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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Comprachicos (also comprapequeños) is a compound Spanish word meaning "child-buyers". The term refers to various groups in folklore who were said to change the physical appearance of human beings by manipulating growing children, in a similar way to the horticultural method of bonsai – or through deliberate mutilation. Allusion to this myth is common in reference to any group or body who seek to alter the minds of children through calculated manipulation.

The use of the word is first found prolifically in the 17th century; it was one of many unsavory practices alleged to have been practiced by the Gypsies, who were readily demonized due to their perennial outsider status. It was also strongly associated with freak shows, whose popularity was never harmed by an air of savage mystery.

The most common methods said to be used in this practice included stunting children's growth by physical restraint, muzzling their faces to deform them (compare the sufferings of the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask), slitting their eyes, dislocating their joints, and malforming their bones.

As was common for an outsider-based myth enjoying commodity in the 19th century, the practice also came to be associated with the Chinese by Westerners. The methodology was described through fantastical claims, risible to a modern audience but quite credible at the time, as ranging from the transfusion of animal hide and other exotic surgery to simple deprivation of light, space, and vital nutrition.

Victor Hugo's novel The Man Who Laughs is a horror story of a young aristocrat kidnapped and disfigured by his captors to display a permanent grin. In the novel, Hugo gives his own account of the work of the Comprachicos:

"In China, since time immemorial, they have achieved refinement in a special art and industry: the molding of a living man. One takes a child two or three years old, one puts him into a porcelain vase, more or less grotesque in shape, without cover or bottom, so that the head and feet protrude. In the daytime, one keeps this vase standing upright; at night, one lays it down, so that the child can sleep. Thus the child expands without growing, slowly filling the contours of the vase with his compressed flesh and twisted bones. This bottled development continues for several years. At a certain point, it becomes irreparable. When one judges that this has occurred and that the monster is made, one breaks the vase, the child comes out, and one has a man in the shape of a pot."

This example clearly displays all of the most common elements of the legend: first, association with outsiders (the Chinese); second, the victim being a young child; and third, assertions of the methodology that stretch the limits of credibility but seem to remain within the domain of the possible.

The comprachico legend is relatively uncommon in English, but seems to enjoy relative currency in the culture of Spain and its former empire; for instance, in the travel book In Patagonia, a similar process is ascribed by the natives of Patagonia to a sinister cult in the legend of the Brujería.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Comprachicos" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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