Friday, July 29, 2011

El Ratón Pérez – The Spanish Tooth Fairy

El Raton Perez

One of the most interesting aspects of living in another country is the subtle differences.  Whether it’s the way people greet each other, or the flavor of potato chips, these are the things that make each culture unique and different from our own.  One of these small differences in Spain is the story of El Ratóncito Pérez. 
            The origins of the Spanish tooth fairy go back to the 1890’s and a sickly young prince, Alfonso XIII.  Alfonso was born after his father’s death in 1886 and thus was crown King of Spain upon his birth.  Because a young child cannot rule, his mother Queen Maria Christina was appointed Regent and ruled in place of her son.  In 1902, when Alfonso reached his sixteenth year, he assumed the crown and full control of the state.  He remained King of Spain until April 14th, 1931 when the Second Spanish Republic was formed.  He then fled the country.  He lived out his remaining days exiled in France and eventually Rome, where he died in 1941.
            According to the story behind the creation of Ratóncito Pérez, young Prince Alfonso was a frail child and somewhat sickly.  He was also deeply bothered when he began to lose his teeth.  To assuage his fears the Queen called upon Father Luis Coloma, a popular writer of the era.  Coloma was an important figure in the Spanish Realist movement of the second half of the 19th century.  He wrote several novels and two well regarded histories later in life.  In 1894, Coloma was contacted by the Queen and asked to write a story for the eight year-old Prince.
            Coloma set to work producing the tale of Ratón Pérez.  In the story young Prince Buby (Alfonso XIII’s nickname) loses his tooth and is visited by a small mouse.  The mouse carries a red satchel that he uses to collect all the teeth.  In their place he leaves a small amount of money.  When Buby catches the mouse in the act, Ratón Pérez agrees to take him along on his evening’s work.  During the course of the story, Pérez takes the prince to his home to meet his family (they live in a Huntley Biscuit box) and on an errand too collect a tooth in one of the poorer areas of town.  Here the story takes on a moral message as the prince sees the miseries of the poor and understands that he must do more for the people of his country.  Coloma’s decidedly political slant shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Queen as one of his most successful novels, titled Pequeñeces (Trivialities), is a critique of high Madrid Society in the years before the Bourbon Restoration.
            Regardless of its political slant, what really stuck with children was the image of the small mouse collecting their teeth and the details of his life.  In the story, Pérez is described as living in his biscuit box at Calle Arenal #8, just off of Puerta del Sol in Madrid.  Sol is Madrid’s Times Square, and Calle Arenal a busy pedestrian only shopping street. Further details tell us that the mouse’s residence was in the back of Prast’s Confectionary store.  For many years there was indeed a confectionery store located at this site.
            Today, the confectionery store is gone, and #8 is a small shopping arcade with a DVD store, a video game store, and a travel agency.  Although the arcade no longer holds the sweet smell of a confectioner, it does commemorate Spain’s tooth collecting little mouse with a plaque, a small statue, several story boards.  In the upper level  there is also a small museum and gift shop.
Douglas and Benjamin at Calle Arenal #8

            After hearing the story of Ratón Pérez, the boys were both very excited to make a trip to Calle Arenal.  Pérez had already come to our house once for one of Benjamin’s lost teeth.  We arrived and began our visit with some pictures near Ratóncito’s statue before heading up to the museum.  Located in suite 14 and 15, you enter first through the gift shop and browse before moving into the next room where the exhibits are found.  The museum is very small only one tiny room.  After being given a diagram of the room explaining what all the exhibits were, we were joined by one of the museum’s staff.  She told us the story of Pérez and even pointed out two small mouse holes in the room where Pérez was known to make appearances from time to time.  Included in the exhibit was a dollhouse fashioned as a biscuit box, and a mailbox where children can deposit letters with their lost teeth.  The latter featured a small lit mouse hole in the bottom that had Benjamin kneeling down to take a peak.

Front of the Gift Shop on the second floor of Calle Arenal #8.

            The only setback to the museum was that the staff didn’t speak any English and therefore, the boys were left to my spotty translation to understand what she was saying.  Even so, you could see the magic come through in the boy’s eyes as they anxiously listened and followed her hand motions as she told the story and pointed out the exhibits in the room.  Overall, even with the language barrier, it was a great way for the boys and I to spend a morning.  It was also relatively inexpensive as admission to the museum was only 1 euro per person.
Close-up of statue honoring Ratoncito Perez.

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