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La Llorona: Storytelling for Halloween and Día de Muertos

Cover of Joe Hayes's book "La Llorona: The Weeping Woman" on a bookshelf with other books

Joe Hayes adapted “La Llorona” into a bilingual book for children. This “shelfie” was taken on my bookcase at home!

This is the sixth post in our 2021 Halloween and Día de Muertos series about La Llorona, the best known legend of Spanish-speaking America. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. [Find the whole series at this link!]

La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, is a spirit that haunts the folklore of Mexico and other Latin American countries. In some versions she’s a ghost, while in others she’s an immortal wanderer, not dead but not really alive either. In all versions, she weeps loudly in the night. So far in the series, we’ve introduced the legend, given some of its history, explored songs related to La Llorona, and discussed the story’s role in growing up. Now, we present a telling of the tale.

A smiling man sits in a chair.

New Mexico storyteller Joe Hayes. This publicity photo by Jack Kotz was distributed by Hayes’s publisher, Cinco Puntos Press.

Below, you’ll find audio and a transcript of a performance by Joe Hayes, one of the best known storytellers from the American southwest. Hayes’s bilingual Spanish-English storytelling has earned him a distinctive place among America’s professional storytellers. He has published over 40 books, and has won numerous awards and accolades, including being named a New Mexico Eminent Scholar by the New Mexico Commission on Higher Learning, and receiving a New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts.

Hayes grew up in a small town in southern Arizona, where he learned Spanish from his Mexican American neighbors. He first learned the story of La Llorona in Spanish, from a friend’s grandmother, when he was a child. He made his version of La Llorona into a bilingual children’s book, which received an award for best children’s picture book at the International Latino Book Awards in 2005. Hayes has been featured many times at the National Storytelling Festival, so we have many performances of his among the collection associated with that great institution. In addition, he was featured as a storyteller at the Library of Congress National Book Festival in 2011. You can see video of that performance at this link.

Hayes’s performance in the player below comes from the 1987 National Storytelling Festival. It’s followed by my own transcription. I explained my transcription style in this previous post of a scary story; it’s a style grounded in the study of ethnopoetics which attempts to capture the prosody of the teller’s performance.  After the transcription, you’ll find my brief commentary about Hayes’s version.

So now, without further ado…below find Joe Hayes’s version of “La Llorona.”

What I’m gonna tell you
is the best known story in the southwest.
Not just the best known ghost story but by far the best known story.
Anywhere you go in Texas or Arizona or New Mexico
or California or southern Colorado
Anywhere in Mexico or Central America
They know about La Llorona.
It means the Crying Woman, the Weeping Woman,
La Llorona,
Of course everywhere you go, they have a different story.
And they will swear that the story happened right there
not in some faraway place,
right wherever you happen to be.
So I have given up on trying to figure out where it really did happen.
But people agree about this thing.
It all started a long time ago,
in a very small town.
There was a girl living in that town
who was so beautiful,
people said she had to be the prettiest girl for 500 miles around.
Some people said she was the most beautiful girl in the whole world.
And that girl’s name
was Maria.
But because Maria was so beautiful, she thought she was better than everyone else.
And she deserved the very best of everything.
She came from a good hardworking family.
They had a nice home.
She had pretty clothes to wear,
but she wasn’t satisfied.
She deserved much better things.
And when she was a young woman,
she would have nothing to do with the young men from her town
or the villages nearby.
They weren’t good enough for her.
Many times when she was walking with her grandma in the evening,
the way young people used to do back in the old days,
she would tell her grandma:
“Abuelita, cuando yo me case,
voy a casarme con el hombre más guapo de todo el mundo.”
“Grandma,” she would say, “when I get married,
I’m going to marry the most handsome man in the world.”
And her grandma
would just shake her head.
But Maria would go on
she’d look out across the hillside and say:
“His hair will be as black and as shiny
as the raven sitting on that tree over there.
And when he moves, he will be as strong and as graceful
as the stallion my abuelito has in his corral.”
And her grandma would tell her
Maria, “caras vemos, corazones no sabemos.”
It’s an old saying.
It means we can see people’s faces: caras vemos.
We don’t know what’s in their hearts: corazones no sabemos.
And she would tell her: “If you’re going to marry a man,
you be sure he’s a good man
that he has a good heart in him.
Why are you always talking about what his face looks like?”
But Maria thought:
“Oh, these old people,
they have old fashioned ideas.
They don’t know anything.”
And she wouldn’t listen to her grandma.

