christian troopers might have sung as they charged the ramparts of Granada, and the Jews might have sung when they hit the road out of Spain. Columbus’ sailors might have sung it, too. The song – “La Cucaracha” -- was one of the big hits of 1492.

Don Quixote might have sung or hummed La Cucaracha when fighting windmills.

Four centuries later, a rag-tag army actually did sing that song when Pancho Villa’s bugles called them to battle. More about that later.

Like most folk ballads, La Cucaracha has an obscure origin and lots of different twists in its lyrics. Most supposedly tell the story of a cockroach that lost one of its six legs and is trying to hobble around on the remaining five – but this is actually a satirical metaphor for political or social issues of the times. The “hobbler” in one version is in reality a corrupt politician, in another version an adulterous priest and a drunken murderer in another of the times.

The Moors ruled Spain for nearly 800 years.In King Fernando’s day, an early version of the song took a jab at the Muslims (aka Moors) with these lyrics:

“From the sideburns of a Moor I must make a broom... to sweep the quarters of the Spanish infantry.”

Thanks to Pancho Villa, the song is generally associated with Mexico, but it was likely written in Spain – and long before the revolution south of the border. For instance, some lyrics from the song showed up in a book by Spanish author Francisco Rodriguez Marin about chart-topping tunes in that country over the ages, going back as far as the reconquest in 1492. And in a book published in 1819, Mexican political writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi talks about the song and how it was brought from Spain to Mexico by a naval captain. 

La Cucaracha also popped up in writings about Spain’s civil wars of the mid-1800s and France’s invasion of Mexico in 1861. Most remembered in the history books, of course, are versions of the song written during the Mexican revolution.

Back then the cockroach was Victoriano Huerta, a heavy boozer who orchestrated the overthrow and murder of Mexico’s beloved President Francisco Madero in 1913. Rebel armies led by Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south ousted Huerta the following year.

The rebels, particularly Villa’s troops, used La Cucaracha as their battle song – a sort of Mexican equivalent of America’s Yankee Doodle. History is fuzzy on this, but some chroniclers of the revolution say Huerta was tagged as the song’s wobbly cockroach because he drank so much. He was also said to be a stoner, which might have led to this addition to La Cucaracha’s lyrics during the revolution:

“The cockroach, the he can’t go traveling

Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks...marijuana to smoke.”

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