How La Llorona Has Made an Impact on Latinx Film and Culture

La Llorona has made an undeniable mark on culture and film - here's why

La llorona

Photo: Freepik

Many of us in the Latinx community grew up hearing scary stories both as spooky stories and as lore that’s meant to teach us about death. Especially with Halloween and Día de los Muertos falling within the same week, the spooky season has always been a time not only for candy and horror movies, but also to reflect on grief, the loss of our loved ones and ancestors, and the remembrance of them. Within Hollwyood, Latin America has carved out an important name for itself in the horror film genre based on our love of scary stories, connection to and knowledge of ghosts and spirits, and fascination with death. But arguably, there has been no story as impactful as that of La Llorona, or “Weeping Woman,” who is said to snatch children from bodies of water. What’s interesting is that many of us often don’t remember being told the story; instead, it’s something that we’ve just inherently always known and accepted as being part of the culture like Vick’s Vaporub (aka vivaporu) or keeping pots in our ovens.

There are many variations of the tale throughout LATAM, especially in Mexico, Guatemala, and Venezuela, as well as the U.S. The most common follows a woman named María who marries a Spanish ranchero and bears him two children. When she sees him with another woman, she becomes so enraged that she drowns the children in a river. Overcome with guilt, she also drowns herself but because of the violence she’s committed is unable to cross over into the afterlife. Stuck in purgatory, she continues to roam the earth wailing and searching for her children. In other variations, she has the children out of wedlock due to an affair and kills them so the father won’t find out. No matter what, every version of the myth is meant to warn children not to wander over to bodies of water. But as time has gone on, it’s become clear that the conversations we have about La Llorona and how she’s been interpreted by the culture are complicated by layers of sexism and misogyny.

“The original myth is about keeping women in their place. It’s about telling women not to have sex outside of marriage to prioritize motherhood above all else and if you don’t, terrible things will happen,” media and entertainment writer Cristina Escobar tells HipLatina. “She betrays her children and sleeps around, and is damned for all eternity.”

There’s no question that La Llorona isn’t exactly a victim in the traditional sense. After all, she commits infanticide and then suicide, two acts of violence and self-harm that make it easy to paint her as the ultimate symbol of evil. It’s easy to fear her. But we often forget that she’s not the only perpetrator of violence in the myth.

“Why do we remember her?” Dr. Orquidea Morales, an assistant professor in the School of Theatre, Film, and Television who specializes in Latinx media and horror at the University of Arizona, tells HipLatina. “Why is she the monster, not the man who had children with her and left? Why is she the monstrous figure? Because we expect women and mothers to be perfect.”

If we look at other famous mothers throughout Latinx history and culture—La Virgen, La Malinche—it’s clear that these women are unattainable and unrealistic, not to mention considered evil and monstrous when they’re the “wrong” kind of mothers. Arguably, all it does is cause harm because we can internalize that, projecting expectations and pressures on other people in our lives out of love, only to cause further generational trauma. When there’s no room for nuance or an in-between, many of us can struggle with what it means to be a good mother.

What’s also often forgotten is that, despite the obvious Spanish influence, La Llorona is a story about an Indigenous woman, further complicating the relationship between her and her Spanish lover. Her tragic fate can actually be traced back several centuries to before colonization in Mexico. According to research conducted by the Library of Congress in 2021, the roots of the story can be traced back to an account from the Nahua people who witnessed a bad omen in Tenochtitlan in 1509, ten years before the Spanish reached the shores of Mexico. They saw a weeping women walking through the city every night and wailing, “My children, we must flee far away from this city!” or at other times, “My children, where shall I take you?” Sound familiar?

“The writing of ‘La Llorona’ is a product of conquest because we don’t see it until after the conquest,” says Morales, referring to the Nahua people’s emphasis on traditional oral storytelling. “But it is very much about that Native pain of loss of losing your culture, losing your family, losing everything. From its very roots, she’s a political figure.”

