Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Curse Of La Llorona (Photo: Warner Bros.), Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels (Photo: Warrick Page/Showtime), La Llorona (Photo: Shudder)

Family separation haunts recent takes on the La Llorona myth

Curse Of La Llorona (Photo: Warner Bros.), Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels (Photo: Warrick Page/Showtime), La Llorona (Photo: Shudder)
Graphic: The A.V. Club

A seductress. A wronged woman. A harbinger of destruction. La Llorona has taken on many forms throughout Latin America and in the Southwestern United States. Stories of La Llorona—the Weeping Woman or the Crying Woman—vary by country, region, even family. This tragic figure has captured the imaginations of Latinx people for generations (though her strongest ties are to Mexico and parts of Central America), as much a cautionary tale as a parental ploy to keep children in line. There are nearly as many origin stories for La Llorona as there are iterations of her folk tales: Some historians trace her roots to the Aztec goddess Cihuacōātl, the Serpent Woman, who is associated with fertility, motherhood, and midwives. (In a variation of this origin, La Llorona is an omen of war—specifically, the conquest of Mesoamerican peoples.) Others believe her origin is a bit more earthbound, and that La Llorona is a reimagining of La Malinche, the young Nahua woman who was as much a victim of the Spanish invasion as her fellow Aztecs, but had a vicious legacy thrust upon her as the facilitator of the fall of the Aztec Empire.

Like Helen Of Troy, another ancient woman anecdotally blamed for epic devastation, La Llorona has launched (at least) a thousand interpretations and readings. In some parts of Mexico, La Llorona’s presence in a ghost story is welcome, as she prevents some tragedy from befalling the storyteller. Elsewhere, she’s a sympathetic character, a woman who, after losing her children by accident, is doomed to wander the Earth in search of them. But more often than not, La Llorona manifests as a vengeful spirit who goes after children (or adulterous husbands). In her human life, she fell in love with a man, bore multiple children, then was betrayed by him. She attempts to exact revenge by killing their children, but only ends up condemning herself to an eternity of searching for them—or, failing that, their replacements. In this telling, race, class, and xenophobia often come into play: La Llorona, an indigenous woman, is left behind with her bicultural children when the man, usually a Spaniard, returns to his homeland. (This would also be one of the less violent readings, given the widespread rape of indigenous women by the Spanish military.)

With such a rich history, it’s no wonder that La Llorona has been reimagined for the big and small screen, in Mexico and the U.S., in song and on the stage. There’s almost a subgenre of Mexican horror dedicated to stories of the Weeping Woman, composed of movies like J-ok’el, La Leyenda De La Llorona, and of course, 1933’s La Llorona, the first Mexican horror film. La Llorona, along with other figures from Mesoamerican and Latin American culture like Santa Muerte and El Coco, has made her way to U.S. audiences in features and TV shows. But few of these recent renderings actually grasp the central tragedy of the myth—let alone the violent history of colonization—preferring to force La Llorona into a monster-of-the-week mold. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels also attempted to draw from the same wells for its demonic new threat, only to treat Mexican, Chicano, and Mesoamerican cultures like so much costuming. It’s this lack of imagination that has condemned La Llorona and other myths to their most simplistic, borderline offensive forms.

Michael Chaves’ The Curse Of La Llorona was intended to expand The Conjuring universe beyond houses and dolls, but half the movie plays like a haunted-house tale, and a little girl’s doll once again causes more trouble than it’s worth. The opening scene sets up the monstrous acts that follow, as a Mexican woman (Marisol Ramirez), heartbroken over her husband/lover’s abandonment, drowns one of their sons and pursues the other, snarling like someone already possessed. A Spanish lullaby, “A La Roro Niño,” plays over the tragedy before the story leaps to 1970s Los Angeles, where a social worker, Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini), juggles work and family after the death of her husband. There’s a certain symmetry to these scenes; Mexico gives way to California (which was once part of Mexico), and two single mothers—Anna and her client, Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velásquez)—bear the scrutiny of their peers. But Patricia isn’t merely having a hard time; she’s convinced La Llorona is after her two sons, so she locks them in a closet and covers the doors and walls of her apartment in symbols, including what looks like the evil eye (which, interestingly enough, is both the name of the curse and the symbol of protection).

The script, from Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, implies a connection between these two struggling mothers, but defaults to a “good/bad” parent binary. That development could be a nod to Catholicism’s influence on the Llorona myth—the “ruined reputation” following premarital sex is more of a European concept than an Indigenous one—but Curse Of La Llorona is much more invested in delivering the next, predictable jump-scare than creating its own syncretic work. The presence of La Llorona is incidental; she’s a run-of-the-mill poltergeist in a by-the-numbers horror film. Curse Of La Llorona doesn’t want to empathize with any of its characters. It just plods dutifully to a battle royale between mother, malevolent entity, and one cool-ass curandero. Not all horror movies offer commentary, but this spin-off barely conjures a coherent plot.

Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona is superior in every way to Chaves’ uninspired schlockfest. A claustrophobic atmosphere quickly sets in, signaling the imminent judgment of Enrique Monteverde, a Guatemalan dictator who stands trial for the genocide of the Mayan-Ixil people. Played by Julio Diaz, Monteverde is a stand-in for real-life war criminal Efraín Ríos Montt, who led the ethnic cleansing in Guatemala. More than 200,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in the Guatemalan genocide; Bustamante’s film reveals via title card that 38% of the victims were children. But their deaths don’t haunt Monteverde or even disturb his sleep—that is, until a young Maya woman, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), comes to take the place of the domestic workers who fled the general’s home at the mention of late-night sobbing. Unlike Monteverde and his homebound family, the staff knows what’s coming.

