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Mexicolore contributor Dr Amy Fuller

La Llorona and the Days of the Dead (1)

We are sincerely grateful to Dr. Amy Fuller, Lecturer in the History of the Americas, Nottingham Trent University, for this illuminating introduction to the legendary figure of La Llorona, who features prominently in Mexican popular culture, and her connections with Mexico’s Days of the Dead festival...

Pic 1: ‘La Llorona’ dressed in white, part of a Day of the Dead parade in Orizaba, Veracruz
Pic 1: ‘La Llorona’ dressed in white, part of a Day of the Dead parade in Orizaba, Veracruz (Click on image to enlarge)

La Llorona (usually translated into English as ‘the wailing woman’) is a legendary figure, deeply ingrained in Mexican culture, with various incarnations. She is often presented as an apparition of a woman dressed in white; found by lakes or rivers, or sometimes at crossroads. She cries into the night for her children, whom she has killed, sometimes with a knife or dagger, but very often by drowning them.

Pic 2: ‘La Llorona’ carved out of wood
Pic 2: ‘La Llorona’ carved out of wood (Click on image to enlarge)

Her crime is usually committed in a fit of madness after having found out about an unfaithful lover or husband, who typically leaves her to marry a woman of higher status. After realising what she has done, she usually kills herself. She is sometimes described as a lost soul, doomed to wander the earth forever, and to some she is a bogeywoman, used by parents to make children behave themselves.

Pic 3: Medea about to kill her children - Eugène Delacroix (1862), Louvre, Paris
Pic 3: Medea about to kill her children - Eugène Delacroix (1862), Louvre, Paris (Click on image to enlarge)

The origins of the legend are uncertain, but La Llorona has been presented as having pre-Hispanic roots. She is thought to be one of ten omens foretelling the conquest of Mexico, and she has also been linked to Aztec goddesses. La Llorona has also been conflated with La Malinche, Cortés’ translator and concubine. As such she is often portrayed as an indigenous woman jilted by a Spanish lover. However, there are many similar European and ‘Old World’ motifs: the ‘white woman’ of the Germanic and Slavic tradition; the Lorelai; the banshee, and Medea.

Pic 4: Statue of Cihuacoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: Statue of Cihuacoatl, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

If we look to the Florentine Codex, an encyclopedic work on the Nahua completed during the sixteenth century by the Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, we find two Aztec goddesses that could be linked to La Llorona. The first is Cihuacoatl (Snake-woman), described as “a savage beast and an evil omen” who “appeared in white” and would walk at night “weeping and wailing”. She is also described as an “omen of war”. This earth goddess could also be associated with the sixth of ten omens recorded in the codex as having foretold the Conquest: the voice of a woman heard wailing at night, crying about the fate of her children.

Pic 5: A ‘tzitzimitl’, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 76
Pic 5: A ‘tzitzimitl’, Codex Magliabechiano, fol. 76 (Click on image to enlarge)

Cihuacoatl was also said to possess women during childbirth, and those who died while giving birth were thought to be frozen in this state. After a time spent in the afterlife helping the sun in its journey across the sky, these spirits were thought to become the cihuateteo (woman gods) who tormented humanity, haunting crossroads on ceremonial days of ill fortune, and bringing suffering to those whose paths they crossed. After this phase they would become tzitzimime: skeletal figures with claws who were set to devour the world at the end of the fifth sun.

Pic 6: Chalchiuhtlicue depicted in the ritual 260-day calendar, Codex Borgia, fol. 65 (detail), from a restoration by Díaz & Rodgers
Pic 6: Chalchiuhtlicue depicted in the ritual 260-day calendar, Codex Borgia, fol. 65 (detail), from a restoration by Díaz & Rodgers (Click on image to enlarge)

Chalchiuhtlicue (the Jade-skirted) was a water goddess and the elder sister of the rain god, Tlaloc. Sahagún describes her as one who was “feared” and “caused terror”. She was said to drown people and overturn boats, and ceremonies in her honour involved the sacrifice of children who were bought from their mothers. A later codex by a Dominican friar, Diego Durán, details the origin myths of the Aztec gods, and discusses a goddess, Coatlicue, who is often linked to or thought to be the same as Cihuacoatl.

