Searching for La Llorona

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The roots and essential elements of the famous weeping woman in Latinx and Chicanx lore

by Norma Elia Cantú and Kathleen Alcalá

Editor’s note: Below is an edited excerpt from the introduction to Weeping Women: La Llorona’s Presence in Modern Latinx and Chicanx Lore, an anthology of writing by authors who explore La Llorona through poetry, personal narratives, and scholarship, edited by Norma Elia Cantú and Kathleen Alcalá and forthcoming in October 2024 by Trinity University Press. Their introductory essay, “Searching for La Llorona: The Figure and the Tale in Mexican and Chicana/o/x Cultural Expressions,” helps contextualize an interview with four La Llorona scholars in the June 2024 edition of BorderLore.

Perhaps the best-known folk tale in Mexico concerns the troubling and troublesome figure of La Llorona, the Crying, Wailing, or Weeping Woman.1 According to the many variants of the tale, her motives range from personal spite to a pre-Hispanic foretelling of the destruction of Mexican civilization. Said to haunt the riverbanks at night, she either accosts wayward husbands or mischievous disobedient children. Her very vision inspires fear and creates lasting effects on those who have witnessed a sighting. The tale itself becomes iconic and persists perhaps due to the horrifying presence; she haunts the imaginary of our collective psyches during this period in late capitalism that is fraught with “monsters” including now the COVID19 virus and global issues like climate change. Like the ever-present threat of doom, she haunts many Chicanx and Mexican childhoods.

Origins and Variants

Who is this woman who cries, “¡Ay, mis hijos! ¡Ay, mis hijos!” as she looks for her children in the dark, rushing waters of the river, wearing a long white dress, her long dark hair obscuring her face? One commonly told version describes a woman abandoned by her upper-class lover to marry a member of his own class. Out of spite and jealousy, the woman commits the most unthinkable of acts: she drowns her own children in the river. She is then destined to haunt the riverbanks searching for them, and the cautionary tale of La Llorona emerges: children who misbehave or who go near water, or who are out late at night, must watch out lest La Llorona mistakes them for her own missing children and snatches them away.

Multiple variants of the tale of abandonment, deceit, and revenge found in books, songs, and movies contribute to the popular tale’s persistence in the culture. The story is not unique to Mexican folklore, though. Similar figures exist in literature and in various folk traditions around the world. One of the earliest versions of a similar scenario is that of Medea in Greek mythology, who was said to have killed her children because her husband, the adventurer Jason, leaves her. “I will slay the children I have borne” are the words of Medea in Euripides’ account, when she decides to take revenge on Jason for leaving her to marry Glauke, the princess of Corinth.

From biblical times we have the story of Hagar and Ishmael who are cast out into the desert to fend for themselves after Abraham’s wife Sarah finally gives birth to a son in her old age. At her lowest point, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush so that she will not have to watch him die of thirst. Hagar about to commit infanticide is redeemed through divine intervention as she gathers Ishmael up and, in Islamic lore, he goes on to become a forefather of Muhammed the Prophet.

In an article from 1960, Bacil Kirtley writes of a parallel story in German folklore. He writes, “During the same decade that La Llorona was first mentioned in Mexico, a story, seemingly already quite old, of ‘Die Weisse Frau’ (‘The White Lady’)—which reproduces many of the features consistently recurring in the more developed versions of ‘La Llorona’, was recorded in Germany; references to Die Weisse Frau date back as early as 1486. The story of the White Lady follows a virtually identical plot to the classical La Llorona story.”

Various scholars like Américo Paredes, while not denying that other similar variants occur outside of the Americas, insist that the popular tale is directly descended from the indigenous variants. Ben Radford holds that “While the classic image of La Llorona was likely taken from an Aztec goddess named Cihuacōātl, the narrative of her legend has other origins.”2

In our view, the tale’s origins in Mexico are irrefutable. In the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic work on the Nahua peoples of Mexico completed during the 16th century by Aztec scribes working with the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, we find two Aztec goddesses who could be precursors to La Llorona. The first is Ciuacoatl or Coatlicue, described by Sahagún as ‘a savage beast and an evil omen’ who ‘appeared in white’ and who would walk at night ‘weeping and wailing.’ The Aztecs considered her a snake-skirted mother figure and a warrior, patroness to women in childbirth. Ciuacoatl can also be linked to the sixth of ten omens recorded in the Florentine Codex as having foretold the arrival of the Europeans and the subsequent conquest: the voice of a woman crying about the fate of her children. She could be heard wailing at night in the streets of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan: “¡Ay, mis hijos! ¡Ay mis hijos!” “Oh, my children. Where can I take you? It is already too late. The crying voice filled all who heard her with dread, and news of the bad omen quickly spread to all parts of the empire.”

