Written By: Naomi
Trigger Warning: Infanticide
Disclosure: I am a Latinx individual who was raised in the United States, this post was discussed at length with family who have lived in Mexico most of their lives. This post contains the views, experiences, and knowledge of three generations of my family but in no way speaks for my entire culture and people on their views or beliefs.
Many know of La Llorona, “The Wailing Woman”. Most cultures have similar stories like the Maxulaw of the Chumash people, the Greek demigoddess Lamia and Medea, or the Gaelic banshee. Some have even made comparisons between La Llorona and Eve or even Lilith as women who have been wronged.
The most well known and agreed upon story for La Llorona is that a young woman named Maria was born into a poor family but she was well known in her village for her beauty. A wealthy and handsome nobleman was traveling through the small town but when he saw Maria we stopped in his tracks and was speechless. The nobleman proposes to Maria to which she happily agrees and they are soon married bringing joy to her family that she had married into wealth. Together they had two children but the husband would travel often and spent less time with his family, only paying attention to his children when he did. Maria could tell he was falling out of love with her and that she was becoming older until one day he returned to the village with a younger woman so he could say goodbye to his children, leaving once more without acknowledging her. In a blind rage Maria took her children to a river and drowned them. When she realized what she had done it was too late and the bodies had been carried away by the waters, she then killed herself on the banks of the same river days later.
This story differs by region in mexico but the version my family grew up with was that the woman was in love with a man but he made her choose between him or her children. She then drowned in children in a river but he still rejected her causing her to commit suicide soon after.
La Llorona is seen in all white and is most often found near bodies of water or crossroads but has been spotted away from those places as well. The story is used to scare children and keep them from staying out too late or unsupervised with the instruction that if you hear her cries for her children you are to run the opposite direction and return home as quickly as possible. Some believe if you hear her cries you are marked for misfortune or death similarly to the banshee but if you hear her cries nearby she is actually far away and if her cries are far away she is actually close.
The origin of La Llorona is not known for sure, the earliest written accounts of La Llorona are in a sonnet by Manuel Carpio in the late 1800’s but in this version she is only the ghost of a woman murdered by her husband and there are no references to infanticide.
However, it is thought that she predates even the invasion of the Spaniards, going back to the Aztecs. There are actually two Aztec goddesses who could be linked to La Llorona. The first is Cihuacōātl or the “snake woman” who is the mother deity associated with fertility, motherhood, and midwives. She and her partner Quilaztli created the current age of humans but grinding up the bones of previous ages of humans and mixing in Quilaztli’s blood. Cihuacōātl had a child who she left at a crossroads and when she
returns to the spot to weep for her lost child all she finds is a sacrificial knife. The spirit of this child is said to haunt crossroads for children to steal. Another goddess named Coatlicue is mentioned in later accounts of the Aztec gods but is thought to be the same person as Cihuacōātl. Coatlicue was described as an older woman and the patron of childbirth. She is one of the most fearsome figures in Aztec art and when imagery of her was found it was thought to have “come straight from hell”. Statues of her show that she wears a necklace made of severed human heads, a skirt of snakes, and has large claws on her hands and feet to rip apart humans before she eats them. She was beheaded in some stories and from her neck sprung two serpent’s heads. She was a warrior and priestess as well as the mother to the god of war and she weeps for him until he returns home from battle.
The other goddess La Llorona could be tied to is Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of waters. She was feared for overturning boats and any deaths where someone was drowned was credited to her. Ceremonies to appease water and rain gods included the sacrifice of children but Chalchiuhtlicue was also another patron of motherhood and childbirth, she was the guardian of children and newborns. When a child was born the bid wife would bathe the baby after the umbilical cord was cut and greet Chalchiuhtlicue then the baby would be bathed again in four days and given a name.
La Llorona is actually thought to also be one of the eight omens foretelling the conquest of Mexico or the Aztec Empire by Spaniards known as the Eight Omens of Montezuma. The sixth omen mentions that the weeping of a woman was heard for several nights by citizens of the Aztec capital city warning them of disasters yet to come. It is thought the weeping came from Cihuacōātl and she cried out, “My children, it is already too late.” “My children, where can I take you?”
There is another woman who could of contributed to the history of La Llorona, the adviser, translator and concubine for Cortes, La Malinche or Doña Marina. She was one of 20 women given as slaves by the indigenous people in 1519 after they were defeated in battle by the Spaniards to ensure there would be peace. She gave birth to Cortes’ first son Martín, he is considered one of the first Mestizos. She is viewed as a great woman and hero in Spanish history but in Mexico there are mixed views, some consider her and her son a symbol for the Mestizo character of the nation now and as a woman who was kidnapped from her people by another local group to be traded in the bigger scheme of local slave trade. Others see her as a traitor and too close to the domination of the country, especially considering that at one point when she was a translator she learned of a rebellion by locals to capture some of Cortes’ men and she played along with them to get more information to report it to Cortes so he could not only stop the attack but also slaughter every person who was a part of the plan.
Interestingly enough there was another play written in 1917 by Francisco C. Neve titled La Llorona where a lower class woman named Luisa has a son with a man named Ramiro who is the son of Cortes. Ramiro is to marry another wealthier woman but wanted to keep it a secret from Luisa and continue their relationship. Luisa finds out about his infidelity and is driven mad, breaking up the wedding and when Ramiro demands his son from her she kills him and offers Ramiro the body instead in her delirium, saying she killed him when he killed her soul. She was hanged and called a witch for her actions. Ramiro dies soon after out of grief when Luisa’s ghost, La Llorona, appears to him.
This ties back to a common practice by Spanish conquistadors to marry indigenous women or mestizo women and leave them for younger women or more often then not a Spanish woman, also “relieving” these “wayward” women of their children and taking them with them, tearing apart families.
For me, La Llorona is the story of a woman wronged, who cries out for justice, who is in pain of what has happened to her, and in my opinion, is a reflection of what has happened to us as a people. It is a telling of the invasion of a country and the violation of their traditions and the indigenous peoples, then the rage and sorrow that is felt after that as a nation. While this is a folk story it is also a narrative that is taking place over and over in the culture and over time you start to make stories from those narrative, some taking on a life of their own.