As the day comes to an end and the children are tucked in for the night, the mist settles outside the window with no soul in sight. Do not leave your house when you hear a woman weep; she looks for her dead children as your children sleep.
This particular story starts with, for lack of a better word, our protagonist Maria. She is a beautiful woman who is married to a wealthy man. She has two sons whom she loves dearly. She had a seemingly happy life until one day; she finds out that her loving husband has been having an affair with another woman.
She is sad and angry when she learns about this. Now, as the legend goes, in a fit of rage, she drowns her two sons in the river nearby to exact revenge on her husband. As she looks over her sons’ lifeless bodies floating in the water, she realises the grave error she has made and drowns herself. At the gate of heaven, she is refused entry without her kids and is banished to purgatory.
Maria’s wandering spirit is known as La Llorona translated to English as “the wailing woman”. She is said to roam near the waterfront wearing all white and weeping for her children. In today’s day and age, La Llorona is a part of the Hispanic folklore and is mostly used as a boogieman kind of figure, which is used to scare kids to behave properly. However, some people believe that her origins are pre-Hispanic.
One possible origin, which is also considered to be most likely, comes from Aztec mythology. According to this theory, La Llorona is thought to be an amalgamation of two goddesses. One being Ciuacoatl, who appears in all white and wails through the night. She is considered to be an evil omen for war as she cries for the fate of her children.
The other is known as Chalchiuhtlicue, the Goddess of water and the elder sister of the God of rain. She is a feared entity, and during a ritual performed for her, children are sacrificed. It is said that the more they cry, the better and more successful the sacrifice will be.
A figure that you could compare to her, from modern times, would be, La Malinche, the White Woman of the Germanic and Slavic tradition - the Lorelei, and the Banshee. In all these renditions of her myth, she is portrayed as a helpless woman who is hurt by a faithless lover and thus either harms herself or her children.
If you were to research her story, you would find certain texts that say that Maria came from an economically poor background but her husband, who was of a higher class, married her because of her beauty. It also suggests that the woman who has an affair with Maria’s husband was of higher class.
Considering these details, class becomes one of the major driving forces in La Llorona’s story. Her lower-class origin becomes a crucial signifier in showing her absolute dependence on her husband. The class dynamic, as well as the gender dynamic, makes the figure of La Llorona seem like a helpless woman.
Going by the classical reading of the myth, she is seen as a crazy woman who is driven by her emotions to commit a horrific sin. This is a narrative which we see even today; women, through the ages, are assumed to not have control of their emotions, unlike men and hence, are assumed to be more impulsive and dangerous.
Her impulsiveness and emotion-driven nature translate to characteristics of her being from the lower class. Because apparently, civility is achieved only when a woman controls her emotions.
La Llorona’s tale changes a lot in history depending on the socio-political climate of the region it is told in. In another rendition, Maria is an indigenous woman while her lover is Spanish, which is where the parallels between her tale and La Malinche come from.
La Malinche was the daughter of the Aztec chief back in the 1500s. She was popularly known as a Cortés’ translator and concubine. She is often depicted as an indigenous woman abandoned by a Spanish lover.
The rest of the story is the same. However, her indigenous origin makes it pretty hard to ignore the concept of how her civility came from class. It is similar to the previous story, whereas now it comes from regionality. In the end, the Spanish man bears the loss of his two sons and wife because he committed the sin of indulging with an “uncivilised woman” (as she is portrayed).
The person, who gets out of this situation with no consequences, is the Spanish woman who had an affair with Maria’s husband. So again, civility is rewarded.
Moving away from the bizarre and tragic to scary, La Llorona’s story doesn’t end after she dies. Because of her sins, her spirit is the source of much of the horror element of her myth. You can find stories where she is vindictive and tries to manipulate other mothers into killing their kids. Then there are stories where she manipulates the mothers to kill their kids so that she can take them to be hers.
In some stories, she is not even seen as an entity; rather a curse that is believed to have followed Hispanic people around for ages. This misinterpretation, does more damage to the community than good. Why would a spirit discriminate who it haunts? Maybe because she was also discriminated against.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to portray her story cinematically, from the 1933 novel and screenplay to the recent 2019 films.
When talking about on-screen portrayals though, one needs to talk about the 2019 Guatemalan movie La Llorona, directed by Jayro Bustamante. This movie talks about a topic which is rarely discussed in pop culture, the Guatemalan genocide of the indigenous population.
The Mayan civilisation is one of the oldest inhabitants of Mesoamerica (modern-day Mexico and Central America). In the 16th century, Spanish conquest brought about one of the biggest changes to the socio-political environment of the region.
After many years of colonial rule, in 1821, when the colonies became independent, Guatemala became the part of The First Mexican Empire. Finally, in 1841, Guatemala became a sovereign nation. Guatemala’s rich agricultural potential attracted many nations to take interest in Guatemalan politics, including, USA.
In 1982, the duly elected Guatemalan government was overthrown through a US-engineered coup, and General Efraín Ríos Montt came to power. About a month later, he initiated the “Scorched Earth” project against the country’s indigenous population. The dictatorship that Ríos Montt established systematically killed over 600 villages of the Ixil Maya people. His regime only lasted 17 months and killed more than 30,000 people. This mass culling of people is something that can be classified as horrific.
