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It is said that since European settlers arrived in the Americas, many people believed that something sinister roamed their rivers. The sound of what seemed to be a wailing woman would be heard drifting up from the water’s edge. When heard, people would whisper that trouble – and possibly even death itself – was due to strike. The wailing was thought to come from the spirit of a woman, whose tragedy was preserved in oral tradition, echoing down the generations and – if the tales are to be believed – perpetuating more tragedy. For, rather than simply being an omen of death, it was said that the weeping woman was the one to inflict it. 1
The story of the weeping woman has evolved throughout time and has many variants. Since at least the turn of the twentieth century, the figure at the centre of this terrifying tale has been called “la llorona”, which means “the weeping woman” in Spanish.
The origins of la llorona
Despite the prevalence of la llorona folklore, tracing its origin is complicated, due to the existence of several different versions of the story.
In one popularised account of how la llorona came to be, the wailing woman’s name was Luisa. In oral tradition, she is described as having been, “a woman of the people, most beautiful, faithful and good”. She supposedly lived during the time of Spanish dominion of the Americas, the time of men like the noble and wealthy Don Muño de Montes Clares. Luisa’s beauty, it is said, caught the nobleman’s attention, and he thus courted her and proposed to marry her. Due to their different social standings, the Don proposed a secret marriage, to which Luisa consented.
Their marriage was happy for a long time. They had three children together and he could barely stand to be away from her and the secret and joyous life they had made for themselves. However, their relationship was destined to end in heartache. One day, there arrived a woman from Madrid who took the Don’s love away from Luisa. His visits grew shorter and shorter until finally Luisa’s neighbours began talking about a famous wedding taking place between the noble Don and a beautiful and noble lady from Madrid.
Luisa refused to believe that her husband would betray her and their children, so she went into the city to see it with her own eyes. When she arrived she joined the crowd outside the Don’s home and witnessed him give a toast to his new wife. Silently, Luisa walked back to the home she had shared with the Don. Their marriage, their home, and even their children were now all tainted in her eyes. With a dagger in her hand, Luisa destroyed all that they had built together. Their marriage, their home, their children were gone forever.
Afterwards, Luisa was found shrieking and crying in the streets with crimson coloured hands.
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Her trial was swift, as was her execution. Since that time, it is said that tragic Luisa continues to wander throughout the New World, dressed in white, wailing and crying, and that all who hear her cry will die within the week. 2
In a different version of the story, Luisa is Maria, and the Don a nameless nobleman. Luisa has also been said to have thrown her children in the river upon discovering her husband’s infidelity, whereupon she too died, searching for them by the water. In this variant of the legend, it is said that she now haunts the waterways, kidnapping any children she encounters late at night. Most often, the story states that the spectral woman is dressed in white.
The story of Luisa and the Don, whilst claimed to be true by many, is extremely difficult to verify. Even though stories passed by word of mouth invariably change, it still may be that a grain of truth is retained. Those who have analysed the weeping woman legend, have suggested that la llorona has a long tradition, which may date back to the initial Spanish conquest of the Americas.
La llorona and the fall of the Aztec empire
Shortly before the Spanish arrived, a story supposedly began to circulate amongst the Aztecs of a weeping, female spirit, who appeared before several witnesses. Some thought it to be one of their goddesses, who was in mourning for her children – the indigenous people of the Americas – and their great empire, which was about to fall at the hands of foreigners.
In this case, la llorona is not a sinister spirit, but rather the ever present mourner of a conquered culture. 3
Was La Malinche the inspiration for the la llorona legend?
Another possible origin of the tale is that the weeping woman is La Malinche, a native woman called Marina by Spaniards, who played a vital role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador who led the conquest, took her as his mistress as she acted as his interpreter. Marina was always at Cortés’ side, and they even had a son together. However, their relationship eventually broke down, with some suggesting that she was cast aside when Cortés married a noble Spanish lady. Her break with Cortés was so absolute, that the history books lose track of Marina after this moment, so much so that we cannot even say for certain when or how she died. 4
Though some parallels exist between the stories of Marina and the legendary Luisa, Marina’s son by Hernán Cortés, Martín Cortés, grew up to be a formidable man, even being annointed a Knight of Santiago by the king of Spain – the highest military honour of the time. The fact that we can trace Martín into adulthood does not seem to align with the tragic end that the weeping woman’s children supposedly met. 5However, even then, it could be interpreted that when Martin was sent to Europe to grow up at a royal court, it was seen by native peoples as a sort of sinful abandonment on the part of Marina to allow her son to go down the river and be taken by foreigners.
