A critical analysis of the important ways in which La Llorona—the Weeping Woman—has shaped Mexican cultural identity, from folktales to acts of political resistance.
"How is it that there are so many lloronas?" A haunting figure of Mexican oral and literary traditions, La Llorona permeates the consciousness of her folk community. From a ghost who haunts the riverbank to a murderous mother condemned to wander the earth after killing her own children in an act of revenge or grief, the Weeping Woman has evolved within Chican@ imaginations across centuries, yet no truly comprehensive examination of her impact existed until now. Tracing La Llorona from ancient oral tradition to her appearance in contemporary material culture, There Was a Woman delves into the intriguing transformations of this provocative icon.
From La Llorona's roots in legend to the revisions of her story and her exaltation as a symbol of resistance, Domino Renee Perez illuminates her many permutations as seductress, hag, demon, or pitiful woman. Perez draws on more than two hundred artifacts to provide vivid representations of the ways in which these perceived identities are woven from abstract notions—such as morality or nationalism—and from concrete, often misunderstood concepts from advertising to television and literature. The result is a rich and intricate survey of a powerful figure who continues to be reconfigured.
- Introduction: Haunting Our Cultural Imagination
- Chapter 1. A Five-Hundred-Year History: Traditional La Llorona Tales
- Chapter 2. Revision and the Process of Critical Interrogation
- Chapter 3. Infamy and Activism: La Llorona as Resistance
- Chapter 4. "Long Before the Weeping": Re-Turning La Llorona
- Chapter 5. La Llorona Lore as Intercultural Dialogue
- Chapter 6. A New Generation of Cultural/Critical Readers
- Conclusion: Folklore as Critical Lens
- Permissions Acknowledgments
How is it that there is so many lloronas? [. . .] in my family we believe its a mexican legend and that La Llorona is one woman who drowned her kids in a river and she wanders by the river in some place in Mexico.
No words strike more fear in the hearts of students and faculty than "on-campus parking." It is a frustrating and at times futile endeavor. What should be a simple act can be dangerous and costly. All who attempt it are potential victims, stalked by unseen forces waiting to tow, ticket, or affix the bright orange "boot of shame" onto a front tire. On this day, I am one such likely prey. The temperature is 104˚. My infant son is strapped in his car seat in back, and I need to get both of us in and out of the library before he awakens. I have been driving for twenty minutes around a parking lot so small that I feel as though I am maneuvering through a go-kart course. I lost one space to a cabrón who upon entering the lot immediately drove the wrong way down a one-way row to get to an open space before me. The other available space went to a colleague, whom I did not recognize, although the exasperation she wore was certainly familiar. My son begins to stir, and I want to shout, "I NEED ONE BOOK! TEN MINUTES, THAT'S ALL I NEED. JUST TEN MINUTES!"
In desperation, I contemplate the double-park, flashing-light maneuver but know that I will emerge from the library to find my vehicle gone, or worse, made immovable by a steel clamp. As if on cue, my son awakens screaming, hot, wet, and hungry. I know I have lost my window of opportunity. The completion of my task has been made infinitely more difficult, yet I resolve not to leave without Rudolfo Anaya's epic poem The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas (1985). Rounding an impossibly tight corner, I see a blue Chevy Astro van exiting halfway down the row. I pull up to wait patiently for the space to become available, and that is when I see it. Affixed on the back bumper is a sticker that reads: "Honk if you've seen La Llorona." In spite of my circumstances, or perhaps because of them, I cannot help but laugh. I know she is testing me. As the van pulls away, I honk. The sound startles my son, who suspends his tears. A large brown hand appears from the driver's side window of the van, waving in recognition of the shared cultural knowledge that has momentarily united two strangers in a parking lot. Over the years, La Llorona has revealed to me her many sides, and on this day, she is reminding me that she is not without a sense of humor.
La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) is one of the most famous figures in Mexican and, for the specific purposes of this study, Chican@ oral and literary traditions. According to a popular traditional version of the legend, La Llorona is a woman abandoned by the man she loved and left alone to raise their children. Grief or desire for revenge compels La Llorona to murder her children and throw their bodies into a river. Despair ultimately contributes to La Llorona's death, and in the afterlife, she is condemned to wander for all of eternity until the bodies of her children are recovered. The legend of La Llorona is as old as it is dynamic. From a pre-conquest portent, which consisted of a woman howling in the night months before Cortés' arrival, to the Houston mother from Mexico accused of murdering her children, who stated in an interview, "Yo soy La Llorona," the Weeping Woman has permeated the consciousness of her folk community. To those who participate in the transmission of the lore, either through storytelling or as interlocutors, La Llorona is alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, a person, legend, ghost, goddess, metaphor, story, and/or symbol. In an attempt to account for all of these views, I speak about her as a legend, spirit, symbol, and living entity.
Thirty-five years ago, La Llorona remained largely a part of oral stories, but the figure has wandered out of this genre onto pages, canvases, celluloid, and even into cyberspace where, in a substantial change in the narrative's structure, we must instead look for her. Complicating this movement is the fact that La Llorona is used now around the world to sell or promote everything from coffee and women's underwear to films and academic conferences. An Internet search will yield more than five hundred non-redundant entries, excluding images, from sites generated in such locales as Singapore and Australia. Record albums by Lhasa de Sela (Mexican, Jewish American) and Chavela Vargas (Argentinean); a park in Las Cruces, New Mexico; a punk band in a graphic novel series by the Hernandez brothers; and an art gallery in Chicago are named after her. Children's books by Rudolfo Anaya and Gloria Anzaldúa, sketches and paintings by artists such as Santa Barraza, Isaura de la Rosa, Elizabeth "Lizz" Lopez, and Stevon Lucero, and Kathleen Anderson Culebro's play feature La Llorona or her legend as a subject. She appears in poems and short stories. Her tragedy is used to promote tourism in New Mexico and sell T-shirts on the Internet. La Llorona has made appearances on the short-lived ABC television series Cracker (1997-1998), the PBS family drama American Family (2002-2004), and in a commercial for the California Milk Processors Board (CMPB), in which she is crying not for her children, but for milk. Her film career in the United States is one most aspiring actors would envy; she has gone from bit player in a David Lynch movie to a feature film star. La Llorona has not yet reached the commercial status of the Virgen of Guadalupe—we have not seen La Llorona night-lights, dashboard figurines, or rear-window decals—but I suspect she soon will.
The sheer number and variety of these productions can be overwhelming, and some may conclude that the Llorona they know is unrecognizable, or decide that La Llorona's function in these works is indeterminate and, therefore, irrelevant. For many people who hear and pass on the story, La Llorona was condemned to suffer, not to become a celebrity. Others may worry that she is losing her ability to illustrate or convey the specific moral, social, or political concerns of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who continue to disseminate the lore. One thing, however, is clear: as La Llorona's stories have evolved, storytellers and artists continue to adapt her story to new contexts.
Contemporary Mexican American and Chican@ cultural producers who represent La Llorona reconfigure the power relations between La Llorona and her lover, conflate La Llorona with powerful Aztec goddesses, subvert traditional narratives to allow the Weeping Woman to transcend her tragedy, and draw La Llorona into futuristic landscapes. She is sketched in so many ways that deciphering her social and cultural function in relationship to traditional versions of the lore in which she only weeps and wanders can be difficult. For people like Mayra, quoted in the epigraph, who grew up believing there was only one version of the story, a short film featuring La Llorona as a chain-smoking, snack food obsessed, stand-up comic might appear strange indeed.
