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The Myth of La Llorona: A Story of Colonialism and Patriarchy

Silvia is an English teacher from California. She earned her B.A. in Literature/Writing from UCSD and her Teaching Credential from SDSU.

María Elena Marqués in the 1960 Mexican film "La Llorona."

María Elena Marqués in the 1960 Mexican film "La Llorona."

The Most Famous Mexican Phantom

"La Llorona" (the crying woman) may well be the most famous Mexican phantom. Every child in Mexico knows the story of this evil ghost of a lady who takes naughty children to the river at night. “Be good or ‘La Llorona’ will come and get you,” warn parents as children instantly turn into their best behavior for fear of being taken away.

Legend says La Llorona drowned her children in the river in a fit of rage after being abandoned by her male partner. When she realized what she had done, she drowned herself in the river. From then on, she roams the streets of Mexico at night in search of her lost children. Some claim they can hear her crying, “¡Ay, mis hijos! ¿Dónde están mis hijos?” ("Oh, my children! Where are my children?")

The Virgin of Guadalupe, being a hybrid version of the Virgin Mary and an Aztec goddess named Tonantzin, is considered the pure and benevolent mother not only of Jesus Christ but of the predominant Mestizo population of Mexico.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, being a hybrid version of the Virgin Mary and an Aztec goddess named Tonantzin, is considered the pure and benevolent mother not only of Jesus Christ but of the predominant Mestizo population of Mexico.

The 3 Main Mythical Female Figures of Mexico

La Llorona is one of three main mythical female figures of Mexico, the other two being the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malitzin or “La Malinche,” as she is often referred to. Interestingly, the three of them are mothers.

The Virgin of Guadalupe, being a hybrid version of the Virgin Mary and an Aztec goddess named Tonantzin, is considered the pure and benevolent mother not only of Jesus Christ but of the predominant Mestizo population (of indigenous and Spanish descent) that exists in Mexico.

La Malinche and La Llorona, however, are both regarded as evil mothers. La Malinche is perceived as the mother of the “first Mestizo,” but also as the “traitor” who aided Hernan Cortez in the conquest of Mexico (a misconception for various reasons, nevertheless one that’s been ingrained in Mexican culture for centuries).

On the other hand, La Llorona is viewed as the heartless mother who killed her children, the worst thing a mother could ever do and, as a result, is condemned to eternal suffering.

La Malinche, is perceived as the mother of the “first Mestizo,” but also as the “traitor” who aided Hernan Cortez in the conquest of Mexico (a misconception for various reasons, nevertheless one that’s been ingrained in Mexican culture for centuries)

La Malinche, is perceived as the mother of the “first Mestizo,” but also as the “traitor” who aided Hernan Cortez in the conquest of Mexico (a misconception for various reasons, nevertheless one that’s been ingrained in Mexican culture for centuries)

The Legend of La Llorona

As stated before, the legend of La Llorona is essentially the story of a mother who killed her children. It is believed that the legend originated during pre-Hispanic times and suffered transformations during the Colonial period. There are a few versions of the story, and sometimes it is fused with the story of La Malinche.

One of these versions served as inspiration for the 1960 Mexican film La Llorona, directed by René Cardona and starring María Elena Marqués and Mauricio Garces. The story goes like this: Luisa (María Elena Marqués) is a beautiful Mestiza who falls in love with a Spanish conquistador named Don Nuño (Eduardo Fajardo). The story is set in “La Nueva España,” during the 16th century, approximately three centuries before Mexico declares its independence from Spain. The caste system is still in place which means that people’s social status is determined by their racial background, with Spanish and Criollos at the top and indigenous and Black people at the bottom; Mestizos or people of mixed descent are also at the lower ranks of society. Don Nuño is attracted to the beautiful Luisa, but, at the same time, he despises her indigenous blood. For this reason, he decides not to marry her and instead persuades her to cohabitate with him.

At first, Luisa hesitates; at the time, there are strict rules when it comes to dating and marriage. Women are still regarded as men’s property, and, at no point, are they supposed to engage in sexual relations before marriage. Don Nuño insists and swears that he’ll marry her eventually. Luisa, who is madly in love, ends up accepting his proposition.

Years pass by and Luisa gives birth to two children. Don Nuño does not fulfill his promise of marriage, and instead abandons Luisa and decides to marry a Spanish woman of high social status. Luisa is terribly hurt by this, and the rest is history. It is worth noting that in this film, "La Llorona" is by no means portrayed in a positive light. As in other popular culture spaces, La Llorona is represented as an evil being who must be defeated.

María Elena Marqués and Eduardo Fajardo in the 1960 Mexican film, "La Llorona."

María Elena Marqués and Eduardo Fajardo in the 1960 Mexican film, "La Llorona."

The Problems of Colonial and Patriarchal Systems

Nevertheless, what makes this version interesting is that it alludes to some of the biggest problems generated by the colonial and patriarchal systems that have been long in place in Mexican society.

Don Nuño discards Luisa for being a Mestiza which places her at the lower ranks of the caste system. On the other hand, after she is abandoned by Don Nuño, it is impossible for Luisa to recover and carry on with her life due to the patriarchal system in place. A woman who has had a sexual life is no longer marriage material. And, a woman without a man is worthless.

