La Llorona is an enduring Mexican legend that is told in Latin American countries, the American Southwest, and beyond. Even my American teenaged son points to it as the most terrifying tale of his childhood.
There are other interesting tidbits about the tale, but first, the story.
There once was a woman called Maria. With long dark hair that hung like a bridal train, she caught the eye of many. But the one who caught her eye in return was a fine courtly gentleman. Maria fell deeply in love him and bore two children. But for the nobleman, Maria was a mere dalliance. His heart and plans lay with someone else, far away.
When he broke it off, Maria was devastated. Through her pain, she convinced herself that she lost him because of the children. So, one night, she put on a flowing white gown, possibly the one she hoped to wear for her wedding, and brought her children to the river. There, Maria drowned her babies. Then, she died at the water’s edge in utter grief for everything that happened. Some say she drowned herself in the river. I wonder if she drowned in her own tears of pain and regret.
When she approached the gates of heaven, Maria discovered that she was not allowed in until she could find her children’s lost souls. Condemned to exist in between the afterlife and the world of the living, La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, still walks the earth.
Even today, she prowls the rivers and lakes in search of her babies. Crying and wailing, La Llorona wears white, her long hair wild in in wind, searching and searching through the night. If she sees any children near rivers or lakes, it is said that she reaches out and clutches them to her broken heart.
And they are never seen again.
A friend who grew up in Mexico told me that even though La Llorona’s story is set by a river, his parents, like many others, used the story to keep their kids off the streets.
“They told us she could be anywhere at night. We were afraid she would take us by mistake. It was the perfect way for parents to get us home before dark.”
The legend is scary by itself. It is used almost like a bogeyman – well bogeywoman – story. But scratch a bit deeper and much more is revealed. La Llorona is a story that is probably rooted in folklore that predated the Spanish conquest.
That story was about a woman who lived ten years before Cortes and the Spanish arrived in 1519. Like La Llorona, that woman wandered at night through the streets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City at the time of the Aztecs), crying and wailing about her children. But unlike La Llorona, her children were not dead.
She wept out of concern for what would become of them.
Those who study this story suggest that her wailing was a warning to the Aztec people. It foretold a future when their lives would be forever changed.
The tale doesn’t signify the loss of individual children as a literal interpretation might suggest. Instead, it bemoans the loss of a culture’s children. And so it came to pass that after the Spanish came, people intermarried and children were born of mixed races. On a deeper level, that wailing woman was wailing about the lost future of Mexico’s children.
The accuracy of this foretelling is as scary as the modern La Llorona story.
Scholars say that the woman was based on the goddesses Chihaucoatl, the serpent woman of Aztec mythology. Montezuma, king of the Aztec empire, and his priests believed that the wailing woman was Chihaucoatl herself. Since they believed that she could foretell future events, they prepared for the worst.
But Chihaucoatl is probably not the start of the legend’s journey. Some scholars argue that the Aztec tale was appropriated by the Aztecs from the previous Toltec civilization.
La Llorona is a gripping tale of life, loss, love, and more. It is also an example of the many ways that conquerors co-opt people – they steal so much more than land. The tale we hear now, tinged with European religion (going to the heavenly gates) and class overtones (the rich gentleman), is a colonial version of an indigenous story.
La Llorona scares children off the streets at night. It also scares me, yet again, about the pernicious power of conquest.
Copyright 2015 The Storycrafters. All rights reserved.
Perez, Dominio Renee (2008). There was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture. University of Texas Press.
Estes, Clarissa-Pinkola (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.
Romero, Rolando and Amanda Notacea Harris (editors, 2005). Feminism, Nation and Myth: La Malinche. Luis Leal’s work. Houston: Arte Publico Press.
Wikipedia – La Llorona
PHOTO CREDIT: By Rodtico21 / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons