The Return of La Llorona

Still from Shannon Ivey's short film <i>La Llorona</i>.
Photo courtesy Theatre for Change
Still from Shannon Ivey's short film La Llorona.

The woman in white glides through the dark forest. Tangled tree trunks stand draped in black shadows, bark lit by the occasional guttering torch. The woman walks past them without turning her head. Her long dress hangs sodden in the firelight, its ruffles plastered to the fabric. Soaked hair hangs in snarled waves around her white face. Her eyes flash, the irises neon bright. In her pale hands she holds a knife. Her walk is the slow, deliberate tread of a predator, and her prey cowers before her: an old man with raised hands. Her cold eyes study him, emotionless, merciless. The knife rises.

Shannon Ivey pauses the video on her phone. “There. See the marigolds?”

We’re sitting in a sunny Starbucks in New Braunfels, incessant Christmas music mixing with the roar of highway traffic. On the screen of Ivey’s phone is a frozen scene from her short horror film, La Llorona, a retelling of the famous Hispanic legend about the ghost of a woman who drowned her own children. The folkloric La Llorona eternally weeps for her crime. In Ivey’s film, the weeping has been transformed into more of a hiss. Now the ghost stands silent, limp marigolds tangled in her curls like riverweed.

“The marigolds are all throughout,” Ivey says. We’ve been talking about her influences. “They’re a very prominent flower in Day of the Dead. There’s tons of significance and symbolism to the marigold, particularly with the dead children.”

“Is that a traditional connection, between La Llorona and the Day of the Dead?” I ask. “Or is it something you made for this film?”

“We took a lot of different stories and created our own story out of it,” Ivey says. “This is a story people connect to on a very deep level, and when you mess with that, you mess with childhood and family. We knew that. And that’s OK, because we feel like we need to speak to people right at that part of their soul.”

Ivey’s La Llorona certainly aims for a gut punch. Her organization, the San Antonio-based nonprofit Theatre For Change, has been working for two years to raise awareness of the issues facing runaway and immigrant children in Texas and on the border. The short film is their latest attempt to draw attention to their cause. Statistics rarely hold people’s interest, Ivey says. But the famously infanticidal ghost might, if suitably tuned to contemporary sensibilities, and marigolds are the least of the tweaks. Ivey’s Llorona is a murderous hunter of both child traffickers and those complacently allowing such crimes. The official description of the film on Theatre For Change’s website ends ominously: “Either protect the immigrant children from the ever-growing violence of the region or La Llorona will come for you … she will come for us all.”

It’s a statement well in keeping with the traditions of La Llorona. For 600 years, the woman in white has haunted the songs and stories of the Hispanic Americas. With roots in Aztec mythology and Christian morality, she flits between the roles of monster and victim, never fitting comfortably in either, shifting form with every retelling. But the stories all agree that there’s a wailing woman wandering the canals and the creek bottoms. Don’t let her catch you near the river alone.

The first thing to understand about La Llorona stories is that there are thousands of them. Names and details vary from version to version, but generally the tales cluster into two types: the mythic and the personal. The mythic La Llorona stories are those that get included in compilations of ghost folklore, children’s books and activist’s movies.

They usually go something like this: A poor woman catches the eye of a wealthy young man, who sweeps her off her feet with gowns and kisses. In time, she bears him children. But the man grows bored and leaves her. She’s only a poor woman, after all, and would never make him a proper wife. His betrayal drives her mad. In her madness, she takes her toddlers down to the river and drowns them, one after another. When she comes to her senses and realizes what she’s done, she drowns herself as well.

When her soul fetches up like driftwood at the pearly gates, Saint Peter asks where her children are. The miserable woman tells him that she doesn’t know. So Saint Peter sends her back, with a promise that she’ll never enter heaven until she finds them.m So now she wanders for all eternity by the water, sobbing and looking for her babies’ bones. The
weeping woman. La Llorona.

It’s a remarkably adaptable tale. What are the unfortunate woman’s motives? What’s her name? Where did she live? What river were the children drowned in? The Rio Grande? The Guadalupe? The Colorado? Or maybe it was someplace smaller, like Woman Hollering Creek, which crosses the highway between San Antonio and Seguin, and whose name is surely no coincidence.

La Llorona
Photo courtesy Theatre for Change
Production still from Shannon Ivey’s La Llorona.

This kind of story is generally classified by folklorists as a “floating legend,” vague enough that it can be tailored to just about any locale or circumstance. In a 1960 paper included in the Journal of Western Studies, the author and folklorist Bacil Kirtley noted that versions of the story pop up all over the Southwestern United States as well as in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Some regional variants wander far afield from the original, growing more monstrous as they go.