And then one day a man came to town,
and he seemed to be just the man she had been talking about.
He had been a cowboy out on the Llano Estacado.
He could ride anything.
In fact, if he was riding a horse and it got well trained,
he would give that horse away
and go rope him a wild horse.
He thought it wasn’t manly for him to ride a horse that wasn’t half wild.
And he was handsome.
All the girls were falling in love with him.
He could play the guitar.
He could sing beautifully.
And Maria made up her mind.
That was the man she would marry.
But I told you how proud she was.
So of course, she would never let on.
If they would pass on the street and he would say hello,
she would just look away.
He came to her house in the evening and played his guitar
and sang for her.
She wouldn’t even come to the window.
And before long,
the cowboy made up his mind”
“That proud girl Maria,
I can win her heart.
I think I’ll marry that girl.”
So things turned out just the way Maria wanted them to.
And before long,
they were going to be married.
Her parents told her,
“Don’t marry him.
He won’t make a good steady husband.”
But she wouldn’t listen to her parents.
She got married.
And for a while, things were fine.
They had two children.
They seemed to be a happy family together.

But after a few years
the cowboy went back to the wild life of the prairies.
He would leave town and be gone for months at a time
and when he came home, he would tell Maria:
“I didn’t come to see you.
I just want to visit my children for a while.”
He would sit and play with the children.
Then he would go off to the bars and drink wine and gamble all night long with his friends.
He talked about putting Maria aside
and marrying a rich woman.
Well, as proud as Maria was,
she became very jealous.
And also
she began to feel jealous of her own children
because he paid attention to them
but he just ignored her.
And one evening she was standing in front of the house
with two children beside her
and he came riding by in a carriage
with an elegant lady on the seat beside him.
He stopped and he spoke to his children.
But he didn’t even look at Maria.
He just drove on up the street.
And when that happened,
something just seemed to just snap inside Maria.
She felt such anger and such jealousy.
And it all turned against her children.
She grabbed her two children by the arm
and she dragged them with her down to the river.
And even though it’s a sad thing to tell,
the story says that she threw her own children into the river.
But as they disappeared down the stream,
she realized what she had done
and she ran down the bank of the river reaching out her arms
as if she could get them back from the water.
But they were long gone.
She ran on,
driven by the guilt and the anger that was filling her heart.
She wasn’t paying attention to where she was going
and her foot caught on a root.
She tripped and fell forward
and her forehead (sound effect)
struck a rock and she was killed.
The next day, they looked for her all over town and they couldn’t find her.
And then someone brought the word into town
that her body was out there on the bank of the river.
They went out and found her
and they laid her to rest on the very spot where she had fallen.

But the first night she was in the grave,
she could not rest at peace.
She was up and walking
all along the bank of the river.
She was dressed in a long, winding white sheet.
The way a body is dressed for burial
They saw her moving among the trees
and they could hear her voice
crying and crying through the night.
Sometimes they thought it was just the wind they heard.
But other times if they listened more carefully,
they were sure they could hear words.
It would sound something like this:
“Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii miiiiis hiiiiiiiijooooooos. Donde estan mis hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiijoooooooos?”
“Where are my children,” she was crying. “Donde estan mis hijos?”
And she went all up and down the banks of the river
through all the arroyos into the mountains
down along ditches and canals and acequias
Night after night they saw her
but especially they would hear her crying outside.
And so before long, no one spoke of her as Maria anymore.
They called her La Llorona,
The Crying Woman.
La Llorona.

And they told the children:
“When it gets dark,
get back inside the house
because La Llorona could be around here looking for her children.
And she’s so crazy,
if she sees you,
she won’t know if it’s you or her own child.
She’ll pick you up and carry you away
or she’ll throw you into the river like she did to her own children
and you will never be seen again.”
And they say that down through the years
many children have been carried away
by La Llorona.

