Who Is La Llorona? Investigating a Cultural Haunting, By Jason S. Cordova

Immage by Heather Jane Metcalf

La Llorona (the weeping woman) is a prominent folk legend among Chicano communities. She is described as a specter who cries and wails in the night, lamenting the loss of her children. She wears a filtering white dress and emits a strange translucent glow. She appears near likes, rivers, and sometimes roads as she searches for wayward children to replace her own. Her children, according to legend, who she drowned in a river. 

Parents wield stories of La Llorona like “the Boogieman” to frighten children into behaving and to avoid very real dangers of fast-moving bodies of water and roads. Maney Chicana/o’s, and Latina/o’s have a first or second-hand encounter story relating to La Larrona. Whether or not one believes in phantasms, does not change the fact that this community is haunted by something.

Encounters

In her book, People of the Valley: A History of the Spanish Settlers in the San Luis Valley, Olibama Lopez Tushar, describes a first-hand account of La Llorona. On a cold wintery night, in Walsenburg, she found herself waiting for two students who were late for an evening meeting. She was about to leave when the two students burst in excitedly reporting that they had just seen a woman in white floating towards them as they crossed the railroad tracks and continued to follow them for several blocks. The two were quite frightened and adamant that it was La Llorona. As a teacher, Olibama was skeptical but respectful. They were too distracted to be productive so she dismissed them. The students insisted on accompanying Olibama home. When she arrived home she closed the door and went straight to bed. Suddenly, she heard a slight noise and saw the door opening. A woman dressed in white walked in towards her bed. The woman in white stood looking down on Olibama, pulled the blankets off the bed, and walked out, leaving the door open. The next morning, the blankets were still on the floor and the door stayed open. 

In his autobiography renowned Chicano Author, Rudolfo Anaya describes his own encounter. “We moved from that small town village of Pastura to Santa rosa when I was a small child. Our new home was perched on the edge of a cliff below flowed the Pecos river. The wind blew around the edges of the house, along the dreary and lonely cliff. Here I first heard the cry of La Llorona, the tortured spirit of a woman who had murdered her children and gone insane. Now she was a witch who haunted the cliff of the river. With eyes burning with fire, claw-like fingernails, hair stringy, and her clothes torn and tattered. She came at dusk to haunt the river. Her cries were carried by the wind around the corners of our house. I felt a terror I had never felt before. La Llorona wanted me, she wanted my flesh and blood, she wanted my soul. She wanted to take me deep into her lair where she would consume me as she consumed her own children. I fled in fear into the arms of my mother.”

Chicano/a and Latin people often share their La Llorona stories as a way to bond through a shared recognition of the phenomena. While on a break once, a coworker of mine shared that she and her brothers saw la Llorona float across a lonely country road one night. I recently posted a picture of a bumper sticker I saw that said “Honk if you’ve seen La Llorona”. A friend responded to the post by saying “I’ve never seen her. But my cousins who grew up in Albuquerque said that she use to hang out by the old drive-in”

A bumper sticker on the back of truck in a Denver parking lot. Photo by Jason Cordova

My family did not grow up with stories of La Llorona however. In a way, it exemplifies the effect that Anglo-American colonialism affected us and another way in which they felt pressure to assimilate. My great aunt Viola, when asked, told me “If I did hear stories, I don’t remember them. Perhaps people (We should pray for her.)” According to my Aunt Margaret, they used the boogeyman to scare her. My cousin Carrie remembered first hearing about La Llorona when she was about 13. Her friend’s family would use the story to scare their kids. “She was a ghost who would take kids who were crying or who would misbehave or something like that. They would just say “la Llorona is coming for you”, or “do you want la Llorona to come for you?”

My primo Felimon said “I heard the story when I was 5.  My mom told us the story that a mother had drowned her kids, but I don’t remember the reasoning behind it.  Never seen her, never heard her.”

A picture book, for teaching counting in Spanish to Children. Photo by Jason S. Cordova

The Legend 

Specific details about the story can vary greatly. The legend of La Llorona is widespread throughout North and South America and is as diverse as the people and communities who carry it. Despite variations in the story, there are some core elements that tend to remain consistent, and most describe the origin of La Llorona as follows. 

While traveling, a wealthy nobleman became infatuated by a beautiful peasant woman named Maria. He was so enamored with Maria that he had to have her. He proposed she accepted, and they were married.  Maria soon bore two beautiful children. The nobleman continued his travels, returning periodically, each time growing less and less affectionate towards Maria. Eventually, it was clear to Maria that her husband had fallen out of love with her and his attention was drawn by a wealthy, Spanish woman. In her rage, she took their children to the river and drowned them to punish him. Upon realizing what she had done, she became overwhelmed with anguish and drowned herself. As a result of her sins of infanticide, and suicide, she is denied entry into heaven, and doomed to wander the Earth. 

