In Latin American folklore, La Llorona (pronounced [la ʝo.ˈɾo.na], “The Weeping Woman”) is the ghost of a woman who lost her children and now cries while looking for them in the river, often causing misfortune to those who are near or hear her. There is no credible source or evidence to the events that inspired the tale/legend of La Llorona.
(The legend specified in this article is of Mexican origin, and its versions vary depending on the demography.)
The legend is said that in a rural village there lived a young woman named Maria. Maria came from a poor family but was known around her village for her beauty. One day, an extremely wealthy nobleman traveled through her village. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Maria. Maria was charmed by him and he was charmed by her beauty, so when he proposed to her, she immediately accepted. Maria’s family was thrilled that she was marrying into a wealthy family, but the nobleman’s father was extremely disappointed that his son was marrying into poverty. Maria and her new husband built a house in the village to be away from his disapproving father. Eventually, she gave birth to two boys. Her husband was always traveling, and stopped spending time with his family. When he came home, he only paid attention to the children and Maria knew her husband was falling out of love with her. One day, he returned to the village with a younger woman, and told his children farewell, ignoring Maria.
Maria, angry and hurt, took her children to a river and drowned them in a blind rage. She realized what she had done and searched for them, but the river had already carried them away. Days later, she was found dead on the river bank. Challenged at the gates of heaven for the whereabouts of her children, she was not permitted to enter the afterlife until she finds them. Stuck between the land of the living and the dead, she spends eternity looking for her lost children. She is always heard weeping for her children, earning her the name “La Llorona.” It is said that if you hear her crying, you are to run the opposite way. If you hear her cries, they could bring misfortune or even death. Many parents in Latin America use this story to scare their children from staying out too late.
La Llorona kidnaps wandering children at night, mistaking them for her own. She begs the heavens for forgiveness, and drowns the children she kidnaps. People who claim to have seen her say she appears at night or in the late evening by rivers or lakes, wearing a white or black gown with a veil. Some believe those who hear the wails of La Llorona are marked for death or misfortune, similar to the Gaelic banshee legend. Amongst her wails, she is noted as crying “¡Ay mis hijos!” which translates to “Oh my children!” She scrapes the bottom of the rivers and lakes, searching for her children. It is said that when her wails sounds near she is actually far and when she sounds distant, she is actually very near.
La Llorona is also sometimes identified with La Malinche, the Nahua woman who served as Cortés’ interpreter and mistress who bore his children and who some say was betrayed by the Spanish conquistadors. In one folk story of La Malinche, she became Hernán Cortés’ mistress and bore him a child, only to be abandoned so that he could marry a Spanish lady (although no evidence exists that La Malinche killed her children). Aztec pride drove La Malinche to acts of vengeance. In this context, the tale compares the Spanish discovery of the New World and the demise of indigenous culture after the conquest with La Llorona’s loss.
The Chumash of Southern California have their own connection to La Llorona. Chumash mythology mentions La Llorona when explaining nunašɨš (creatures of the other world) called the “maxulaw” or “mamismis.” Mythology says the Chumash believe in both the nunašɨš and La Llorona and specifically hear the maxulaw cry up in the trees. The maxulaw cry is considered an omen of death. The Maxulaw is described as looking like a cat with skin of rawhide leather.
Outside the Americas, La Llorona bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek tale of the demonic demigodess Lamia. Hera, Zeus’ wife, learned of his affair with Lamia and, out of anger, killed all the children Lamia had with Zeus. Out of jealousy over the loss of her own children, Lamia steals other women’s children. In Greek mythology, Medea killed the two children fathered by Jason (one of the Argonauts) after he left her for another woman.
Author Ben Radford’s investigation into the legend of La Llorona, published in Mysterious New Mexico, traced elements of the story back to a German folktale dating from 1486.
The legend of La Llorona persists in areas where mountain lions are active. The Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals notes that the mountain lion’s “blood curdling mating call has been likened to a woman’s scream.”