The haunting tale of the Weeping Woman is matched and embodied in the traditional song of the same name. Joan Baez and Lila Downs among many others have recorded it, but to me the most emotionally resonant version is by Chavela Vargas, who sings a portion of it to Frida Kahlo in the film Frida: Ironically, the aged Vargas, playing a ghost, sings to the actress Salma Hayek as Frida, who decades earlier had been Vargas’ lover. Here is the full version of Vargas in concert.
Having travelled up and down the spine of Mexico for generations, the song has acquired literally dozens of verses, most of them dealing with lost love, and all expressing grief and suffering. But its point of view shifts continually between the various actors in the drama, and this tells us much about the complexity of this otherworldy figure.
Most commonly, we hear the voice of the wandering mother who addresses La LLorona – or is she addressing herself? She may be crying or she may be hiding her tears
Ay de mi Llorona,
Llorona de ayer y de hoy
Ayer era maravilla Llorona
Y ahora ni sombra soy
Ah me, Llorona,
Llorona of yesterday and today.
Yesterday I was a marvel, Llorona,
Today, I am less than a shadow of that.
No creas que porque canto, llorona,
tengo el corazón alegre.
También de dolor se canta, llorona,
cuando llorar no se puede.
Don’t think that because I am singing, Llorona,
that my heart is joyful.
Grief can also be sung, Llorona,
when weeping is impossible.
In this tradition, it is impossible to be overly melodramatic:
Ay de mi llorona, llorona, llorona,
de un campo lirio;
El que no sabe de amores, llorona,
no sabe lo que es martirio.
Alas, Llorona, Llorona,
Llorona of a Lily of the Valley.
He who does not know of love, Llorona,
does not know martyrdom.
In other verses we hear a male voice:
Cada vez que cae la tarde, Llorona
Me pongo a pensar y digo
De qué me sirve la cama, Llorona
Si él no duerme conmigo?
With each afternoon, Llorona,
I think and say,
What good is this bed, Llorona,
if she does not sleep with me?
Other verses are, quite simply, prayers that are indistinguishable from supplications to the Maria of Sorrows, La Virgen Purissima, the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is the patron saint of all Mexico:
Ay de mi, Llorona, Llorona,
Llorona Llévame al río.
Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona
Porque me muero de frío
Alas, Llorona, Llorona,
Llorona, take me to the river.
Wrap me in your rebozo Llorona,
for I am freezing to death.
Such prayers can express (to our Norteamericano sensibility) a surprisingly full range of emotion:
Si por que te quiero quieres, llorona,
quieres que te quiera más.
Si ya te he dado la vida, llorona,
qué más quieres, quieres más?
Because I love you, Llorona,
you want me to love you even more.
If I have already given you my life, Llorona,
what more do you want, you want more?
But the most famous verse of all, in the voice of La Llorona herself, tells us that we are in the presence of a goddess, perhaps the Great Mother herself:
Todos me dicen el negro, llorona
Negro pero cariñoso
Yo soy como el chile verde, llorona
Picante pero sabroso
Everyone calls me the dark one, Llorona
Dark but loving.
I am like the green chile, Llorona,
Spicy, but tasty.
It is possible that the original source of the legend was an Aztec goddess who wept by the waterside to draw young men to her. She would then seize them and leap into the water, drowning them in the process. But in other indigenous tales, this goddess – Cihuacoatl – appears just before the Spanish invaded Mexico, weeping for her lost children. This has been interpreted as an omen of the fall of the Aztec empire. She takes the form of a beautiful lady draped in white garments. Throughout the night she cries out in misery, Oh hijos mios…ya ha llegado vuestra destruccion. Donde os llevare? (Oh my children…your destruction has arrived. Where can I take you?)
Mexican popular culture sometimes identifies La Llorona with La Malinche, the historical, native woman who was interpreter and mistress to Hernan Cortés. After she bore him a son, he abandoned her and married a Spanish noblewoman. But Spain could not have conquered Mexico without her help, and thus she is implicated in both the demise of Native American culture and the creation of an entirely new race. As such, she weeps for all of Mexico’s children, both the privileged who have forgotten their ancestors and those who die crossing toward El Norte.
Indeed, she weeps for all the world’s children. The image of the woman weeping by the water occurs so commonly across Celtic and Mediterranean Europe that we must consider her to be an archetype.
The Irish call her Be’an Sighe, which has been Anglicized to “Banshee,” an omen of death. She appears as a small woman dressed entirely in green, who is washing winding sheets (the old name for a shroud) in a watercourse and weeping. Asked who has died and needs winding sheets, she either says “You!” or gives the name of someone who will die in the next few days. She may appear as a dark shadow, or as a beautiful woman dressed in white, with long, red hair.
In Greek folklore, the woman who weeps by the waterside is Medea, grieving for the children she bore to Jason and then slaughtered because of his plans to abandon them. Greek myth, sadly, is filled with such tales. It expresses the most fundamental myth of Western society, the killing of the children under patriarchy, and it is one of the primary themes of my book, Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence. But only Medea kills her children out of spite, simply to hurt the man who has hurt her.
This narrative brings us beyond historical interpretations to the psychological. We may interpret each character in a myth or folk tale as we do a dream. Each is a part of the dreamer. In the context of patriarchal repression of the feminine, Medea/Llorona kills or marginalizes her children – parts of herself – of her own natural, indigenous soul. She may do so out of a twisted need to fit into her culture’s restricted definition of who she can be.
Or her actions may well be her rage at the patriarchy directed in the only way it can go, within. From this perspective, all acts of self-destruction, suicide, child abuse and genital mutilation (always perpetrated by women, not men) represent the core of power relations in our demythologized world: Since I have been brutalized, I will hurt you because I have the privilege to do so, because I can, because you cannot retaliate, and therefore your only alternative is to hurt those over whom you can exert privilege.
And within the most extreme aspects of that context – slavery – one may well choose to kill the children to save them from an even worse fate. In 1856 Margaret Garner, an enslaved African-American woman, killed her own daughter rather than allowing the child to be returned to slavery. Steven Weisenburger tells the true story in his book, Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South, but we are more familiar with Toni Morrison’s fictional, ironically titled novel, Beloved. Is it possible to love another so much as to kill him or her to prevent further pain? Does the Weeping Woman also preside over assisted suicide?
Domino Renée Perez is a professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin and author of There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture. To her, the legend of La Llorona is as dynamic as it is old:
She is alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, a person, legend, ghost, goddess, seductress, moral tale, metaphor, story and symbol…As her story has evolved, storytellers and artists both inside and outside her community continue to adapt her story to new contexts.
Some feminist scholars reinterpret the narrative as resistance to patriarchy. Perez suggests that by focusing on their agency to both create and end life, women can revise and transform the tale into one of empowerment instead of despair.
And there is always another alternative to the common pattern of passing one’s suffering on to those who cannot defend themselves. It is the way of grief.
In recent years, the Weeping Woman has emerged from the oral tradition into popular art, children’s and scholarly books, punk music, TV commercials and at least five feature films, the most recent of which was released in the spring of 2019.
Ultimately, La LLorona weeps for this beautiful Earth that we are destroying. She, like Medea, murdered her children to spite their father. Now, in the reversal of ironies, it would seem that the patriarchs, in their last grasp to retain power and deny their own grief, are willing to destroy us all to spite their mother, to stop her wailing. While some bumper stickers say, “She’s back and she’s pissed,” Others say, “Honk if you’ve seen La Llorona.”