La Llorona is real.
How do I know this? Because I’ve seen her.
Growing up in the Southwest for most of my life, there are always certain stories that stick with you. You learn about Coyote the trickster, the kachinas (native spirits of nature), El Cucuy the boogeyman, and many others.
And of course, you hear about La Llorona, the Weeping Woman. Many variations of her story exist (almost 42 recorded versions as of this writing, but who knows, there could be more).
She’s used more as a cautionary tale; parents tell this story to their kids in order to make sure they don’t play near the river’s edge at the twilight hours or at night. As you get older, the cautionary tale takes on a different feel. Perhaps it’s that making rash decisions will have unforeseen consequences, or that you shouldn’t depend on looks alone to win someone’s heart.
The tale I’m about to tell you is as I first heard it told to me. Again, there exist many variations.
There once was a poor but beautiful girl named Maria. She knew how beautiful she was, and she used it to her advantage. Every time she went down to the village plaza, many would stop what they were doing and gaze at her—especially the young men of the town.
Her mother and grandmother warned Maria that if she relied on her looks too much that one day it would come back to haunt her. But Maria laughed off their warnings and continued to flaunt her looks.
Finally, a rich merchant took notice of her and asked her to marry him. She did, and it was a grand affair. Maria gave birth to two children, and for a long time they were very happy.
But soon the merchant began taking longer and longer trips out of town, sometimes disappearing for weeks or months. And whenever he came back, he would only talk to his children, and not to his wife. The townspeople began to whisper behind Maria’s back that her husband was having an affair with another woman—one who was more beautiful than his lawfully-wedded wife. Somehow Maria’s heart became twisted with jealousy and hate because of these rumors, and by the behavior of her husband.
It would all come to a devastating conclusion.
One day, Maria was walking along the Rio Grande with her two children hand in hand. And who should show up but her husband? He pulled up next to them in a wagon…with another beautiful woman sitting next to him. He spoke only to the two children; NOT to Maria herself.
As he finished the conversation, told them he would see them later, and drove off, Maria finally snapped. In her jealous rage, she grabbed her kids and threw both of them into the fast-flowing current. As they disappeared into the river, she came to her senses and realized what she had done.
She let out a horrified wail—one that made everyone come running to the river—and flung herself into the water to try and save them. But it was too late. The townspeople hauled her out of the river, and she collapsed in a faint.
For some reason that my younger self could never comprehend, they never really charged her for the murders of her children; I suppose they really couldn’t charge her for something she did in a moment of passionate rage.
It’s worth noting that the merchant left town with his new lady and was never seen of or heard from again.
But poor Maria lost her mind.
Soon the people would see her wraith-like form wandering up and down the banks of the Rio Grande, calling out in a plaintive cry “Mis hijos! Donde esta mis hijos? (My children! Where are my children?)”
Eventually, someone found her lifeless body lying on the ground; dead from grief and exhaustion. They buried her where they found her in a white dress. And they thought that was the end of that.
Until that night…
Some children came running from the Rio, telling their parents that they had seen Maria wandering the banks as before only that this time they could see right through her.
Several brave souls decided to go to the river to see for themselves.
Sure enough, they saw her floating across the water, and they could see through her. They went back to report on what they saw, and they decided that no one should stay near the river at night.
And since then, they named her “La Llorona”, the Weeping Woman. And they warned their kids not to play near the river, or to misbehave; “La Llorona will come and get you!”
I first heard the story as a second-grader. My mom was my teacher at the time, and she read it to my classmates and me from a book by Joe Hayes (look him up after you read this, he’s a brilliant storyteller and author). I can recall all of us being really quiet as she read of the townspeople’s first sight on the Weeping Woman.
That night, I couldn’t sleep, due to the story being stuck in my head. Well, and that we had a window that opened out into our big, dark backyard. It didn’t really matter that we weren’t anywhere near the river, but it was still the principle of the thing. I was scared that she would come through the window and get me. Needless, I nearly fell asleep in class the next day, but I noticed that a few of my classmates looked like they lost some sleep due to the story as well.
The second time she entered my life was in middle school.
