La Llorona as the Space for Discourse Surrounding Colonialism and Motherhood
The American psyche is currently saturated with images of children in cages at the southern border and discussions about women’s reproduction and sexual rights. Immigration and women’s bodily autonomy are issues that were a polarizing force in the 2016 Presidential Election.
Donald Trump ran on a campaign of racism and misogyny and was elected the 45th president of the United States. Clearly, his points of view resonated with many Americans who felt threatened by the presence of immigrants and by feminism.
Very recently, we have seen the emergence of harshly restrictive reproductive laws that disqualify people for abortions if the fetus has a detectable heartbeat. The implementation of such legislation further demonstrates the backlash against women’s rights and a desire to control women’s bodies.
People held in immigration detention centers continue to die and the American public seems either unaware or indifferent to these crimes because a dehumanization of southern immigrants has occurred. These issues are salient in American culture and are expressed in The Curse of La Llorona (2019), which provides a catharsis and a sense of resolution for an audience in tension.
Additionally, discourses surrounding motherhood, patriarchy, memory, femininity, and abjection are running parallel in The Curse of La Llorona, to the current events that have made this film so successful. Writers such as Pilar Melero and Juan Padilla argue that the myth of La Llorona provides the space for discourse surrounding how women position themselves within the construct of motherhood. According to them, motherhood is the center of identity out of which women make their choices and out of which they construct their agency.
Other writers such as Claudia Arias, Diana Ferrari, Orquidea Morales, and Christina Santos are more concerned with patriarchal structures and how they created the conditions for the creation of La Llorona as well as how they continue to shape the myth in contemporary society. From these writings, it is implied that La Llorona as monster was created by the violence of the patriarchy. Colonialism and memory are additional layers that are explored by Cristina Herrera, Rita Cano Alcala, Tabish Khair, and Luis Leon.
These writers examine historical ties to La Malinche and examine the fluidity of La Llorona as myth, thus emphasizing the function she must fulfill throughout her historical presence. Some of these writers sympathize with La Llorona, others condemn her role as transgressive mother, but they all seem to agree that the archetype of monstrous mother is needed to perform certain functions within society.
The tension in American politics surrounding women’s bodily autonomy and Mexican/Central American immigration is confronted in The Curse of La Llorona (2019) through a justification of colonialism and a condemnation of women who step out of their normative roles. As many writers point out, La Llorona is malleable and open to interpretation and reinterpretation; she is the monster that enforces women’s societal roles but also provides inspiration for women who feel transgressive themselves.
The Myth and Colonial History
The myth and historical lineage of La Llorona is a long and contested one. Luis Leon, Juan Padilla, and Christina Santos gesture towards a genealogy that begins with the Aztecs and a mobilization of the myth after encounters with the Spanish colonizers. From these perspectives, colonialism and racism greatly contribute to the birth of La Llorona myth because La Malinche, as the predecessor of La Llorona, commits infanticide to prevent Hernan Cortes from taking their son to Spain.
The relationships of power between Malintzin (La Malinche’s Aztec name), her people, and Hernan Cortes dramatically reduced the agential possibilities for Malintzin’s redemption, benefit, or even survival. The action that she took was one of few that she had the power to carry out under the subjugation of colonialism and patriarchy. Juan Padilla and Deborah Madsen go as far as to say that La Malinche’s action was a way to produce a distinctly “ethnic/racial” feminine voice within structures that would have otherwise produced a traditional patriarchal Mexican one.
The connection between La Malinche and La Llorona seems to be one of Indian memory as Luis Leon and Gloria Anzaldua put it, but they remain separate entities with separate functions and meanings, according to Maria Gonzalez, Cristina Herrera, and Rita Cano Alcala. According to Gonzalez, Herrera, and Alcala, La Malinche has been constructed as synonymous with betrayal while La Llorona symbolizes destructive motherhood (34).
The distinction in their function within society is rooted in their symbolism but the myths have taken on these symbols out of a patriarchal and colonial perspective. Historically, the myths of La Llorona and La Malinche weave in and out of patriarchy to fill roles needed within a historical context. In distinction from La Malinche, it is important to look at La Llorona on her own terms.
The myth of La Llorona is one indirectly tied to colonialism but deeply connected to patriarchal structures. In some variations, La Llorona is a beautiful woman who drowns her children out of a jealous rage when she discovers her husband is leaving her for a wealthy Spanish woman, while in others La Llorona accidently drowns her children while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. In all variations, what is important to note is that La Llorona is created.
She is not a woman who always enjoyed taking and drowning children, instead she is moved to those actions by external circumstances. The circumstances surrounding the creation of La Llorona shift depending on what is contextually relevant, which further drives the argument that La Llorona is always a cultural product. Her role as monstrous mother can be used to scare children about venturing too far at night, to warn women against neglecting her children, and even to warn men about the danger of women and femininity. Many times, these roles are simultaneous while the more culturally necessary role rises to prominence at different times.
Given her mythic versatility, and her very recent presence in American cinema, it becomes important to ask, “What cultural need is present that requires a return of La Llorona to fill it?”
