In the 1990s I was working as an archaeologist in Tucson, Arizona. It’s not the glamorous job people think it is; we spent most of our time hiking around in remote areas of the desert under a brutal summer sun, looking for archaeological sites that were little more than piles of rocks and chipped stone. I sure miss it, though.
At the end of one long, hot desert day in 1997 my crew in our Suburban truck stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, near Gila Bend. While we were picking up gas and snack food, one of the guys noticed a courtyard to the side of the store with chain-link fence around it. Inside were hundreds of cheap Mexican pots and ceramics for sale, which was pretty typical of an Arizona gas station. I hadn’t paid any attention to it, because I’d seen plenty of ceramic saguaros, burros, and chiles before.
My co-worker ecstatically blurted out, “It’s a chupacabra! A chupacabra piggy bank!” How he noticed it I’m not sure, but the group of us excitedly bought all six of the ceramic chupacabras, to the great amusement of the Mexican shopkeeper, who probably didn’t think we even knew what we were looking at.
But we knew. The chupacabra had become so well-known, it was now an icon of Mexican pop art, taking its place with the other ceramic cliches for sale to tourists.
First Sighted in Puerto Rico
People first reported sightings of the elusive chupacabra in Puerto Rico in 1994. They described it as a medium-sized, gray animal with bright red eyes. Sometimes it appeared reptile-like, with quills running down its back; other times it resembled a dog or rodent. It hopped around like a kangaroo. The creature attacked livestock at night, especially sheep and goats, and sucked all the blood out of them. So it earned the name “Chupacabra,” which in Spanish means “goat sucker.”
From Puerto Rico, sightings spread to areas of the continental United States with large Hispanic populations, like Texas, Arizona, and California. Sightings were also frequent in Latin American countries, particularly Mexico. Throughout the 1990s, the chupacabra was one of the most talked about cryptids in American folklore, even earning a special episode on that decade’s popular TV show The X-Files.
The chupacabra is still around, but sightings are less frequent. What was so special about the 1990s that the creature achieved such notice?
Landscape of the 1990s
Carl Jung believed that the wave of UFO sightings in the first half of the 20th century were activated archetypes of the collective unconscious of an anxious population living in fear of nuclear war. He called UFO’s “living myth.” Jacques Vallee, preeminent UFO researcher, has argued in many of his books that UFO sightings have a strong psychological component. I think this theory applies to any wave of paranormal sightings or events. So I was wondering, what was going on socially in Puerto Rico and Mexico in the early 1990s when the chupacabra became so prevalent?
In 1993, the year before the first sighting of the chupacabra in Puerto Rico, that island voted to remain a commonwealth of the United States, rather than bid for statehood. It was a contentious vote, with about 48 percent of the population voting for commonwealth status, an 46 percent voting for statehood. No doubt Puerto Ricans were agonizing over their national identity, and its economic ramifications. In 1994, both Mexico an Puerto Rico joined NAFTA, a North American trade agreement that had detrimental effects on the economies of these countries in the years afterwards. Mexico plunged from prosperity to recession.
Latin America in general was adjusting to a post Cold War world, as American financial support for the fight against communism was fading away. NAFTA forced Puerto Rico and Mexico to compete in global markets, to reach beyond traditional economic partnerships. This caused chaos and confusion for a while. I would think this would especially have an impact on rural communities, who sell commodities like grain and vegetables on the international market. And it was rural communities who were having trouble with the chupacabra, sucking the blood out of their livestock.
Perhaps these people had a collective anxiety, that the lives they had known were being sucked dry?