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Growing Up with La Llorona

Photo shows three books: "Maya's Children, The Story of La Llorona"; "The Legend of La Llorona;" and "The Crying Woman: La Llorona," all by Rudolfo Anaya.

Rudolfo Anaya has written several books for both adults and children about La Llorona, and has mentioned her in many other novels and essays. Photo by Stephen Winick.

This is the fourth blog post in a series about La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. [Find the whole series at this link!] In this post I’ll talk about growing up with the La Llorona story; how it has functioned in interactions between adults and children, and how people continue to engage with the legend throughout their lives.

Throughout this series, it’s not my goal to emphasize my own interpretations of La Llorona. After all, she is the subject of lively debate and discussion among Latinx scholars and artists, and there is no shortage of wise and thought-provoking interpretations of her story and its usefulness from the communities that created her. I’ll be pointing the way to their interpretations, and also to primary sources that aren’t much discussed by other Llorona scholars.

A woman sits in a chair facing the camera.

Mrs. Esperanza Sernas in her apartment, Chicago, Illinois, June 24, 1977. Photo by Philip B. George. Find the archival scan here.

We can begin our exploration with both: an untapped primary source that’s also the literal voice of a Latinx woman, one of the millions of people who heard the story as children and developed their own sense of its meaning and importance. Esperanza Sernas was a restaurant worker interviewed in 1977 by fieldworker Philip George for AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. She was born in Oaxaca and had then lived in Mexico City before moving to Chicago. After George specifically asked Mrs. Sernas about La Llorona, their conversation ran thus:

ES: Ahh. Pues, pero creo que eso es cuento. Parece que eso fue cuento.
PG: Es cuento, nada mas?
ES: Cuento, nada mas. Cuento. Yo me acuerdo que…decían, “Si no vas a la escuela, o si no haces esto, te va a salir La Llorona y te lleva.”
PG: Quién era La Llorona?
ES: Pues, dicen que era una mujer que había matado a sus hijos y que…la oían que lloraba de noche, o en los caminos se oía que esta mujer andaba, sin fin, en los caminos llorando. Eso me platicaban a mi…de la llorona, ya. Como fue mentado, la llorona, sí. La Llorona que había matado a sus hijos y que esa mujer andaba sin rumbo, verdad? Llorando. Y se gritaba “iAiii, mis hijos!”

Along with the tape, George submitted the above transcription, as well as the following translation:

ES: Oh, well, but I think that’s just a story. It seems that’s just a tale.
PG: It’s a story, nothing more?
ES: Story, nothing more. A tale. I remember that…they used to say that if you don’t go to school, or if you don’t do this or that, La Llorona will appear to you and carry you off.
PG: Who was La Llorona?
ES: Well, they say she was a woman who had killed her children and then…they used to hear her cry at night. Or on the roads they heard her walk endlessly, on the roads crying. That’s what they told me…about La Llorona. Yes, how they talked about her, La Llorona, who had killed her children and that the woman walked aimlessly, right, crying. And she screamed, “Aiiii, my children!”

You can hear Sernas in the player below. The discussion about La Llorona occurs at 22 minutes into the recording.

Note than Sernas’s first reaction is to tell George that it’s just a story. (I wonder if she thought he believed it was true!) She then moved first to explain that it was used to encourage good behavior. Only after she was pressed for more did she explain who or what La Llorona was.

This is frequently the case when people who grew up with La Llorona’s story are asked about her: their answer begins with a memory of the threat of La Llorona’s appearance being used to encourage obedience, and then moves on to describe La Llorona’s story itself. We see this also in some of the examples presented by Camille Acosta in her master’s thesis on the legend. You can read the whole thesis at this link, but her father’s story is a particularly good example:

I first heard the story of La Llorona in Mexico, in my hometown of Parral, Chihuahua in the late 50’s. Essentially we were told this story as a cautionary tale, that if we didn’t behave she would come looking for us and take us away into the realm of the dead. I heard more and more about her as I grew up. She was a woman who drowned her own children, usually two, in a fit of despair and was condemned to wander the waterways searching for them till Christ should come back. In these stories she was just a frightening apparition whose screams and lamentations you would suddenly hear at night, when she wandered nearby, at the river or the watery canals throughout Parral. If you were out at those late hours you may see her materialize out of the mists that often lingered over the canals and riverbanks. Everyone claimed to have seen her at least once. In my hometown, which was a mining town, loud sirens would announce the shift changes for the miners to go to or leave work, and wherever we were we would rush home at the 9 p.m. siren, else we may hear or see La Llorona as she began her nightly vigils. She was a very effective curfew.