In northern Bexar County, a hideous apparition called the Donkey Lady supposedly howls along dark roads, jumping onto passing cars and beating on the windows. Charley Eckhardt, a Texas author and historian, has reported another Donkey Lady haunting Waller Creek near Austin’s Sixth Street, where she’s prone to frightening the life out of frat boys who mistake her for a woman looking for company.

As widespread as the mythic versions are, they seldom have the immediacy that enlivens stories of firsthand encounters. While the myth of La Llorona casts the unfortunate woman as a pitiable figure, supposed eyewitness accounts report a much more sinister figure—and it’s these personal tales of La Llorona that people tend to hear as children and remember as they grow up.

For Domino Perez, the fascination started when she was 6 years old, playing in the dark. Her uncles and cousins were manning the Easter barbecue fires, trading tales, and she snuck out to listen. The stories terrified her. In one, her cousin glimpsed a spectral woman on the road as he drove home from a baile. In another, her uncle told of fishing in the night fog on Galveston Bay and hearing a woman crying for help far out in the murk. The stories were too much for Domino. She ran inside, convinced that the terrible woman was haunting her family.

“I never heard anything about her after that,” she says now. Perez is an associate professor at the University of Texas’ Center for Mexican American Studies and the author of There Was A Woman, a 2008 book that explores the legends and social history of La Llorona. “Not until I went away to Nebraska and we were reading Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. In there, the mother warns the son not to go down to the river because of La Llorona, and it literally felt as if somebody had punched me in the stomach.”

What really struck her, she says, was the idea of the predatory woman, a figure capable of spooking her uncles. The Llorona that emerges in most anecdotes is like that: a protean and demonic figure that owes a great deal to the fears of individual storytellers. She appears as an uncanny visitation before a family death, a terrible noise outside the window, or a flickering apparition glimpsed in the distance along the waterline. Any trace of humanity is gone. This is the Llorona that steals children who wander outside after dark, who lures men into the current with cries for help. This is the Llorona that generations of mothers have used to frighten their children away from dangerous places. She killed her own children when she was alive. Imagine what she’ll do to you now that she’s dead.

Despite the innumerable variants, certain aspects of La Llorona are remarkably consistent. “There’s a noticeable overlap,” says John Igo, a writer and amateur folklorist from Seguin who has chronicled regional variants of the legend, including the Donkey Lady. “They don’t start in the same place or end in the same place necessarily, but almost every version has the screaming and the water. And she’s almost always dressed in white.”

Every La Llorona story seems to come back to these same roots: the river, a woman and a warning. And those roots go back deeper than you might suspect.

The annals of world mythology are packed with water temptresses and child eaters. The Mediterranean Lamia and the Hebrew Lilith hunger for children, while the Toad Woman of the Penobscot Indians stole toddlers to raise as her own. Slavic rusalki and Greek sirens lured unwary men into the water or onto boat-sinking rocks.

But these are minor spirits, witches and demons. In Tenochtitlan during the 1400s, at the height of Aztec rule, sacrifices were given to the great mother goddess, Coatlicue, who was often depicted wearing a long dress made of tangled rivers and drowning men. Her daughter, Cihuacoatl, serpent goddess and patroness of mothers who die in childbirth, was said to wander the canals and crossroads of the Aztec capital, the cradleboard on her back carrying not a child but an obsidian knife. Mothers sometimes awoke to find their children gone and a blade left in their place. When Cortez and his army arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, Perez says, something that looked much like La Llorona was there waiting for them.

The Spanish added their own ingredients, Christianity foremost among them. As both Perez and Kirtley point out, the common contemporary version of the Llorona story would have made very little sense in Aztec society, where expectations regarding sin and sexual transgression were very different from those of the conquerors. “A rational Aztec placed in the position of the legend’s young aristocrat would have added another wife to his string or would have retained an esteemed mistress as concubine,” Kirtley wrote in his 1960 paper. “The fierce sexual allegiance, the intricate scruples and conventions resulting from an involved double moral standard, and the intense attachment to the concept of honor felt by the legend’s characters are European.”

Christianity exerted other pressures on Aztec culture, as well. Spanish missionaries began dismantling Aztec religious structures soon after the conquest of 1521, and they did so in a traditional Christian manner: by recasting local deities as devils. “Your ancestors erred in adoration of a demon they presented as a woman, to whom they gave the name
Cihuacoatl,” warned one particularly impassioned cleric cited by Kirtley. “She terrified, she frightened, she cried aloud at night.” But while the Spanish eventually succeeded in extinguishing worship of the old goddesses, Igo says, their images stuck. The first known tale using the name “La Llorona” appeared in 1550, when a ghostly white apparition is supposed to have sobbed her way down the canals of what would become Mexico City and into the surrounding lake.

