La Llorona’s Dreadful Prestige Through the Centuries

David Ramírez Plascencia
David Ramírez Plascencia

The origins of La Llorona may be rooted in several pre-Hispanic religious beliefs of Mexico, particularly in Aztec and Mayan traditions in which women who died while giving birth were considered divine. It is possible to find several reports of this tale. One of the most extended versions of the legend situated the origin of La Llorona in the colonial era in Mexico, between the sixteenth and nineteenth-centuries, approximately when the Americas were under the rule of the Spanish Empire.

There was an indigenous woman so beautiful that her splendour easily enchanted men. This characteristic, however, is not banal, but an essential quality of this liminal monster, her beauty was a weapon which she used to chase, attract and kill her “prey” by drowning or driving them mad on desolate moors, usually near a lake or a river. This young lady fell in love with a prominent Spaniard, a gentleman with whom she had two or three children (depending on the version of the legend). When the woman asked the noble Spaniard to formalise the relationship he refused and instead married a noble Spaniard dame. In her despair, the indigenous woman became insane, and in her frenzied search for revenge she ended up drowning her children in a river.

Afterwards, realising the horror of her actions, she committed suicide. Some years later, people began hearing the screams of a woman repeatedly shouting, “¡Ay mis hijos!” (“Oh, my children!”), a ghostly voice searching for her offspring along the banks of the river. The legend says that now in her ghost form, she will remain searching forever until she finds their bodies. Witnesses affirm that when you hear her yell at a distance, she is near you; but when the scream is strong, it indicates she is far from you.

The figure of La Llorona has served to address many cultural questions related to religion, gender, sexuality, class, migration and identity among others. In pop culture, she has been depicted in several horror movies and television series in Mexico and the United States of America. She has also been the source of works of literature and folk music. One remarkable feature regarding La Llorona is her ability to spread from the countryside to cities, as well as internationally. In the beginning, La Llorona limited her appearances to rivers, lakes, and creeks, or spaces related to water as reminiscent of the original place where she committed her crime; but with the passing of centuries, her territory has expanded to the streets and railroad tracks of urban spaces. Similarly, for centuries La Llorona passed from one generation to another orally; however, with the arrival of the Internet, she has become global, travelling across social media platforms, always in constant regeneration. In fact, in the twenty first-century, new communication technologies have updated this ghostly story, providing novel possibilities to the classic tale. It is possible to observe distinct versions of the legend on the Internet, many of them with multimedia elements such as videos, recordings and graphics.

The figure of La Llorona as a representation of a very conservative moral patron, notwithstanding some variations, has remained essentially the same for centuries, preserving a core script: a woman who broke a community rule and is sentenced to be ghettoised from the group. Segregated from society, she wanders chasing, seducing and killing men.

Some countries and cities (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Yucatan, México) have preserved native elements of the legend, such as the name of the monster: Xtabay, Cegua, Siguanaba. Virtually in all of Mexico she is known as La Llorona, but in the State of Yucatan, in the south of the country, people know her by the name of “Xtabay,” while in Costa Rica she is recognised as “La Cegua,” and in El Salvador and Guatemala as “La Siguanaba.”

These variations could indicate a form of cultural resistance against the uniformity of a more globalised version of the tale. For example, in the general story of La Llorona, the woman was punished because she killed her children, in the case of Xtabay, Cegua and Siguanaba, their crimes are related to corrupt social behaviour in the community, such as displaying licentious conduct or gossiping. In local versions of La Llorona, like in Yucatan or Guatemala, there is a strong association of the ghost with the Ceiba trees. This is not an incidental element but a vital signal of the endurance of the legend because these trees under Mayan tradition represent life and perpetuity. This is the reason why people avoid travelling at night near Ceibas; they do not want to have an inconvenient meeting with this “particular lady.”

Diverse factors like a cultural exchange, globalisation, migration and the spread of information technologies have helped La Llorona to expand her “hunting area” from rivers and rainforest to streets, and from the Mexican countryside up to the city of Chicago. This legend travelled along with peasants who left the fields and moved to the big cities looking for new opportunities in factories, and it was carried to the United States of America by Mexican migrants that have preserved the story with other cultural assets like food and music. La Llorona is present in the imagination of people on both sides of the Mexico–United States of America border. However, besides this territorial dispersion, her way of “hunting” has remained invariable: she appears to incautious people, generally men, and seduces them through her beauty. Sometimes, depending on the version, when the men approach her, her attractiveness vanishes, and she exposes herself as a dreadful woman, and occasionally she has a horse face. Those who witness her die or lose their sanity. In other versions, on the contrary, men are attracted to rivers or became insane, or they die by falling from a high peak after she disappears.

The story of La Llorona has been associated with other urban legends that refer to the presence of women along the borders of highways like “the vanishing hitchhiker” in the United States of America or “La chica de la curva” (“The girl of the highway curve”) in Spain. These ghostly females appear to drivers (most of the reported sightings are from male drivers), and as with the case of La Llorona, ask for a free ride. Her apparition could be evil or noble — depending on the version of the story — sometimes she just vanishes, but if the driver mistreats her, or tries to abuse her, she can cause an accident or kill him.

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