Pic 7: Statue of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 7: Statue of Coatlicue, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Coatlicue (she of the snaky skirt) was the mother of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Durán describes her as “the ugliest and dirtiest that one could possibly imagine. Her face was so black and covered with filth that she looked like something straight out of Hell.” She is shown waiting for her son to return from war, and weeps and mourns for him while he is gone. Durán also discusses some strange occurrences ahead of the conquest said to have troubled Moctezuma, and among these are a “woman who roams the streets weeping and moaning”.

Pic 8: La Llorona carved into the trunk of a tree in Arteaga, Coahuila
Pic 8: La Llorona carved into the trunk of a tree in Arteaga, Coahuila (Click on image to enlarge)

There are geographical variations in the folk story, with different regions having slightly different versions of La Llorona, and the legend has also changed over time, seemingly to reflect the socio-political climate. It is not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, that the folk story can be found in print.
An early written example was an 1883 short novel by Ramón Rodríguez Rivera, La Llorona: cuento popular. This version recalls the relationship of Margarita and Carlos, which breaks down following the death of Carlos’ father. Margarita is driven mad by her (unfounded) suspicion that her husband is having an affair, and she kills their son in a jealous rage. Margarita does not kill herself however, so we lose the supernatural element of the story, and there is no focus on class or racial disparity between the lovers. It seems to be a simple fable advocating communication for marital harmony.

Pic 9: Portrait of King Philip II of Spain in armour, 1551, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Pic 9: Portrait of King Philip II of Spain in armour, 1551, Museo del Prado, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Later versions of the legend conform more closely to the idea of the wronged woman. A 1917 play by Francisco C. Neve is set during the reign of Philip II (1556-1598). Luisa’s lover, Ramiro, is the (fictional) son of Cortés. He has fathered her son and is of much higher social status than her. Unbeknownst to Luisa, Ramiro is due to marry the wealthy daughter of a judge and wishes to take their son. Luisa is told of Ramiro’s plans and is driven mad, breaks up the wedding and kills their son with a dagger. She is hanged and vilified as a witch. Ramiro dies of sorrow and grief when La Llorona appears to haunt him.

Pic 10: A series of 18th century oil paintings depicting scenes of ‘mestizaje’ in colonial Mexico, Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 10: A series of 18th century oil paintings depicting scenes of ‘mestizaje’ in colonial Mexico, Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

The play seems to reflect life in colonial Mexico. Although initially, there was a shortage of Spanish women in New Spain, meaning that unions between indigenous women and Spanish men were quite common, by the end of 16th century, the population of European women was on the rise, which meant the status of indigenous or mestiza (mixed race) women fell considerably. Upon their arrival in Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs gifted women to the Spaniards, and marrying an ‘Indian’ heiress became a familiar path to success. Cohabiting was also common, and in some cases Spanish men would take advantage of the indigenous practice of polygamy by having a number of concubines.

Pic 11: “De Español y India sale Mestizo”, oil painting, Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer, Catalonia
Pic 11: “De Español y India sale Mestizo”, oil painting, Biblioteca Museu Víctor Balaguer, Catalonia (Click on image to enlarge)

The fates of these indigenous and mestiza women were mixed. Some enjoyed stability and enhanced status and therefore benefited from these unions, but more often than not they were cast aside after a few years for younger versions of themselves, or more often, a Spanish wife. The children resulting from the union were sometimes taken away from their indigenous or mestiza mothers and generations of children were raised as ‘Spanish’, despite their mixed heritage, and taught to believe that their mothers’ indigenous culture was inferior. The later colonial period also saw a growing emphasis on racial purity, and unrest and popular rebellions led to the Crown passing legislation limiting the powers of the racially mixed population. These included laws regarding segregation and legislation limiting the inheritance of mestizos from Spanish fathers.

