The following is the second installment of a three-part series. The first can be found here.
Patricia represents elements of La Malinche and a becoming of La Llorona through her desperation and subjugation. In the beginning of the film, Patricia and her two sons are introduced as having a long relationship with their social worker and Child Protective Services, meaning that they have needed help and government assistance for at least, that long. They represent the marginal and vulnerable family who is under the subjugation of the state as well as to white conventions.
Patricia knows that Social Services and Anna, as a white woman, cannot understand her within her own cultural context so she retreats from government help and instead turns to religious tools to help protect her children from La Llorona. Patricia’s situation is reminiscent of La Malinche because they are both caught up in relationships with the authorities of their state and are using the small powers available to them to navigate and survive their situations.
La Malinche is demonized as the Traitor of Mexico because she was resourceful with what she had and was under the influence of Hernan Cortes. Similarly, Patricia and other women of color who report domestic violence or child abuse in their own homes are often seen as traitors because they do not deal with their matters privately. The involvement of the state and white authority figures is a betrayal of the supposed safety of ethnic communities.
The moment of ambivalence where it seems that Patricia might turn into a Llorona figure is when she asks La Llorona to take Anna’s children. Out of the pain of having lost her own children due to the actions of a white woman, Patricia seeks vengeance in the form of taking other children. The ambivalence between her becoming and not becoming a Llorona figure is further emphasized by her return to Anna’s house to try to protect her children in an act of regret.
Patricia has a conscience about how to navigate her painful situation, in contrast to La Llorona as monster who does not. Within the context of abortion, the mother who loses her children but then repents and helps other children to survive is redeemable, while La Llorona as a mother who continues to take other children is not redeemable. Hence, a patriarchal understanding of how motherhood defines women is imbued in the film.
Orquidea Morales highlights that the dichotomy of “virgin versus whore” is perpetuated by images of La Llorona against images of La Virgen de Guadalupe, however, she also asserts that film representation has the power to challenge or perpetuate the dichotomy. The Curse of La Llorona is a film that does not challenge this dichotomy. However, out of the patriarchal point of view that women are defined by motherhood, women continue to find and create a voice that speaks to their agency and that subverts the narrative of La Llorona into a heroic one instead of only victimization.
Feminine Identity and La Llorona
La Llorona’s feminine identity is heavily defined by her transgressive actions within the context of motherhood and a patriarchal societal structure. As a beautiful woman in Mexico, where the ideal mother is symbolized by La Virgen de Guadalupe, the woman who becomes La Llorona was expected to be passive about her husband’s infidelity. The structure of Mexican society allows men availability to many women without the loss of dignity, whereas the women are expected to be loyal to their husbands under any and all circumstances.
The action of La Llorona to murder her children and seek vengeance from her husband is a complete denial and rebellion against her prescribed gender role. The current legislation that prohibits women from having an abortion despite circumstances of incest or rape, are consistent with a patriarchal view of body autonomy and rigid gender roles. The context of motherhood allows La Llorona the platform to be transgressive in a way that is extremely powerful because of the pervasive mother archetypes within Mexican culture and the current discourse about motherhood in American culture.
Writers such as Pilar Melero and Juan Padilla explore the way that motherhood is understood as a space for discourse surrounding feminine identity and resistance as symbolized by La Llorona. Melero argues that women recreate themselves as “political, historic, and literary subjects” by taking refuge in the image of the mother (6).
The power of this archetype allows women to redefine themselves within it and to project their voice in ways that express feminine agency. Juan Padilla also emphasizes the importance of motherhood within the connection between La Malinche and La Llorona because they are “paradoxical figures that symbolize both maternal betrayal and maternal resistance”. Because Mexican women are forced to define themselves with or against the archetype of La Virgen de Guadalupe, they must find ways to disrupt patriarchal expectations while expressing a personal voice.
La Llorona is a mother who expresses her rage, pain, indignation, and frustration by positioning herself as far away from the Virgen de Guadalupe as she can. She used what little power she had to define herself and to defy her gender role as she reacted to the violence inflicted on her. This is not to say that La Llorona embodies masculinity to challenge femininity, instead she redefines femininity in a way that is disruptive.
Claudia Arias and Diana Ferrari argue that when La Llorona drowned her children, it was not just an act of transgression but actually an act of mercy for her children. Arias and Ferrari sympathize with the rage and frustration felt by La Llorona when she discovered that her husband was leaving her for a richer Spanish woman and reimagine her narrative from the sacrificial mother perspective. A situation is described by Arias and Ferrari in which La Llorona arrives at heaven right after having drowned her children and herself in the river. She is confused because she feels the pain of what she has done, but it is explained to her that she actually saved her children from a terrible fate (46).
This reimagining of La Llorona’s story redeems her motherhood and in doing so, redeems women who feel guilt over having had an abortion. Out of motherhood and femininity, there is a wisdom and a reason that cannot be understood through the patriarchal lens. The patriarchal lens distorts violence against women as deserved, indignance against this violence as a “jealous rage”, and maternal sacrifice as “monstrous vanity”.
Patriarchal Violence and La Llorona
La Llorona is a monster created out of patriarchal violence and weaves in and out of the patriarchal lens in order to either perpetuate or disrupt patriarchal values. In, The Curse of La Llorona, the woman who would become La Llorona had her identity and value defined by her beauty, her capacity to mother, and her passivity in the presence of male action. It is presumed that she drowned her children out of her resentment in being rejected and replaced by a younger, more beautiful, rich woman but perhaps it is more astute to examine her reaction as one of pain over betrayal.