In addition to keeping wayward children near home and away from rivers, La Llorona was used by adults to discourage children specifically from excessive crying. Here, two common meanings of “llorona” are at play: when used as a simple noun, “llorona” means “crybaby.” So parents are suggesting that by being a crybaby, “una llorona,” a child might unintentionally invoke the archetypal cryer, “La Llorona.”

Pen and ink illustration of a woman

The Weeping Woman who appeared in Tenochtitlan in 1519, according to Bernardino de Sahagún’s informants. This drawing, from the 1570s, appears in the Florentine Codex, and could be the first illustration of La Llorona.

This was the implication in the earliest text I have seen to depict parents using “La Llorona” to induce good behavior from their kids. This is the Spanish text I uncovered in this previous post. As I pointed out, this Llorona tale, collected in Cadiz, Spain, in 1866, includes a frame narrative in which a mother and grandfather try to quiet down a distraught and weeping child by threatening him with La Llorona. You can read the whole story in Spanish at this link. Here’s my translation of the tale’s opening:

One afternoon in the month of August, I was walking through the town contemplating the poetic Cádiz in front of me when, as I passed a miserable little house, I heard the cry of a child. I moved closer to it, and at its entrance, sitting on the ground were a woman, who was still young, reprimanding the child; an old man who seemed to be a fisherman; and a swarm of boys, most of them dirty and unclothed. “Let him be! Let him scream and rage as much as he wants, he will see at night how La Llorona appears to him!” said the old man, putting on a fierce face (clearly feigned) and hollowing out his voice in such a way that it conveyed wonder and fear.  “It’s true,” the woman confirmed, while the other children turned many colors and huddled with each other, getting as close as possible to the old man.

The idea that La Llorona comes to terrorize those who cry too much is also present in Latin American versions of the tale. In fact, one of my favorite La Llorona stories features this theme. It was published in Costa Rica in 1899 by Manuel Argüello Mora, now considered one of the fathers of Costa Rican literature and the first writer to document Costa Rican folk narrative. In addition to an unusually gruesome and complete description of La Llorona’s appearance, Argüello Mora’s story also includes an extraordinary account of two women teaming up and using the La Llorona story to their advantage.

A man in a suit and tie faces the camera

Manuel Argüello Mora (1834-1902) is considered one of the fathers of Costa Rican literature. He wrote an account of hearing about La Llorona from his nanny in the 1830s or early 1840s. The photo was published in the 1890s and is in the public domain.

The story is brief. You can read it in Spanish in Argüello Mora’s book Costa Rica Pintoresca, Sus Leyendas y Tradiciones. My own translation is below:

Nothing is more profoundly sad than this centuries-old legend.

It would be impossible to forget the impression that the terrifying image of La Llorona had on my young mind.

When a child cried or refused to sleep on stormy winter nights, the nanny threatened him with La Llorona, who was a very old woman then, but young when she had committed the horrendous crime that had turned her into an immortal embodiment of pain.

La Llorona is a mother who, in a moment of cowardice or perhaps madness, felt the need to preserve her honor at the cost of her son’s life. After the baby was born, she submerged him in the waters of the river, and once he had drowned, she left the corpse at the mercy of the current. At the same moment that this horrendous crime was being committed, a mysterious voice pronounced the eternal curse that still follows the unnatural mother: “You will live, weeping and seeking your child, forever and ever.” And a groan from her son replied: “So shall it be, damn you.”

Tradition dates this event to the year 1,000 of the Christian era, and consequently, the untiring unfortunate has wept continuously for almost nine centuries. Because of this, her face is marked by two scars, which continuously run, no longer with tears, but with blood, flowing from her eyes.

Her hair, which has not been cut since she committed the gruesome crime, wraps around her head and covers her face, forming a thick and woolly forest of locks; and her nails, more than an inch long, help her search by raking through the dirty and muddy waters of the streams and ditches of the towns.

How many times my innocent imagination made me see and hear that doleful wanderer!