Pic 12: Hernando Cortés, 16th century portrait, Hospital de Jesús, Mexico City
Pic 12: Hernando Cortés, 16th century portrait, Hospital de Jesús, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

In 1933, a novel and screenplay about La Llorona, set in the 1930s was written by Antonio Guzman Aguilera. It focuses on the descendants of Cortés, who have been cursed by the goddess of death during the conquest. The main protagonist is Margot, who is manipulated and driven mad by La Llorona (her son’s indigenous nanny) who persuades Margot that her lover is set to marry an American millionaire and take away their son. La Llorona tempts Margot into trying to kill the boy by injecting him with meningitis. A doctor saves him and kills La Llorona, and he and Margot fall in love and marry.

Pic 13: Mural painting by Diego Rivera ‘Epopeya del pueblo mexicano’, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 13: Mural painting by Diego Rivera ‘Epopeya del pueblo mexicano’, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This version of the story appears to be a metaphor for the uniting of the Mexican people. It presents Cortés’ family as villains, which is in keeping with the rise of anti-Spanish sentiment in Mexico during the 1930s, but the screenplay also echoes the contemporary discord between Mexico and the USA. The post-revolutionary leaders deployed strongly anti-imperialist and anti-American rhetoric, and foreign policy that resisted US influence. The indigenous villain is also reflective of policy implemented by the Cardenas government in particular, which sought “not to Indianize Mexico, but to Mexicanize the Indian”. Though the glory of Mexico’s indigenous past had long been an important part of the nation’s identity, there was also a belief that indigenous culture was not truly Mexican, with mestizaje presented as the ideal.

Pic 14: Oil painting by Luis de Mena (1750) of the Virgin of Guadalupe overseeing ‘casta’ mixed-race groupings in Mexican society, Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 14: Oil painting by Luis de Mena (1750) of the Virgin of Guadalupe overseeing ‘casta’ mixed-race groupings in Mexican society, Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

Later versions of the story have similarly found an enemy in Spain, but in contrast, have created heroes in both the mestizo and indigenous cultures. Carmen Toscano’s 1959 one act play for example, presents a harsh critique of the conquest and colonial period; particularly the treatment of the indigenous people by the Spanish conquistadors. The Spiritual Conquest is also presented as shambolic, and overall New Spain is shown to be a place of chaos with great tensions between clergy and secular authorities. The protagonist is Luisa, a mestiza. Her lover, Nuño is a Spanish conquistador who marries Ana, a wealthy Spanish lady, in secret, planning to then return to Spain. When she finds out, Luisa stabs their children to death and throws their bodies into the canal. She is tried and hung in city’s main plaza.

Pic 15: Mural by Diego Rivera of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 15: Mural by Diego Rivera of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Purity of blood is a running theme throughout the play, with the conquistadors not wishing to dirty the blades of their swords with indigenous blood. Luisa exclaims that Nuño only wishes to marry Ana as they have the same blood, and says she is glad that her children are dead, so they won’t suffer like she has, having to work like a slave despite the glory of both her ancestors. She cries for her unlucky children. After her execution, Luisa takes her revenge, as Nuño collapses and dies. A poet then describes his sad soul and the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Nuño’s abandonment of Luisa represents that of Mexico by the Spaniards once they had exhausted the land of its resources.