This book participates in the theoretical practice of privileging Chican@ storytelling traditions as sources of critical inquiry. It also offers a critical catalog and analysis of the many ways La Llorona has been put to use in and outside of Chican@ culture, as well as methods for creating a dialogue, inclusive of a vast number of disparate "texts" featuring Llorona, that can account for the stand-up comic Llorona along with more traditional depictions. More than two hundred artifacts featuring La Llorona—works authored by artists, filmmakers, poets, and dramatists, to name a few—were considered for this analysis, a significant number of which appear or are noted in this work. Although each has been cataloged and categorized, I do not include an individual analysis of every item. Due to the number of representations and the scope of this study, I exclude representations of La Llorona generated in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, and limit my focus in the first four chapters to Chican@ cultural productions. A consideration of the rise and dissemination of La Llorona folklore in these countries or locales would require a political, historical, and cultural contextualization particular to the nation or region, which is beyond the scope of this project. The three primary objectives of this interdisciplinary study are: (1) to provide a critical cataloging of artifacts generated by Chican@s that are illustrative of the wide range of La Llorona representations across genres; (2) to offer reading strategies devised to empower audiences and aid them in deciphering these images; and (3) to consider the ways in which La Llorona folklore promotes intercultural dialogue.
In the formulation of these reading strategies, I draw heavily from my training in film studies and am indebted to Jacqueline Bobo's work in Black Women as Cultural Readers (1995) and Víctor Fuentes' analysis "Chicano Cinema" (1992). Because so many of the works included in this study are visual in nature, include a visual component, or were displayed to wide, diverse audiences, the visual nature of film and the interdisciplinary approaches the medium inspires make film studies a productive theoretical basis for the conceptualization and reading of cultural texts across genres. Bobo goes beyond textual analysis to examine how black women readers of film and fiction contextualize narratives in their own cultural frameworks. In her view, "Members of a social audience—people who are actually watching a film or television program—will utilize interpretive strategies that are based upon their past viewing experiences as well as upon their personal histories, whether social, racial, sexual, or economic" (87). Similarly, Chicano theorist Fuentes states that in "the plurality of relationships that are established within and around an artistic text, the perspective of the reader (in cinema that of the viewers) is of utmost importance. Each reader brings to the reading her or his own cultural baggage, expectations, and personal and socio-historical circumstances" (210). This "cultural baggage," including folklore, positions the reader/viewer to engage these images from a distinct cultural location. It is from within a Chican@ cultural framework, in particular one informed by the legend of La Llorona, that I read the works included in this study. These cultural readings reveal how La Llorona has evolved from pre- and post-conquest oral narratives to contemporary films. They also reflect the changing cultural, economic, political, and social concerns and positions of Chican@s and contribute to a critical understanding of the impact of non-Chican@s' use of La Llorona, a consideration I make, specifically, in Chapter 5.
The first chapter is a historical overview of La Llorona's movement from a pre-conquest portent to contemporary Mexican American and Chican@ cultural productions, starting with the testimonio about a wailing woman included in Book Twelve of the Florentine Codex and moving to La Llorona's wandering through cyberspace. The artifacts discussed in this chapter represent exclusively traditional and contemporary versions of the lore, categories I define in detail and which serve as the foundation for all of the strategies offered in the subsequent chapters. These productions, such as Rosemary Catacalos' poem "A Vision of La Llorona" (1984), Silvia Gonzalez S.' play La Llorona Llora (1996), and José L. Cruz's film Haunted from Within [Spirit Hunter: La Llorona] (2004) reflect on social and cultural issues involving Chicano nationalism, rigidly defined gender roles, poverty, and heterosexuality. Mexican Americans and Chican@s who transmit traditional and contemporary versions of the legend emphasize basic elements found in Llorona stories, like wandering or weeping, and make visible or allude to her various permutations. At times, some also assume an audience familiar with the oral tradition. The emphasis in this chapter is on those productions that seek to replicate or render the lore in ways that do not trouble La Llorona's traditional position as a threat, which is not to say that all reflect a single set of concerns. The conventional and traditional renderings of the tale included in this chapter help cultural readers to prefigure the more radical revisions to La Llorona and her story discussed in the subsequent three chapters.