We can also find her origins in Cioacoatl, one of the most important Aztec/Mexica goddesses who was known for her own brand of infanticide: leaving behind a sharp flintstone in babies’ cribs if they were unaccompanied by their mothers in public. When they returned, they would see the weapon and understand that Cioacoatl had stolen and killed their child.

Interestingly enough, this reference can be felt in older Mexican films throughout the 20th century as Morales explains. The drowning aspect wasn’t seen on-screen until the ’90s and 2000s, contrary to what many of us remember about the original story. Instead, La Llorona uses a sacrificial knife to kill her children, which may make the scene bloodier but certainly perpetuates harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about sacrificial killings in Indigenous communities.

Outside of Mexico, there have been many on-screen depictions of La Llorona in films internationally. Two of the most notable ones were released the same year and received completely opposite reactions from audiences and critics.

The first, The Curse of La Llorona (2019), was produced in the U.S. as part of The Conjuring franchise and follows Anna, a white caseworker who helps a Latinx family escape the clutches of La Llorona, only to put her own children in danger. The film received overwhelmingly negative reviews and was universally criticized by the Latinx community in the year of its release for a lot of reasons: the use of the white savior trope, the negative representation of Latina mothers, and most of all, its depiction of the La Llorona that, as film and culture writer Nicole Froio says, completely misunderstands and undermines her as a character.

“She’s just cruel and evil. She just wanted to kill her children. She’s crazy and to me, that didn’t feel very true,” she tells HipLatina. “Those are all things that people say to women when they’re being sexist. So when we are talking about a woman who committed violence, I don’t think insanity is a good explanation because we live in a world where women are historically subjugated. Had they portrayed her as an indigenous woman, that would’ve added an extra layer of oppression but instead, the story is told outside of the context of colonialism, Indigeneity, and indigenous genocide.”

There’s a lot to dislike about how the film whitewashes the origins of the myth and its importance to the Latinx community. But for older generations, it’s not as simple. Camille Acosta, a Chicanx folklore specialist at The Kentucky Folklife Program, noted that people like her dad were excited by and resonated with the film not only because of La Llorona’s character design but also because “they were talking about us.”

“There are so many beautiful elements of it being in popular media because we finally get that visibility of our culture. But then there’s also the adverse of ‘Well, they can only talk about us in the guise of horror, in the guise of a monster.’ And even then, the Latinas in the movie don’t win and that’s hard to digest. It’s complicated,” she tells HipLatina.

Compare this to the Guatemalan film La Llorona and we begin to see the clear cultural differences when it comes to interpreting this story. Unlike the American version, this film keeps La Llorona as an Indigenous woman (played by Wakanda Forever actress María Mercedes Coroy) named Alma. It’s also not interested in a narrative about self-inflicted violence or infanticide. Instead, from the first scene, we see the consequences of the real-life genocide of Mayans that occurred over 30 years in Guatemala through the eyes of former Guatemalan dictator Enrique Monteverde. When he hires Alma to work as a maid in his elderly state, supernatural activity like nightmares, floods, wailing, and faucets turning on by themselves begins to erupt all around the house as an act of revenge for his crimes. It’s only at the end of the film that the audience realizes that Monteverde executed Alma and her two children during the genocide, and her spirit returned to literally haunt him to death.

“Alma is powerful and she is a force to be reckoned with,” says Escobar. “Yes, she’s a woman who’s lost her children but it’s not because she was sexually wronged and promiscuous, but because of the forces of the world and colonialism colliding around her. She uses her power to exact vengeance, which feels like a very important reinterpretation of what it means to be like a modern Latina woman understanding our place in the world and rejecting old ideas about sexuality and motherhood and colonialism.”

When thinking about the genre as a whole, there are very few movies in the U.S., besides those made by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope, Us), that are willing to take on these creative risks that use horror as a vehicle for greater social commentary about racism and colonization. U.S. audiences are used to decades-long horror franchises that are fueled by the sole purpose of depicting gore, violence, and demonic possession all of course starring white, non-Latinx actors. Even today, there aren’t many horror films that think about their stories beyond how many kills they can include, at least at face value.