Our whole group had gone down to La Llorona Park (go figure) to collect specimens for biology. As everyone collected bugs and water samples, I decided to go a little a further down the river and see what I could gather.
I walked; or rather I stumbled a few feet away from an overpass, sinking at least to my knees in mud. Finally, I had to stop and sit down on dry ground. I took off my glasses and tried to scrape off a dry blob of mud on my lens.
Now mind you, I was the only one who’d gone off by themselves. I think no one noticed me leaving, and therefore, no one could have followed me.
Something made me look up, putting on my glasses. Everything had gone quiet, save for the sound of the flowing river. I didn’t even hear the cars on the bridge.
A woman was across the way on the other bank. I could see that white dress she wore flowing in the breeze. And I could vaguely make out her dark hair. I wondered to myself if she was taking a walk…in a white dress.
“Hello!” I called out, standing up.
She said nothing. And the she began to…float across the river, not even touching the surface of the water.
And in my head, I heard a voice saying “Be nice to your family.”
I nearly lost my shoe in the muck running back to where everyone was still collecting bugs and the like. I was panting, gasping, and shaking; I couldn’t tell people what I’d seen. I did get scolded for leaving the group without telling anyone.
But as to the words I heard?
That morning I had been more than a little rude to my siblings and my grandma—being very argumentative and insolent. Maybe Llorona was trying to tell me something. As I got older, I began to see the story of the Weeping Woman as more of an admonitory tale; not just for children, but for women as well.
Perrault and the Brothers Grimm were the best at these tales. We need only look at Little Red Riding Hood as a prime example of a cautionary tale.
Perrault’s version has a little warning at the end–a “moral”, if you will:
“But above all, those growing ladies fair,
Whose orient rosy blooms begin to appear:
Who, beauties in the fragrant Spring of age!
With pretty airs, young hearts are apt to engage.
Ill do they listen to all sorts of tongues.
Since some enchant and lure like sirens’ songs.
It is no wonder then if, overpowered,
So many of them has the Wolf devoured.”
The verses go on to say that the “Wolf” will lead tender young ladies off of the moral path. Perrault and the Brothers Grimm intended for their stories to be tales for those who could learn from the result of the hero/heroine’s actions. Again, this could be applied to the tale of Llorona.
Applying the idea of being careful about your looks, and how you use them, mothers could tell their daughters/granddaughters/nieces, etc. that if they relied on just their looks to get what they want, then they would end up like Maria: no children, no husband, and doomed to wander for all eternity without any rest.
In some versions of the tale, La Llorona is refused entrance into heaven by St. Peter because of her crime; at some points, he tells her that she can’t enter heaven until she finds her children—another reason why she wanders the banks of the river.
Of course, she isn’t just a moral anecdote. She has come to be a symbol of the Hispanic Southwest.
In Earl Murray’s Ghosts of the Old West (1998), Murray writes of an experience had by migrant workers as they heard her wails on a trip to Colorado in 1954. Jack Kutz, in his magnificent tome of the weird & creepy, Mysteries and Miracles of New Mexico (1988), calls her a bruja, a witch, and a harbinger of death; if La Llorona appeared in front of a house and let out her anguished wail, there would be a death in the home soon—an echo of the banshee in Celtic folklore. And in some reports of her sightings, she carries a sword, or a cross, or chains—symbols of worldly cares dragging down those who’d seen her.
A story I’d heard in middle school lists her burial place as the State Capital building in Santa Fe, where maintenance workers and politicians have said to have seen her wandering the halls.
So why does her legend continue to have a hold on us?
A lot of people have dismissed her wailing as just the wind going through the reeds, a car going over a bridge, or even a bird (some going so far as to say a whooping crane or a migrating Canadian loon).
But even with all these logical explanations, people are still quick to say that it’s the Weeping Woman. Noted Hispanic author Rudolfo Anaya says this about her in his collection of stories My Land Sings:
“I think it’s safe to say that this tragic woman is the best-known character in the Latino oral tradition.”
What is my personal reason?
Because she sticks with us. Because she’s real to those of us who have heard her story, who have seen her, who think about her as we walk along the Rio Grande at night.
We try to go a little faster on those nightly walks. Because…
Who knows? La Llorona might just surprise us on this night.