Chapter 2 is a discussion of artifacts that represent revisions of the lore. One way in which this category differs from traditional or contemporary renderings is that it places greater demands on cultural readers. Reading for revisions is dependent on the audience's ability to be fairly conversant in the legend and to have awareness of its different versions in order to see the ways in which La Llorona and her story are being changed; for instance, her crying for milk instead of her children as in the CMPB's "La Llorona, Got Milk?" television commercial. Cultural producers revise the legend by changing its primary features, reconfiguring or renaming the source of La Llorona's oppression, recasting the roles of the major players in the tale, or reworking the somber tone to illicit sympathy and even laughter from audiences. Chican@s who revise La Llorona lore frequently interrogate the misogyny, classism, or colonialism at the center of some versions without discarding familiar themes entirely. Pieces like Victoria Moreno's poem "La Llorona, Crying Lady of the Creekbeds, 483 Years Old, and Aging" (1977) and Monica Palacios' short story "La Llorona Loca: The Other Side" (1991) have decidedly political overtones in that they highlight sources of oppression embedded in traditional narratives or point to contemporary oppressive forces, though they are not specifically counter-narratives that dismantle or overtly challenge them. When authors like Anaya, in Rio Grande Fall (1996), and Angel Vigil, in the short story "La Llorona's Final Cry" (1994), attempt to offer "new" truths about the lore aimed at challenging our conventional understanding of the tale, the power of the lore is such that these revelations, as represented in these texts, have no effect on the community's perception of La Llorona.
In Chapter 3 I focus on resistance narratives in which La Llorona acts against and on sources of oppression or empowers women to do the same. Often these women are written into Llorona narratives or cast as Llorona figures. Such is the case with Cleófilas in Sandra Cisneros' short story "Woman Hollering Creek" (1991) and the washerwoman in Helena María Viramontes' short story "The Cariboo Cafe" (1985). Not all, though, are receptive to her presence or see her as a means of liberation. Therefore, resistance, as conceived of and conveyed in these works, sometimes means resisting La Llorona outright and turning away a potential ally and figure of liberation. The category of resistance is comprised of artifacts that include La Llorona as a direct example or metaphysical manifestation of economic, gender, political, or sexual oppression, for example. In some artifacts, La Llorona is used as a vehicle for resisting specific subjugating forces that cause her disenfranchisement not only as a woman but as a Native woman, as in Pat Mora's poem "Llantos de La Llorona: Warnings from the Wailer" (Agua Santa, 1995) and Cherríe L. Moraga's play The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea (2001).
Chapter 4 features a catalog of artifacts that demand the most of audiences familiar with the lore. In addition to distinguishing among traditional, revised, or resistance narratives, readers are looking for the ways that Chican@s are re-turning—literally, turning to—lost or forgotten elements of La Llorona's life. These elements can include, but are not limited to, La Llorona's name before she assumed the mantle of weeping and wailing; moments of her life not attached to the tragedy; or antecedents in the Mesoamerican pantheon. Through these strategies, Chican@s return La Llorona to a past or a historical moment not often featured in the lore. In this chapter, I argue that recuperations, like the ones we see in Cordelia Candelaria's poem "La Llorona at Sixteen" (1993) and Xavier Garza's mixed media artwork La Llorona (2001), can show that the girl/woman people would come to know as La Llorona was not always a figure of sorrow or that her suffering began well in advance of the murder that would mark her. Recuperations of La Llorona also identify antecedents that were a part of a Mesoamerican worldview but that were set aside, erased, or written over as a result of "conquest," the same ones brought to the fore in works like Juana Alicia's mural La Llorona's Sacred Waters (2004). The recovery of these buried historical and Native antecedents can serve to empower characters, as in the case of the matriarch in Ana Castillo's novel So Far From God (1993).
Throughout the book, I have selected the artifacts most representative of each category, which means that some productions were necessarily excluded. My study, while extensive, is not meant to be exhaustive. Many artifacts can be read as belonging to more than one category (for example, a resistance narrative has probably been revised), so they are arranged by their primary features. This model allows me to show the complexity and scope of portrayals of La Llorona as a person, spirit, and/or story, for clearly in the work of Chican@s, she is all of these and much more, including metaphor and muse.
