La Llorona is one of the most powerful and enduring pieces of Mexican folklore. She haunts the canals, creek beds, rivers, arroyos and acequias of Mexico and the American Southwest. If you are a child growing up in any of these areas the story of La Llorona is more terrifying than any other ghost story and this story is older than anyone can remember.
So, what is the phenomenon called La Llorona?
Podcast host Robert Bitto first heard the story of La Llorona as a child growing up in New Mexico. He lived in a primarily gringo area of Albuquerque, the far Northeast Heights, in a time when kids played mostly outside with other children. Kids played in the mesas, which were just patches of desert in between housing developments, and in the arroyos, which the locals (gringos) pronounced “arroyas.” The arroyas were mostly waterless ditches running through the city. Some were paved, especially when you got deeper into the city, but as you got closer to the mountains, the Sandias, most arroyos in the 1970s and 1980s were just dirt embankments that became full when it rained. Flash floods are common in that part of the world, so the arroyos were vital for flood control for the city.
The story always begins in a small village a long time ago and usually far away. The story is usually set in Spanish times. There was a beautiful young girl named María who caught the attention of many men from all over the territory. She was married off to an older nobleman when she was just a teenager. Her husband was handsome and wealthy and was away from home a lot. Once while he was away Maria heard a story that her husband was going to leave her for a younger woman from a better family. In a fit of jealousy, María took her two kids down to the river to drown them. When she threw them in the rushing water, they cried out to her as they were drowning and she had second thoughts. She tried to reach out to save them, but it was too late. They were swept away by the current never to be seen again. It is said that to this day, Maria still roams the arroyos and riverbeds, as an old hag, looking for her children and crying out for them, and will snatch you up if you are alone or careless. The story has minor variations, but the one described in the podcast is pretty basic and it does the trick.
One could argue that the whole reason for the La Llorona story is to keep kids away from potentially dangerous flash-flood situations. Like the story of La Mano Pachona, a huge hairy hand that comes out of the sky to snatch you up if you wander too far from home, the story of La Llorona is a cautionary tale to keep kids in line while parents are not there. Even the City of Albuquerque used the Llorona story in their “Ditches are deadly, stay away” campaign in the 1980s with signs featuring the “ditch witch” to scare off the kiddies. The podcast host goes into more personal stories: one of a neighbor girl’s encounter with the Llorona and a suspected sighting he had with other children present.
Some people tie the story of La Llorona to the story of La Malinche, the interpreter and guide who accompanied the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortez to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. She is remembered as both a traitor or as the mother of a new race of meztizos, as she bore children with Cortez. Some connect the Malinche with La Lorona because according to some accounts, Malinche killed her kids when she found out that Cortez was betrothed to a beautiful (and younger) noblewoman from Spain. The story of La Malinche deserves a podcast of its own.
www.leyendadelallorona.net (in Spanish)
The Legend of La Llorona, a book by RJ de Aragon (pretty comprehensive, and in English)
Weeping Woman: La Llorona and Other Stories, by Alma Luz Villanueva (in English)
La Llorona: The Weeping Woman, by Joe Hayes (in English and Spanish, great illustrations
Link to the La Llorona song performed by Chavela Vargas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfodRPeOiWU