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The song consists of verse-and-refrain (strophe-antistrophe) pairs, with each half of each pair consisting of four lines featuring an ABCB rhyme scheme.
The song's earliest lyrics, from which its name is derived, concern a cockroach that has lost one of its six legs and is struggling to walk with the remaining five. The cockroach's uneven, five-legged gait is imitated by the song's original 5/4 meter, formed by removing one upbeat (corresponding to the missing sixth leg) from the second half of a 6/4 measure:
Many later versions of the song, especially those whose lyrics do not mention the cockroach's missing leg(s), extend the last syllable of each line to fit the more familiar 6/4 meter.
The song's verses fit a traditional melody separate from that of the refrain but sharing the refrain's meter (either 5/4 or 6/4 as discussed above). In other respects, they are highly variable, usually providing satirical commentary on contemporary political or social problems or disputes.
The origins of "La Cucaracha" are obscure. The refrain's lyrics make no explicit reference to historical events; it is difficult if not impossible therefore to date. Because verses are improvised according to the needs of the moment, however, they often enable a rough estimate of their age by mentioning contemporary social or political conditions (thus narrowing a version's possible time of origin to periods in which those conditions prevailed) and/or referring to specific current or past events (thus setting a maximum boundary for a version's age).
There exist several early (pre-Revolution) sets of lyrics referring to historical events.
|De las patillas de un moro||From the sideburns of a Moor|
|tengo que hacer una escoba,||I must make a broom,|
|para barrer el cuartel||to sweep the quarters|
|de la infantería española.||of the Spanish infantry.|
One of the earliest written references to the song appears in Mexican writer and political journalist José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi's 1819 novel La Quijotita y su Prima, where it is suggested that:
|Un capitán de marina||A naval captain|
|que vino en una fragata||who came in a frigate|
|entre varios sonecitos||among various tunes|
|trajo el de "La Cucaracha."||brought the one about "La Cucaracha."|
Whatever the song's origin, it was during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century that "La Cucaracha" saw the first major period of verse production as rebel and government forces alike invented political lyrics for the song. So many stanzas were added during this period that today it is associated mostly with Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution was a period of great political upheaval during which the majority of the stanzas known today were written. Political symbolism was a common theme in these verses, and explicit and implicit references were made to events of the war, major political figures, and the effects of the war on the civilians in general. Today, few pre-Revolution verses are known, and the most commonly quoted portion of the song is the two Villist anti-Huerta stanzas:
|La cucaracha, la cucaracha,||The cockroach, the cockroach,|
|ya no puede caminar||can't walk anymore|
|porque le falta, porque no tiene||because it's lacking, because it doesn't have|
|marihuana pa' fumar.||marijuana to smoke.|
|Ya murió la cucaracha||The cockroach just died|
|ya la llevan a enterrar||now they take her to be buried|
|entre cuatro zopilotes||among four buzzards|
|y un ratón de sacristán.||and a mouse as the sexton.|
This version, popular among Villist soldiers, contains hidden political meanings, as is common for revolutionary songs. In this version, the cockroach represents President Victoriano Huerta, a notorious drunk who was considered a villain and traitor due to his part in the death of revolutionary President Francisco Madero.
|Ya se van los carrancistas,||And the Carrancistas,|
|ya se van haciendo bola,||are on full retreat,|
|ya los chacales huertistas||and the Huertistan jackals|
|se los trayen de la cola.||have them caught by the tail.|
An example of two Zapatist stanzas:
|Oigan con gusto estos versos||Hear with pleasure these verses,|
|escuchen con atención,||listen carefully:|
|ya la pobre cucaracha||now the poor cockroach|
|no consigue ni un tostón.||doesn't even get a tostón ($50 peso bill).|
|Todo se ha puesto muy caro||Everything has been very expensive|
|con esta Revolución,||in this Revolution,|
|venden la leche por onzas||selling milk by the ounce|
|y por gramos el carbón.||and coal by the gram.|
Among Mexican civilians at the time, "La Cucaracha" was also a popular tune, and there are numerous examples of non-aligned political verses. Many such verses were general complaints about the hardships created by the war, and these were often written by pro-Zapatistas. Other non-aligned verses contained references to multiple factions in a non-judgmental manner:
|En el norte vive Villa||In the north lives Villa,|
|en el sur vive Zapata||In the south lives Zapata|
|lo que quiero es venganza||What I want is revenge|
|por la muerte de Madero.||For the death of Madero.|
Apart from verses making explicit or implicit reference to historical events, hundreds of other verses exist. Some verses are new and others are ancient; however, the lack of references and the largely oral tradition of the song makes dating these verses difficult if not impossible. Examples follow:
|Cuando uno quiere a una||When a man loves a woman|
|y esta una no lo quiere,||but she doesn't love him back,|
|es lo mismo que si un calvo||it's like a bald man|
|en la calle encuentra un peine.||finding a comb in the street.|
|Mi vecina de enfrente||My neighbor across the street|
|se llamaba Doña Clara,||used to call herself Doña Clara, [English: Mrs. Clara]|
|y si no se hubiera muerto||and if she hadn't died|
|aún así se llamaría.||that's what she would still call herself.|
Performed by Sean Buss & Elisa
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On the game show Supermarket Sweep during its final season on Lifetime, host David Ruprecht sang the song to the winning team on the finals of "Cruise to Paradise Week" in which the winners won a 7-day cruise to the Mexican Riviera.