Indeed, at the age of six, I would have sworn without hesitation that La Llorona had kissed and hugged me, because one night a boy who was selling elotes (cooked and seasoned ears of corn) passed close to my house. Seeing them and demanding that they give me one or two of those most appealing ears of corn was my only thought. The babysitter flatly refused to satisfy my whim, claiming that corn was harmful and indigestible at that time. I persisted and cried and screamed and bit the wise maid, who finally brought out her biggest ammunition: La Llorona. I was notified that if I kept yelling that frightening specter would be called; but I, who was not sure of her existence, ignored the threat. I was at the height of my fury when I saw an old woman enter the bedroom with her hair in disarray, emitting dreadful moans. “Take this child, Llorona,” said my nurse; and she put me in the arms of the old woman, who gave me several kisses, feigning tears. Of course I did not have the courage to look straight at that fateful apparition. I lost even the ability to scream once I felt in the power of La Llorona. As soon as I could hurl the tremulous phrase into the wind, I shouted: “I don’t want elotes ever again!” The remedy was effective, because when they heard my retraction, they passed me from La Llorona’s arms to those of my dear nanny.

From the time of that lively performance I firmly believed in the existence of the immortal Llorona, and the threat of her kisses and hugs was a miraculous cure for all my sudden whims.

You see, dear reader, legend doesn’t lie. La Llorona really exists…in the imagination of children and in the memory of the elderly.

Since Argüello Mora survived the encounter, this extraordinary passage suggests either that the nanny had prearranged with an older woman that the other would impersonate La Llorona if the need arose, or that any woman could be expected to know what to do if handed a baby with the exclamation “take this child, Llorona!” Either way, not only the story itself, but also the way it functioned between adults and children, seemed to be a widely known and easily drawn upon cultural resource for women.

A woman's face in scary makeup

Finishing La Llorona: a La Llorona makeup job, September 6, 2012. Photo by Inside the Magic. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

La Llorona can also be useful as kids make the transition from childhood to adolescence by making kids think in more specific ways about their behavior. In his essay “La Llorona, el Kookooee, and Sexuality,” Rudolfo Anaya confirms that fear of encountering La Llorona was, in Thatha Acosta’s words, “a very effective curfew”:

Sometimes I found myself alone along the river at dusk, having gone down to the river to cut wild alfalfa for our milk cow. I would work fast and hard; I didn’t want to be there when darkness engulfed the river. At that haunting time, the presence of the river came alive. The ghosts of the bush walked in the shadows. I felt fear, dread–real emotions which I had to understand and conquer. I had been warned: Hurry home or La Llorona will get you!

But Anaya doesn’t stop there. Instead he addresses the issue of how La Llorona changed for him as he got older and confronted sexuality, pointing out that La Llorona was used by parents to prevent boys and girls from spending too much time together:

In the evenings when we played hide and seek with the neighborhood girls, the awareness of sexuality was overwhelming. We ran to hide with the girls, to be close for a moment and to touch them. The girls whispered, “You’re not supposed to touch or that might make babies.” Even kissing might make babies in that mysterious world of sex about which we knew so little. As the evening grew darker our parents called us in. “Cuidado. La Llorona anda cerca.” […] Now I know that those old men who condemned sexuality and insisted that we fear the natural part of our lives created the spirit of La Llorona.

For Anaya, La Lorona was not only a fearsome spirit and potential victimizer; she was also herself a victim, specifically of repressive sexual mores. She killed her children because she was mistreated after violating a sexual taboo, a “rule of the tribe”:

According to legend, La Llorona killed her children and drowned them in the river. There are hundreds of variations on the story, but the point is she gave birth to illegitimate children. She broke a rule of the tribe. She was jilted or cast away by the man who fathered her children, and in her rage at being used she killed the children. Her penance was to wander the banks of the river looking for the children she drowned.

Rudolfo Anaya on October 2, 2006. Photo by Norby Anderson. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Anaya points out that La Llorona’s meaning doesn’t stop at childhood. As a victim of society’s harsh treatment of those who violate taboos, La Llorona is an implicit warning and an implied threat to those contemplating any similar violations, no matter their age:

There is no happy ending to the story of La Llorona. She comes from a Catholic world, and breaking a taboo is not forgiven. She is condemned to search for her children forever. Was I, the boy becoming aware of my expanding sexual world, to be part of her condemnation? If I did not heed the warnings of my elders would I also become an outcast?

