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.
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.