Note: this is the first in a series of blog posts about La Llorona appearing in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. [Find the whole series at this link!]
In Latin America, in Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S., and especially in Mexico, no ghost story is told as often, discussed as enthusiastically, or interpreted as widely, as the legend of La Llorona. “La Llorona” literally means “the weeping woman,” so it’s not surprising that the main characteristic shared by all stories of “La Llorona” is that she weeps. Other than that one defining trait, the specter known as “La Llorona” varies widely: many stories are told of what she looks like and what she does, and even more are told of how she came to be such a doleful spirit.
A diverse array of La Llorona stories can be found in news accounts and across the internet. You can also find many collected in the book The Weeping Woman: Encounters with La Llorona by Edward Garcia Kraul and Judith Beatty. Looking through such stories, you’ll find many variations: sometimes La Llorona sees you from afar and pursues you, terrifying you as you flee toward your home. Sometimes she appears riding a horse. Sometimes she appears in your horse-drawn wagon or in your car, warning you against bad behavior, before disappearing, just like that other famous spirit, the vanishing hitchhiker. In some stories, an encounter with her is fatal.
La Llorona is often closely associated with children. In some stories, she is said to wail for her own lost or dead children; in many of these stories, she killed her own children when she was alive and is doomed for her actions to be a wandering ghost. In other stories, she appears mainly to women who have children, while in still others, she kidnaps children, who are never seen again.
Of course, we do have some versions of the story tucked away in the dark corners of collections at the American Folklife Center and elsewhere at the Library of Congress. One great source is Bess Lomax Hawes’s classic paper “La Llorona in Juvenile Hall,” which is an account and interpretation of stories about La Llorona circulating in a juvenile detention center in California in the 1960s. AFC has available online the published paper in the Bess Lomax Hawes collection at this link, as well as an early draft of the paper in the Alan Lomax collection, here.
Hawes’s paper provides a variety of views on La Llorona, including the young women’s stories, her review of other scholars’ work, and her own interpretations. In the essay, Hawes described the many faces, literal and figurative, worn by La Llorona:
La Llorona typically appears as a malevolent spirit, either a harbinger or a direct cause of misfortune to the living. Sometimes she takes the form of a “dangerous siren,” tempting a solitary male late at night by confronting him as a pitiful, woebegone figure hidden under a rebozo. When offered assistance, she turns on the solicitous gentleman the face of a skeleton or a wild metallic horse’s head or no face at all. Sometimes she is observed simply roaming about at a distance, or most typically, she is heard weeping and shrieking through the night. A chance meeting with her is dangerous.
Hawes also provided verbatim transcripts from children in juvenile detention. Here is a typical example:
La Llorona has long hair and walks around crying. I heard from the counsellors at Juvie that she had two kids that she drowned because they were bad. She drowned them in Tijuana. She attacks bad kids in Juvie. They say it is true.
Another adds more gruesome details:
It is a woman who wasn’t quite all there who killed her three girls, 13 to 17 years old. She didn’t want them because something had happened to her husband, and they reminded her of him, so she drowned them. Their bones are buried in her back. She doesn’t know they are dead. She wears a long black cape with a peaked hood and goes around institutions and foster homes looking for her kids. If she sees a girl who looks like one of her daughters, she tries to cut out that feature. She comes around three days after it rains.
Stories like the ones from Hawes’s collection are not full narratives but more like descriptions detailing what La Llorona generally does and what she looks like, with brief narrative passages about her origin. One more text of this sort seems worth including, since it contains many descriptions of the ghost’s activities, since it has been very influential, and since it is available online from the Library of Congress. It was published by Thomas Allibone Janvier in 1906 in Harper’s Magazine, and was reprinted in many newspapers, including the Washington, D.C. Evening Star on November 29, 1906–see the last column. I’ll reprint the text below:
AS IS generally known, Señor, many bad things are met with by night in the streets of the City; but this Wailing Woman, La Llorona, is the very worst of them all. She is worse by far than the vaca de lumbre–that at midnight comes forth from the potrero of San Pablo and goes galloping through the streets like a blazing whirlwind, breathing forth from her nostrils smoke and sparks and flames: because the Fiery Cow, Señor, while a dangerous animal to look at, really does no harm whatever–and La Llorona is as harmful as she can be!
