La Llorona

  Jerome Shea       March 29, 2009      Weekend Wonk

Last week I mentioned La Llorona, the Weeping Woman or Wailing Woman. You cannot have lived in New Mexico very long without hearing the tale. In fact, La Llorona is known throughout Central and South America and the American Southwest.

There are many variations, but the most common around these parts features a young woman named Maria. She is poor and from the wrong side of the tracks. She may be exceedingly beautiful or she may not be, but she is always ambitious: she is going to better herself. As fate would have it, she does indeed catch the eye and the heart of the town’s most eligible bachelor, and they marry. The first years are happy ones, but her husband has a roving eye and he spends more and more time away from her. At those rare times when he does come home, he dotes on their two children but pointedly ignores his wife. One day she spies her husband riding in a fancy carriage with a beautiful woman of his own class. This pushes Maria over the edge. In a vengeful rage she throws her two children into the river and they disappeared in the stream. She realizes what she has done and is overcome with grief. By some accounts she goes insane. She throws herself into the river, either to find her children or end her life or both. Ever after, one hears Maria’s ghost, La Llorona, frantically searching along the river at night for her lost children, weeping and wailing. And if she does not find her own children, she will take any others she surprises:

Don’t go down to the river, child,
Don’t go there alone
For the sobbing woman, wet and wild.
Might claim you for her own.

In another variant, a poor widow has a chance to remarry but the prospective husband has no interest in raising another man’s children. The widow does what she feels she must do to get her man. La Llorona behaves evilly, but I always like to remind myself that the man in these tales is no prize either. It takes two to make a horrendous folk tale.

At any rate, La Llorona is a potent bugbear to keep kids from playing near the ditches, and especially at night. I think that is the main reason why the story does not die.

Sometimes La Llorona is identified with La Malinche, Hernando Cortes’s Aztec mistress, reviled for betraying her own people. In this version, Cortez decides to marry a woman of his own race (there is no evidence for this, by the way) and in a fury La Malinche kills their child.

Does La Llorona, or parts of it, sound familiar? It should. Myth and folklore—and, sadly, today’s headlines—offer examples of filicide (sorry, I could not resist the fancy technical term). Medea comes to mind. When Jason—now there was some piece of work—abandoned her for a better alliance, she coldly murdered their two sons. Nor did she stop there. Pretending remorse, she presented Jason’s intended with a beautiful wedding gown—which burst into flames, immolating the bride. (This is the first cautionary tale that I know about trading up to a trophy wife.). Niobe did not kill her children directly but caused their deaths by her pride and arrogance. In her grief she eventually became Mt. Sipylus, a rock formation in Turkey which vaguely resembles a woman’s head. Water seeps through the porous limestone when it rains: Niobe weeps forever for her lost children.

Does the name “Susan Smith” ring a bell? In October of 1994, she let her car roll into a South Carolina lake with her two toddlers strapped in their car seats, drowning them. We may never know, but allegedly a lover said that he was not interested in a “ready-made family,” and Smith took the hint. I can find no evidence of remorse. Sadly, Smith’s is not the only case, but the other women that I have turned up—Andrea Yates and Dena Schlosser, in Texas, for example—were clearly unhinged, often receiving direct instructions from God or Satan. These case are tragic, but not diabolic.

When I said that La Llorona lives on as a useful tale to keep the kids away from the ditches, I think I was being too glib. It is hard to conceive of anything worse than killing your own children, those innocents who trust you so. There are truths and cautions aplenty in this murky soup. La Llorona haunts us still.

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