Marisela Barrera is a San Antonio-based writer and performance artist with a fondness for her city’s haunted folklore. In fact, she draws on those spooky stories to inspire her art.
“We have so many roots that go back hundreds of years. So these stories, we could think that maybe they’re contemporary, but really they go down into our ancestors, into here, to us,” Barrera said.
“And and I love how history sort of connects with haunted stories. Of course, we have the (haunted) railroad tracks which actually were developed over, we have Midget Mansion, which again was developed over. And, central to this, we have the Donkey Lady.”
She’s especially fascinated with the legend of the Donkey Lady, which Barrera has interpreted into several different performances, including a Donkey Lady hotline, a novella, and several stage performances. The most recent one is a talk show hosted by “La Burra.” The tale is one of San Antonio’s most famous tall tales.
“The donkey lady is a single lady. She is misunderstood. She is an outsider looking in. In fact, you might be able to see her through the corner of your eye,” Barrera said. “Legend goes that she was raising burros along here in the outskirts of our city. And then there was this traumatic fire that happened, and she was houseless at the time. And her community really didn’t understand what was going on with her. And so she grabbed this sort of thick skin that she, you know, that she sort of scared everyone away.”
There are several versions of the Donkey Lady story floating around out there, and can vary by location. Barrera puts her own personal touches on her version of the Donkey Lady story, drawing from multiple sources and her own experiences.
“What’s fascinating for me is that we all have a point of understanding, because we have different versions of the story,” she said. “We have a version, the South Side, that’s the classic side at Applewhite Bridge. We have a different version in the Windcrest area.
And so for me, I approach urban legend through that. It’s a shared story and I provide sort of my insight into a back story. So my version of it is that she didn’t have health care. She was a single parent. And because of the trauma of being houseless, her child was taken away from her.”
After seeking out La Burra at Applewhite Bridge in south San Antonio, Barrera said the lady appeared to her. They had a conversation. She wasn’t scary, at least not for Barrera. Her voice was “sort of mysterious, and a little bit sexy. Like, she smoked cigarettes or something.”
Afterward, Barrera started working on her Donkey Lady art. She said she wanted to tell the story of a loney woman.
“That’s actually centered on strength, that watches out for her community. That is misunderstood. She thought like we were ready (to hear her story). The community was ready. And now Tejas is ready for her story,” Barrera said.
“She thinks that we need it right now. She thinks that things are just sort of really discombobulated. I don’t know if that word is hers, but she thinks things need to, you know, we need to start listening to each other more. And that would heal a lot of wounds that we have in our state.”