Traitor, ghost, feminist icon: Reclaiming the stories of La Llorona

Illustration of La Llorona wearing a flower crown
(Axel Rangel García / For De Los )
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La Llorona seeps into memories and households across countries, emerging from rough terrains, desolate roads and hollow creeks. Geographically diverse, the oral tradition and literary material of the mythical creature live in the rhythm of words and the fabric of Mesoamerican folklore.

During the postcolonial era, La Llorona was portrayed as an Indigenous woman who bears two sons to a wealthy Spaniard. He leaves her for a Spanish woman of a different social status. In a state of fury, she drowns her children and then takes her own life. In limbo, she haunts Mexico’s streets and nearby waterfronts, forced into atonement.

This rendition perpetuates a common trope rooted in dominance over groups such as women and Indigenous communities.

Whether La Llorona is held up as a form of resistance against oppression, owning her power or reclaiming the monstrous bruja within, the narratives of the wailing woman have endured for centuries, reimagined into a radical icon.


Stories and interpretations

Carolina Munoz recalls hearing the story of a woman weeping by a riverbed. It was a stormy night in Jalisco, Mexico, where she was visiting family.

“There was a river with a grassy cliff nearby, and it was told to me as something that happened locally,” said Munoz, a second-year English PhD student at the University of Southern California.

At age 7, her imagination soared with an immense sense of fear around the sensations and sounds evoked by this spirit.

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“I remember thinking about her crying,” she said.

But this is merely one tale of La Llorona. Throughout the years, she has become a Latin American legend who has crept into the depths of storytelling that’s been passed down for generations.

The first official documentation of La Llorona is in a 19th century sonnet by poet Manuel Carpio. There is no reference to infanticide, but La Llorona is portrayed as a ghost after being murdered by her husband.

In Guatemala, stories describe a maligned woman who drowned her son to cover up an affair. In Venezuela, the story is tied to colonialism and the grief is for the murdered children.


La Llorona is sometimes deemed an apparition. The mythological creature mourns her kids, who, in some variations, take their own lives. Sometimes, she consumes new souls with a dagger in her eye and sharp nails.

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These macabre interpretations are rooted in different regions throughout Mexico, Central and South America and are popularized in the Southwest of the United States.

“We can talk about Mexican national identity through her. We can talk about indigeneity, gender, sexuality, trauma, mourning — all of these things that are difficult and painful,” said Orquidea Morales, a professor at the University of Arizona who focuses on the intersection of Latinx studies and horror in film, theater and television.

For Morales, the details of La Llorona imbue different emotions. Morales learned about La Llorona as a “woman whose husband crossed the border into the U.S. for work. Her child accidentally drowned when she tried to find him as they crossed the river. She [dies] out of sorrow.

“I grew up on the border, back and forth, so I empathize with her,” said Morales. “Our idea of what terrifies us changes across time and space.”

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Other tales illustrate an immortal spirit cloaked in a long white gown, hair flowing to her knees, condemned to roam for eternity as a form of repentance — tied to both religious divinity and sanctity. Her story is told as a cautionary tale for children, instilling discipline and a message about seduction and a wayward husband, or shared as a form of entertainment.


The lure of horror within Latine culture can serve as an exploration of society, a way to tap into experiences and emotions that can be difficult to talk about or as a way of gathering and passing along pieces of history. The fascination with this genre is seen in motifs like El Cucuy, a boogeyman, and the shapeshifter Nagual.

“The only thing that’s persevered, that’s continued in time, has been oral tradition — these stories, legends and myths,” Munoz said. “It’s also necessary to know what ideologies and ideas structure these stories to understand better what it was like to be a person, specifically a woman.”

La Llorona influenced countless songs, literature and visual art forms. The folk ballads dedicated to the lamenting woman channel a communal pain, sung by Chavela Vargas, Joan Baez, Lila Downs, Lola Beltrán and Lucha Villa.

“There’s contemporary iterations of the legend that definitely privileged certain historical, sociological and cultural facets and implications of the legend,” Munoz said.

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In 1866, a Spanish Jesuit priest, José Maria León y Domínguez, published a first-person narrative, “El Pozo de La Llorona.” Some scholars speculate this story reached Mexico and then was integrated with Indigenous mythology that shaped the Llorona popularized today.

The phantom appeared nearly 100 years later onscreen in the 1960s in “La Llorona,” which travels back to New Spain and to the present time in Guanajuato, Mexico. The film revealed the social structures and racial hierarchies that confined La Llorona under a colonial lens.


