Frightening characters abound in children's literature — think Lamia who eats children and Rumpelstiltskin who tries to steal one. But there's another terrifying and creepy ghost said to murder children she mistakes as her own and she's part of the best-known legend of Mexico and areas with high Mexican immigration.
This ghost is La Llorona, the weeping woman.
"La Llorona is a Latinx legend that is based upon an entity that haunts rivers and waterways searching for her lost children," says Camille Maria Acosta, an independent folklorist and researcher who specializes in Latin and Chicana folklore and horror narrative. "The concept of a monster or a ghost stealing you away for all eternity is quite a frightening concept, both for little ones and adults."
The legend of La Llorona is a centuries-old tale that dates to the conquistadors. While the story varies depending on the source, the most common says the ghost is of a woman, Maria, who used her beauty and charm to capture the heart of a wealthy man, with whom she had two sons. He lavished her with attention and gifts until their marriage went south.
He began a life of drinking and womanizing, spending more time away from home. Even when he was home, he ignored his wife for his children.
Eventually Maria saw him with another woman and was heartbroken — and enraged. So, Maria decided to inflict the same type of pain on her husband — she drowned their children in the river. But right after she realized what she'd done, she cried out "Ay, mis hijos!" ("Oh, my children!") and drowned herself, too.
Now, the legend says, La Llorona floats in water in her white gown, searching for her children. "Her still-weeping ghost is said to still be out there, murdering children whom, in her madness, she confuses as her own," Acosta says.
Like most cultural oral stories, the legend of La Llorona has multiple variations depending on who's telling the story. "Variance and differences in the story don't really come from world regions as much as they come from being a centuries-old folktale passed down over so many years," explains Tomás Prower, author of "Morbid Magic: Death Spirituality & Culture From Around the World."
Some versions say La Llorona blamed her children for why her husband left her, while others suggest she attacks cheating husbands. But the general message is the same: If you hear the cries of La Llorona, run.
Why Do Parents Tell the Story of La Llorona?
Imagine hearing this story at age 6, like Acosta and millions of children were when they first learned of La Llorona.
"She is the main 'monster' that parents use to scare their children into behaving," Prower says. "La Llorona works more as a bogeyman to keep kids from wandering out alone where she can get them, a kind of preternatural 'stay where I can see you' tactic."
Stephen Winick, writer and editor for the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, wrote that tales of La Llorona almost always include mentions of why she "should be avoided." Her legend is a way for parents to control and frighten children into behaving.
Acosta found that to be true when she wrote her thesis. She said that many of the Mexicans she interviewed believed the reason adults tell children the frightening tale was to offer a warning: "Don't stay outside after dark." From Acosta's thesis:
Trust me. I listened to the warning. But I can't help but feel that the children who soak up these stories at a young age walk away with a lot more narrative subtext than parents had intended. Perhaps this subtextual 'haunting' makes sense, considering La Llorona is technically a ghost story.
What Are the Origins of La Llorona?
Nobody really knows where the story of La Llorona came from, but that's part of the charm and beauty of folklore.
"La Llorona most likely originated in Mexico and spread out from there as folks migrated outside of Mexico," Prower says. "[That's why] her legend is more known in places with high Mexican populations like the Southwest U.S. or Mexico-adjacent places like Central American nations." As Mexicans migrated, they preserved their cultural heritage by passing on stories to future generations.
Acosta says the story could be based on La Malinche, the daughter of an Aztec chief sold to slavers by her mother. However, there is a general idea of what period the story is set in.
"The version that exists today usually tends to be set in the 1800s, either during the waning years of colonial Mexico or during the early years of independent Mexico and has not really been modernized since," Prower explains.
La Llorona's Tale Is a Metaphor
Acosta says oral stories like La Llorona's aren't just to scare children. They also serve as ways to communicate ideas for people to understand situations in the world.
"La Llorona is so necessary and important for our culture because she represents survival, relatability and fight through the use of horror," Acosta says. Situations and circumstances, such as grief, death and betrayal are tough to talk about and stories with similar themes can help people relate or feel understood.
"This narrative explores and represents so many aspects of our culture that may be difficult to speak about such as machismo, death and even emotionality," she says. "However, it's safe in the confines of metaphor; it's easier to talk about when it's 'just a scary story.'"
Acosta says she talked to many people when researching her thesis and discovered that La Llorona affected them all differently. "Some Latinas I interviewed feared becoming a 'terrible mother' like [La Llorona] was thought to be," she says. "Some Latinos feared that she was a reflection of their innermost demons and some niños just plain out said that ghost women were scary. It was fascinating to learn how we can all be haunted by La Llorona, just not necessarily in the same ways."
The legend has also been depicted in pop culture, in songs, literature and numerous Hollywood films, including 2019's "The Curse of La Llorona," starring Marisol Ramirez as La Llorona.
Although not all of these have presented the tale faithfully, Acosta says, every time the narrative is explored, people still learn about her culture. But it's all about whether it "comes from a place of learning, understanding and ... respect," she says.
But Prower says he's not sure these modern depictions are the best way to tell the old tale. "Their objective is capitalistic," he says, "[They] craft a story that will turn a profit while deliberately overemphasizing La Llorona's 'exoticness/Latinidad' rather than pass down a cultural tradition or impart a moral lesson." Prower recommends we instead seek stories and storytellers where making a profit isn't the goal.
Now That's interesting
"The legend of La Llorona was granted official cultural patrimony status by Mexico City, a political move to keep the story's Mexican origins and authenticity intact as its fame spreads around the world," Prower says. "It's that level of self-identification with Mexican culture that makes La Llorona important to Mexican mythology."
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