From the first, Perez says, the story spread quickly as a cautionary tale. Perhaps, she says, it was helped along by the Spanish, who might have used La Llorona’s wandering as a threat of the fate awaiting any who didn’t Christianize. Or maybe the Aztecs spread it as a warning against consorting with their conquerors. “If you think of the woman as being indigenous and the highborn as being Spanish,” Perez says, “then the Spaniards would use the indigenous women, cast them aside and never legitimize them through marriage. The story might be a way to keep classes and racial and ethnic groups separated.”

Ethnic tension may explain how La Llorona came to be associated with another legendary Mexican figure, Malinalli, known to history as La Malinche. A Nahua woman from the Gulf Coast, Malinalli was given to Cortez as a slave in 1519 and quickly proved herself so invaluable a translator and guide that firsthand accounts from both sides portray her as a principal reason for his success. She was also his concubine and gave birth to his first son, Martin, who tradition holds as the first of the mestizos. Cortez eventually left Malinalli, and she later married another Spaniard. She died in 1551, in Spain, a year after the first recorded sighting of La Llorona.

While the Spanish always held Malinalli in high esteem—she had, as far as they were concerned, helped them acquire Mexico—the native Mexicans were understandably less enthralled. After the Mexican Revolution of 1810, nationalists were quick to conflate her memory with La Llorona, punishing her in absentia both for her aid to Cortez and for the
brutalities of colonial rule. La Llorona only drowned her children, the nationalists argued. How much worse was Malinalli, who condemned her own people by consorting with foreign conquerors? Motherhood, betrayal, racial mixing—the folktales wove themselves. In many of them, Malinalli herself is La Llorona, murdering Cortez’s son when he leaves her.

Given that Martin grew up to live a full (if unhappy) life, the connection doesn’t hold much historical water. There’s also been a rising backlash against such thematic comparisons by Chicano writers and feminists, Perez says, who view Malinalli less as a betrayer and more as a person making the best of her situation. After all, Malinalli was taken as a slave at a young age and given to Cortez. To call her singlehandedly responsible for the fall of Tenochtitlan is ridiculous. “One woman bring down an entire nation?” Perez says. “What a vulnerable nation it was, if that’s actually true.”

Still, the association between La Llorona and Malinalli makes sense if you’re trying to recast the former’s story as a warning about ethnic and national betrayal. But La Llorona can be fashioned to fit other political agendas as well. Just ask Shannon Ivey.

The genesis of Ivey’s La Llorona lies in her concern for children in dire straits. An actress who’d formerly worked in Los Angeles, Ivey formed Theatre For Change in 2013 after noting a dearth of artistic movements with strong social justice themes in Central Texas. She immediately began organizing benefit productions, including a performance of Annie, in order to drive attention to childhood cancer and the plight of runaways. Planning those events spurred an interest in immigration, which in turn led Ivey to apply for a grant through Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, where she works as a professor in the Dramatic Media department.

Most of the grant money was used to fund ArteFest, a festival in Seguin intended to bring more Latino artists to the area, but some of it went toward the production of the film that became La Llorona. The original terms of the grant required that the film address immigrant issues, Ivey says, but she didn’t want to rehash the kind of stories common in other activist films. She wanted to approach the issue from a new angle.

La Llorona
Courtesy Agrasánchez / Benson Collection, University of Texas at Austin
Lobby card for 1959 Mexican film, La Llorona.

She puzzled for a while over what that angle would look like. Eventually she remembered the La Llorona stories she’d encountered growing up in Victoria. Why not produce a film tying La Llorona to the deaths of trafficked children? It seemed to her an obvious and exciting connection. But Ivey’s Llorona wouldn’t be the villain of the piece; as far as Ivey is concerned, that role is adequately filled by cartels operating on the border. Ivey’s Llorona is a murderous avenger, a character she frequently compares to the eponymous serial killer on Showtime’s Dexter. She is a monster who hunts monsters.

La Llorona is written, directed and produced by Ivey, and was shot over the course of 2014 around Austin’s Bull Creek and at Legacy Ranch in Gonzales. The plot is jam-packed into 14 minutes that cut between La Llorona, a violent cartel member and his captives, and the Soul Fisher, a mythic figure of Ivey’s own creation. The Soul Fisher serves both as narrator and as La Llorona’s ultimate victim, killed for the crime of not stepping in to stop the cartel member who brutalizes two young girls. It’s a direct statement of intent by Ivey: There are no innocent bystanders on the border. Get involved, or La Llorona will come for you too.