The strategy that the army adopted started with going to each village and segregating the men from the women. Then they would kill the men, rape the women and kill them, after killing their children in front of them. The Ixil Mayans had to go through extreme torture, mutilation, and sexual violence. This horrific event is now referred to as the “Silent Holocaust”.
This is where the movie picks up, with a fictional trial for these crimes. General Enrique Monteverde is on trial for sanctioning aforementioned genocide and is proven guilty. But, because of a medical technicality, he is released from his sentence. As he and his family reach home, they see a mob protesting outside his house and the indigenous people who worked for him leave their jobs.
A new maid is called, and this is where the story really kicks off. Throughout the movie, the General hears a woman crying at night as he is shown to be slowly losing his sanity. General’s wife, Carmen, gets visions of the genocide in her dreams. The General’s daughter, Natalia and granddaughter, Sara slowly learns about Alma’s (the new maid) past. At the end of the movie, all the members of the General’s family turn on him as they finally accept the dark truth about what the General has done. The movie ends with the wails of La Llorona crying for her children.
What works for this movie is that it does not have the intention to scare the audience but rather to put a story across. The legend of La Llorona is very loosely adapted in this movie, and the figure is given a new meaning.
La Llorona is not the villain of this movie; she is seen as a mother looking to avenge her dead children rather than being the cause of their death. Bustamante has taken the misogynistic aspect of the story out of the narrative and made a completely new identity for La Llorona. She is not driven mad by her envy or rage; she is a loving mother who loses her children by the hands of the men of higher status.
The class and race dynamics are still the driving force of the story. According to the myth, La Llorona kills her children to take revenge on her husband. But in the movie, she kills to take revenge from the men who killed her children. This shift is very significant and turns the whole story around. La Llorona is not a helpless figure but a vengeful entity which punishes the killers of innocent.
Interestingly enough, La Llorona, herself, does not kill anyone in the movie. One by one, she turns the General’s family members, all women by the way, against him.
Talking about the things that are reversed in this movie, the point about the civilised woman getting a happy ending is also reversed. All the women in this movie had suffered throughout, and that’s when they realise that the true evil is the General. That is when they achieve empowerment.
The high society is shown to be hollow. Natalia, who becomes a more conflicted figure in the movie, is the first person to express her doubts regarding her father’s crime, even before La Llorona enters their house.
Natalia has a conversation with her mother, asking if there is any chance that her father could be remotely as evil as he is accused of being. Carmen immediately shuts her up and tells her not to have these thoughts in her head. This brings us to Carmen, who has lived her whole life, ignoring the fact that the General is an evil person who has committed adultery many times.
If we need to draw a parallel here, then La Llorona is broken down into two characters in this movie — Alma and Carmen. Alma, who loses her kids, weeps for them and has come back to take revenge. Carmen on the other hand, is wronged by her husband time and time again, finally puts her anger in the right place and kills her husband to save her family.
Bustamante has very cleverly used the gist of La Llorona’s myth; her oppression and helplessness because of her gender and class/race to show a more nuanced commentary.
Finally, the larger theme of the movie, which was about the genocide is fleshed out fully, and that becomes the true horror, instead of the ghost. The movie does not care about cheap jump scares but tries to appeal to real-life fear through the story, and hence stays with you longer.
In an interview, Bustamante mentioned that he did not set out to make a horror film. He wanted to make a movie which talks about the Guatemalan genocide, which is not talked about. He settled on the horror genre because he wanted to appeal to the larger audience.
La Llorona becomes a perfect vessel for this because her story is not just about a faithless lover but also about oppression. She embodies the wails of the women who were sexually assaulted and the tears of the mothers who had to see their children die in front of them.
La Llorona, in this movie, becomes the collective identity for all the suffering of the indigenous population. Hence, Bustamante trusted La Llorona to tell the story of the victims of the Silent Holocaust. A lesser-known fact is that one of the prominent villages which were pillaged by the military is named La Llorona in real life.
The myth of La Llorona, as said before, originated along with the Aztec mythology, which was then adapted into the Hispanic identity due to the Spanish invasion in Central America. The brilliance of this movie comes in when you think about the fact that now, by using La Llorona to tell the story of the Ixil Mayan people, Bustamante has taken the myth from one indigenous culture to another. And the reason why this movie was a hit was because Bustamante was aware of every subtle detail he put in the film.
The legend of La Llorona is so old that there is no way to determine its origin and see what the original story represents. The reason her story has survived these changing eras is because of its fluid nature that fits into the socio-political climate of the region and time the story is told in.
She becomes a goddess during one era and an evil curse in another. She struggles with class in one rendition and regionality in another. She is a vengeful wife in one story and a hysterical mother in another.
La Llorona might have been a real woman wronged by her lover, or a divine entity that warns of war and death. Maybe she is much closer to Bustamante’s depiction - instead of being the villain, she is the hero of her own story.
Edited by Bhavya Vemulapalli and Sidhant Koshi