Last week, President Cristina Kirchner adopted a Jewish teenager named Yair Tawil and posted pictures of the event on her Twitter feed. Outlets around the world ran with the story, explaining the move by citing lingering local superstition about werewolves. In Western folklore, only a werewolf can create another werewolf with its bite, but in Argentina, the story's a little different: the creature is born when a couple gives birth to their seventh son in a row. According to said folklore, seventh sons turn into el lobizon on their 13th birthday if nothing is done about the hereditary curse. Thus, the need for presidential action is pretty clear.
"The notion of animal shifting came from different Native American traditions," Oscar Chamosa, a folklorist at the University of Georgia, told me. "The idea of el lobison comes from uturunco—or the were-jaguar—which mixed with the European notion of the werewolf." Chamosa says he's not sure how the idea was first associated with teenaged boys.
But even if someone who's devoted his entire life to studying Argentine folklore can't explain it, the teen werewolf thing had become pervasive by the early 20th century, and Catholics in Argentina were producing enough seventh children, that the myth became a public policy problem. After all, terrified parents were (according to legend, at least) regularly committing infanticide.
"In order to counteract the myth, Argentine presidents have traditionally godfathered any child born into the same family," Chamosa explains, adding that the governor of a province or mayor of a village would sometimes officiate for practical reasons. "The rationale is that the godson of a president would be respected throughout his life despite the suspicion his seventh-male birth position would bring with it."
This idea apparently prevented people from murdering their own babies, so it was a smart move on part of the Argentine government. But if it's surprising people believed in such a curse a century ago, it's downright bizarre that they're still entertaining the notion of it today.
As per a decree that came out in 1973, adoptees receive a gold medal and a college scholarship. And Argentina is apparently still making new rules about werewolf children, because in 1999 the adoption ceremony was extended to non-Catholics. As the Independent noted, Tawil is the first Jewish boy to receive the honor. So while a werewolf Bar Mitzvah might be a joke on 30 Rock, it's also apparently a real thing that just happened in South America.
The boy's parents first applied for the medal and scholarship in 1993, but were denied. They applied again after the rules changed to include Jews in 2009. A tweet from President Kirchner's account shows her lighting a menorah with the Tawils, quite the gesture given that the Jewish population of Argentina is less than half of one percent.
Jewishpublications are making a big deal out of the historic event, and angry commenters are freaking out about a Jew being adopted—even symbolically—by a non-Jew and the blasphemous concept of a Jewish family taking part in something involving werewolves. (In Jewish folklore, people don't turn into werewolves, and whatever they were before beasthood is never really discussed.)
But most observers have been glossing over the absolutely fucking strange juxtaposition between a groundbreaking event and an ancient superstition. Like, for instance, that's it's kind of a weird move to progressively bequeath a privilege to a religious minority while tacitly legitimizing the belief that human beings have the ability to transform into mythical creatures that feast on unbaptized babies.
Stories about the adoption would also have us believe the president of an industrialized nation believes in werewolves, which is clearly not the case. Although presidents in our own country's recent memory believed they were chosen by God, Chamosa describes Argentina's Kirchner as a nominal Catholic who's a "progressive left-wing president—more like a Marxist and a secular person in general." Much as our Dear Leader pardons a turkey every year, this is an Argentine ritual that's basically a national inside joke.
Chamosa says that the werewolf thing has stuck around out of quaint tradition and that the average family in the country today has only two children. For that reason, anyone who achieves an unbroken chain of seven same-sex children is rewarded with the prize.
Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't some people in Latin America who still believe in el lobizon.
"Belief in the healing powers of folk saints and withcraft are pretty much shared across the territory, especially—but not only—in rural areas," Chamosa says. "I would say that only old people still believe [in el lobison]. But you really don't know."
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