It’s not entirely clear when the public will have the pleasure of being warned. The initial version of the film—the one Ivey showed to me at Starbucks—was shot with Spanish narration and positioned La Llorona as the ghost of Malinalli. Neither of those choices went over terribly well. Screeners in Los Angeles warned Ivey that the Spanish would hurt the film’s chance of being accepted to festivals, and several activists objected to the Malinalli connection.

Now Ivey is rewriting La Llorona as a nameless indigenous woman, and the film is being overdubbed into English. She and Theatre For Change plan to submit it to this year’s South by Southwest film festival, with an eye toward an Austin premiere in March.

Read enough La Llorona stories, Ivey says, and eventually you run into The Question. It’s the same question Perez and Igo bring up independently, a problem that has attended La Llorona stories since their inception: motive.

“I have three kids,” Ivey says. “As a mom, I started thinking about what could really drive a mother to do that. In my mind, nothing. It just doesn’t exist.” She pauses. “Well, when you really start to think about it, an all-consuming love is probably something that could. Or postpartum psychosis. Or a mixture of both.”

In 2001, a Houston woman named Andrea Yates drowned her five children, one by one, in a bathtub. In the frenzy of attention that accompanied her arrest and subsequent trial, it emerged that she had been previously diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, a disease with a cocktail of symptoms including hallucinations, paranoia and mood swings. In Yates’ case, the delusions were religious: According to a 2002 report by the Houston Chronicle, she told a prison psychologist that she killed her children to save them from her own sinful wickedness.

Similar incidents are rare. According to the nonprofit Postpartum Support International, only 4 percent of women suffering from postpartum psychosis commit infanticide. But the memory of such crimes, and the names of the people who commit them, tend to linger in the public consciousness. While Yates hasn’t been publicly linked to La Llorona in any serious way, it’s hard to imagine that people familiar with the legend didn’t feel a queasy flicker of recognition while watching the coverage. We know that there are real women who kill their children, even if we can’t wrap our heads around why. Perhaps it’s no surprise that most La Llorona stories have her going mad prior to the drownings. It seems to be the only way the story makes sense.

However, another case from Houston provides a different perspective. In April of 1986, 31-year-old Juana Leija took her seven children to Buffalo Bayou and threw six of them in. She intended to follow them into the river, but she was stopped; two of her children died, and four were rescued. According to the Houston Chronicle, Leija and her children had been terribly abused by her husband for years. “I saw no way out for us,” she testified in trial. “I saw that the best thing was to end my life and their lives and that would end all of our suffering.” In a 1986 interview with Mexican folklorist and psychiatrist Jose Limon, she went further. “Yo soy La Llorona,” she told him. I am La Llorona.

Leija’s identification with La Llorona points to a theme not of madness, but of desperation. A poor woman with no means of support and illegitimate children, as in the original folktale, would be in deep trouble whether she lived in colonial Mexico or modern San Antonio. Perhaps the homeless, starving Llorona chooses to kill her children out of love, Perez suggests, to save them the suffering of wasting away. A similar theme appears in contemporary stories of La Llorona set in Latin American junkyards, where young women, unable to get an abortion, sometimes abandon illegitimate newborns rather than face the wrath of their families.

Boil most of these theories down, though, and what you find is a fairly simple truth: Men abuse women. You can strip away the social pressures and the class disparities if you like, but in nearly every story, La Llorona’s crime is instigated by her lover abandoning her and their children. The man vanishes because he can, without care or repercussion. While those who tell the story may not always have such sexual politics at the forefront of their thoughts, Perez says, they’re too integral to the story to miss. “Even if it’s just that he abandons her,” she says, “and in her grief she did—whatever, there’s an acknowledgment that men can leave.”

“Whatever” is a small word for the murder of children, of course. But it neatly sums up the tension around La Llorona stories. Whatever was done to her, she drowned her children. Whatever she did, she was driven to do. Whether she’s a victim or monster depends on where you stand. And it depends, of course, on who is telling the story.

So the woman in white still glides through the dark forest. She’s a ghost with a face as indistinct as ripples on the water, every ring a different shape. A woman pushes her children into the current. A monster stalks a lonely road and shrieks. Moonlight hits the mist shrouding a riverbank just so, forming a spirit whose black eyes weep silent tears. “Aiii, mis hijos,” she cries. My children, my children. Knowing, perhaps, that she’ll never get them back.

Asher Elbein is a freelance journalist and fiction writer based in Austin.

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