The Motion Picture, directed by Michael Chaves
The film structure of The Curse of La Llorona begins with a retelling of the Mexican myth beginning in 1673 and then fast-forwards to three hundred years later in 1973, where the majority of the plot takes place. Very quickly, the film introduces the audience to three major female characters: La Llorona, Patricia Alvarado, and Anna Tate-Garcia. Anna is a white woman and is introduced as a hardworking and stressed widow who is trying to maintain a functioning household after the death of her Latino police husband.
Patricia is a Mexican-American mother being investigated by Anna, who is a social worker, because she is suspected of child abuse and neglect. Patricia uses mystical and occult methods to try to protect her two young sons from being harmed by La Llorona when Anna interferes and takes the two boys under Child Protective Services. This interference is deadly, as La Llorona gains access to the boys who are no longer being protected by their mother and she drowns them in a nearby river.
Patricia blames Anna for the death of her sons while also being a suspect in their deaths. Out of her rage, the audience later finds out, Patricia sends La Llorona after Anna’s children and the plot is set in motion. Progressively, Anna and her children experience the terror of La Llorona and begin to look for ways to protect themselves. Anna’s eldest son, Chris tries to imitate his late policeman father in defense of his sister, Sam, but is not effective.
As a family, they look to a Catholic priest who says he cannot help, and they are sent to a curandero named Rafael. The curandero is Latino and distrustful of Anna and her family at first but agrees to help. Rafael gives Anna and her family instructions on how to protect themselves against La Llorona and they very closely resemble the methods that Patricia used in the beginning of the film.
Rafael sets a trap for La Llorona and is successful in expelling her from the house but a mistake by Sam lets her in again. La Llorona chases the two children up into the attic and there is a moment where La Llorona is humanized in a flashback of her children when Chris presents her with the necklace she received as a gift, but the moment is over when she sees herself in the mirror. Finally, Anna comes in and destroys La Llorona by stabbing her with a cross made of the tree that was a witness to La Llorona’s infanticide.
In this retelling of La Llorona’s myth, a colonial and patriarchal set of values is being expressed in order to respond to the tensions surrounding Southern immigrants and women. These values are expressed through the different functions and symbols embodied by La Llorona, Patricia, and Anna, as well as through Anna’s relationship to her children and to other characters of color. In this film, Anna is positioned as the chaste, protective mother whose whiteness allows her to judge Mexican culture while simultaneously using it to hers and her children’s benefit.
Patricia is positioned as a superstitious and neglectful mother, but also as a Llorona in becoming as she seeks to kill Anna’s children out of revenge for losing her own. Her character is always emotionally distressed, and she is consistently wronged by the institutions of governance that she encounters. Thirdly, La Llorona is the monstrous mother who drowned her children out of a jealous rage and is seeking to kill more children to replace her own. Symbols surrounding abortion and feminine instability are embedded in her character and she is treated as a monster who cannot be redeemed. Through the role of each character, we can unpack the symbolism and valuations being presented by The Curse of La Llorona.
Using the three archetypal mothers of Mexico: La Malinche, La Llorona, and La Virgen de Guadalupe, we can see variations of each being regenerated and reproduced for American audiences in the film. Anna is La Virgen de Guadalupe, Patricia is La Malinche becoming La Llorona, and La Llorona remains herself. Because Anna is widowed, and we are not introduced to any love interests, it is safe to assume that she is presented as the chaste mother.
Sexuality is often punished in horror films, so Anna’s chastity is rewarded by her survival and the survival of her children. Additionally, Anna is the one who destroys La Llorona by stabbing her with the wooden cross; La Llorona, the mother who murdered her children out of vanity, is destroyed by the mother who maintains her chastity.
Anna is also the mother to mixed race children, which mirrors the archetype of Guadalupe as the mother of the Mexican nation. Anna/Guadalupe are the benevolent mothers of mestizo children who are threatened by the transgressive mothers refusing to conform to their prescribed gender role. Just as Anna is upheld for her mothering, La Llorona is cast as an irredeemable monster for her mothering.
La Llorona as monster in the film, is a monster that symbolizes many multilayered fears. One fear is the mother who commits infanticide out of jealousy and vanity, and the other is a woman who is looking to steal children from their parents. The underlying belief surrounding abortion or female body autonomy is that women are emotionally volatile, childish, and cannot be trusted with their own bodies.
The version of La Llorona that is presented in this film, embodies the same belief. Additionally, the items that are most threatening to La Llorona as a monster, are her sanctified tears and the tree that was a witness to her crime, which they call “el arbol del fuego” or “fire tree”. The tree that was a witness to La Llorona’s crime keeps her accountable without any regard for the circumstances that led up to her actions. The constant reminder of her actions perpetuates the narrative that she is without forgiveness and that she is eternally damned, hence the “fire” tree.
The use of La Llorona’s sanctified tears against hers, is another mechanism to discourage sympathy for her by using her own pain against her. The suffering of La Llorona is only effective in mocking her and invalidating her. The same patriarchal violence that was done to La Llorona in the film is that which turns her narrative into one of condemnation and monstrosity over her pain, in the modern myth.
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.