Stories of mothers who kill their children, whether news reports, fiction, or myths and legends, awaken our primordial fear of all mothers’ power over their children. The unquestioning and unavoidable trust of an infant for the mother can be terrifying to a grown-up child who realizes that his own mother should not have been trusted with a helpless infant. The terror is not altogether unfounded.
According to the American Anthropological Association, more than 200 women kill their own children every year in the United States alone. La Llorona embodies the mythos of that fear.
Stories of La Llorona have passed from generation to generation, starting long before anyone wrote them down. There are slightly different versions throughout Latin America and in regions of the United States that were once part of New Spain. The details may vary, but the heart of the story remains the same: a loving mother has killed her children. The following is one of the Mexican versions.
On a windy night in Mexico City, along the streets where canals once carried water from Lake Texcoco into ancient Tenochtitlan, a soul-chilling sound is sometimes heard. It is the shrill voice of a woman shrieking and wailing, Ay! Mis hijos! ¿ Donde están mis hijos? (My children! Where are my children? Some people say they have seen a woman in white floating along those streets in a futile eternal search for her lost children. She is La Llorona, the Wailing Woman. Some believe she is the collective soul of indigenous Mexico, lamenting the loss of her descendants to European assimilation. Others tell a horrifying story of a woman whose spirit cannot rest because, in a moment of rage, she did the unthinkable.
In colonial times, the story goes, a beautiful Aztec woman and a handsome aristocrat, a conquistador, loved each other. The Spaniard was not bold enough to make her his wife, but they had three children together. She waited eagerly for his visits, but one day he stopped coming. The young mother learned her beloved conquistador had returned from Spain with an aristocratic Spanish wife. He loved his Aztec concubine, but he had agreed to an arranged marriage so he could secure his fortunes and his status in the New Spain’s colonial society.
The Aztec woman, devastated by her lover’s marriage, took their three children to one of the canals and drowned them. Realizing too late what she had done, she jumped in and drowned herself. Her spirit walks the streets where the canals used to flow, searching for her children, screaming and wailing for them through the dark windy nights.