One man even told me this:
when he was a boy, he had a friend who did not believe that story.
His friend would say:
“Oh, that’s a story parents made up to scare kids
and make them come home at night.”
There’s no such thing as La Llorona.
Well, the boys were down by the river one evening and it got late.
The other boys all said:
“Look, it’s getting dark.
We better get home.”
Not that one boy.
He said: “No.
I’m having fun.
I’m gonna stay right here.”
They couldn’t believe it.
They said, “aren’t you afraid of La Llorona?”
And he just laughed at them.
“Come on!
You don’t believe that, do you?
There’s no such a thing!”
So they went home and he stayed there all by himself.
He was throwing cans and sticks into the river
hitting them with rocks as they came by.
It got really dark.
And then the moon started to rise.
Then all of a sudden
he felt like an icy cold wind was blowing through his clothes
and all around him
there were dogs barking.
He looked around
and there was a white shape coming through the trees
and getting nearer.
He tried to turn and run but he was so frightened.
He couldn’t move.
He just stood there trembling,
and the shape got closer
until he could hear that high wailing
“Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, miiiis hiiiiiiiiiiiiiijooooooooos!”
But still he couldn’t run away.
So he crouched down as small as he could.
He just hoped she wouldn’t see him.
Suddenly he heard her say “mi hijo! my child!” she said and came toward him.
His face was as white as the sheet that La Llorona was wearing.
But he couldn’t run away.
She came up to him and reached out with her long,
twisted fingers and she took hold of his shoulders.
When La Llorona’s fingers touched his shoulders
it felt like icicles were cutting into his skin.
Just then when La Llorona was about to pick him up and carry him away,
back in town,
the church bells started ringing
calling the people for mass.
And when the church bell rang,
a prayer went through the boy’s mind.
And when that happened,
La Llorona dropped him and she disappeared through the trees.
He stayed there for a long time before he had his strength back.
Finally he was able to run home and when he got home
his mother was angry.
She said “Where have you been?
You should have been home hours ago!”
He stuttered and stammered
“Mama, mama, La Llorona.”
She said: “What?
Don’t you go making up stories about La Llorona.
You should have been home a long time ago!”
And she reached out and she was going to give him a good shaking,
but when she reached out to take hold of his shoulders,
then she saw on each shoulder
there were five round red marks like five bloodstains.
They had been left by La Llorona’s fingers.
Then she believed him.
She took that shirt and washed it over and over but she could never get the stains out.
And the man who told me about that said when he was a boy
she would come around the neighborhood and show them the shirt.
She would say: “Look here,
you can just count these: 1-2-3-4-5
Those red marks were left by La Llorona’s fingers!
When it gets dark get home because La Llorona can carry children away.”
And you can bet the kids in that neighborhood got home when they got dark.
But I’ve never seen that shirt so I’m not going to swear that story’s true.

Notes on Joe Hayes’s La Llorona

Bumper Sticker with an illustration of a woman and the phrase "Honk if you've seen La Llorona."

La Llorona bumper sticker made from an illustration by Mona Pennypacker and Vicki Trego Hill for Joe Hayes’s children’s book.

Scholars have noted that tales of La Llorona tend to fall into three categories: brief conversational mentions of La Llorona as something to be avoided; stories of particular encounters with La Llorona; and legends of how an ordinary woman was transformed into La Llorona. Joe Hayes incorporates all three into his tale. More specifically, this oral version is two stories in one: the story of how La Llorona came to be, followed by a detailed encounter story. This differs from Hayes’s published children’s book, which omits the encounter.

Interestingly, Hayes’s version of the backstory of La Llorona is remarkably similar to the one remembered from childhood by Camille Acosta and presented in her master’s thesis, which you can read at this link. More than that, both Hayes’s and Acosta’s versions include the idea that La Llorona started out as a woman who had excessive pride in her own beauty. This connects them thematically to the version I turned up from Spain, which is at this link.

Meanwhile, The encounter story Hayes tells is very much like the ones included in the book The Weeping Woman: Encounters with La Llorona by Edward Garcia Kraul and Judith Beatty. Hayes’s tale is therefore typical in some ways, and falls well within the mainstream of traditional La Llorona tales.