The Llorona tale may also have originated in the figure of another goddess, Chalchiuhtlicue (the Jade-skirted one), who ruled over bodies of water and was either the elder sister or spouse of the rain god, Tlaloc. Sahagún describes her as one who was ‘feared’ and ‘caused terror.’ She was capable of drowning people and overturning boats. Ceremonies in honor of the rain gods, including Chalchiuhtlicue, involved the sacrifice of children. These sacrificial victims were bought from their mothers and the more the children cried, the more successful the sacrifice was thought to have been. 

Essential Elements

If we talk about essential elements that seem to surface regardless of the circumstances, water is one of them. And access to water is also an economic factor. We need water to live, ideally, clean water, but in modern times riverfront property has become valuable and therefore expensive. The poor can sometimes access the river through parks and rural areas, but daily access to a river is valuable. Climate change means that the areas around the equator will become less habitable, while mass migrations mean that traditional cultures are becoming unmoored from traditional lands and need to relocate and replant themselves. The relationship to water in these stories, as life-giver and destroyer, points to the continued power of Cihuacoatl the snake-skirted goddess and the prevalence of snakes near water. It is no accident that when migration from Texas to the Midwest occurred, the tale came along with the oral tradition and thus we find la Llorona haunts the Platte River in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Norma heard the tale from long-time residents. 

At the end of the US-Mexico War, in February 2, 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the Rio Grande became the border; Mexico ceded almost half of its territory to an eager United States bent on extending its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean. Because this border runs across land claimed by indigenous people, private landowners, and numerous plant and animal territories that need access to both sides of the river, it has remained in contention for over 150 years. This borderland, this nepantla, as Gloria Anzaldúa called the in-between space,3 the interstices where the two countries edge each other, occupies psychic as well as physical space, deeply engrained in the memories and psyches of those of us who grew up in the border region.

Sometimes the borderlands may refer to a neutral space between the spirit and corporeal world, other times it is an uneasy space that reflects the injustice of situations left unresolved. In the real physical, active geopolitical space, we find myriad populations living life between countries, between languages, between economic systems; the maquiladora workers, migrants, farmers, ranchers, drug dealers are Anglo, Jewish, African American, Asian, Arabic, and Indigenous peoples who inhabit the space and create a culture of confluence. Our families are familiar with both sides of this river and find it difficult to divide themselves into the two halves demanded by political circumstances. Both sides of this borderland tell Llorona stories, often set specifically on the Rio Grande. But they can occur anywhere in Greater Mexico, to use Don Américo Paredes’ term, wherever Mexican origin people reside and carry forth the folk belief of their root culture. In all these spaces, the people feel Llorona’s pain, despite also harboring an innate fear of such a powerful creature.

  1. Generally, the figure is known in Spanish as La Llorona or La Gritona, but in English many approximated translations exist including “Woman Hollering” as in the creek near Seguin, Texas that is the title story of one of Sandra Cisneros’s short story collections, and Felicia Luna Lemus refers to her as “La Weeping” in her novel Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. ↩︎
  2. Radford, Ben. (2014). Mysterious New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. p. 228. ↩︎
  3. Anzaldua, Gloria. 2001. Prietita and the Ghost Woman/Prietita y la Llorona. San Francisco: Children’s Book Press; Bilingual edition. ↩︎


Award winning poet and author, Dr. Norma Elia Cantú was born in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas to a Tejana mother and a Mexicano father. She currently serves as the Norine R. and T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University in San Antonio, where she teaches courses in Latinx Studies, Folklore, and Creative Writing. Her creative writing focuses on the US-Mexico Border and includes the novels Canícula and Cabañuelas, as well as a poetry collection, Meditación fronteriza. Her most recent publication is the anthology Chicana Portraits: Critical Biographies of Twelve Chicana Writers. She is the co-editor, with Kathleen Alcalá, of the forthcoming anthology, Weeping Women: La Llorona in Modern Latina and Chicana Lore (October 2024, Trinity University Press).

Kathleen Alcalá is the author of four works of fiction – Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist; Spirits of the Ordinary; The Flower in the Skull; and Treasures in Heaven – and a collection of essays. Her work is the recipient of a Governor’s Writers Award, the Washington State Book Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Western States Book Award, among others. Kathleen teaches Creative Writing in the Low Residency MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts on Whidbey Island. Two of her stories are included in the recent Norton Anthology of Latino Literature. She is the co-editor, with Norma Cantú, of the forthcoming anthology, Weeping Women: La Llorona in Modern Latina and Chicana Lore (October 2024, Trinity University Press).

Cover photo: CarlosGalvanMex

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