Her husband treated her as a disposable commodity that could be used for reproduction and status. She, who would have been defined by the humiliation of an unfaithful husband, is instead defined by the way she used her position as a woman and mother to inflict violence on her children and husband.
The Curse of La Llorona is an example of how the patriarchy individualizes blame to create a monster that is irredeemable rather than acknowledge the patriarchal violence that produces monstrous behavior to begin with. Many of the legislative measures restricting abortion do not have equally restrictive measures to prevent rape or to convict rapists. The state’s attempt to control women’s bodies operates by relying on that narrative that wanting an abortion is evil and it is the pregnant person’s fault for being in that situation.
The Protestant Christian history of the United States and the Roman Catholic imposition on Indigenous Mexica provide the foundation for moral justification of patriarchal control. La Llorona encompasses all of this history and she continues to be relentlessly demonized in contemporary society.
This also means that there is not just one Llorona figure, but that she represents the pain that many women have suffered throughout history. Patricia Trujillo’s piece “Becoming La Llorona” is a short story that follows one little girl’s first encounter with heartbreak when her older brother and cousin trick her into going into the mountain behind their house to see “La Llorona.”
The two boys had made a branch figure to look like La Llorona and used it to scare the little girl. As they run back to the house in horror, the little girl trips and falls. She wets herself from the fear of being taken by La Llorona and is left bleeding and crying on the ground until her uncle comes up the hill to carry her home. The girl wakes up to her mother trying to soothe her while acknowledging that the girl’s innocence has been taken, not by La Llorona, but by the two boys who betrayed her.
The mother says, “‘I’m sorry m’ijita. It’s too bad that you had to find out this way,’ she said as she smoothed out my damp hair. ‘Now you know what La Llorona is really crying about'” (9). This short story is illustrative of a lesson that all women learn, and that is that men betray all women. The act of betrayal is enabled and enhanced by the patriarchal structure because the two boys were given more freedom to roam beyond the home so that they had the time and opportunity to scheme up a prank for their sister. Meanwhile, the younger sister is confined to stay where the mother can keep watch on her from their house.
This formation of norms keeps the young girl from being able to experience and gain knowledge about her surroundings, while the boys are free to experience whatever they like. Although the two boys get punished for the harm they caused to the young girl, the damage cannot be undone, and the trust is broken. The most harmful and traumatic event for the girl was not that La Llorona walks through the mountains behind her home, it is that her own brother and cousin plotted to terrify her and exploit her innocence for their own amusement. This trauma and hurt humanizes La Llorona to women because women see themselves in her.
However, the story of La Llorona continues to be interpreted for the maintenance and perpetuation of patriarchal values in film. Orquidea Morales writes that “the two most popular versions of the La Llorona legend are utilized to teach men that women are dangerous and to teach women to stay at home and be virginal” (4). Teaching men that women are dangerous encourages men to treat women as people to be controlled and corralled, lest they become crazy and cause harm to themselves or others. The belief that women are dangerous through the legend of La Llorona, also ignores the harm that was done to her.
The implicit expectation for women is to accept whatever treatment they receive from their husbands and maintain a docile and obedient demeanor, even in the event of betrayal. Additionally, the lesson that women should stay at home and be virginal is a mechanism of blame used to ostracize any woman who refuses to conform to cultural norms of obedience and chastity. La Virgen de Guadalupe as the archetype of the perfect mother is an additional cultural tool used to enforce patriarchy and strict gender roles by being an impossible standard of virginity, juxtaposed with the rebellion of La Llorona and the sexuality of La Malinche.
Many women who are criticized and harassed for having an abortion are classified as “whores” because they did not maintain their virginity and they refuse the role of motherhood. The Curse of La Llorona was written and interpreted by a patriarchal perspective, thereby reinforcing patriarchal values.
Beyond the portrayal of Anna as an emulation of La Virgen de Guadalupe in opposition to La Llorona as monster, Rafael, a man and curandero was the agent of salvation in the film, which again asserts that women are not capable of their own salvation. Rafael is representation of machismo in that he is emotionally distant, aggressive, knowledgeable and always taking charge to confront danger.
It was also interesting to see that one of the weapons used against La Llorona were the seeds of the “fire tree”. After Rafael succeeds in banishing La Llorona from Anna’s house, he places many small seeds in a line at the base of the front door to keep her from being able to re-enter the house. The seeds of the tree were small, and they were many which could be symbolic of fertility and specifically of semen.
Rafael explains to the family that the line of seeds cannot be broken, otherwise La Llorona will be able to enter their house. An interpretation of this scene is that fertility and reproduction keep good women inside the home and bad women outside the home. When this line of reproduction is broken, and the power of the semen is challenged, transgressive women regain control and seize the opportunity to destroy lineages. La Llorona not only ends her husband’s lineage but also the lineages of every other man whose children she’s taken.
Although the film was ambiguous, it seemed that Patricia was being successful in keeping La Llorona away from her children using mysticism, until Anna interfered. Anna also contacts a curandero to help her family banish La Llorona from their lives, but it is she who destroys La Llorona with a wooden cross. The penetration of La Llorona’s body is another symbolic act of rape but the penetration by Anna positions Anna as an accomplice to the destruction of La Llorona’s transgressive power. The chaste mother defeats the volatile mother.
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.