Hayes’s version of the legend also differs in some ways from most of the traditional ones I’ve quoted in previous posts in this series. In particular, most conversational versions begin with a description of La Llorona and a warning to avoid her. Only when pressed does the narrator tell something about La Llorona’s backstory. You can see that pattern, for example, in the versions of the story I presented in this previous post, such as those by Esperanza Sernas and Thatha Acosta.

This usual order might be a reflection of the history of La Llorona stories themselves. As I discussed in this previous post, the part of the story with the deepest roots in Latin America is the description and encounter story. What we might call the first recorded “La Llorona” encounter, which was mostly a description of her crying–took place among Indigenous Mexicans in 1509 and was recalled in the 1550s. The backstory of how a mortal woman came to be La Llorona seems to be a later importation from Europe, which was, in Américo Paredes’s words, “grafted” onto the deep roots of La Llorona encounter tales. It is telling that most Latinx tellers lead with the description, proceed to the encounter, and only get to the backstory when asked for more. That the most stripped-down tellings of the tale tend to include the Indigenous elements rather than the European ones tends to support Domino Renee Perez‘s contention that the tale is basically Indigenous, with a European overlay.

Joe Hayes has reversed this usual order of tale-telling: he tells the backstory first, then relates an encounter story which contains the descriptive elements and clarifies some of the implications of meeting her. This follows a linear chronology, which might make it easier for kids to follow. It’s also fitting for a tale intended to entertain an audience rather than to convey a message within a particular conversational context. It shows how tales may change depending on the needs of different storytelling events.

If you’re interested, you can compare Hayes’s telling in this post to his telling of the tale in Spanish, which you can find at this link.

Thanks for reading and listening! I hope you enjoy your Halloween and Día de Muertos. It’s always a special time for us at Folklife Today!

La Llorona on the Folklife Today Podcast

Halloween and Día de Muertos are almost here! So, believe it or not, Season 4, Episode 1 of the Folklife Today Podcast, our 2021 Halloween and Día de Muertos episode, is ready for listening! It features interviews about the Weeping Woman, La Llorona, a spirit from Latin American folklore, plus related songs and stories. The people interviewed are Juan Díes, leader of the Sones de Mexico Ensemble, Camille Acosta, who wrote her masters thesis on La Llorona before interning at AFC, and Allina Migoni, AFC’s Latinx subject specialist. This blog contains links to download the podcast, background on our guests, and links to full audio of the songs.

Growing Up with La Llorona

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. We’ll present comments on the legend by the writer Rudolfo Anaya, the scholar Domino Renee Perez, our former intern and Llorona expert Camille Acosta, pioneering Costa Rican writer Manuel Argüello Mora, and Esperanza Sernas, a restaurant worker interviewed in 1977 by fieldworker Philip George for AFC’s Chicago Ethnic Arts Project. This blog also contains one of the most gruesome traditional descriptions of La Llorona we’ve seen so far! The whole series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021, so stay tuned….

Picante Pero Sabroso: Songs of La Llorona

This is the third blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos (aka Día de los Muertos) 2021. In this post we talk about songs associated with the La Llorona legend. I spend the most time with the traditional song from Oaxaca, which was featured recently at the GRAMMY Awards and in the movie Coco. I also discuss a widespread (and completely different) folksong called “La Llorona” in the son huasteco repertoire, and “La Llorona Loca,” a song composed in Colombia that has become a mainstay in Mexican music as well. What all La Llorona songs have in common are the themes of death, remembrance, and mourning, which makes them all appropriate for Día de Muertos or Halloween. We hope this post will be useful in building your own personal playlist for these upcoming holidays. 

La Llorona: Roots, Branches, and the Missing Link from Spain

This is the second blog post in a series about La Llorona, the weeping woman who haunts Mexican and other Latinx cultures. The series will be published in time for Día de Muertos 2021. In this post, I’ll show some of the story’s long history, especially in Mexico. I’ll give links to primary sources from the 1570s showing the story was already present among Indigenous Mexicans at that time and earlier. I’ll also present what I believe is new evidence of a strong link for some La Llorona stories with Spain.

La Llorona: An Introduction to the Weeping Woman

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. With this introduction, AFC kicks off a short series of blogs on La Llorona stories and songs between now and Día de Muertos