"La Llorona's Sacred Waters" on 24th and York in the Mission District, San Francisco. (Karma Camilleeon/Flickr)
If you find yourself in San Francisco's Mission District at the corner of 24th and York streets, you can't help but notice the massive, blue-toned mural that stands there — rising over two stories high and spanning 60 feet.
This intricate mural, called "La Llorona’s Sacred Waters" and created by Bay Area artist Juana Alicia, is filled with expressive female figures that draw the eye with their depth and scale. In the center of this intricate mural, there’s Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of lakes and streams. In the background, there are women from Bolivia, women from India, women from the Mexico-U.S. border — all standing together.
And in the foreground, there’s a woman standing apart, stretching out her hand like she’s reaching out to the viewer. A tear falls from her eye, and she’s holding a child in her arms, as if to protect them.
Alicia's mural has been a fixture on this San Francisco wall for the last 17 years. And if you grew up with the legend of La Llorona, you might be surprised to see her like this in this mural.
That's because in the popular telling — the one that’s most common in Mexico, and here in California — La Llorona is a ghost. She's the spirit of a woman who haunts watery places, wailing for her lost children, not protecting them.
So how did a traditional legend come this far, and take so many forms?
The stories we hear
For many Latinx people here in California, the story of La Llorona is one you hear growing up — told slightly differently each time. And because the legend is something so many people grow up with, many of my co-workers had something to say about what they remember first hearing about La Llorona.
"My family mainly used it as a scare tactic for my mom and my tías when they were younger," says Gabriella Frenes of KQED's The California Report.
Among all the variations of the legend, there are common themes: the weeping ghost of a woman, who haunts the waters, crying out for her children.
"She wails this: like, 'Mis hijos! Mis hijos!,' which means, 'My kids! My kids!'" says Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, a reporter and producer with KQED News and KQED en Español. "They said that she had drowned her own kids, and that she would walk around the ... river, where she drowned them, feeling guilty of what she had done."
"She drowned her children, and they say that her soul is not rested because she also killed herself," adds Frenes. "With Catholicism, that's a huge sin, suicide. They say that since her soul is not laid to rest, she's out there searching for her children."
And because of this, La Llorona is often made into a terrifying spirit on the lookout for new children — whom she wants to take. Or maybe, as Cabrera-Lomelí says, she’s defending something.
"She's looking for [her kids] and pushing away anybody that threatens things that are special to her — like her children, or rivers," says Cabrera-Lomelí. "Because rivers, both in Mexico and in the rest of the world, can really be the lifeline of a city or a community."
I’m Ecuadorian American, and my parents say they never heard the story of La Llorona until they arrived in Los Angeles in the early '90s. As for me, I remember that my childhood friends who were Mexican would warn me that if we didn't behave, La Llorona would come to get us.
But if you only know La Llorona from childhood stories, trust me: This legend goes far beyond those. And it’s the deep history, and the evolution of the legend, that brings us all the way to her very different appearance on that mural by Juana Alicia in the Mission.
The origins of La Llorona
To learn more about how the legend of La Llorona got started, I called up Profesora Leticia Hernández — a writer, artist and poet who teaches oral history at San Francisco State University.
For many, La Llorona symbolizes the real-life 16th-century woman Malintzin, or La Malinche — the woman said to have been kidnapped by Hernán Cortés to aid his invasion of Mexico in 1519 (or who helped him by choice, depending on who’s writing the history books).
In this telling, La Llorona becomes a symbol of the injustices of colonization. But then it goes even deeper.
“Others say [the legend] predates conquest with all of these incredibly complex and mythical Aztec goddesses and deities,” says Hernández. “Then you have the rendition that La Llorona is associated with Coatlicue the Aztec Earth goddess, who gave birth to the sun, moon and stars — and that's connected to Cihuateteo, which is the the deity of women who die in childbirth."
"It could get really complex there, right?" says Hernández.
Even if this legend predates Cortés and colonization, the way European colonizers then wrote the history books about Malintzin/La Malinche lays the emphasis firmly on her as a negative force: a woman who stepped out of line.
"The way that the female figure of La Malinche has been demonized and constructed throughout history is problematic," says Hernández. "Especially because that narrative has been controlled by the heteropatriarchy, and makes a woman who was most likely a victim into a villain."
There are variations on not just who La Llorona is, but what she’s doing — and what happened to her children, specifically. It's this element, says Hernández, that contains a great deal of mystery.
In the version of the narrative that has La Llorona as a scorned lover, she drowns her children out of grief, and must remain grieving forever in this limbo. "All of that gets close to that whole bad mother narrative," says Hernández.
Around Latin America, the many mirrors of La Llorona
“Even though there's La Llorona myths throughout Latin America, I often associated it more with Mexican culture,” says Hernández. “And I think that's how we hear about it in California or the United States, in the southwest, as mostly associated with Mexican culture.”
However, Hernández's heritage is Salvadoran, and she says so much of the La Llorona legend reminds her of La Siguanaba — a Central American story that shares a lot of DNA with La Llorona. La Siguanaba is a supernatural creature that takes the form of a woman cursed by the rain god, Tlaloc. Like La Llorona, she stalks the waters and brings vengeance upon men and children.
