La Llorona: the Wailing or Weeping Woman

As with most folk tales, the Mexican story of La Llorona has no clear origin, and there are many versions of the story.

The basic story is this: The eldest son of a wealthy hacienda owner fell madly in love with a beautiful local girl, named Maria. The two married and started a family. Although the man loved his wife and children, his family and friends never approved. Since Maria was from a poor family and not of pure Spanish bloodlines, she was considered his social inferior. Under the constant threat of being disowned by his wealthy father, and/or some stories say growing boredom with the no longer young and beautiful wife, the man agreed to “put aside” his marriage to Maria. And to marry a wealthy girl his father arranged to have sent from Spain. Upon hearing the news, Maria flew into a terrible, jealous rage. In her madness she drowned their children and killed herself. For her crimes Maria is trapped in limbo. Her ghost roams the Earth wailing in grief and searching for her dead children.

Her spirit now traps and kills all lost children and the story of La Llorona has become a cautionary tale about the dangers of wandering off.

Of course in this story, Marie is the monster!

She is the one so vain as to aspire to marry outside her class and race. She is the one possessed by a madness so powerful that she killed her own children. Her act is one any mother would find unimaginable. Only a monster could act this way.

209-La_Llorona2

Well, the historian in me thinks this story has lost some of its social cultural context. I believe the original story was more deeply tied to female, class and race oppression than modern readers might suspect, and here’s why:

Since the Spanish husband and his family would be devout Catholics, as most Hispanics still are, the only way the man could “put aside” his current wife and remarry was by first receiving an annulment. In other words, he needed to prove just cause for why his marriage was unlawful from the start. One of the easiest ways for him to do this is by branding his spouse as habitually unfaithful. Many adaptations of the La Llorona story mention Maria’s wanton behavior. With proof of an cheating spouse, the man also throws any children of the union into a grey zone of questionable parentage, making it socially acceptable for him to shun and disown them in favor of the next wife’s offspring.

Once branded the transgressor, everyone would distance themselves from the wife, siding with the wealthy husband and accuser. The children of the annulment would always suffer. The first born son would lose all his inheritance rights, and any marriage contracts arranged on behalf of the daughters would be null and void. Once cast aside the woman would need to fend for herself in a hostile situation. No one from a good family, or who was dependent on her husband’s family for support would take her in or employ her. The best she could hope for was if her former husband continued to care for her and the children as his now mistress. She could ask her family to take her back in, but they might lack the means. Also keep in mind her family would be risking their own reputation and the perception of virtue of any unmarred daughters by taking in a fallen woman. With her character already destroyed and baring any other options, the woman could become a real prostitute (always one of the last paths open to destitute women) which would only validate her husband’s charges and complete her cycle of disgrace.

With so few options, my perception of Maria’s story is the woman snapped. Perhaps in her despair she believed her fatherless, homeless children, were better off dead.

Granted, I think it’s only fair to say I am biased in Maria’s favor because a woman in my own family was put aside. Fearing the stigma of her pending annulment, which she never doubted for an instant her wealthy husband would receive, she fled with her two daughters. She was ironically pregnant with a third child at the time, the son her husband’s family was convinced after two stillborn sons she would never give them. From family history, it seems clear the lack of a male heir and her being of non-pure Spanish blood were my ancestor’s most pressing crimes.

She begged, or perhaps stole (depending on who you talk to) enough money to flee to New York City, where her two older childless sisters lived. Despite their own incredible financial hardships, the sisters took her in and gave her a home. The annulment took place in Mexico City without my ancestor ever attending. His family ordered a girl sent from Spain, they married and she gave him new children who became his legal heirs. The situation created a riff in my family that never healed. One side felt awful about what was done and refused to ostracize my ancestor. These people continued to write her letters and send gifts to the children. While the other side of the family held fast to the belief that she was tainted beyond redemption and her three children should be treated as if they never born.

Within this context, I think it’s easy to see that if a woman acted as La Llorona did, her crimes, if not forgivable, would be at least comprehensible. My own relative considered killing herself, hoping that if her husband was free to remarry, he would take pity on their daughters and care for them. Only the thought of her unborn child, and the fear that her husband would cast the girls aside anyway, kept her from acting rashly.

So that is my take on La Llorona’s sad tale. Victim or Villain? Mother or Monster? I will let you decide.

La_Llorona_with_children Grimm Wiki

Sources: http://grimm.wikia.com/wiki/La_Llorona

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27 Comments

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  1. I like your interpretation of the story and I also lean towards the acts of a Mother and not a Monster. Let us hope that future generations will weave more empathy into the story.

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  2. Great post and monster! I love the context you bring to the tale. I know that I’ve heard of La Llorona before, but I never knew her story. Reminds me of the statue in SF called “The Mother”… oddly commemorating motherhood in the place where a mother drowned her three children by throwing them off the pier.

