Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

PUERTO RICO: Vampire Monkeys Seize the Spotlight

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Jan 23 1996 (IPS) - Tourists have long flocked to Puerto Rico, a U.S. colony for nearly a century, for its beaches, its historic sites where Columbus landed, and now its latest attraction: blood-sucking monkeys.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, a new figure has erupted in Puerto Rico’s national mythology — the “chupacabra,” a vicious monkey that can run upright on its legs, slaughter goats and suck the blood from its prey.

Like Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti of the Himalayas, the Sasquatch of the North American Northwest, the mythical creature has captured Puerto Rico’s imagination as its own indigenous, if horrific, monster.

In recent months, the chupacabra has been blamed for a rash of mysterious disappearances of goats in the Puerto Rican countryside. With every disappearance, the powers attributed to the monkey — sharp teeth, powerful legs, superhuman strength — multiplied.

The presence of the chupacabra monkeys has not been confirmed — that is, outside of the pages of ‘El Vocero,’ a sensationalist tabloid that is one of the biggest sellers on this Caribbean island.

Since the paper started to feature chupacabra stories, even the more respected island dailies — the Spanish ‘El Nuevo Dia’ and English ‘San Juan Star’ — have offered their own, more cynical stories on the monkey legend.

The lack of hard proof doesn’t stop people from believing in the chupacabra. Over the last few months, there has been a surge in chupacabra-linked merchandise, and especially in T-shirts advertising the chupacabra’s powers.

Some teenagers sport the shirts as a symbol of toughness. One youth, asked about the chupacabra myth, shrugged and said, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it’s cool and it’s Puerto Rican.”

Not everyone is so dispassionate. Charlene Soriano, a 10-year- old girl, confesses her fears that the chupacabras might attack her. “You should be careful driving around at night because they can get you then,” she says.

Her mother, Darlene Soriano, is more ambivalent about whether the creatures exist — but takes the special precautions that her daughter advises, anyway.

So far, though, with only ‘El Vocero’ attributing any casualties to the chupacabras, the attitude towards the beasts is one of good-natured surprise. The people seem delighted that Puerto Rico, an island the size of the state of Connecticut and boasting a population of 3.8 million, has hidden in its forests such an odd new neighbour.

The problem, of course, is that the chupacabra myth is scientifically impossible, as biologists have said ever since the tabloids seized upon the story.

For one thing, scientists argue that there has never been any mammal can suck blood. Only some marine life, notably lampreys, have that ability.

For another, no type of monkey has yet been found that can run, like humans, for any duration on upright legs. Monkeys’ gait is decidedly less steady — a factor that would hinder the chupacabra from its legendary goat-chasing exploits.

More generally, ‘El Vocero’ — like ‘The National Enquirer’ on the U.S. mainland — is regarded even by its own readers as a paper that blends fact and fiction. San Juan police officer Luis Oquendo dismisses the paper as a “sensational rag.”

“They just fill up pages with all kinds of horrible stories about crime, killings and monsters,” he says. “No one who lives here really believes it all.”

Still, Puerto Ricans — who have lived under U.S. rule since the island was seized in the 1898 Spanish-American War — have a brand-new national figure, one which combines toughness, unnatural strength and even vampire-style powers.

At a time when Puerto Ricans still cling to autonomy from the United States, and when the island’s mountain-based, pro- independence forces have been largely quiet, the rise of a mythical national beast like chupacabra may not be so odd, after all.

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