I am not the first person to conceive of cultural productions featuring La Llorona or the figure herself in terms of revision, resistance, or recuperation. The critical categories offered in each chapter were created in conversations with and in response to primarily Chican@ scholarship on La Llorona, in particular the work of Anzaldúa, Candelaria, Limón, and Rebolledo. Anzaldúa recovers some of La Llorona's antecedents found in the pantheon of the Mexicas and asserts that wailing is an act of resistance, sometimes the only one available to Indigenous women. Candelaria questions the possibility of a re/visioning and/or re/reading of La Llorona by radical artists, and Limón argues that La Llorona has the potential to become a Chicana feminist figure of resistance and urges further contemplation of her as such. Rebolledo reconceptualizes La Llorona to consider the ways in which she represents not only women but also Chican@ culture as a whole. This study, however, is the first book-length interdisciplinary study of representations of La Llorona across genres.
My theoretical and critical perspectives are informed by sources across disciplines. Whenever possible in the first four chapters, I privilege the work of Chican@ and Latin@ studies' scholars in fields ranging from folklore and literature to art and film. In the area of folklore studies, I turn to the early, regional work done in New Mexico by Aurelio M. Espinosa in 1910 and in Texas by Soledad Pérez in 1951.16 Antonia Castañeda Shular, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, and Joseph Sommers effectively bridge folklore and Chican@ literature in their anthology Literatura Chicana (1972) to show how one medium for storytelling can inform or take shape in another. I also rely on the oft-cited seminal historical studies of La Llorona done by early folklorists such as Thomas A. Janvier, Betty Leddy, Bacil F. Kirtley, Robert A. Barakat, and Michael Kearney. The use of these works is problematic because in some instances the native informants are represented as superstitious, quaint, or exotic. The later work of Bess Lomax Hawes, Shirley Arora, Pamela Jones, Mark Glazer, and Ed Walraven reflects a more enlightened, culturally sensitive view of informants and their respective communities.
More broadly, in the areas of border, cultural, literary, and gender and sexuality studies, many of the creative writers—like Anaya, Anzaldúa, Candelaria, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Jorge A. Huerta, Moraga, and Naomi Quiñonez—whose work appears among the artifacts included in this collection, also contribute theoretical perspectives on La Llorona. Other critical investigations that either focus exclusively or in part on La Llorona include, but are not limited to, Rosemarie Coste's creative/critical quest to recover or locate the source of a woman's voice in the legend; Clarissa Pinkola Estés' La Llorona entry in her best-selling book Women Who Run With the Wolves (1992), a Jungian approach to women's mythology; Arturo Ramírez's replication of the legend, giving particular attention to the issues of gender and nationalism, to determine its "fundamental elements" and their meaning (21); Maria L. Figueredo's analysis of La Llorona's cultural history as a means of determining the legendary figure's continual ability to resonate for her cultural community; and Alicia Schmidt Camacho's feminist study of "feminicidio" in Juárez, Mexico, and the use of La Llorona stories as a subversive means of transmitting cultural and gendered information among the women of the maquiladoras.17 The combined work of these critics reveals that La Llorona has moved beyond the boundaries of her singular tragic fate, while maintaining prominence in Mexican, Mexican American, and Chican@ culture.
In the area of literary studies, Ana María Carbonell sees La Llorona, when attached to her indigenous precursors, as a resistant figure that teaches women how to holler instead of wail in the works of Sandra Cisneros and Helena María Viramontes. Juan Bruce-Novoa discusses La Llorona as a barrio resident whose story creates, in part, the backdrop for the poetry of raúlrsalinas and Ricardo Sánchez. Rebolledo presents La Llorona as one of many female archetypes, along with la bruja or Coatlicue, for instance, found in Chicana literature. José David Saldívar considers Viramontes' use and revision of the legend in a transnational context to "produce cultural simultaneity in the Américas (uniting Central American and North American borderlands history) [...]" (105). Sonia Saldívar-Hull provides explicit discussions of what she sees as revisions of and resistance to conventional constructions of La Llorona's narrative and "other misogynist plots" that forestall Chicana subjectivity, as also found in the work of Cisneros and Viramontes (123).
In the first four chapters, I bring together the many different conversations taking place about La Llorona, not simply the Chican@ scholarly ones that focus on literature. The readings and representations of La Llorona included in this study reflect the ideological diversity of thought about this complex figure, while providing us with strategies to determine our relationship(s) to her and the role we want her to play, if any, in our lives.
