Kate Farrell (author of Story Power) brings us this Puerto Rican folktale in honor of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month.
Once upon a time, on the island of Puerto Rico, there lived a boy named Juan Bobo — well, his name was Juan, but he was called Juan Bobo because he was a foolish boy. He had a huge heart, full of generosity and sweetness. Alas, that heart was not what he used when he was making decisions about life. For that he used his head, and Juan Bobo’s head? Well, let’s just say his head was not quite as full as his heart.
One day Juan Bobo’s mother invited friends for dinner. “I’ll make a nice, big chicken stew,” she said to Juan Bobo. She had the chicken, and she had the rice, but she didn’t have a large-enough pot.
“Juan Bobo,” she said, “go to your grandmother’s house and borrow her biggest pot. Hurry now so I can make my stew.”
Juan Bobo loved chicken stew, so naturally he was glad to help. He ran outside and up the hill toward his grandmother’s house. As he ran, he could almost taste that stew, and he could see the pot — the big, three-legged iron pot, round and sturdy. He had eaten many a stew cooked in that pot.
When he reached his grandmother’s house, he went straight to the cupboard where she kept the pot. He lifted it up on his shoulder and called, “Thank you, Grandmother,” before heading for home.
Home wasn’t far, but that pot was heavy and the day was hot. Before long sweat was pouring down Juan Bobo’s face, and his shoulder hurt, and his feet were tired, and his breath was becoming short. “I think I’ll rest awhile,” he said aloud, so he stopped and put that pot on the ground.
He stood there catching his breath, looking at that pot, and suddenly he noticed those three legs.
“Hey,” he said, “you have three legs and I have only two. Why should I carry you?”
The very idea that a boy with two legs had to carry a pot with three legs made no sense to Juan Bobo. Of course it didn’t, because sense was not what Juan Bobo usually made.
He continued to stare at that pot, and he began to feel angry. “You lazy pot!” he said at last. “Why don’t you walk on your own? Come, we’ll race to my house, but since I have just two legs and you have three, I’ll take a head start!”
The pot seemed to be staring back at him.
“It’s easy, the house is just downhill and round the corner,” he said, nodding at the pot. He was sure it understood his directions.
“I’m off,” he said, and he began to race toward home.
When he reached the cottage, he rushed inside and said to his mother, “Did I get here first?”
Juan Bobo’s mother looked at her son’s sweaty, flushed face and shook her head. “What are you talking about? Where is your grandmother’s pot?”
“Mother,” Juan Bobo said, very seriously, “that pot has three strong legs, and I have only two, so I told the pot I would race it home.”
Juan Bobo’s mother shook her head and sighed, “Oh Juan Bobo, don’t you know pots can’t walk on their own? You go back and get that pot right now or you’ll have no stew at all!”
Juan Bobo was very upset with his mother, but he longed for that stew. So he ran back up the hill and found the pot right where he had left it, of course.
“What kind of lazy pot are you?” he shouted. “Now I’m in trouble with my mother, and I may not have dinner tonight! You have one more chance. Get going down the hill!”
Naturally the pot just sat there staring at poor Juan Bobo, and this infuriated the boy. His usually kind heart began to grow cold, and he stared angrily at the pot. “One more chance,” he warned.
The pot did not budge.
So Juan Bobo lost his temper, and he kicked the pot.
It tipped over on its side and began to roll down the hill. “That’s right!” Juan Bobo cried, overjoyed that at last the pot was on its way home.
And so the pot and Juan Bobo reached home. Juan Bobo’s heart warmed a little, especially later that night as he ate the delicious chicken stew his mother had cooked inside that pot.
In the morning his mother said, “Now Juan Bobo, take the pot back to your grandmother’s house.”
Juan Bobo looked at the pot and saw that it still had three legs, and even though he was nice and full from that delicious chicken stew, he still had only two legs.
But Juan Bobo’s heart was compassionate, and he knew the pot had worked hard all night cooking that stew.
So he picked up the pot and carried it on his shoulder up the hill, but as they walked, he said, “Next time you’ll walk back home on your own, my friend.”
Nobody is quite sure what happened next time.
Note: Although the name “Bobo” implies stupidity or oaf-like behavior, the ostensible naiveté of Juan Bobo points to a hidden virtue or helpful way to approach life. The stories often have obvious morals that suggest how people should live and how cultures should interact.
Cultural Interpretation: The Juan Bobo character has been called an avatar of indigenous morality, a repository of cultural/historical information, and a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression. As such, in United States and Puerto Rican universities, the Juan Bobo stories have been preserved and studied for their sociological and political significance. Juan Bobo has also been compared to the syncretic religious system of Santería and the Brazilian martial art of capoeira, for its melding of spiritual strength and resistance into an ostensibly benign art form.
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