Urban Legend or Totally True? The Real Reason Latino Parents Worry About Halloween Candy
At one point or another, pretty much every kid who’s gone out trick-or-treating has heard their parents tell them to be careful about loose or unwrapped candy because it might be poisoned. Every Halloween, a few articles will pop up about tainted sweets, yet how many children have actually been hurt by taking Halloween candy from a stranger?
Latino parents are especially susceptible to this urban legend, for some reason, and it seems like every Latino kid has a story about their parents telling them to watch out for unsafe candy full of rat poison, cyanide, and razor blades. So how did this myth start, and why are Latino parents still keeping it alive?
This urban legend goes back centuries to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when homemade goods were slowly being phased out in favor of food products made by large corporations and food manufacturers, so says an article from the University of Arkansas Museum.
Whenever kids got sick on or around Halloween, doctors tended to blame the candy despite the evidence pointing to the contrary. By the end of the 20th century, the US Bureau of Chemicals had tested thousands of pieces of candy and found no evidence of poisoning or tampering.
However, the myth found new legs in the 1960s and 70s, a period of great social upheaval and unrest throughout the United States. The resurgence of this urban legend coincided with two critical moments in the history of Latin American immigration: the end of the Bracero program and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.
The Bracero program ran from 1942 to 1964 and was created as a way to import Mexican laborers who were sent back across the border once their job requirements had been fulfilled. But by the late 1950s, the US had hundreds of thousands of Braceros working each year domestically, many of whom called for their wives and children to move to the US permanently.
By the time the Bracero program ended in 1964, it is estimated that the number of undocumented Mexican migrants in the US was greater than the five million documented workers. Just one year later, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 once again allowed for an influx of immigrants to the US, specifically those who were not from European nations, following accusations of racial discrimination.
Between 1960 and 1980, the population of Latinos in the United States rose from 5.6 million to a whopping 14.2 million, many of them concentrated in areas of California, Texas, and New York. Basically, Latino migration to the US coincided in a big way with the social and cultural revolutions of the mid-20th century, including the feeling of impending doom caused by the Cold War.
The increased proliferation of the poisoned candy myth during the 60s and 70s wasn’t completely unfounded, but still greatly exaggerated. Although strangers were most definitely not poisoning innocent, random children, there were a few infamous incidents that had parents concerned for the safety of their young ones.
In 1959, a dentist in California gave candies coated in laxatives to children in his neighborhood, leading him to be charged with the unlawful dispensing of drugs. Again, no children died as a result. In 1964, a woman from New York was charged with endangering children after she handed out packages of toxic chemicals, steel wool, and dog biscuits to kids she deemed “too old” to be trick or treating. Still, no kids died.
In 1970, an alarming article published in the New York Times stoked fears of poisoned candies and even laid out specific examples of how children could be injured, even though none of the claims were substantiated with any actual evidence.
However, all of this pales in comparison to a 1974 incident that made the myth stick even more. In Deer Park, Texas, a man poisoned his 8-year-old son with a Pixy Stik laced with cyanide after taking out a life insurance policy on the young boy. To make the killing seem random, the man, named Ronald Clark O’Bryan, gave several cyanide-laced Pixy Stiks to other trick-or-treaters in the neighborhood, though none of those children ate the tainted goods.
O’Bryan was executed in 1984, but the damage had already been done. Although the death was a targeted murder, the story spread like wildfire and once again had parents fearing for their children’s lives. Fiction had won over fact, and media outlets realized the fear of poisoned candy was one they should encourage.
California, New York, and Texas. These are the three states with the highest population of Latinos and also the three states with the most high-profile “candy poisoning” cases of the time. The children who heard those stories when they were happening are now the parents of the millennials and gen-z’ers who have this myth shoved down their throat year after year.
If you’re still nervous about the one-in-a-billion chance that you or your child might be poisoned by Halloween candy, let Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, ease your concerns. “I’ve done research, and I can’t find any evidence that any child has been killed or seriously hurt by any candy picked up in the course of trick-or-treating,” he confirmed in an interview with Vox. “My view is this is overblown. You can’t prove a negative, but it seems unlikely.”
With the rise of “rainbow fentanyl” panic across the country and Halloween just around the corner, it’s important to remember the facts. Be safe and be vigilant, but on a night like October 31, where older kids have free reign to terrorize the little ones on the prowl for some chocolate, poisoned candy should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
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