La Llorona: Folklore, Spirits, Colonialism, and Power

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

One of the most iconic images of Latin American and Chicano folklore is that of La Llorona – The Weeping Woman. In stories she haunts waterways, weeping and crying ‘Mis hijos’ (My Children), and if you hear her wails, she will drown you. In contemporary Latin American and Chicano society she is used to scare children into behaving – misbehaving children are warned that they will be taken away by La Llorona. Academic Patricia Trujillo’s uncle and grandmother used the tale to keep her, her siblings and her cousins in line, which terrified her – something that her brother and cousin used to sadistically joke about. However, older versions of the tale reveal colonial and post-colonial anxieties regarding class, race, and gender in Mexico. 

To understand La Llorona it is first important to understand her tale, but, naturally, this is difficult. The tale of La Llorona has been passed down through oral testimonies, which transcend cultures, time, and geographies, resulting in various versions of the La Llorona story. Most stories have several key narrative points which shall be discussed here. A long time ago, a young, poor peasant woman was spotted by a young nobleman, and the two fell in love, quickly getting married. Despite protestations from the nobleman’s family the couple settled down and had two children. After a few years, however, the nobleman started vanishing for weeks and, eventually, months on end. He later came to the village with a wealthy noblewoman – his new wife. He announced that he had had his first marriage annulled and planned to never return to his wife. This broke her, and in a fit of rage and despair she drowned her children before drowning herself. At the Gates of Heaven, Saint Peter turned her away until she found the souls of her drowned children. As she could not find them, she now haunts the waterways of the world trying to find her lost children – any stray children caught by her would be drowned as a misguided way to find her own children. In some tales she drowns white men as a way to seek revenge on her adulterous lover. 

Gloria Duerte has discussed how tales of spirits similar to La Llorona have cropped up in folklore and myths across world history. A similar spirit emerged in sixteenth-century Philippines; fifteenth-century Germany had tales of the White Woman; and there are many beings from across European culture which attack children or men. Among these include Lilith, from Jewish folklore, and Lamia, from ancient Greek mythology. Camilla Townsend has deconstructed the myth of the ‘white gods’; this is the pervasive myth that the Aztecs thought that Hernan Cortes and the conquistadors were resurrected as gods, in particular Queztalcoatl. Townsend presented evidence from indigenous sources, particularly the Florentine Codex which told the history of the Conquest of Mexico, about how post-Conquest elite indigenous peoples combined Christian and indigenous ideas to explain the Conquest. The stories of shooting stars foretelling the return of a deity were adapted from ancient Roman and Biblical tales of the apocalypse – the Christianised elite were taught by Jesuit priests, so were well aware of these tales. As a result, it is not out of the question that La Llorona was a combination of indigenous and European tales. She also exhibits signs of another key marker of Mexican identity – Malintzin. 

Malintzin, (also known as La Malinche, and Doña Marina), was an indigenous woman who was enslaved, sold to Cortes, raped, and forced to be his ally. Her life is a remarkable tale of an intelligent young woman surviving against brutal conditions, but due to her being forced to bear Cortes’s children and work as his translator, a misogynistic, independent Mexico cast her as a betrayer. In a parallel to Eve and Original Sin, Malintzin was cast as a seductress who betrayed Mexico in favour of the invading Spanish. Camilla Townsend has argued against the casting of Malintzin as La Llorona as the real life Malintzin knew where her children were. However, the La Llorona/Malintzin connection becomes clearer when her children become metaphorical instead of literal: La Llorona is weeping over the lost indigenous peoples. Despite independent Mexico continuing the colonialist policies towards the indigenous peoples, they were heavily used to forge a new, independent Mexican identity. The new ruling elite were still white, wealthy landowners, but they claimed the legacy of the Aztecs and other indigenous peoples. Adding to this, many claimed to be acting as ‘wards’ to the indigenous peoples, teaching them how to be ‘civilised’ while simultaneously exploiting them. Being a patriarchal society, Malintzin was cast as a betrayer, so it is easy to imagine her being cast as a mother weeping for her lost children, i.e. Malintzin weeping over pre-Conquest Mexico. A final point to this is that La Llorona’s story does mimic the life of Malintzin directly in one regard. Both had a child by a man who left them for a noblewoman – Malintzin was raped and bore Cortes’s son, but he married a Spanish woman. 

