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The Many Faces Of "La Llorona"
The tale of La Llorona—or, the "weeping woman"—is one of betrayal. She can be heard at night, wandering the streets wailing, “¡Ay, mis hijos, mis hijos!” or "Oh, my children, my children!"
La Llorona has killed her children and is condemned to cry forever looking for them.
Or, at least that's what Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, associate professor of music and affiliate of the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico, grew up hearing in Puebla, Mexico. Truth is, no one really knows La Llorona's exact story. Instead, there are many versions, many of which have worked their way into popular culture.
"There are many variants of La Llorona's story, so in fact, there are many Lloronas," Alonso-Minutti tells the Recording Academy. The academic has done extensive research on La Llorona, including analysis and lectures on the late singer Chavela Vargas' sung version of the tale that appears on the soundtrack to 2002's drama about Frida Kahlo, Frida.
According to Alonso-Minutti, La Llorona goes back to the pre-Columbian era and is linked to an Aztec goddess, Cihuacóatl, who would appear at night and cry out for her own dead children. "While there are many variants of the myth, all stories share the existence of a female figure, the Weeping Woman, who has been betrayed by her (assumed male) lover," she says.
In some versions of the story, her paramour is from a higher social class, while others note that he is from Spain. Many versions say that she became angered with him after he'd been unfaithful and thus kills their children. Depending on who is telling the story, she is either wearing all black or all white.
In Mexico, her tale was used to scare people from being where they shouldn't, mostly children from wandering outside of their houses at night. But her story has also come to frighten people in the U.S. and even Hollywood has taken her story to the big screen, most recently with The Curse Of La Llorona.
Alonso-Minutti says La Llorona's story has had a presence in areas near the U.S-Mexico border where Mexican communities have lived. Accounts of her song date back to the 19th century, and in Alonso-Minutti's home state of New Mexico, the song has had a significant presence. "Many Nuevomexicanos have their own personal stories of hearing La Llorona’s wails while walking alongside the Rio Grande, and some report having seen her," she says.
Dr. Jacqueline Avila, Associate Professor in Musicology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who has studied and written about La Llorona in films like Disney's Coco, says the tale of La Llorona has only become more popular in the U.S. thanks to the rise in interest of the Dia De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead festivities that happen in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
"La Llorona has been synthesized with the Día de Muertos because it does have those themes of death attached to it," she says.
La Llorona's Song
Musically, La Llorona's story has taken life, and, just like the oral tale, it has different versions. "La Llorona" is a song that derives from the Isthmus region of Tehuantepec, Mexico Dr. Alonso-Minutti notes. Songs from the region "are performed in social gatherings and religious festivities by a small group of musicians playing guitar, requinto, and bajoquinto, and singing in both Spanish and Zapoteco, the local indigenous language," she says. "Singers are free to choose among hundreds of documented verses, or to create or improvise their own lines on the spot."
Several versions are sung as rancheras. Why? Dr. Avila's guess is that these musical styles and La Llorona's story are a natural pair. " The canción ranchera in particular, it is about kind of this love lost in a way and they are melancholic and they do feature songs of love and songs of pain," she says. "I think, a love ranchera would transfer quite easily with these types of lyrics."
While lyrics vary, they roughly keep the themes of romance and heartbreak, which are at the center of La Llorona's story. Musical versions by iconic Mexican rock band Caifanes, as well as Beirut's polka-inspired take, show how different genres have brought the song to life.
The sonic version of La Llorona's story show a side to the character that some horror films do not, notes Alonso-Minutti. "The figure to whom the song, 'La Llorona' is addressed is a strong, independent, beautiful woman that resembles the Virgin [Mary]," she says.
Angela Aguilar, Aida Cuevas and Natalia Lafourcade, each of whom sing a version of "La Llorona," came together to sing about the weeping woman at the 61st GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony earlier this year.
Alonso-Minutti notes that in the performance, Aguilar sings a verse that highlights how La Llorona was mistaken for the Virgin Mary, a very strong female figure in the culture, because of the huipil, a garment she was wearing typically worn by indigenous women.
"You were coming out of the temple one day, Llorona/ When in passing, I saw you/ You were wearing such a beautiful huipil, Llorona/ That I thought you were the Virgin," Aguilar sings.
The overall performance had the three singing together at one point, making it a captivating moment for Avila. "They have different voice types and they represented three different interpretations of the song ... it was a very compelling synthesis," she says.
Alonso-Minutti also adds that in other common verses, La Llorona is portrayed as warm, motherly figure. "Oh woe is me! Llorona/ Llorona, take me to the river/ Cover me with your shawl, Llorona/ Because I’m dying of cold," the verse says.
Lila Downs, who released a version of the song in her 1999 album La Sanduna, says performing the song is a "spiritual experience."
"For me, it’s a very important expression of the human voice," she tells the Recording Academy about singing La Llorona's tale outside of Mexico. "I think both sublime and earthy, angry and sweet. It captures the duality of indigenous vision, and musically carries our heritage of flamenco roots."
Downs, whose mother identifies La Llorona as having "turkey-webbed feet," will once again honor the weeping woman through her version of the song in her latest album, Al Chile, which is slated for release on May 3.
"I began singing it because people started asking for it," she says of why she decided to cover the song. "At first, I thought it wouldn’t be so attractive a piece, but it turned into something I didn’t recognize in myself. It’s as if some spiritual and mysterious force was behind it, and chose me to sing it."
A version of La Llorona's song also made it to Disney's 2017 Coco film, which is about a fictional land of the dead. That version, which features a more upbeat sound (the go-to style tends to be a melancholic waltz), has only helped make La Llorona a more noticable figure outside of the Latin community.
"Coco made it much more recognizable, especially to audiences who are not familiar with Mexican culture or Día de Muertos," Alonso-Minutt says. "It serves as a learning tool so then they were able to hear and see what La Llorona actually is. And so you have people who now have that reference."
The Changing Symbolism Behind La Llorona
Though she used to incite fear, both Alonso-Minutti and Avila agree that La Llorona is now more than just a symbol of terror.
For Chicana feminists, Alonso-Minutti states, La Llorona is a dominant female figure who symbolizes a voice of resistance against patriarchy, heteronormative expectations and gender roles, such as motherhood. "La Llorona, by contrast, reacts against these expectations and carries out an act of utmost defiance [against her lover]," she says. "Killing his children becomes an act of resistance and liberation. She becomes motherless; a solitary defiant figure whose weeps and yells are to resound for eternity."
"She was used for fear, but at the same time she was also a woman who was scorned, she was abandoned and so she was in pain and she was heartbroken and her actions have left her motherless and then in the end," Avila adds. "Maybe she's regretting her decision and that's why she's crying out for her children," she says. "But she's also seen as a resistance character and she's acting in a role of defiance as well. So there's different interpretations that you can have towards her."