In their work on La Llorona, both our own Camille Acosta and the Llorona scholar Domino Renee Perez interviewed their own mothers about La Llorona, learning that adult women had their own connections to the story, especially as mothers. For Perez’s mother, the story was a warning against jealousy:

I think it says a woman will go to any means to remove the obstacles in the way of what she loves. In the story, so much jealousy overcame her, she couldn’t see what was right. Because she is wandering forever, she has time to realize what she did was wrong.

For Acosta’s mother, it was surprisingly similar:

From the get go, my mom seems to have envisioned the legend of La Llorona as not only a cautionary tale for naughty children, but as a beacon of warning for the “bad mother” and the “bad wife.” Her version was the only one in which Maria was the one initially at fault, as she cheated on her husband before adding to her evil nature and drowning her kids. I found it incredibly fascinating that this concept of Maria having no sympathetic explanation for her actions within the narrative was one that my mother latched on to.

As with Anaya as he made the transition from a child to a young man, mothers find aspects of themselves in La Llorona, see how they might make the same mistakes, and are thus able to learn from the tale.

As La Llorona changes with the times, we can expect her impact on children to change too. Perez, for exaple, offers observations on the implications of La Llorona’s traditional role as a bogey-woman for innovative readings of the character. In particular, she demonstrates that La Llorona’s status as a monster for frightening children affects the ways in which women who create art centered on the character, such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, and Helena María Viramontes, re-inscribe her as a locus of resistance and agency.

Similarly, in his essay “I’m the King: The Macho Image,” Anaya suggests that La Llorona be used to teach values–not just older traditional values but modern values too. And he recognizes that this might begin to change La Llorona’s story as well:

In my novel Zia Summer, my main character, Sonny Baca, a thirty-year-old trying to understand his maleness (and his cultural identity), is told the story of la Llorona by his grandmother. In the grandmother’s story, it is a man who kills la Llorona’s child. 

What if it is the man who kills la Llorona’s child, a child she would raise to anew consciousness, thus defeating the father’s old macho ways? The woman has the power to create the new male, not Nietzsche’s Superman, but a child more closely aligned to the feminine sensibility, which is the mother’s inheritance. The man kills the male child not because he fears an Oedipal ending (after all, in the legend the father is going off searching after a new woman),but because he fears the status quo, and his macho role in it will be sup-planted by the son.

Therein lies new hope. We can constantly re-create the child, raise the child in a new way, so the macho image of yesterday need not be a prison to us, especially its dysfunctional aspects. La Llorona knows this, and so like Isis she searches along the river’s bank, the lake, the sacred springs of myth in search of the pieces of the child she can bring back to life. What incredible power lies in this woman of legend that we have dismissed as a “boogey woman” of the river. We’ve used her to frighten children, when we should be using her to raise them—the new children of a new era who understand that each one carries the hope of the future.

Of course, there will always be more to say about this fascinating aspect of La Llorona. Look for our podcast later this week, where we talk about this with three people who did grow up with La Llorona: Camille Acosta, Allina Migoni, and Juan Díes.

As a sneak preview, we’ll give the last word today to Camille, from her interview for the upcoming podcast. She believes that today’s kids are responding to La Llorona in a new and positive way, one which bodes well for the next generation of adults:

I think the most fascinating tidbit that I learned from these kids was, how much emotionality they added to the narrative of La Llorona. A lot of interesting research, it felt like they had done on her, even though they hadn’t. They were just thinking about her in so many different ways that I never thought to think about her at 8-9-10-11-12 years old. I remember, we were talking about La Llorona, we were talking about little motifs about the story. We were talking about, if she, you know, is allowed to come into people’s houses, or is she not allowed to come into people’s houses? […] And one student said, I have a theory Miss Camille. I feel like she’s not allowed to enter family’s homes, because it breaks her heart. And it reminds her of the family that she could never have. And I was like, whoa, oh my gosh, I never, I never would have thought of that, especially at 12 years old. And I just thought it was beautiful. I thought it was it was fascinating. And I think it really says something about the up and coming generation to see a spirit, to see what people deem a monster, as something human, as something that we can all share.

Keep watching the blog this week for the announcement of the La Llorona podcast, and one last post including a performance of the La Llorona story from the National Storytelling Festival!

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