The last two chapters are devoted to intercultural dialogues, ones in which La Llorona serves as a kind of cultural ambassador who can bring diverse communities into conversation about the cultural, economic, political, and social issues that inform the lore. Chapter 5 offers the reading strategies presented in the first four chapters as methods for Chican@ cultural readers to engage in conversations about how non-Chican@s or Mexican@s participate in disseminating the lore. La Llorona's story is an ideal vehicle for creating intercultural dialogue because she does not recognize any border, and similar figures appear across cultures. As performance theorist and artist Guillermo Gomez-Peña asserts, "In order to dialogue, we must learn each other's language, history, art, literature, and political ideas. We must travel south and east, with frequency and humility, not as cultural tourists but as civilian ambassadors" (48). Respectful readings of La Llorona or ones that privilege a Chican@ worldview can challenge existing forms of power in the colonial context of America and serve as a starting point for respectful intercultural conversation. Some readers may be surprised to find a commercial product such as coffee from the Coffee Shop of Horrors and a novelette that appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction included in a discussion about art by Diana Breyer and Dan K. Enger or a David Lynch film. But regardless of the medium or genre, all of the above artifacts serve as sites for the dissemination of information about La Llorona by non-Chican@s, who not only transmit the lore, but also, in many cases, transform it using the same strategies as Chican@s.
Rather than avoiding questions about appropriation or engaging in, according to Stanley Fish, the "moral algebra" of figuring out who did what to whom (4), I am locating my discussion of non-Chican@ cultural productions about La Llorona in Mexican American, Chican@, and Latin@ studies contexts, a strategy that presents its own kinds of difficulties. As Gomez-Peña reminds us:
The social and ethnic fabric of the United States is filled with interstitial wounds, invisible to those who didn't experience the historical events that generated them, or who are victimized by historical amnesia. Those who cannot see these wounds feel frustrated by the hardships of intercultural dialogue. Intercultural dialogue unleashes the demons of history. (47)
We must confront these demons, those that were unleashed upon us and those of our making, if we are to chart La Llorona's future and our own.
It is my belief that by shifting the discussion to this new site, we can offset the privilege of Anglo dominative culture and equalize the power on both sides of the conversation. This move is crucial for intercultural dialogue to be effective, for as Gomez-Peña observes, "Dialogue is a two-way, ongoing communication between peoples and communities that enjoy equal negotiating powers" (48; emphasis mine). I am aware that "dialogue," like "multicultural education," is often a substitute for real substantive work on sociopolitical problems. The intercultural dialogue that I am calling for, therefore, involves both sides speaking and listening from equal positions. Portions of this chapter are in conversation with the works of noted cultural theorists: Jean Baudrillard, Coco Fusco, Gomez-Peña, and Trinh T. Minh-ha. Many of their views inform my own analysis of La Llorona's representation in the cultural mainstream. By bringing all of these perspectives, approaches, and works by authors and artists of diverse cultural backgrounds together in one place, I see my work as promoting, through its singular focus on the figure of La Llorona, intercultural dialogue about the contemporary artistic and political struggles inherent in the act of storytelling and attached to the cultural groups who transmit the legend.
Chapter 6 is a study of artifacts featuring La Llorona generated by artists, educators, and storytellers of various ethnicities primarily for younger audiences to determine what we are telling future generations about La Llorona. The stories we pass on to our children and those we choose to pass over will determine her status as heroine or villain. Through the pairing of traditional and revised narratives, writers and artists are teaching children to become sophisticated cultural readers from an early age. Authors like Anaya in Maya's Children: The Story of La Llorona (1997) and My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande (1999), and Anzaldúa in Prietita and the Ghost Woman/Prietita y la Llorona (1995); theatre troupes such as Magical Rain, ChUSMA, and Great Leap; and productions such as Express Children's Theatre's performance of The Ghost of La Llorona (1995), written by Rodney Rincón, ensure La Llorona's survival in the cultural imaginations of children and teens as well.