Alma represents the reckoning Monteverde managed to evade for decades. But while she bears the markings of La Llorona—the white dress; the long, raven hair; the frogs—she doesn’t commit any violent acts toward retribution. For Bustamante and his co-writer, Lisandro Sanchez, acknowledgment must come before any atonement. Alma’s placid demeanor belies the righteous fury of the survivors, and she works quickly to widen the fissures between the reactionary patriarch and his progressive daughter, Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz). Alma unsettles Monteverde’s wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), for different reasons. Carmen knows her husband raped Indigenous women like Alma, but the white-presenting Guatemalan woman speaks of those assaults euphemistically, both because she views the Maya-Ixil as second-class citizens and to avoid admitting her own complicity. But by the end of the film, Carmen can no longer look the other way about her husband’s war crimes—she witnesses first-hand the junta’s cruelty, their torture of Mayan women and the murders of their young children.

Despite the huge gap in quality and thematic resonance, a common thread runs through both Llorona movies: single mothers. In Bustamante’s film, Natalia is a doctor who is left to raise her daughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), after her husband vanishes. She asks her father’s security detail about her missing husband but is stonewalled. Natalia isn’t left nearly as vulnerable as Patricia or Alma; as a white-passing mestiza, she has more in common with the Caucasian Anna, whose profession also involves a certain level of caretaking. La Llorona readily engages with class and ethnic differences, while Curse Of La Llorona only acknowledges Mexican culture long enough to fire off a couple of lines in Spanglish. Anna is the one who takes Patricia’s children from her—yes, she does so in a professional capacity, but Chaves’ film ignores the way institutions often fail brown and Black children. (The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez is a gutting reminder.) The California of 1973 was a mere 13 years from making English its official language, creating all sorts of barriers for monolingual Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Bilingual education in California was reinstated recently, but the restrictions on language aren’t a far cry from Trump’s English-only campaign.

With City Of Angels, Penny Dreadful creator John Logan tried to draw a line from the fraught history of Mexicans and Chicanos in California to the bald-faced racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that’s marked the Trump administration. But the recently canceled spin-off never thoughtfully explored these cultures or histories, instead jamming together vague references to the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors to create a prophecy that, by season’s end, appeared both fulfilled—the Vega brothers had turned on each other, while redlined neighborhood symbolized bloodshed—and also unfinished (the final scene is just a re-creation of the premiere’s closer). Natalie Dormer owned every scene she was in as Magda, a possibly Teutonic, shape-shifting demon with unspoken ties to Santa Muerte (played by Lorenza Izzo), which left the Mexican folk deity with little to do beyond occasionally complain about being roused from her sleep. Dormer has always been a powerful performer, and the imbalance here comes directly from the writing, which ranged from clunky to risible. Logan admitted he never intended to properly adapt Mesoamerican myths for TV, but, in a subversion of his original Penny Dreadful goal, to examine the “monster” in all of us. Yet this exploration of cruelty never went beyond alluding to the Mexican Repatriation and Zoot Suit Riots, examples of systemic racism and a more personalized bigotry, respectively.

One of the most unintentionally scary moments in the series is the result of the actions of “good guy” detectives Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) and Lewis Michener (Nathan Lane). While searching for his brother, Mateo (Johnathan Nieves), whom he believes may be involved in the murder of a police officer, Tiago threatens a Mexican woman with deportation. He even says her daughter will be taken from her, which prompts the poor woman to tell Tiago and Lewis what little she knows. As Tiago, a cop and a Chicano, readily wields undue influence against an immigrant woman not unlike his mother, Maria (Adriana Barraza), he strikes a stance similar to that of the Latinx ICE agents in docuseries like Immigration Nation. Almost by accident, City Of Angels joins fellow adaptations like Curse Of La Llorona and The Outsider in reminding us just how long the fear of losing children has run through Latin American folklore and history.

In his adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name, Richard Price put a name to the eponymous outsider: El Coco (whose sobriquets include El Cuco and El Cucuy). Though he’s similar to Black Annis and other “bogeymen,” El Coco is a mythical figure from Iberian lore who eats whatever unfortunate children come across his path. The Outsider’s interpretation of El Coco is well developed for much of the series, even if, as our own Randall Colburn noted, the entity’s greatest shows of power were also its silliest. But Price’s rendering did point to one of the most prevalent fears in Latin American mythology: the fear of losing a child, of losing your family. The “A La Roro Niño” lullaby (which has a few different titles) advises its young listeners: “Duérmete ya, que viene el coco y te comerá.” Go to sleep, the song warns, or El Coco will come and eat you, which echoes the warning in La Llorona stories: behave, or La Llorona will come and take you away.

These stories made their way out of Latinx and Latin American homes long ago; now their proliferation taps into current events, as federal policy keeps migrant parents and their children apart. Family separation is one of the most prominent specters in our ghost stories; many of us grow up hearing that someone is coming to take us away. History proves there’s something to that fear.

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