La Llorona, (pronounced “la yoh doh nah”), the Crying Woman, the Weeping Woman, is a supernatural entity who hunts the waters, the rivers, the ditches, the canals, and sometimes even the dry washes of the foothills.
What does she hunt?
The better question is who does she hunt?
La Lorona hunts her children, and if you happen to encounter her as she hunts, your destruction is assured.
First you hear her unearthly keen.
Is she calling for her children?
Then comes terror.
Then you see her, a horrid hag in a white wedding dress whose anger ends in death, your death.
This miserable wandering spirit’s punishment for her unprecedented crime is that she may not leave the earth plane until she finds the children she drowned.
Yes. She drowned her own children.
Legend says La Llorona, said to have been named Maria, was a beautiful woman whose one wish in life was to marry a rich and handsome man with whom she could live in comfort and start a family.
There are as many versions of the story as there are groups who tell it, with the tale spanning the Southwestern United States to Mexico, and some say as far as Venenzuela.
I first heard the story in New Mexico.
Central, N. M., now called Santa Clara, is a tiny village near Silver City where I lived while in the fourth grade.
More than one adolescent told me basically the traditional La Llorona story but with a twist.
Near my home was a ramshackle deserted house that was known to be La Llorona’s lair.
It was a small house, a shack really, maybe one room.
The battered and rotted walls emanated a sinister vibe, especially at dusk, when the house appeared blacker than black, if that is possible.
The neighborhood kids told me that if I watched at night, I might catch a glimpse of La Llorona.
They dared me to enter the house.
I would not survive the visit, they assured me, and my death would be horrible.
Nobody in my family believed in La Llorona, yet, that house haunted me.
I wouldn’t walk down that street at night.
It doesn’t matter whose version you believe, the core of the La Llorona story is the same.
It’s the details that change.
For example, my hometown, Carlsbad, N.M., in Southeastern New Mexico, has several variants of the horror story.
Through Carlsbad flows the deep green Pecos River making its way to the ocean.
The area is prime hunting grounds for a vengeful spirit who haunts waterways, and the terrain provides fodder for tales of La Llorona sightings and encounters.
Among about 10 teenage boys who camped a night near the river were La Llorona believers so nervous the scream of a wounded rabbit sent them scrambling for the safety of the vehicles.
Their fear extended to the farm fields ringed in irrigation ditches and to the foothills where dry riverbeds could become raging flash floods with no warning.
As years pass, fewer people believe the story of La Llorona, or have heard it, especially the city folks who have lost touch with the supernatural.
Yet the story has survived since the 1570s, dating back to the Aztecs, Mexico’s pyramid culture of fierce poet warriors, unmatched artisans, mathematicians, astronomers and human sacrifice.
The Aztec La Llorona story features Cihuacoatl , who walked the streets weeping and calling out for her children.
The excellent photo above by Raúl Arturo Fernández Vega is how I picture the Aztec La Llorona, who one story claims stole a small boy from his cradle and ate him.
While her appearance has changed over the ages, from Aztec finery to the white wedding dress, how does such a story survive?
Perhaps it is magic that trapped La Llorona in the spirit world, and at least once a generation, her haunting cycle begins again.
Maybe La Llorona lives forever.
Someday, ages from now, a shaman of some distant culture will relate to frightened children a story of a menacing crying woman heard in the night.
The La Llorona story has been successfully used for many years to frighten children against straying too far and into behaving.
Do your chores or La Llorona will get you, parents throughout the years have told their children.
Maybe the power of that threat is the magic that explains the story’s longevity.
Coming soon: The La Llorona story as told to me.
Contact: David Madrid
Photo above: Each year in the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, people celebrate La Llorona with performances. Photo by Raúl Arturo Fernández Vega. Shared to Wikimedia Commons with a Creative Commons License.
Also a special thank you to Stephen Winick, whose article “La Llorona: Roots, Branches, and the Missing Link from Spain” provided detailed research of the Aztec La Llorona.