Some storytellers add that a demon tricked Maria into believing that the soles of her children were lost on Earth. This demon convinced Maria that she would be allowed into heaven if she was able to retrieve their soles. Knowing full well that the children, being innocent, were already in heaven, this demon used Maria to harvest the souls of living children for himself.

From a more Indigenous perspective, La Llorona is crying for the people. There are stories of her that predate Maria and her nobleman. According to the writings of Diego Duran, a Spanish monk known for documenting the Aztec history and the Florentine Codex, a collection of mesoamerican ethnography from the 16th century, a weeping woman appeared at night on the streets of Tenochtitlan now Mexico city, and formally the capital city of the Aztec empire. It was said that this woman, referred to as Cihuacoatl by the Aztecs, walked about crying loudly; 

“My beloved sons, we are about to go!” and “What will become of my children?” 

This manifestation was recognized as one of many omens warning of the impending arrival of the Spanish and subsequent annihilation of the Aztecs. Cihuacoatl is an Aztec maternal deity. She co-created humanity with her consort Quetzalcoatl and arguably represents an archetypal, collective mother to the descendants of the Aztec people. Similarly, Maria is a Catholocized archetypal, collective mother to the contemporary Chicana/o, Mexicana/o people, who is likewise vilified, as an Indigenous archetype. 

A stone statue of Cihuacoatl, an Aztec fertility goddess. Here she emerges from the mouth of a serpent holding an ear of maize in her left hand. Discovered in Cuernavaca. Dated 1325 – 1521 CE. Owned by the Museo Nacional Antropologia. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Historical inspiration for La Llorona can be found in the life of Malinalli. An examination of the documentation of her story illustrates the more sinister nature of conquest and slavery. Also known as La Malinche, Malinally was an indigenous woman who came from a prominent family. She was equivalent to what westerners would understand as a noble among her people who lived in a province that bordered the Aztec empire to the south. Her people spoke Nahuatl, (same as the Aztecs) and due to their proximity to Mayan territory, Malinally was well versed in the Mayan language as well. Upon the death of her father, in order to prevent her from interfering with the rule of her half-brother, she was “given away” to a community of Xicalango near what is now Veracruz. Upon the arrival of Hernan Cortez, in Xicalango, Malinalli was “Given” to Cortez. Malinalli proved invaluable as a translator, fluent in both Nahuatl and Mayan. Cortez already had slaves fluent in Spanish and Mayan, and Malinalli gave Cortez the linguistic key necessary to build alliances with Nahuatl-speaking people and allowed him to build a coalition against the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan. While held by Cortez, Malinalli was baptized as Dona Marina, and was described as his “mistress”. Obvious questions of consensual relations between the two aside, Malinalli gave birth to a son, a metaphoric first mestizo. Like our fairy tale traveling noble, Cortez asserted his ethnic superiority over his concubine Malinalli and his multi-racial son. He arranged a marriage for Malinalli to one of his captains, most likely to remove her from his household in preparation for his wife’s arrival in the colony. Despite any social status she may have had, she was still a native woman and would never be Spaniard. According to common legend It was clear that their son Martin would also never be accepted as a legitimate her to Cortez, and as one version tells Mallinali chose to kill herself and her child rather than live under the brutality of Spanish rule. In another version, Cortez did accept his son Martin and intended to leave with him. Malinali (Dona Marina) desperate, not to lose her child to Cortez, chose to kill him instead and according to legend, is now doomed to wander the rivers and lakes in search of her child. History differs, however, as Malinalli lived on and Martin was recognized by his father and was legitimized in 1529 by Pope Clement VII.  

La Malinche by Alfredo Ramos Martínez
 via Wikimedia Commons

Analisis

Many scholars believe that La Llorona, as a legend, represents a symbol for cultural trauma. There are many elements of the story that can be identified as analogous to the conquest, as exemplified in the first and more distinctly “Mexican” versions of the story. The faerie tale of Maria and the nobleman carries a great deal of cultural baggage to unpack. It paints the Spanish Conquistador, as a noble prince, who honorably makes the native woman, his wife. Her inability to accept his prowess leads her to become a monster and is punished by divine forces for her lack of subservience. 

This interpretation calls to mind the story of Lilith, who according to Hebrew tradition was Adams’s first wife in the garden of Eden. She was cast out because she refused to lie with Adam, and in the wilderness consorted with demons and became the mother of monsters. 

