La Llorona: Retelling a Mexican Legend

author: Wim Coleman

author: Pat Perrin

illustrator: Martha Avilés

Red Chair Press (Lerner), 2015

grades 3-5



La Llorona (The Crying Woman) is a sad and haunting tale from Mexico. Parents have told the story for hundreds of years to misbehaving children and to guard against vanity. Some say the story is about Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and a native Mexican woman who served as his translator. Her loss can be compared to the loss of native Mexican culture after the Spanish conquest.

The “native Mexican woman who served as (Cortés’) translator” was Malinalli (aka, “la Malinche”).

Long before Columbus came to the Americas, a similar legend was told by the Aztec people. Some very old European legends are also a lot like this tale. So perhaps those stories from the New World and the Old World got mixed together as they were retold.

The story of La Llorona is not an Aztec story. La Llorona (typically known as Citlali) was not an Aztec woman. She was from Xochimilco, a tributary kingdom of the Aztecs (whose inhabitants also spoke Nahuatl).

Sometimes the legend is mixed with the story of a real woman. La Malinche was an Aztec woman who helped the Spanish warrior Hernán Cortés. La Malinche and Cortés had a son together. Some stories say that La Malinche killed the child when Cortés left her for a Spanish lady. (This is probably not true.)

Malinalli (aka La Malinche, aka Malintzin) was not an Aztec woman. She was from a town near the Coatzacoalcos River, a tributary nation of the Aztecs. She was probably of mixed Popoluca and Nahua ethnicity. Malinalli did have a son with Cortés, and she did not kill him; rather, she raised him until Cortés took the boy with him to Spain. Malinalli never saw her son again.

Others say that the story of La Llorona is about Mexico’s history. They think that it is really about the bitter meeting of Aztecs and Spaniards after Europeans first came to America.

No, it’s not. It’s about a real woman who “chose” to sacrifice her children rather than to surrender them to colonialism. 

To many people, this is more than a story. Countless people claim to have heard, seen, or even met the Weeping Woman. And in Mexico, children are warned not to go out at night because La Llorona might take them away. 

“Countless people” have claimed countless things about countless occurrences. The story of La Llorona is a story rooted in the history of colonialism, and, for Mexican and Mexican American children, it has morphed into a scary, sometimes cautionary, bedtime story.

—David Bowles

(published 7/1/2021)

                                               REVIEW OF THE STORY

This project for third-graders—allegedly “Setting the Stage for Fluency”—presents as a story within a five-scene play. The “cast” consists of the narrator, Older David, a Mexican American man in his 30s; Younger David, at ten years of age; Tía Viviana, David’s aunt; José and Lilia, Tía Viviana’s servants; La Llorona, the spirit; and María (who becomes La Llorona). The settings are Tía Viviana’s home in Mexico, La Llorona’s nightmare world, and the village where María lives. The time frames are the present, the past (when David was 10 years of age), and the “more faraway past” of the “La Llorona” story.

SCENE ONE: Young readers meet “Older David,” telling of when he was “Younger David,” and his Tía Viviana, who speaks in short, italicized, Spanish words or phrases—which Older David translates on the spot or before she actually utters them—and whose pronunciation is shown at the bottom of each page. For instance, “¡Mi casa es tu casa!” becomes the incorrectly emphasized syllables, “Mee CAH-sah ehs too CAH-sah!” There are also bolded English “vocabulary” words, such as foyer and patio.

SCENE TWO: Older David describes the scenes and characters, while Younger David appears in the story. Now he’s in bed at Tía Viviana’s home. La Llorona shows up, scratching at the door and screaming, of course: ¡Aaaiiiiii! And then she screams again, but first, Older David translates from the future: “Help me, please,’ she cried.” ¡Ayudame, por favor!

Then, Younger David (in the past) questions La Llorona, while Older David (in the present) describes her.

Younger David: Who are you?

Older David: Her thick, black hair hung down to her ankles. Her hair was tangled up with twigs and briers. Her long, white gown was badly torn and faded. Large patches of it were stained and caked with dry, brown mud. Or was it blood? A lacy white veil hung over her face.

At this point, Older David confesses: I was terrified—but my heart was full of pity. (Young readers are forgiven for not knowing what this all means.)

Younger David wants to see her face and Older David notes that she is sobbing: She lifted her hands in a pleading motion. Those dull-colored, bony hands had frightfully overgrown nails. This woman appears to be majorly in need of a meal and a manicure.

Younger David notes that La Llorona speaks English, but the ghost reassures him (in English) that she does not speak at all: You hear me only with your heart. While Older David and Younger David appear to be competing for space here, Younger David follows the ghost. 

In this chapter, young readers learn landscape and plateau.

SCENE THREE: La Llorona waxes philosophical and young readers will have to figure out what this all means (because it’s independent reading and their teachers have left the room):

All rivers are one river. It is the river that flows through all our hearts. Listen to that rumbling. It is the war in our blood.