This brings us to the recasting of La Llorona and Malintzin. For most of Mexico’s post-independence history Malintzin has been cast in a pejorative light, and La Llorena is often seen in a similar way. In many versions of the tale it is La Llorona’s own spite which causes her to drown the children – in one she drowns her children because she feels that her husband loves them more than he loves her. From the mid-1900s, especially, Mexican feminists started reinterpreting the story of Malintzin, from one of a betrayer to that of a survivor – her use of language, knowledge of politics, and own quick thinking helped her survive the brutal Conquest. At the same time, stories of La Llorona began to shift as well. In the early 1900s American anthropologist Yda Addis collated and translated various tales of La Llorona told by Mexican women – the result is the version of the tale told above. Addis, and the Mexican women she left unnamed, retold La Llorona as a story of women creating the spirit’s curse to that of men – it is because of her husband’s neglect and adultery that she kills her children. The rise of feminism allowed a re-evaluation of traditional folktales and helped break patriarchal attitudes towards women.

Finally, La Llorona represents the anxieties of a misogynistic, racist state. Like many feudal, and early-capitalist, societies there were anxieties concerning classes mixing, but in Latin America this was heavily racialised. The lower, and especially rural, classes were often indigenous, black, or mixed-race; in a settler society race became integral to maintaining colonial, and later post-colonial, rule. A term known as limpia sangria, ‘cleanliness of blood’, was imported from Spain to determine how worthy an individual was to access the upper echelons of society – being of indigenous or African heritage meant that your blood was ‘tainted’. La Llorona, being a rural woman, indicates that she was either indigenous or mestizo, and the nobleman would likely be white. Hence, La Llorona becomes a tale to reinforce racial categories – their fate was preordained due to the transgression of these categories. Being a patriarchal society, women were viewed in a ‘virgin-whore’ dichotomy – both innocent beings and corrupting influences. Sexual assault against indigenous women, as well as the legacy of Malintzin, forged a stereotype that indigenous women were especially licentious. La Llorona drowning men, particularly white men, became part of a wider system of settler society racism and sexism; the seductive indigenous woman luring ‘good, Christian men’ to their deaths. The tale of La Llorona, therefore, deeply represents the anxieties of an elite, white male class in a society where their power relies on the subjugation of those excluded from these categories.

To conclude, La Llorona is deeply embedded in colonial narratives, and has changed to accommodate new changes in society. As Chicano communities were formed in the United States, she became a way to light-heartedly connect to a wider culture that had been separated by the Rio Grande. The rise of feminism helped recast both her and Malintzin as agents reacting to male domination in a patriarchal society. However, as American media has tried to incorporate Latino audiences into the mainstream earlier issues have started to re-emerge. Domino Perez has discussed how La Llorona has been depicted in American media, and how it damages her cultural significance. In the pilot of the show Supernatural she appears as a seductress but to avoid reinforcing the sexualisation of minorities ever present in media she is literally whitewashed and loosely tied to the Irish banshee, eradicating her Latino origins. Similarly, The Cure of La Llorona (2019) in the The Conjuring franchise literally whitewashes her tale by having her be a demonic entity tormenting a white family, despite also depicting a Latino family in Los Angeles due to fears that it would only be marketable if a white family were the leads. The appropriation of La Llorona for mainstream American consumption shows that five-hundred years after the Conquest of Mexico La Llorona still feeds into power dynamics of the time which her story is being told. 

Bibliography:

Addis, Y.H., ‘The Wailing Woman: “La Llorona”, A Legend of Mexico’, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 1 (2019), 131-136.

Duarte, Gloria, ‘La Llorona’s Ancestry: Crossing Cultural Boundaries’, in Folklore: In All of Us, In All we Do, ed. Kenneth Untiedt (Denton, 2006).

Renee Perez, Domino, ‘The Politics of Taking: La Llorona in the Cultural Mainstream’, The Journal of Popular Culture, 1 (2012), 153-172.

Townsend, Camilla, Malintzin’s Choices, (Albuquerque: New Mexico Press, 2006).

Townsend, Camilla, ‘Burying the White Gods: New Perspectives on the Conquest of Mexico,’ The American Historical Review, 3 (2003), 659-687.

Trevino, Rene, ‘Absolving La Llorona: Yda H. Addis’s “The Wailing Woman”‘, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 1 (2019), 123-130.Trujillo, Patricia Marina, ‘Becoming La Llorona’, Chicana/Latina Studies, 1 (2006), 96-104.

Image: La Llorona Durmiente, oil on canvas, 2012 Hector Garza

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