Post/Colonialism in the Film
There are not only unequal and exploitative relationships between men and women in The Curse of La Llorona, the relationship between whiteness and Mexican bodies and culture is also one of exploitation and violence. Patricia as mother and Anna as mother are treated very differently in the film, despite them acting quite similarly in the way they protect their families against La Llorona. Anxieties about Mexican culture in the political and social spheres manifest in the film through images of colonialism and white saviorism that normalizes exploiting Mexican culture while demonizing Mexican people.
In its portrayal of whiteness in relationship to Mexican-ness and brown-ness, the film was not intentionally racist; it simply portrays the complex relationship between a colonizer nation attempting to integrate the culture of its colonized people, into itself. Similar to the way that the film relies on patriarchal structures to interpret the narrative of La Llorona as one that reinforces patriarchal values, whiteness is celebrated through the telling of a Mexican myth.
An example of how whiteness is treated as inherently better than brown-ness is the relationship between Patricia and Anna. In the beginning of the film, Patricia is suspected of child abuse and child neglect after Social Services loses contact with her. Anna and a police officer go to Patricia’s home to find that she has covered the apartment in candles and religious imagery. Anna is concerned that Patricia has harmed her two sons and she begins to look for them, only to find them locked in a closet with a huge eye painted on the door.
Patricia attempts to attack Anna to prevent her from taking the boys but is stopped by the police officer. Anna takes the two boys to a Catholic halfway home run by nuns because she believes Patricia has harmed them. Away from the protection of their mother, the boys are drowned by La Llorona. The way Patricia Alvarez and her family’s story is framed is important because Anna’s family is framed very differently when she begins to act in similar ways to Patricia to protect her children.
Firstly, Anna is not seen as dangerous as Patricia, even when her boss and coworker suspect her of child abuse. When Donna and Detective Cooper go to Anna’s house to investigate their suspicion that something is wrong, they do not take a police officer with them, like they did with Patricia. Even after the burns on Sam and Chris’s arms are seen, Anna is not arrested, and her children are not taken away from her. Anna is humanized more than Patricia ever was by Child Protective Services.
Secondly, what is framed as Patricia’s crazed superstition is framed as Anna’s researched method for dealing with an entity she does not understand. As soon as Anna is aware that La Llorona is haunting and terrorizing her children, she seeks out a Catholic priest, but he says that he cannot help her. At the same time, they are witnessing a curandero performing “limpias” or “spiritual cleanses” on people across the street, at a funeral. The priest and Anna look on as outsiders but also seeking to use this mystic knowledge for the benefit of expelling La Llorona.
When Anna and her children enter Rafael’s Botanica, they mock his store and the things in it. Rafael appears and refuses to help them until Sam approaches him and asks him to please help her family. This is an act of manipulation by Anna because her children are mixed race and she uses them as a justification for seeking out cultural knowledge that does not belong to her as a white woman; the same cultural knowledge used by Patricia that led to her arrest and the death of her children.
The tactics then used by Rafael to help Anna and her kids destroy La Llorona strongly resemble the tactics that Patricia used in the beginning of the film. Rafael used candles and Anna even hides her two kids in a closet the same way Patricia did. However, the same knowledge that condemns Patricia and her sons is the knowledge that saves Anna and her family.
The implicit message that is being expressed in the film, is that Mexican cultural and spiritual knowledge is not important or valuable until it is beneficial to white people. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, he posted a picture of a taco bowl from Trump Tower Grill and stated that he loved Hispanics. This post on May 5th, 2016, was made in the midst of his campaign to build a wall at the southern border and to have Mexico pay for it.
This tweet by Donald Trump sends out the same message that The Curse of La Llorona does: America wants Mexican culture, labor, and resources but not Mexican people. It is a racist colonialist mentality that continues to subjugate people of color while simultaneously extracting their culture for white benefit. Just as this mentality is ingrained in American culture, it is salient throughout the film.
A stereotype and common trope in film is that of the emotionally excessive Latina, and both Patricia and La Llorona fit within that mold. Patricia is made to be the angry brown woman when she curses Anna’s children to be taken by La Llorona out of revenge for having lost her own children. However, this was a completely unnecessary plot device because Chris encounters La Llorona after she has drowned Patricia’s sons. It would have been a logical progression that La Llorona follows Chris home without Patricia having to curse them in revenge.
The writers chose to portray Patricia as an angry and vindictive person because she is the opposite to Anna’s character in demeanor, even if they address the terror of La Llorona in the same way. As Orquidea Morales mentioned, the myth of La Llorona teaches that women are dangerous, and the La Llorona myth in this film teaches that Mexican women are more dangerous than white women.