To which Older David responds: “I grew dizzy at the sight of that rushing red-brown water.” (Yeah, young readers majorly don’t want that crap flowing through their blood.)

So, the sobs stop “exploding from her throat” and then they rise up again, “threatening to drown her words.” (Young readers may be confused or bored by all this drowning metaphor stuff, but since this is independent reading, no one will know if they skip a few pages.) 

La Llorona starts to narrate to Younger David: “I was a young woman, a peasant of pure Indian blood. Very poor. It was so long ago…” (We don’t know what “pure Indian blood” may have meant—if anything—at that time, nor do we actually know what it may mean today.)

SCENE FOUR: María is gorgeous and she knows it. According to the artwork, she hides her alleged poverty by dressing in gorgeous, expensive clothing. She demonstrates her indigeneity by wearing large gold hoop earrings and carrying a clay pot. She seems to enjoy being ogled by all the young men, two of whom have handlebar mustaches, so readers will know they’re Mexican.

One day, she says, she was walking by the cantina and sees a beautiful horse, who “bore a saddle of excellent leather, sparkling with silver decorations…” She hears someone inside playing a guitar and singing:

Yo soy como el chile verde, Llorona,

picante pero sabroso.

(Yoh soy COH-mo ehl CHEE-leh VEHR-deh, Yoh-ROH-nah, / pee-CAHN-teh PEH-roh sah-BROH-soh.)

OK, wait! Stop! The guy inside the saloon is singing a song to (about?) Llorona, who is still María (but hey, no one will notice how ridiculous this time-travel stuff is getting because it’s independent reading and no one really cares, anyway).

So María notices that the guy who’s singing is white, and therefore, a prize catch: He was blond, fair-skinned. His face was lightly sprinkled with freckles. I was sure he was of pure Spanish blood. He’s wealthy. They flirt. After a short courtship, she agrees to marry him. 

“We lived on his grand hacienda. We had two beautiful children.”

Fast-forward. Really fast. Her wealthy white husband takes a girlfriend (or another wife). He disdainfully refers to María and their children as “peasants from the village,” so María (now, the narrator) confesses (to the reader) in a soliloquy worthy of an imitation of something Shakespeare might have written had Shakespeare been a hack writer:

Why did I do what I did then? Did I hate my little ones? Did I think my husband had stopped loving me because of them? Or did I pity them because he no longer wanted them? Did I pity them so much that I’d rather they died than suffer from his neglect? Or was it simple madness? I took each child by the hand. I led them here, to this place. I pushed them off this ledge and watched them fall into the water. As the current carried them away, they called out…

“I ran and ran until my heart burst,” she continues. “I fell dead to the ground. And yet… here I am. Still trying to save my children.”

SCENE FIVE: Older David knows he is about to die. (Young readers are mystified. So is this reviewer.) “But there is one thing I wanted first,” he says, so Younger David asks La Llorona to show her face.

Back to Older David: Slowly, she lifted her veil. Her brown skin was parched and cracked. Her long, rotted teeth stuck out. Her lips were thin and dry. Her eyes were gone—dried up from weeping. Oh, the hundreds of years of suffering! It had ruined that once beautiful face! I began to cry myself. I began to pray [for her].

Older David becomes Younger David again, and Younger David (who now has some kind of a fever or something), tumbles to the ground.

SCENE SIX: Younger David wakes up. He’s lying in bed, and Tía Viviana is touching his forehead with a cool, damp cloth. José had found him by the arroyo. He tells his aunt that he met a woman, and his aunt knows who she is, because she had snatched his aunt’s little girl, who never came back. Then, when Younger David tells Tía Viviana about the things that La Llorona told him (“she spoke of a war in the blood”), his aunt responds:

Yes, it’s the war between the conquerer and the conquered. The war between the Spaniard and the Indian, the ruler and the ruled. The war between the rich and the poor, the man and the woman. Do you understand?

I don’t.

Then, they talk about the expression, “ni modo,” which Tía Viviana says a lot. “Ni modo” is a short form of “no hay ni modo” or “there is not any way (of getting something done”), and  best translated as “oh, well” or “that's too bad.”

Older David chimes in: He doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he believes in giving peace a chance: “those terrible wars that rage in the blood… I believe that there is always something to be done. And there is always something more to be said. Together, we can somehow learn to end these wars forever.”

The illustrations appear to have been executed in Photoshop. The colors are bright and the details are about what one would expect of an abysmally written, poorly executed story in a mass-produced series. 

La Llorona: Retelling a Mexican Legend is not recommended. 

—Beverly Slapin

(published 7/1/2021)

Muchísimas gracias a mi amigo y colega, David Bowles, por su paciencia y generosidad. Once again, I want to thank David for all he does to move the community forward. ¡Palante!


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