What are the words to "La Cucaracha"?

July 27, 2001

Dear Cecil:

What are the words to the song "La Cucaracha"? Every person I asked at school didn't know beyond the title. Even my parents did not know. I am using my parents' E-mail to ask you.

Happy to oblige, kiddo, but some people aren't going to be pleased. "La Cucaracha," one of Mexico's best-known folk songs, doesn't put the ideal spin on life south of the border. The U.S. may have amber waves of grain; the UK has jolly jolly sixpence; Mexico has . . . cockroaches. The Mexican Tourism Board can only hope monolingual Yankees don't realize what the title means. As possible evidence on this score I note that in Minneapolis, the Kyoto of midwestern culture, La Cucaracha is the name of a restaurant. Somebody really ought to clue these people in. 

But you wanted the lyrics. One complication is that there are about five million verses, many of them proof of how creative you can get on a couple quarts of Dos Equis at three o'clock in the morning. Here are the two most commonly quoted: 

La cucaracha, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar
Porque no tiene, porque le falta
Marijuana que fumar.
 

(The cockroach, the cockroach
Now he can't go traveling
Because he doesn't have, because he lacks
Marijuana to smoke.)

You can see how closer acquaintance with the lyrics does not improve the PR situation. Sometimes the last line is replaced with a bowdlerization such as limonada que tomar (lemonade to drink), but if you're old enough to be messing with dad's E-mail program, you're old enough to know the truth. 

To continue: 

Ya la murio la cucaracha
Ya la lleven a enterrar
Entre cuatro zopilotes
Y un raton de sacristan.
 

(The cockroach just died
And they carried him off to bury him
Among four buzzards
And the sexton's mouse.) 

You're thinking: Mexicans are strange. But there's more going on here than meets the eye. "La Cucaracha" is the Spanish equivalent of "Yankee Doodle"--a traditional satirical tune periodically fitted out with new lyrics to meet the needs of the moment. The origins of the song are obscure, but apparently it's pretty old. Some verses I came across refer to the Moorish wars in Spain, which concluded with the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. (Obviously 1492 was a big year for Ferdinand and Isabella on a number of fronts.) Probably the song itself doesn't go back that far, but in an 1818 book, according to one source, the Mexican writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi claimed the song was brought to Mexico from Spain by a captain of marines. 

One can find "La Cucaracha" lyrics commemorating 19th-century conflicts in both Spain and Mexico, but verse production didn't really get rocking until the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920. So many stanzas were added by partisans on all sides during this period that today, despite its Spanish origin, the song is associated mostly with Mexico. 

Included among the new lyrics were the verses quoted above. Some say the jape about marijuana was directed at the dictatorial Mexican president Victoriano Huerta (ruled 1913-1914), ridiculed by his many enemies as a drunk and dope fiend who lived only for his daily weed. No doubt the four buzzards and the sexton's mouse were lampoons as well. 

Some claim la cucaracha refers solely to Pancho Villa, the bandido/revolutionary general who eluded U.S. troops following a 1916 attack on an American border town, only to be assassinated in 1923. Others say the word refers solely to Villa's car or to the soldaderas, female soldiers/camp followers who provided cooking and other comforts to the various armies. These claims are undoubtedly false--the identity of the cockroach varied with the verse--but still, one shudders. If no one knows the verses to "La Cucaracha," it's probably just as well.

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