Pic 16: Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II, November 8th. 1519; Lienzo de Tlaxcala (original c. 1550 CE)
Pic 16: Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II, November 8th. 1519; Lienzo de Tlaxcala (original c. 1550 CE) (Click on image to enlarge)

This version of the story seems representative of Octavio Paz’s ideas on the subject. In his 1950 Labyrinth of Solitude he describes La Llorona as “one of the Mexican representations of Maternity”; a symbol of Mexican identity that, according to Paz, revolves around the Mexicans’ view of themselves as hijos de La Chingada. Paz explains that, “The verb [chingar] denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force. […] The Chingada is the [violated] Mother […] The hijo de la Chingada is the offspring of violation, abduction or deceit.” This violation is associated with the conquest, and the quintessential symbol of this is Malintzin (also known as La Malinche, or Doña Marina), who despite having been sold into slavery and given to the conquistadors (and therefore having limited agency of her own) has been painted as a traitor to “her people”.

Pic 17: ‘Monumento al Mestizaje’ (Cortés, La Malinche and son) by Julián Martínez and M. Maldonado (1982), Mexico City
Pic 17: ‘Monumento al Mestizaje’ (Cortés, La Malinche and son) by Julián Martínez and M. Maldonado (1982), Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

This anachronistic and highly misogynistic view that lays the blame for the defeat of a civilisation at the feet of one (disenfranchised) woman has remained popular to this day. Indeed, Paz himself states that “the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal.” This is in the face of undisputable evidence that the Aztecs were defeated by a Spanish force aided by thousands of indigenous allies, a fact often conveniently forgotten in popular culture.
In Mexico’s creation myth, La Malinche has become Eve. In regards to her relationship with Cortés, Paz insists that “she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over”. ‘Malinchista’ is an insult, meaning someone who prefers foreign things, so it is easy to see how Malintzin could be merged with La Llorona. The fact that she bore Cortés a son has also fuelled this conflation, and their union has come to symbolise the birth of Mexico as a nation of forcibly mixed-race people.

Pic 18: La Llorona, performed at Xochimilco, 2018
Pic 18: La Llorona, performed at Xochimilco, 2018 (Click on image to enlarge)

The annual performance of La Llorona on lake Xochimilco most explicitly presents the importance of the legend as an expression of Mexican identity. For example, one advert for the play states that: “our nation was born from the tears of La Llorona.” The play has been performed since 1993 and is another rehashing of the Cortés/Malinche story, but with fictional characters. The Spaniards again are the villains, whereas the indigenous ceremonies are completely sanitised and totally peaceful.

Pic 19: La Llorona performed at Xochimilco, 2018
Pic 19: La Llorona performed at Xochimilco, 2018 (Click on image to enlarge)

La Llorona is an indigenous woman who is portrayed as a traitor to her people by passing information to the Spaniards, which leads to their defeat. She is seduced by a conquistador who later abandons her for a Spanish lady; driven mad by her lover’s betrayal, she drowns herself and her unborn child in the lake. Along with links to Malintzin, the play also contains another element of the folk story, as it opens with an Aztec mother goddess wailing a lament for her children as a forewarning of the conquest. It is possible that this goddess is meant to be Cihuacoatl, as within the Florentine Codex she is compared to Eve, and La Malinche has also been described in this way.

Pic 20: La Llorona performed at Xochimilco, 2019
Pic 20: La Llorona performed at Xochimilco, 2019 (Click on image to enlarge)

Here we find the jilted woman united with the Aztec goddess. In weeping for ‘her children’ she both warns her people of their impending doom, but also predicts and laments the birth of the modern Mexican nation through the mixing of blood. It is purported by the production company to be the ‘original’ version of the legend, but it seems to be a representation of Mexican identity building upon the ideas of Octavio Paz. The play runs for two weeks at the end of October/beginning of November, overlapping with the Days of the Dead, which is quite telling, as Paz presents this festival as evidence of Mexico’s “distinctive” attitude towards death. According to Paz, Mexicans embrace death, scorn it, mock it, and do not fear it in the way that people of other countries do. This stereotype is shown to be just that when evidence regarding funeral habits, for example, are examined, but the festival of Day of the Dead helps to bolster the idea...

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This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 28th 2019

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