The story of La Siguanaba instantly reminded my parents of a similar story told exclusively in Guayaquil, a major port city in Ecuador. I remember the story of La Dama Tapada — the Veiled Lady — being told to me when I was about 5 years old while visiting my great-uncle’s house, to stop me from wanting to stay up late.
As the legend goes, La Dama would walk the city at night stalking drunken men and luring them into dark alleys with her beautiful scent. Once alone with a man, she would reveal her skeletal face, and the next morning, the man would be found dead foaming from the mouth. No Guayaquileño man would dare walk alone at night, I was told, out of fear of meeting La Dama.
Of the story of La Siguanaba, Hernández says that “if you look at the legend, it gets more problematic because it becomes more like 'a spirited girl' or 'a woman with spirit' is monstrous." In one version, she says, the god Tlaloc turned her into La Siguanaba as punishment "for being a bad mother and a bad wife."
"Who determines that?" asks Hernández. "What is a bad woman? Why is it bad to have spirit?" They're questions that could equally be asked of the legend of La Dama Tapada — especially given that she stalks drunken men.
Of course, says Hernández, for many people the legends of La Llorona, La Siguanaba and La Dama Tapada are "just" simple ghost stories, and that’s OK. When analyzing the role of folklore, she stresses that she's "wearing her 'profe' hat" — and says that knowing the roots of the stories we tell ourselves is always powerful.
"In the Llorona mural, the issues of water and climate justice and feminism all come up," says Alicia. "Racial justice, mixed heritage issues — they're all there."
On that wall, La Llorona isn’t a ghost: Instead, she’s flesh and blood. She’s protecting a child, not threatening it. And if you recall my colleague Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí's words on how La Llorona is known to defend the very waters she haunts, you might say she's playing that water protector role right here on the mural.
Even where Juana Alicia chose to paint her mural on the corner of York and 24th is symbolic.
"It's a neighborhood that I love. It's where the raza is. It's where people were being evicted rapidly," says Alicia.
"It's like a cultural anchor. It's like holding on to sacred space in a neighborhood that I could no longer afford to live in, and most of my compatriots could not afford to live in either."
A powerful emblem of grief
La Llorona the legend can be a meaningful symbol of so many things, past and present. Above all, she can signify loss, of many kinds. And because of this, how people interpret her can be incredibly personal.
KQED News producer Lina Blanco knows this more than most. "The figure of La Llorona, as like a ghost who wanders at night? It was never one that scared me," says Blanco. "Because I’ve seen scary things in my life that are not about a ghost wandering at night wanting to steal children."
For Blanco, La Llorona wasn’t someone to be afraid of.
"The stories of La Llorona that I gravitated to never showed La Llorona as a victim, never showed her as a vengeful spirit," says Blanco. Instead, the legend as she learned it, from the work of musicians like Chavela Vargas and Latinx writers like Gloria Anzaldúa, was more of someone to learn from.
"They showed this model of someone who was looking, but then also a bridge and a connecting force between the world that is living and the world that is dead," she says.
As a queer, mixed Chicana coming of age in different places, Lina said she didn’t see something to fear in the story of La Llorona. Instead she saw parts of herself.
La Llorona wanders in the night making those wailing sounds because she’s grieving. She makes her pain loud and clear. And sometimes, says Blanco, people can find visible grief in someone a frightening experience.
As someone who went through deep loss and grief as a child, when she lost her own mother, this is something Blanco says she knows firsthand. Because people sometimes just "don't know how to engage with someone experiencing grief," says Blanco. "They shy away."
"Not being able to hold someone in their grief sometimes shows up as ignoring them, fearing them, casting them aside," she says.
For Blanco, the way La Llorona grieves isn’t scary — it’s relatable. As a child experiencing the pain of grief, "no one knew how to talk to me," she says. What's more, she can identify with La Llorona's vocal calls in search of lost family.
"Parts of me," says Blanco, "have gone around the world calling out for [my mother]."
Finding your own La Llorona
Complex womanhood, being torn between two worlds, protecting threatened waters, reaching out for lost loved ones: As a symbol, La Llorona can mean so many things to so many people.
On one of these cold winter nights, just as the sun is starting to set, perhaps you yourself might like to go to the Mission District in San Francisco and encounter La Llorona on that huge mural by Juana Alicia. If you’ve only heard the ghost story, she might not look exactly like you expect.
But if there’s one thing about La Llorona, it’s that she keeps her power to surprise.
Juana Alicia’s interview used courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recorded as part of the SFMOMA Mission Murals Project documenting the Latinx mural-making culture that emerged in San Francisco’s Mission District during the 1970s. The project launches soon on SFMOMA's website.
This episode of Bay Curious was reported by Sebastian Miño-Bucheli and edited by Carly Severn and Olivia Allen-Price. Special thanks to Lina Blanco, Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, Erika Aguilar and Gabriella Frenes. Bay Curious is made by Olivia Allen-Price, Katrina Schwartz, Sebastian Miño-Bucheli and Brendan Willard. Additional support came from Erika Aguilar, Jessica Placzek, Kyana Moghadam, Paul Lancour, Carly Severn, Lina Blanco, Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, Ethan Lindsey, Vinnee Tong and Jenny Pritchett.
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