Rice pudding

“Arroz con leche” – rice pudding – is the name of a popular Latin American children’s song and game. Children link hands in a circle and dance around a boy or girl who stands in the middle. The circling children sing the first two or three verses and the child in the middle sings the response (“Con éste, sí­, con éste, no,”) while choosing someone from the circle to “wed.” They then switch places and the game repeats. The song has a number of variants. Here are two of them.

1.

Arroz con leche, me quiero casar
con un mexicano que sepa cantar.

El hijo del rey me manda un papel,
me manda decir que me case con el.

Con éste, sí­,
con éste, no,
con este mero
me caso yo.

Rice with milk, I want to marry
a Mexican who knows how to sing.

The king’s son sent me an order,
sent me word that I must marry him.

With this one, I do,
with this one, I don’t,
with this ordinary guy
I tie the knot.

2.

Arroz con leche, me quiero casar
con una señorita/viudita de San Nicolás,

que sepa coser, que sepa contar,
que sepa abrir la puerta para ir jugar.

Yo soy la viudita, del barrio del rey,
me quiero casar y no encuentro con quien.

Con éste, sí­,
con éste, no,
contigo, mi vida,
me casaré yo.

Rice with milk, I want to marry
a young woman/widow from San Nicolas

who knows how to sew, who knows how to count,
who knows how to go outside and play.

I am a widow from the king’s neighborhood,
I want to marry, but I never meet anyone.

With this one, I do,
with this one, I don’t,
with you, my dear,
I’ll tie the knot.

*

I suppose rice and milk were selected for their bridal colors, but also because rice pudding is a sweet dish in which the two main ingredients are thoroughly blended. Further speculation on the symbolism would rob this simple poem of its charm.

The game makes me think there’s more here than meets the eye, though. What at first blush seems like a reinforcement of dominant social values may actually end up subverting them. The attitude toward marriage is light-hearted and thoroughly polyamorous: by the end of the game, presuming nobody cheats and picks someone who is already “married,” everyone will be wedded to everyone else. The circle permits no hierarchies, no exclusivity.

It occurs to me it’s probably just as well we don’t have a game like this in Anglo-American culture – at least, not at such a young and innocent age. (Spin the Bottle comes later, I think.) How demoralizing it would be if one were the last to be chosen!

But perhaps Latin American kids don’t learn to be competitive at such a young age. One of the most popular Anglo circle games for the five-and-under set – always supervised by an adult – involves leaving someone out, over and over, in a survival of the fittest: Musical Chairs. One can probably tell a lot about the differences between the two cultures by comparing these two games.

Of course, being an uptight Protestant sort, holding hands was never my thing. I remember how I hated it when our first grade teacher made us line up in pairs and hold hands every time we left the classroom. It was so much better in nursery school, where everyone held onto a knot in a big, long rope and we went outside and walked all around like a human centipede.
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See also here for translations of Chinese nursery rhymes, plus two of my own invention.

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