It may also be the case that la llorona is a legend that fuses the New and the Old Worlds. Certainly, the story does bear resemblances to certain archaic myths. The indigenous people of southern California have a creature in their folklore known as the maxulaw, which is said to cry in trees. When one hears that sound, it is said to mean certain death. 6 From the Old World, there is the tale of the Greek demigoddess Lamia. According to legend, she had an affair with Zeus, the king of all Gods. Once Hera, Zeus’s wife, learned of her husband’s betrayal, she killed all of the children Lamia had by Zeus. Driven mad by the death of her children, Lamia was said to have began wandering the earth, abducting children. 7
It could, therefore, be that some form of syncretism – a merger – between old and new led to the birth of the weeping woman legend. After all, la llorona is not the only tale which seems to borrow from these traditional stories. Similar again is la lechuza, a monstrous creature found in Mexican folklore. Described as being able to shape shift between a woman and a huge owl-like bird, la lechuza is said to cry in trees before abducting helpless victims, most often children.8
Sightings of la llorona
Regardless of the origin of the legend, many people – even in present times – believe la llorona is real, with some even claiming to have seen her.
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In 2017, in the rural town of Sunchales in Argentina, a 27-year-old man reported having seen la llorona on the road whilst on his motorcycle. He recorded a video of his encounter. 9
It appears as though the man was forced to stop when he realised a white spectre was in the middle of the road. When it starts approaching him, he can be heard repeating, “It’s okay – I am leaving.” 10 Whilst nothing definitive can be ascertained from this footage, it is not a singular incident: there are a great many videos similar to this one that purport to have captured the weeping woman on camera.
And, reported of encounters with the spectre are nothing new. In the past one hundred year, la llorona has emerged out of oral tradition and has begun to be reported in news articles. One example dates back to 1917, when a local newspaper reported a rash of sightings of the weeping woman on Cameron Street, in San Antonio, Texas. 11
In more recent times, the malevolent spirit has supposedly moved further north, to places including Indiana, where la llorona sightings have been reported since the 1990s. 12
And with increased usage of the internet and video sharing sites like YouTube, reports of la llorona are only becoming more prevalent.
The weeping woman and white lady ghosts
If one were to link the weeping woman to the many white lady ghost sightings around the world, then this may even be a global phenomenon. A similar tale can be found in England, where a white lady supposedly haunts Portchester castle. It is said she can be heard crying for her children at night, as she searches for them for all eternity. 13 In Irish folklore, there is the banshee, a female spirit who, when witnessed shrieking, foretells the death of a family member. There is even a story of a group of teenagers from Bangkok in Thailand, who, after seeing a white lady, died in a series of accidents in 2017. A news article detailing the case even stated that a medium had explained the deaths as being caused by a vengeful spirit. 14
As such, this type of story is not exclusive to the Americas, but rather common across Europe and Asia as well, where many believe that seeing a white lady heralds death.
However, la llorona does add the terrifying aspect of herself being the perpetrator, and not just the messenger. Thus, she is not merely an omen, but an active and malevolent entity. It is this terrifying aspect of her legend that has made her somewhat of a household name, even leading to a park on the Rio Grande being named after her, where some believe she haunts the river. 15
The Curse of La Llorona
La llorona has become such a sensation in the Americas that she has inspired a recent movie. Chillingly, however, some members of the cast and crew have claimed that this film was not just inspired by her, but had her present on set as well.
The director of The Curse of La Llorona, Michael Chaves – who claims to be generally sceptical of paranormal phenomena – stated in a newspaper interview with the Los Angeles Times that16,
“We did have some creepy supernatural occurrences. Half the crew actually does believe the house that we shot in was haunted, and there might have been something to that.”
When asked if she thought la llorona was haunting the house, actress Patricia Velasquez stated that she thinks “she was there…” 17
So, is la llorona real? Many people certainly seem to think so. However, with all things such as this, seeing is believing… and when seeing foreshadows death, perhaps it is best not to know…
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