This film has an imbued narrative about the worthiness of motherhood that is coded by race. The character of La Llorona is completely demonized as an irredeemable character because she chose her feelings over her children, which makes her unworthy of sympathy. Patricia is framed in a similar way by having her be revengeful and attempt to cause the deaths of more children out of the pain of losing her own.
Anna, as the protagonist of the film, is framed as worthy of motherhood even though her children have brown bodies that she uses to gain access to resources not normally available to her. Anna’s whiteness is what saves her and her children because whiteness is portrayed as synonymous with being level-headed, rational, forgiving, and responsible.
The issue of intersectionality of identities becomes apparent in the film through the layered portrayals of characters to express white supremacist patriarchal values. Using motherhood as a space for discourse also allows the inequalities in access to reproductive health between white women and women of color to illustrate where progress needs to be made.
Additionally, the attempt made by white families to adopt immigrant children who have been systematically separated from their parents at the Southern border is continuing a colonialist erasure of culture. The Curse of La Llorona also speaks to this social anxiety surrounding “illegal” immigration but again, it rewrites the narrative to absolve whiteness from any culpability.
The tagline for this film is, “She wants your children.” At the southern border, it is not Mexican, Salvadorian, Honduran, or Guatemalan women who are seeking to take children, it is American Border Patrol and American white families. These facts make white Americans uncomfortable and unwilling to engage because it is disruptive for them to acknowledge their complicity in these acts of colonial violence. The impact of this film is held in that it subverts this narrative of colonialism into one that portrays the white woman as the hero and the Mexican monster as the force stealing children.
The narrative of this film makes it easier to blame Mexican women for the dangers inflicted on their own children, than to acknowledge that white Americans and other colonized people of color are complicit in committing acts of violence against children. This displaced blame allows audiences to release their anxieties about their own personal racism, or indifference for the suffering of people of color.
The director of the film, Michael Chaves, explains in an interview that the choice to make the protagonist an outsider to Mexican culture was intentional to produce a sense of discovery for the audience. Like Anna in the film, the producers and directors of this film use Mexican culture and mythology for the entertainment and palatability of white audiences rather than for the community who produced the basis of the story.
This supports the claim that the demonization of Mexican women and Mexican motherhood is for the consumption of white audiences in order to justify colonial violence and racism. Tabish Kair examines the portrayal of the “Other” in British Gothic fiction through the lens of colonialism to examine the anxieties the empire had about the “Other” (10). Using a similar method, not only are the anxieties surrounding Mexican immigration and Mexican culture apparent,
As writers such as Melero and Padilla point out, La Llorona is a figure that allows for discourse surrounding motherhood to happen because she sits at the border between transgression and salvation. The Curse of La Llorona also creates space for discourse surrounding colonialism and racism because there is a tension between white motherhood and brown motherhood. It is in the spaces in between difference, that allow for interpretation and analysis towards a better understanding of our own condition.
The unconscious portrayal of certain types of people in certain types of ways that position some as heroes and others as monsters, is more truthful and transparent about our candid feelings than an explicit manifesto of our beliefs.
For me, La Llorona represents liberation from societal expectations but also the tragedy and pain that most women experience at the hands of patriarchy. It is possible that in her attempt to save her children from a terrible fate, La Llorona was not vengeful but merciful. However, she still experienced the pain of losing her children forever and has been damned for over five hundred years as a result.
Abraham of the Hebrew Bible was ready and willing to kill his only son for no other reason than God wanted to test his obedience, and he is used as an example of a good Christian follower. Meanwhile, La Llorona is destined to roam rivers and bodies of water for all eternity, wailing in perpetual suffering. The value of motherhood supersedes the value of women as individuals, while the value of fatherhood is not a measure of value for men as individuals.
The romanticizing of the always suffering mother is simultaneously a harmful expectation as well as a source of strength, for many women. Having a model for living through the subjugation of violent patriarchy and racism can provide a figure of comfort and consolation but it can also be limiting for women who do not want to fulfill this role.
I find myself in this position within the context of academia. I do not want to be a martyr for my work in a place that will erase my protests and erase my identity, a place that will rewrite my narrative to perpetuate the very systems that kill me. At the same time, I have people telling me that even if I am eternally suffering, that the work is worth the effort because I will gain the opportunity to mother future students in the same field.
If I follow the example of La Llorona and drown my academic work in the name of liberation, rebellion, frustration, and self-preservation, will I immediately regret my actions and condemn myself to a life of regret? Or will I be freed from having my identity defined by how well I suffered through the work, only to have my story rewritten as an example of selfishness for future generations?
Truly, only La Llorona knows whether that river liberated her or condemned her.
Bernadette Calafell is Professor of Communications Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Denver. She is author of the Latina/o Communication Studies: Theorizing Performance (Peter Lang, 2007), which was the recipient of the 2009 Lilla Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Interpretation and Performance from the National Communication Association.
Stefanie Fajardo received her M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Denver.