Seeing her walking quietly along the quiet street–at the times when she is not running, and shrieking for her lost children–she seems a respectable person, only odd looking because of her white petticoat and the white reboso with which her head is covered, and anybody might speak to her. But whoever does speak to her, in that very same moment dies!
The beginning of her was so long ago that no one knows when was the beginning of her; nor does any one know anything about her at all. But it is known certainly that at the beginning of her, when she was a living woman, she committed bad sins. As soon as ever a child was born to her she would throw it into one of the canals which surround the City, and so would drown it; and she had a great many children, and this practice in regard to them she continued for a long time. At last her conscience began to prick her about what she did with her children; but whether it was that the priest spoke to her, or that some of the saints cautioned her in the matter, no one knows. But it is certain that because of her sinnings she began to go through the streets in the darkness weeping and wailing. And presently it was said that from night till morning there was a wailing woman in the streets; and to see her, being in terror of her, many people went forth at midnight; but none did see her, because she could be seen only when the street was deserted and she was alone.
Sometimes she would come to a sleeping watchman, and would waken him by asking: “What time is it?” And he would see a woman clad in white standing beside him with her reboso drawn over her face. And he would answer: “It is twelve hours of the night.” And she would say: “At twelve hours of this day I must be in Guadalajara!”–or it might be in San Luis Potosí, or in some other far-distant city–and, so speaking, she would shriek bitterly: “Where shall I find my children?”–and would vanish instantly and utterly away. And the watchman would feel as though all his senses had gone from him, and would become as a dead man. This happened many times to many watchmen, who made report of it to their officers; but their officers would not believe what they told. But it happened, on a night, that an officer of the watch was passing by the lonely street beside the church of Santa Anita. And there he met with a woman wearing a white reboso and a white petticoat; and to her he began to make love. He urged her, saying: “Throw off your reboso that I may see your pretty face!” And suddenly she uncovered her face–and what he beheld was a bare grinning skull set fast to the bare bones of a skeleton! And while he looked at her, being in horror, there came from her fleshless jaws an icy breath; and the iciness of it froze the very heart’s blood in him, and he fell to the earth heavily in a deathly swoon. When his senses came back to him he was greatly troubled. In fear he returned to the Diputacion, and there told what had befallen him. And in a little while his life forsook him and he died.
What is most wonderful about this Wailing Woman, Señor, is that she is seen in the same moment by different people in places widely apart: one seeing her hurrying across the atrium of the Cathedral; another beside the Arcos de San Cosme; and yet another near the Salto del Agua, over by the prison of Belen. More than that, in one single night she will be seen in Monterey and in Oaxaca and in Acapulco–the whole width and length of the land apart–and whoever speaks with her in those far cities, as here in Mexico, immediately dies in fright. Also, she is seen at times in the country. Once some travellers coming along a lonely road met with her, and asked: “Where go you on this lonely road?” And for answer she cried: “Where shall I find my children?” and, shrieking, disappeared. And one of the travellers went mad. Being come here to the City they told what they had seen; and were told that this same Wailing Woman had maddened or killed many people here also.
Because the Wailing Woman is so generally known, Señor, and so greatly feared, few people now stop her when they meet with her to speak with her–therefore few now die of her, and that is fortunate. But her loud keen wailings, and the sound of her running feet, are heard often; and especially in nights of storm. I myself, Señor, have heard the running of her feet and her wailings; but I never have seen her. God forbid that I ever shall!
In 1910 Harper Brothers reprinted Janvier’s series as the book Legends of the City of Mexico, where he included notes and references. From these, we know that the story above was related to him by a friend, Gilberto Cano, a native and resident of Mexico City, who was an amateur antiquarian and shared Janvier’s interests in Mexican history and folklore.