Haunted by Conquest 

One can see the bias toward the colonial powers of Spain and Catholicism. The reality of Assimilation is a very real and sinister thing. The Indigenous people experienced an apocalypse through systematic attempted genocide. In order to survive under colonization, they intermarried, and absorbed aspects of the invading culture, more often than not unwillingly. The story also eludes to the horrendous long-term effects of human trafficking on a group of people. The association of La Llorona with roads and waterways, avenues through which people are stolen and sold into slavery is painfully obvious.   

A closer look at the story of Malini also reveals a great deal of racist masonry. The indigenous woman is blamed for the atrocities of the conquest, instead of the invading white man. Many of the first-hand accounts do an excellent job of expressing the high degree of fear La Llorona causes in people. I find it interesting to note that in addition to rivers, roads, and railroad tracks, she also haunts the old drive-in and other places where young people may be going on dates. Thusly a healthy fear of sin and the places where sin is likely to happen is heavy with religious influences. Anania’s account goes on to describe how he was raised to be a pious catholic boy and to make the sign of the cross and pray the rosary as a way to protect against all things evil and demonic, including La Llorona and other Brujas (evil witches). 

The Weeping Mother

Mexican folk song “La Llorona performed here by Angela Agular. Its origins are obscure, but composer Andres Henestrosa in about 1941 popularized the song, and it was featured in the Disney film Coco.

Not everyone views La Llorona as evil though. Many have a great deal of compassion and forgiveness for her. They embrace her as the weeping mother, and some even look to the legend version of Malinalis’ sacrifice of her son as an act of mercy, to save him from a life of horror under Spanish rule. Currently, in Mexico, there is a movement that uses the woman in white as a powerful image of protest. The weeping mother, who will come for the perpetrators of atrocity, the real killers of her children. In this case, the Mexican government, for their complicity in the forced disappearances of 43 students from a southern Mexican town who disappeared in 2014. 

Interestingly it does seem to have an effect on politicians. In January of 2020, a video from Cordova Columbia (No known relation to me) surfaced that appeared to depict a wailing woman in a tree. Whether it was real or hoaxed, it created a stir with the Colombian President who believed it was part of a conspiracy to drive down property values and damage the economy. Perhaps the conscience of the ruling class is just as susceptible to being haunted as the rivers, roads, and train tracks? 

Crypto Science Society Chief Investigator, Heather Jane Metcalf reviewed the clip and had this to say about it. “Well right off I’ve heard that stock howl before.  It was definitely added post-filming the video in editing. There could very well be a woman standing in a tree but other than that I’m going to say very very fake. The audio is a way to clean for the quality of the footage as well.”

In the case of La Llorona, it appears that the question of whether or not she is documentable as an apparition in the conventional paranormal investigation sort of way, is less relevant than the widespread cultural importance that she holds. The connections La Llorona has to the weeping mother archetype and the deity, Cihuacoatl make her presence as powerful and omnipresent as Our lady of Guadalupe. Like many things that have roots in an indigenous tradition, La Llorona has the powerful ability to defy western means of documentation and definition. Eye witness accounts throughout the Americas attest to the reality of La Llorona’s presence. Whether she is a manifestation of a shared cultural trauma or a personified psycho-reactive phenomenon, La Llorona remains a powerful cultural force. 

Trailer for “La Llorona” A Shudder original film depicting paranormal consequences for a corrupt politician

References

La Llorona: The Crying Woman (English and Spanish Edition) (Spanish) Hardcover – September 16, 2011

by Rudolfo Anaya (Author), Amy Córdova (Illustrator), Enrique R. Lamadrid (Translator)

Olibama Lopez Tushar, People of the Valley: A History of the Spanish Settlers in the San Luis Valley. 

Diego Duran, History of the Indies of New Spain, edited and trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (New York: Origin Press, 1964)

Sahagun, Florentine Codex, Book 12 – The Conquest of Mexico 

‘Weeping Women’ remember Mexico’s missing students

By Euronews  •  last updated: 05/03/2017

https://www.euronews.com/2017/03/05/weeping-women-remember-mexico-s- missing-students

WATCH: Spine-chilling wail of ‘ghost’ La Llorona caught on camera

https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/1223300/ghost-video-la-llorona-colombia-ghost-proof-evidence-supernatural

Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche) Enslaved Interpreter for Hernan Cortés

https://wams.nyhistory.org/early-encounters/spanish-colonies/malitzen/#:~:text=After%20the%20conquest%20of%20the,son%2C%20Martin%2C%20in%201522.

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