As Froio notes, the film industry in LATAM isn’t perfect by any means. Not only is it constrained by money and resources but it’s also just as affected by issues of racism and white supremacy. And yet, there’s a lot that their horror films do differently and more successfully, and those are the same reasons that La Llorona did so well—a geographic closeness to the origins of the source material, an intimate understanding of LATAM culture, and support for films not backed by a huge budget or team like most U.S. mainstream films.

“These films still carry very heavy racial baggage with them but there isn’t a bigger audience of white Americans that Latin American directors have to cater to,” she explains, additionally noting that the concept of horror franchises just doesn’t exist in LATAM. In doing so, this allows for more creative freedom to do political and social commentary even with beloved stories like La Llorona that, despite having particular narratives attached to them, can be challenged and rewritten.

When thinking about La Llorona on a larger scale, it’s obvious her influence can be felt everywhere not just in films but also in songs and literature. In many ways, she’s surpassed the negative connotations of the original myth and has infiltrated every aspect of Latinx culture. But why? Why are we so fascinated by this woman who for so long has only ever been a symbol of death, evil, and punishable womanhood?

For many, La Llorona has transformed into a symbol of the ultimate rebellious woman, a subversive figure who can help real-life women reject the expectations and limitations our culture puts on them. We’re all expected to be good wives and mothers. In a way, she’s an answer to the question we can often ask ourselves—what happens if we don’t?

“Everyone’s fascinated with someone who is doing the opposite of what they should be doing, which is essentially what La Llorona does,” Froio says. “She challenges so much of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be an Indigenous woman, what it means to be a mother because you don’t want to see a mother kill their children. But it’s fascinating because she does just that.”

For others, the story of La Llorona is a way for us to introduce the concept of death to our children and discuss difficult topics in general. When oral storytelling is so valued in the community, ghost stories are the way we understand spirits, which can be both good and malevolent but, unlike what many white, non-Latinx people in the U.S. believe, are undeniably real. It can also be a method of literally rewriting the narrative for the next generation on our own terms, which Escobar does when she tells the story to her children at bedtime.

“I don’t say that she slept around. I do say that she was a mom who died and who is looking for lost children and that she will try to snatch you up and take you to the ghost world,” she explains. “And there’s something fun and also useful to make death less scary and part of the natural world. La Llorona can be part of that.”

Besides the fact that, as Acosta notes, ghost stories help connect us with others outside of our immediate families but still within our communities.

“There are so many people that localize the legend, like, ‘Oh yeah, Mike Diaz saw [La Llorona] a couple days ago’ or ‘When I was younger and I was in the river, I saw her too.’ It’s so cool to see that pride and to have that connection with your community. And through it, you’re talking about your cultures and your traditions and your stories.”

In every way, the future of La Llorona looks bright. Gone are the days when we see her through a sexist, misogynist lens. Gone are the days when we talk about her outside of the context of genocide and colonialism. Gone are the days when we view her as the type of mother we’re warned not to be. Instead, we’re beginning to question what exactly drove her to commit such an act of violence, who the real monster of the story is, not just that these things happened. We see her as both a victim and someone who grows to reclaim her power. Though she may not be as famous as other mothers in Latinx culture, her impact is still undeniably felt and has shaped the way we view women’s roles in society.

One of the most important rewritings of her story can be seen in the social justice space, which has depicted her as a spirit who helps children cross the border even near bodies of water. People are beginning to pray to her, showcasing just how important she has become to the community and her meaning to Latinas in recent years, and what else is left to come. Morales notes:

“I’m excited to see her being used in activism. There’s a song that Gaby Moreno did for La Llorona that’s about Guatemala and the genocide. There’s another version by Snow Apple that’s about the femicides in Mexico and gendered violence. People are using La Llorona as a banner of activism to say we are all wailing women, we’re all protesting, we’re all monstrous women, we’re all Lloronas, we’re pushing back and we’re using our voice. I’m excited to see more of that.”

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film horror indigenous women la llorona latin american folklore latinas in history urban legends
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