In a way, the story of La Llorona is a cautionary tale for women. It teaches them that women are supposed to say no to men’s sexual advances at all times. If they succumb, then they should not be surprised when there’s a negative outcome. In other words, she will receive a well-deserved punishment for not adhering to the social standards imposed upon women at the time.

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Chavela Vargas' Famous "La Llorona" Song

The influence of La Llorona can be seen in Mexican modern culture to this day. The song, “La Llorona,” has become a timeless classic of traditional ranchera music although its author is unknown. There are many versions of the song, and it has been interpreted by innumerable singers such as Joan Baez, Lila Downs, Natalia Lafourcade, and Angela Aguilar.

However, the most popular is probably the heartbreaking version of the singer Chavela Vargas. Some have described it as a song of pain and love, like many others that make up the repertoire of traditional Mexican music. Most of the time, the song is interpreted by a woman who directs herself to La Llorona confessing her pain and suffering to her; a reasonable choice considering that her receptor has experienced suffering first-hand. “A un santo cristo de fierro, llorona, mis penas les conté yo. ¿Cuáles no serían mis penas? El santo cristo lloró.” ("To a holy iron Christ, weeping woman, I told my sorrows. What would my sorrows not be? The holy Christ wept.")

One could very well ask oneself: What is the cause of this great pain and suffering that the speaker is talking about? Is it the pain of a lost lover? Or, is it the pain of a woman who has endured endless suffering living under a patriarchal society where she is not only deprived of her freedom but where even her life and safety are often at stake? It doesn’t take much effort to look around and conclude that is probably the latter.

This makes even more sense when the speaker says, “Dos besos llevo en mi alma, llorona, que no se apartan de mí. El último de mi madre, llorona, y el primero que te dí.” ("I carry two kisses in my soul, weeping woman, that do not depart from me. The last one from my mother, weeping woman, and the first one I gave you.") Thus, sympathizing with other women who have endured the same suffering she has.

As a side note, in Angela Aguilar’s video clip of the song, La Llorona is represented by the singer herself, suggesting that the speaker and the receptor are essentially the same person or better said, that they have a shared history.

Sandra Cisneros' "Woman Hollering Creek"

This collective feeling of pain and sorrow is also addressed by the Chicana author, Sandra Cisneros in her short story, “Woman Hollering Creek.”

The story’s protagonist, Cleofilas, is a young woman from Mexico who dreams of the passion and romantic love portrayed in telenovelas. She gets married and immigrates to the United States only to suffer terrible physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. One night, while putting her newly born baby to sleep, Cleofilas thinks to herself:

“La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that’s what they called the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain...Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman? La Llorona, who drowned her own children. Perhaps La Llorona is the one they named the creek after, she thinks, remembering all the stories she learned as a child. La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it. Cleofilas sets the baby’s Donald Duck blanket on the grass. Listens. The day sky turning to night. The baby pulling up fistfuls of grass and laughing. La Llorona. Wonders if something as quiet as this drives a woman to the darkness under the trees (221-5).”

Cleofilas, whose story of abuse surely resembles the lives of millions of other Mexican women, thinks about La Llorona and wonders if there’s more to her story than what she was told. Perhaps, La Llorona didn’t kill her children out of evilness but because she had no other option. Perhaps, she was driven mad by the abuse she suffered. It is interesting that Cleofilas thinks about this as she is caring for her baby.

One may wonder if Cleofilas is considering for a second to follow in La Llorona’s footsteps and murder her own child, and thus destroying the gender roles imposed upon her by a patriarchal society. In this way, Cleofilas empathizes with the mythical figure of La Llorona and her deep sorrow in response to abuse and injustice.

In her short story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” the Chicana author, Sandra Cisneros, addresses the collective feeling of pain and sorrow often associated with the story of La Llorona.

In her short story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” the Chicana author, Sandra Cisneros, addresses the collective feeling of pain and sorrow often associated with the story of La Llorona.

A Legend for the Ages

Along with the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Malinche, La Llorona is a mythical figure in Mexican culture. The legend of La Llorona is interesting because it reveals some of the problematic aspects of the colonial and patriarchal systems that have been set in place in Mexico.

Therefore, it is no surprise that La Llorona's figure has been reclaimed and vindicated in other cultural spaces such as in the classic song, “La Llorona” popularized by Chavela Vargas and other singers, as well as in the short story, “Woman Hollering Creek” by Sandra Cisneros.

A statue of La Llorona in Xochimilco, Mexico.

A statue of La Llorona in Xochimilco, Mexico.

Works Cited

  • Angela Aguilar. “La Llorona.” Primero Soy Mexicana, Machin Records, 2018. Spotify,
  • Chavela Vargas. “La Llorona.” La Llorona, Editions Milan Music, 2017. Spotify,
  • Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
  • Escudero Alvarez, Federico. Silva-Stieng, Ivette. "La Leyenda de La Llorona en la Cultura Popular Mexicana." ProfeDeELE.es. 28 Oct. 2018.
  • La Llorona. Directed by René Cardona, performances by

    María Elena Marqués, Mauricio Garcés, Eduardo Fajardo, and Luz María Aguilar, Producciones Bueno, 1960.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Silvia Munguia

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