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Mexican Folktale - The Tale of La Llorona

Updated on December 13, 2016

There is a tale that is often told throughout much of Mexico - one that is considered to be an important part of the Hispanic folklore of South America. It is a folktale which concerns the ghost of a young woman referred to as La Llorona, or 'The Weeping Woman', and her desperate search for her lost children.

There are many versions of the tale, of course - but, they each share similar elements. As the story goes, if you were to venture out late at night, in a place where this spirit is known to wander, it may be possible to see her walking along the banks of rivers and canals, searching the water for the souls of her children - children who were lost long ago and, in most versions of the tale, died by her own hand.

The elements of grief and tragic loss to be found in this tale should be fairly obvious - but, there is also a cautionary element to be found, which is just as obvious. It is common, after all, for stories of La Llorona to be used as a method of keeping unruly children in line. Many versions of the tale also indicate that La Llorona may also mistake any other child she may come across, in her nightly wandering, for her own - and, that is might try to steal them away. So, it is obviously in the best interest of any child told the tale to behave, and to stay safely tucked in their beds at night.

While the source of the original tale of La Llorona may be open to debate, there are still a handful of commonly accepted possibilities - the first of which reaches back as far as the original Spanish conquest of the New World. Here, the source of the 'La Llorona' legend is linked to La Malinche, an Aztec woman who served as translator to the conquistador, Hernán Cortés. Cortés and La Malinche, the story goes, became lovers in secret, and ever had a child together - but, Cortés was ultimately led to abandon her in favour of a highborn Spanish wife. This may have been a political marriage, or a marriage of convenience - or, it is also possible that Cortés never truly loved La Malinche, and was more than willing to abandon her when circumstances called for it. This is another aspect of the tale that is open to interpretation - but, either way, the consequences were the same.

As the story continues, it is revealed that this betrayal left La Malinche devastated. Her anger, and her wounded pride, drove her to commit a terrible act of revenge against the lover who had abandoned her - and so, La Malinche took their new-born child to the banks of a river, and cast him in to the water.

That is one possible point of origin for the tale - although, it should be pointed out that any version which identified La Malinche as the figure behind the wandering spirit would seem to go against historical fact. There is, after all, no evidence to suggest that the true historical figure ever killed her own children.

Another point of origin links the legend of La Llorona to a young peasant woman named Maria, who once fell in love with a nobleman. Without its ties to a specific point in history, this version of the tale would seem to play out as something much simpler, and much more straight-forward - although, it still shares many elements in common. Here, we have the young peasant and the nobleman maintaining a secret love affair that lasts for some time - with the two stealing every moment that they can find to spend together, and even having children together. But, as time passes, the nobleman eventually reveals that he cannot marry the peasant woman he has often claimed to love - and, that he must end their relationship and accept an arranged marriage to someone of his own station. Maria is devastated by this betrayal and, in a manner very similar to that of La Malinche, sets out to have her revenge on the one who had hurt her.

In both versions of the tale, though, the anger which drove each woman to commit such a terrible act fades the moment that they see their own children being carried away by the river's current. In some versions, the desperate young woman may dive into the water after her children, only to find that the current is too strong for her and she is pulled along until she ultimately drones with them. In others, the young mother spends her days desperately searching the river's banks for any sign of her children - refusing any offer of food and water, until she ultimately wastes away and dies.

These are two possible points of origin for the figure of La Llorona, at least - but, there are likely to be any number of other alternatives. Really, any tale of a woman scorned, and driven to commit a terrible act, could be used as an explanation for this ghostly figure. From there, though, any version of the tale would begin to follow a similar line.

When the spirit of the young mother reached the gates of Heaven, though, she was immediately asked where her children were - and, was forced to admit that she did not know. Denied entrance to Heaven, the young woman was forced to return - cursed to wander the banks of rivers and canals in her native land, until she was finally able to find the souls of her lost children.

And so, the legend of La Llorona was born - a ghostly apparition searching for the souls of her own children who, in her grief, may mistake any child she finds as her own. Stories of encounters with this ghostly figure may vary wildly in terms of tone or content - with some treating the figure with some degree of sympathy, while others may play out as straight-forward horror. But, in all versions, the ghostly figure of La Llorona will be portrayed as a woman dressed all in white, weeping inconsolably as she continues with her endless search.

© 2016 Dallas Matier

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