Many Faces of "La Llorona" the Crying Woman

Topics: CultureGhost

“La Llorona”, the Crying Woman, is a tale of endless versions told over the centuries by an endless array of anonymous storytellers to scare curious children into doing as they are told. The literary form of orality, though fluid and dynamic, is in this case the force behind the cohesion of the contents of the various versions of this Chicano legend. I shall show that the different contents found in the multiple versions of “La Llorona” are of the same form, and further, that the variations depend on the locale of settled Chicano populations.

In truth, the farther away a distinct Chicano population is from its cultural heritage, the more opaque and sinister the mystic tale of “La Llorona” is told within that local population. Let us look back to the beginning, the time of Hernando Cortes during Spain’s conquest over the Aztec tribes of Mexico. This is where the tale of the Crying Woman was said to have begun (“La Llorona” 79).

In this ancient history, La Llorona is part of a holy trinity, mirroring the Christian faith.

According to Gloria Anzaldua, “All three are mediators: Guadalupe, the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother whom we have abandoned [Malinche is the basis for many of the “La Llorona” versions], and la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children and is a combination of the other two” (3047). We see at the time of the tale’s birth that the Crying Woman is seen as a mother to the Aztec people and she is crying for her children being lost to the Spaniards and their religion.

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Here at the origin, amid the still pure Aztec culture, La Llorona is a figure of compassion and respect: not a story to scare children. Though the shortest of the versions, La Llorona in Mexico still has some of the compassion and culture of the long ago displaced Aztec civilization. It reads simply, “At night, in the wind, a woman’s voice was heard. ‘Oh my children, we are now lost!  Sometimes she said, Oh my children, where shall I take you?” (“La Llorona” 79). The oral form between this version and the original Aztec version has changed little in content.

Both still speak of a sad mother crying for her lost children. However, the meaning between the two has changed. Where the ancient version sees a mother goddess crying for a lost culture, the Mexico version tells of a family in dire straits, lost within the howling winds of the cold night. Time has carried the Mexico version away from its Aztec culture. As a result, the meaning of “La Llorona” has changed for this group of the Chicano population. In La Llorona in Texas, the contents of the tale have changed drastically from the previous two accounts.

In this version, a vaquero [cowboy] sees a haunting vision of the wailing woman near a river. He is terrified of the apparition, and in his terrified state yells at the ghost as he draws his pistol, “Now I’m going to kill you” (“La Llorona” 80). There is no longer any mention of the children she is known to be crying for in the other versions. Instead, we have a man afraid of a woman, which is a stark contrast to the macho culture of Chicano men. As the Chicano culture moves farther away from its roots, both in distance and time, the more poisoned the tale becomes to its’ listeners.

Even farther away from their ancestral lands than the Chicano populations of Texas are those of California. Within this version, La Llorona in California, the tale has taken on a dark and horrible tone. No longer is the Crying Woman a holy mother, no longer is she a mother with lost children in the ebony night, nor is she just a wandering ghost along a lonely river. Now she has become the stuff of children’s nightmares. One part of the tale goes, “She told Him [God] that…she had thrown one [her child] down the toilet…another had been thrown into the sea…and that she had thrown the other one into…a river” (“La Llorona” 79).

We now are told to see her as a murderous beast that has drowned her own children: a far cry from the noble goddess of the Aztecs known for her compassion. Even more, we are told that she does this deed so to continue her wild life of sin, not wanting to be tied down by children (“La Llorona” 79). In interviews with two different people of Chicano culture, I found yet two more variations of the tale. In the first interview, with Ofelia Chavez, I was told that the tale of “La Llorona” was revealed to her by her mother as the story of a weeping mother whose children had died when rossing the Rio Grande River.

It is a parable teaching of the dangers of crossing the border. In the second interview conducted with Sallie Babb, “La Llorona” was the story of a ghostly woman wandering the night in search of children. Babb related to me that as a little girl, her mother would tell her and her siblings not to go out after dark or La Llorona would snatch them away forever. Chavez is from West Texas and Babb is from the border area of the Rio Grande River. Even with that slight distance between them, the tales that each heard vary in their contents in extreme ways.

When asked, neither of them knew of “La Llorona” as a tale of a compassionate mother-goddess crying for her lost people from the days of the mighty Aztec Empire. As the Chicano culture is separated from its past, it loses respect for itself. Walter Ong has said, “…oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance” (Orality and Literacy 46). So it may be that although the oral literatures may change, it may not necessarily be a detrimental act.

Like “La Llorona” in the view of Chavez, it is a story told to teach of the hazards of the borderlands. Ong also points out, “When generations pass and the object or institution referred to by the archaic word is no longer part of present, lived experience, though the word has been retained, its meaning is commonly altered or simply vanishes” (Orality and Literacy 47). In other words, when a people forget their roots, they change, or even lose, the oral interpretations handed down from storyteller to storyteller.

The result is a loss of self for that people. They have no history that can be recalled to remind them of what they were and how great they were, and more importantly, what they are capable of becoming now. If you cut off the roots of any plant, then it will die. It is the same way with cultures. It is fact that the various versions of “La Llorona” arise from the distances in both time and miles. But why do these changes occur? It may be that as population groups from one culture amalgamate into the culture of another (i. e. Mexican into American), the smaller population tends to be suppressed by the larger dominant culture.

As a result, the smaller population group is either forced unwillingly into blending their oral literature with the opinions of the dominant culture in order to survive in a foreign land, giving up their tales to the past to be lost forever, or adapting the stories to better teach the next generation lessons of life in a changing world. This is why the form of oral literature is so important to who we are as a people and as individuals.

How can we know who we are and where we are going if we don’t know where we come from? Personally, I cherish the stories my grandfathers would tell of my ancestors and how I came to be a cornucopia of Cherokee, French, German and English heritages that today define who I am in this world. Without orality in literature, I could not possibly with any truth say I know who I am and where I’m going. It is a lesson for all of us.

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Many Faces of "La Llorona" the Crying Woman. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Many Faces of "La Llorona" the Crying Woman
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