I conclude the work by considering the larger theoretical and practical possibilities of reading representations of Chican@s as Llorona figures even when La Llorona does not appear or is not mentioned by name in a work. I also illustrate how reading non-Chican@ texts through the lens of the lore can open new paths for critical consideration of canonical texts, such as Moby Dick (1851), by privileging, for example, socially or racially marginalized characters in those productions or foregrounding the historical and cultural mechanisms in place that contribute to their marginalization.
The cultural readings offered in this study are not the only methods for interpreting or deciphering artifacts featuring La Llorona lore. Because lore refers generally to particular kinds of learning acquired or transmitted through sources generated by a cultural community, an examination of these representations through the lens of La Llorona lore will provide readers with a way to make meaning, but will not reveal an ultimate meaning.
In addition to the setting of parameters for this discussion, certain terms used in this study warrant clarification. La Llorona and Weeping Woman refer exclusively to the woman attached to the legend. The latter is used primarily to avoid repetition rather than announce her Anglicization or assimilation into the dominant cultural mainstream. I use Llorona without the article to refer to a woman who is drawn similarly to the woman in the tale and in cases where the inclusion of the article ("La") would be grammatically incorrect, such as in the case of "the La Llorona legend," which would translate to "the The Weeping Woman legend." The term llorona used colloquially means "crybaby" but can also refer to a woman outside of the legend who weeps most often about love, as in the mournful and melancholic Oaxacan folksong that does not include infanticide as a part of the story of lost or unrequited affection.
While La Llorona is unquestionably a US/Mexico transnational figure that represents broad Mexican@ and Chican@ folkloric and storytelling traditions, at times I identify the legend as predominately Chican@. As Jean Franco notes, Chicana feminists especially centralize, actively reconsider, and reconfigure in distinct ways prominent Mexican icons such as La Llorona in their expressions of cultural, gendered, sexual, and political identities in the United States, a point I consider at length in other chapters. My identification of La Llorona as predominately Chican@, therefore, is not a proprietary move, but rather a reflection of Chican@ization, a process by which her story is made to reflect distinct cultural and US national concerns of Chican@s. Like the borderland scholars Américo Paredes, Limón, and Saldívar-Hull before me, to name a few, I also use the term Greater Mexican to speak of the legend. The designation directly challenges oppositional notions about national identity (Mexican or American). Although the term allows for a reconceptualization, as well as a redrawing, of a cultural and geographic homeland, some scholars, such as Alicia Gaspar de Alba, oppose the term because it "de-privileges the Chicano/a reality that it's attempting to describe and depoliticizes" the border (pers. comm. 2006). Therefore, I use it primarily when speaking of a US/Mexico shared cultural or storytelling history.
In studies across disciplines, scholars refer to La Llorona and her story as myth and/or legend. Myth is regularly assigned to sacred stories that explicate and reflect a cultural-specific worldview, though the term is often informally synonymous, especially in a Western worldview, with a story that is not "true." Traditionally transmitted orally, myths are long-established stories that often serve as the foundations for religious, cultural, and social beliefs. Myths also serve as a means of elucidating abstract or complex ideas about the world, such as creation and cosmography, through narrative. Whereas myths are fairly static in nature, legends are more dynamic, in part because they are often a mixture of accepted fact and fiction. However, they retain a measure of rigidity due in part to their historical basis. Legends are stories usually told in the present about historical figures, places, or events. The relationship between myth and legend is complex because at times myth can give rise to legends or vice versa. Like myth, legend is often transformed, and this can occur on multiple levels to accommodate political, geographic, and linguistic shifts. In previously published work, I have used myth and legend interchangeably. But now, due to my belief that La Llorona, as we have come to know her, originates in the disembodied voice heard before Cortés' arrival, I will refer to La Llorona's story as legend. I will use myth when referring to those stories that point directly to an Indigenous antecedent from the pantheon of Native beliefs.
I use parent or native culture interchangeably. The people who gave rise to the legend—Indians and mestizos—comprise each term as I conceive of it. I prefer this terminology to mother culture, which places emphasis on the woman, in La Llorona's case the Native woman, usually in reference to passivity or violence, though arguably La Llorona can be viewed as a cultural parent. Cultural community, on the other hand, is a much more inclusive term that accounts for the people who cultivated the legend and those who participate in its transmission and dissemination, while being respectful of the cultural communities reflected in the tale.