In addition to stories like these, which combine a description of what La Llorona typically does with hints to her possible origins, longer and more detailed stories about La Llorona’s life, death, and return as a ghost are also common. Such stories circulate in oral tradition, and are also often included in children’s books and short novels, including Rudolfo A. Anaya’s novel The Legend of La Llorona, Joe Hayes’s children’s book La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, and Anaya’s children’s book La Llorona: The Crying Woman.
Here’s a version of this type which comes from a friend of AFC:
A long, long time ago there lived a woman named Maria. She was the most beautiful woman in all of Mexico, muy hermosa, and she herself knew it too. Day after day, male suitors begged her for her hand in romance, but day after day men returned home defeated, con el corazón roto. This was the livelihood of Maria until a dashing young gentleman galloped into town and turned Maria’s life upside down; ella se volvió loca. She knew in an instant that she had to have him, for he was the only man to match her in beauty and in elegance. Soon they were to be wed, and not long after had two delightful chiquititos. This delight however was short lived, for one damning day the dashing gentleman became grotesque as he rode into town with another woman at his side. He rode up to Maria and pledged his life to this new woman whom he barely met, because his current wife was no longer beautiful. Maria’s heart burst into tiny shards of glass, invisible to the eye but painful for those handling it. That night, in a fit of sorrow and anger Maria decided to inflict the same agony toward the man that bestowed it upon her. Maria woke her two boys up, took their hands, and guided them to the river “for a bath.” Hand in hand, the three figures immersed themselves in the water…but under their mother’s hand, the little niños never came up for air. After the blood red glare of fury faded from sight, Maria realized what she had done. She shrieked from the gallows of her soul, “Mis Niños!” before letting the river water fill up her lungs. It is said now, this weeping woman or La Llorona has returned from the hereafter, searching for new children to claim as her own for all eternity.
This is the version remembered by AFC’s recent intern, Camille Acosta. Camille heard about La Llorona from several family members while growing up, and this is the story that stuck with her the most. When she was earning her master’s degree in Folklore at Western Kentucky University, Camille decided to do research on La Llorona, and collected stories from her family and others. She presented them, with fascinating interview material and her own perceptive interpretations, in her master’s thesis, which is available here.
As an Anglophone man of non-Hispanic and non-Indigenous descent, rather than interpreting La Llorona, I will give the last word to Camille. But first, I’ll point out that this week marks the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month, but not the end of what we might loosely call the Halloween and Día de Muertos season. So I’m happy to announce that I’ll be publishing a short series of blogs on La Llorona stories and songs between now and Día de Muertos, culminating in an episode of the Folklife Today podcast in which we’ll interview Camille Acosta, AFC reference specialist Allina Migoni, and the fantastic folklorist and musician Juan Díes. I’ll use these blogs to point to well known and lesser known versions of the story, as well as the works of other scholars who have treated the legend in their work.
So who is La Llorona? For Camille, she is “the first concept of fear many of us [Mexican Americans] have ever experienced; she is our anxieties’ origin story.”
Camille also observes:
No two individuals view La Llorona in the same way. For example, the children I interviewed mostly saw La Llorona as a ghostly apparition more than willing to instill fear in young ones who misbehave. For the young adults including myself, there was description of La Llorona not just as a ghost but as a monster making us feel isolated from normalcy. For my parents however, La Llorona wavered from being a mother with the world on her shoulders to a key for escaping the harsh realities of life through ostension. Every single informant viewed the Llorona as a unique and personalized character in their own minds.
And she makes the important point:
La Llorona is not only a reflection of our innermost fears, but she is the living breathing proof that we can overcome them as well. Her narrative passed down for centuries is a reminder that our voices are being listened to and acknowledged, La Llorona is understood more and more each and every day. And in a way, so are we.
Read more from Camille in her excellent thesis! And watch Folklife Today for more on La Llorona!