    I think she’s a victim of circumstance and despair. The trials she went through would be enough to break a lot of people in that day and age. Sad and horrible. :/

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    1. Thanks, Alex. I’m glad you liked my monster post. You’re a hard act to follow. : )
      While working on this post I read a number of modern day La Llorona news stories. There are too many of them, tons that I had never heard of. It just breaks my heart when I think about those families. I’m glad my ancestor found a way to get help and build a new life for herself and her kids.

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  3. I heard about La Llorona before, so I’m familiar with the story of her drawing her children and then forever searching for them (maybe out of remorse).
    It’s the first time I hear Corina’s version.
    Both your versions and interpretations make sense to me. And yes, probably the story changed over time to fit people’s needs, but hey, stories are living things, so of course they change 🙂

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  4. I am inclined to believe La Lorona was misunderstood or blatantly misrepresented. After all, patriarchy and religion have a history of doing that to women. Also, the story makes very little sense; a mother doesn’t just kill her children. But when we factor in the historical context, reasons and motives emerge. Thanks for a great post, Robin!

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  5. An interesting myth indeed, and a great discussion thread. I know little about La Llorona, but I would have to agree that based on the way myths transform and adapt in each generation, it’s likely she was misunderstood – as many labelled a monster often are. When these folk tales are used to scare people, to inform or educate, they take on a life of their own. Whether a Victim or Villain? Mother or Monster? I think she was probably all of those things. A mother and a victim certainly, and one driven to madness. The monster part is what the legend made her. Nothing is as simple as it seems, and stories become distorted in their retelling. It’s a thought provoking question and a thoroughly enjoyable post, Robin. Thanks 😀

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  6. I didn’t know about this one, and find it intriguing. I love you’re putting on of the “historian lenses” to think about the story within it’s historical/cultural/social context — very good points!

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  7. The llorona legend that I have heard most often names La Llorona as Marina who was La Malinche, the interpreter and companion of Hernando Cortes as he conquered Mexico, who also bore him his first child. She is seen as both a victim, a villain, and as a heroine. As the mother of the believed to be the first child of mixed European and indigenous blood, she is also seen as the Mother of Mexico. La Malinche has been depicted in much of the literature of the Spanish conquest and the origins of Mexico. There’s a lot to the story. Although there is no evidence that La Malinche never killed her own children (her son was raised in Spain by Cortes and her daughter was raised by her husband’s indigenous family) she is said to be La Llorona who seeing that her betrayal of her own people caused the death of her nation, went crazy and forever roams the country looking for “her children” or the thousands of indigenous murdered by the Spaniards, for which she feels responsible. And if you will recall, modern day Mexico City is built on a lake, and is where the seat of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, once was. This ties the legend to water, hence the drowning in the Llorona stories. So as you can see, the story of La Malinche morphed, into a much more “universal” story of betrayal that we are all familiar with, the betrayal of a spouse who then goes crazy and/or seeks revenge against the offending spouse.

    As with all legends it has been retold many times and changed here and there to fit the needs/purpose of the person telling the story. It’s definitely a cautionary tale, not just for children who wander, but also a tale of what happens to those who put their own people aside, betraying their own, in preference for a different life.

    There is a resemblance between La Llorona stories and the Greek demigoddess Lamia who had an affair with Zeus. When Hera found out about the affair, she forced Zeus to give up the relationship then forced Lamia to eat her own children. Also, in Greek mythology Medea killed two of her children when Jason abandoned her for another woman.

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    1. Pulling myths apart is never easy. Of course each generation wants to reinvent it and give it a spin for their own cultural needs. The currently popular vision of the La Llorona myth is so blood thirsty and gruesome. Often Maria is pictured with her white gown covered in the blood of children. And people say if you hear her cry it foretells your own death. Yet another new addition to the story. : )

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      1. That’s how I first heard it as a child. I was told that if I heard her cries, she was going to drown me. I’m 59 so that had to have been at least 55 years ago.

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        1. I’ve never heard it that way as a kid. And I was a bit shocked when I read that version last month. It made me feel like she was getting crossed with a banshee. Now I wonder if my mom pulled that bit out so she wouldn’t scare us kids too much.

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  8. Great story Robin! I love old folk tales. Some of them have many versions that often conflict.I am sure this tale has much more to tell than what we see initially. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. Hi Shawn,
      In the post colonial versions of the story Maria gets depicted as wildly sexual. There is much talk of her flirting and wanton dancing. Also her mothering skills are not very good! After some feedback on the first version of this post, we decided I better stick to the bones of the story. Telling too many version can get confusing.

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  9. I think you’re definitely right about the motivations for La Llarona’s actions. She’s always reminded me of Medea: the idea of the child-killing mother (in folklore) usually means we’re only being given a tiny fraction of the story, not that the mother is a true monster.

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    1. Everything about a mother killing her children in folklore is emotionally charged. In La Llorona’s case she loves them so much she spends eternity crying for them and regretting her mistake. Yet the current adaptions of the story continue to evolve into something more and more condemning of her character. Thanks for the comment. And for the vote in favor of Mother not monster. : )

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