Perhaps the most important concept in need of clarification involves the identity or identities of "cultural readers." While everyone is a cultural reader, members of the dominant culture have the privilege of assuming that their readings are universal, definitive, and somehow cultural without ever having to identify, or consider critically, the lifeways or worldviews that might comprise their "culture." The cultural readers for this study are Mexican@s, Mexican Americans, and Chican@s or their allies, diverse individuals reflecting a vast heterogeneity of thought, educational experiences, sexual alliance, and social or economic positions, for instance. Cultural readers are those who privilege the histories and worldviews generated from the mestizaje that characterizes the cultural territories in which they reside. It is possible, therefore, for non-Chican@s, for instance, to use these reading strategies. Still, as Llorona blogger Desiree Kennedy warns, outsiders might not "understand if [they] weren't raised on the stories" ("More Deaths in Iraq"). Non-natives who engage Chican@ cultural readings willingly commit to and privilege views not their own. Cross-cultural readers metaphorically remove the fence separating themselves and the cultures and/or artifacts under consideration. They must also willingly relinquish their positions as "authorities" to consider first, but not exclusively, readings, strategies, and theories generated by Mexican@s and Chican@s. My vision for this project was to locate in one place a critical mass of La Llorona artifacts to begin wider discussions about La Llorona that may not always rely exclusively on the voices from the Chican@ community, but which I hope will always include them.
As Mexican@s and Chican@s become the numerical majority in cities across the United States, we will need to determine, individually, which cultural values, beliefs, and productions we wish to carry with us across borders and into the cultural mainstream. La Llorona's future is but one consideration. The dynamism of the legend allows for the simultaneous existence of conventional narratives and cultural productions that reflect the changing concerns of Mexican Americans and Chican@s. Both forms ensure the continuation of the lore for a new generation of cultural readers who will define their own relationships to it. This book will play a crucial role, framing our discussion of both La Llorona and, more broadly, the traditions that we consider a distinct part of Chican@ storytelling. Some people may decide that she is too important a figure to leave behind. Others may ultimately determine that La Llorona and her legend are relics that should be buried with the past. In what can be described only as an ironic twist of fate, La Llorona's future has always been in the hands of her cultural and metaphoric children. By continually retelling and reshaping her story to account for new or changing sites of struggle, Chican@s, thus far, have proven that La Llorona is an avatar of social and cultural conflict. Her continued presence in our oral history for almost five hundred years suggests that she and her legend can accommodate dramatic historical and cultural shifts, including the demographic one that is happening now. La Llorona could indeed serve as a powerful symbol for Chican@s as we move into this new era, a reminder of our past and of the obligations that come with power. In determining her fate, we will decide our own.
La Llorona has much to teach us about the world. Instead of finding her that hot summer afternoon in the library, she, in a way, found me in the parking lot. The experience reminded me that while we cannot always control a situation, we can control, in part, our reactions to it. My hasty plans of dashing in and out of the library were abandoned in favor of spending time playing outside of the library with my son and watching from the shade of trees the pulsing fountain in the courtyard shooting water sky-high. The symbolic significance of our proximity, as mother and child, to water and the pulsing spray did not escape me. Eventually, after much laughter and clapping, we retrieved the book. Seeing a representation of La Llorona on the bumper sticker in the parking lot that day helped to create a lasting moment that had nothing to do with suffering, sorrow, or murder, though water and wailing were certainly present. Over the years, I have, indeed, "seen" La Llorona reflected in the cultural imaginations of her people, and what she has shown me is that, regardless of how we feel about her or view her actions, she has the power to bring people together.
“This book is genius. . . . This is interdisciplinary scholarship at its finest . . . that seamlessly crosses and blurs the methodological boundaries of ethnography, cultural critique, feminist critique, literary analysis, visual analysis, and popular culture studies. . . . I wanted to read every word of it.”
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Professor of Chicana/o Studies and English, University of California at Los Angeles