Poets also have embraced the figure’s mysticism and inspired verses, as in Norma Elia Cantú’s “La Llorona Considers the State of Tortillas.” The writer and Murchison professor at Trinity University reinterprets La Llorona as a tortilla.

“She’s an ever-present figure,” she said. “The tortilla is not just for eating. I think that La Llorona is also not just for kids.”

Origins and connections

The myth is said to have arrived in the central highlands of Mexico, but one chronicle tells of an omen forewarning the Spanish conquest in the altepetl of Mexico.

The Náhuatl account is documented in the Florentine Codex, a 16th century study by a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún. This deity is described as offering premonitions of war, roaming the temples of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, and sharing visions of a catastrophe before the arrival of the Europeans.

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Contextualized within the Aztec pantheon of gods, La Llorona is associated with Cihuacōātl, a fertility goddess and snake woman. She also is correlated to midwives or Cihuateteo, the worshiped spirits of women who died in childbirth.

The functions of these deities are multifaceted, personified as the mother of children killed in war and a metaphor for a sacrifice to save the “Azteca-Mexica culture” from colonial rule.


But in the work of Chicana feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa, she examines how the feminine entities were reduced to hideous, “child-eating” demons summoned to the underworld, where they assumed the suffering of Mexico.

What scholars like Anzaldúa and Morales explore is the complex dichotomous split placed under patriarchy that the Spaniards furthered. These portrayals were a mechanism to indoctrinate religious and political dominance. Tonantzin and the Virgen de Guadalupe — revered and pure — are idolized, whereas Coatlicue (Aztec mother goddess) and La Llorona are objectified. It is a lesson to remain pious, said Morales.

Reclaiming La Llorona

La Llorona is conflated with characteristics found in the vilified La Malinche (Malintzin) or Doña Marina, viewed as a traitor for serving as an interpreter to the conquistador Hernán Cortés and mothering his son, who symbolized the first mestizo.

Literary writer Octavio Paz’s 1950 essay, “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” defines Mexican national identity by christening La Llorona alongside La Virgen and La Malinche. These “mother” figures are central to his analysis of the “destruction of Aztecs,” as they assume the nation’s collective misery, humility and blame.

“This migration set the stage for her adoption into Chicano nationalist rhetoric, which placed [La Llorona] as the bad mother, next to the traitor La Malinche,” wrote Morales in her academic dissertation.

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The Chicano Movement of the 1960s and ’70s reignited Malinche and used the term “malinchistas” for Chicana feminists who assert their place, calling for gender equality. The Mexican trinity became a national symbol, fueling heteronormative roles.


These disparities galvanized Chicana feminists into creative writing and artistic expression that dismantled dominant themes reinforcing misogyny. The feminist representation offered a vessel for new meaning, recognizing the oppression against women.

Anzaldúa’s book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” laid the foundation for much of the Chicana feminist literary canon, pushing discourse forward. Cultural producers began redefining the Llorona archetype, reasserting her agency in this “borderland space.”

A pathway to subvert the negative depictions of La Llorona was built by the likes of writer-activist Cherríe Moraga, who integrates gender power dynamics in her play “The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea.”

Humanity in monsters

“We can think about external monsters and ghosts, but what do those ghosts tell us about ourselves?” said Morales.

Folklorists find stories about monsters to be multidimensional, informing people about themselves and eliciting different emotions, including anxiety.

Kentucky folklife specialist Camille Acosta views horror as an instrument for healing. She said that her father could cry out of fear for this spooky ghost woman or joke around with his friends about Chupacabra.


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“These emotional moments allowed him to feel when a system denied him that vulnerability,” she said. “That’s why he found such beauty in the escapism of monsters, specifically, La Llorona growing up.”

Stories about monsters often were used as colonization tactics to gain control over groups of people, Acosta said. The act of colonizing can manifest in different ways. The Texas-born folklorist believes monsters became a tool of communication where generational trauma is passed down as tradition.

“For years, BIPOC have felt monstrous for being themselves, otherized for speaking a different language or having different cultural traditions,” Acosta said. “My [wish] for the future is to reclaim this narrative of monstrosity right in the face of colonization and say, ‘I’m proud to be a monstrous being. I’m terrifying. I’m strong. I’m different but beautiful.’”

Acosta hopes monsters never leave her side, including La Llorona. “I hope she’s always, at least, a river away,” she said.

Sarah Quiñones Wolfson is a Los Angeles-based journalist with experience crafting stories focusing on the intersection of arts, culture and social justice. She has written for outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic and KCET.