Times Past

Dan Krieger: Mothers, tell your daughters not to do as La Llorona did

On moonless nights, frightened travelers see her walking along the road or riverbank and crying or weeping for her children.

I can’t do my annual Halloween “graveyard tour” this year because of surgery this past week. In its place, I’ll deconstruct what is probably the most frequently retold “ghost story” in the American Southwest.

“La Llorona,” the weeping woman, is a cautionary tale told by Mexican mothers to their daughters.

One version says that La Llorona was a beautiful peasant woman who had two young sons. She left them unattended to be with her lovers.

The boys were found drowned in the river. They drowned through her neglect or, worse yet, by her own hand.

Another account describes her marrying a wealthy man. She bore him two sons. One day her husband drove by in a carriage accompanied by an aristocratic lady. He stopped to greet his children, but snubbed La Llorona. Consumed with envy and rage, she seized the boys and cast them into the river.

In both instances, La Llorona immediately regrets her actions. She wanders along the roads and riverbank crying for her boys.

Finally, skin and bones, she dies of starvation. But her spirit is condemned to wander forever. Her cries make people afraid to travel by night.

Her skeleton can be seen through the long white ethereal gown, drifting between the trees.

The story has many of the ingredients of Euripides’ play Medea. The daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis helps Jason obtain the Golden Fleece. She marries the hero and bears him two sons, only to have him abandon her for another woman. Medea then kills the two boys.

But it’s also linked to the epic of “La Malinche,” also known as Malintzin, Malinali and Doña Marina. She was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast who became the lover of Hernán Cortés.

In the eyes of many, she betrayed her own people by aiding Cortés in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

La Malinche was either captured as a young girl or sold as a slave by her stepfather. She was among the 20 slaves handed over to Cortés by the coastal Indians of Tabasco in 1519.

She became one of Cortés’ mistresses and gave birth to his first son, Martín. Ironically, the child became known as one of the first Mestizos, people of both European and Indian ancestry who make up much of the population of Mexico.

La Malinche did not marry Cortés. He chose instead to marry into one of Spain’s noble families. He did grant her freedom from her slave status and arranged her marriage to a Spanish noble.

Her story is told by Morro Bay author Vicki León in “Malinali: The Slave Who Traded Words for Freedom.”

There is no evidence that La Malinche ever killed any of her own children, but her story has become conflated with the legend of La Llorona. It appears early on in Mexican folklore.

The legend of La Llorona was first recounted by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish Franciscan missionary to the Aztec (Nahua) people in the late 16th century.

Considered one of the “fathers of ethnography,” he is best known as the author and compiler of “Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España” (General History of the Things of New Spain). His writings introduced Europeans to the culture and history of Mexico.

The legend of La Llorona has gone on since at least the time of Sahagún’s account. In 1933, in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, a movie was made with Virginia Zuri starring as the beautiful but ill-fated girl.

It is still used to warn young girls about loving above your station. Children are cautioned not to go near the riverbanks and roads lest La Llorona grab them and throw them to their death.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.