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La Llorona's Revenge: The wailing ghost of the Southwest haunts canvasses, celluloid and cyberspace

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The south Texas night air held an uncharacteristic crispness as six-year-old Domino Renée crept toward the dark shapes huddled around a fire. It was late and she was supposed to be in bed, but the sound of familiar voices rising and falling in the sing-song cadence of storytellers made her risk a scolding from her mother.

La Llorona illustration by Carlos Encinas
Illustration, “La Llorona.” Copyright 1994 Carlos Encinas.

A hush fell over the group when her cousin Ricardo began a new tale. On his drive home from el baile he said, he passed a woman in white walking along the road. The hour was late and the road deserted, but he didn’t think much of it. Then he passed the same woman a second time.

“La Llorona,” he whispered, gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter. Ricardo sped around the next curve when suddenly the figure appeared in the middle of the road. The tires screeched as he slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the woman.

For a long moment, he stared at the mournful figure who extended her hand toward the windshield. He blinked. The apparition burst into a flock of white birds and disappeared into the night. All that remained was the smell of burnt rubber and two pale headlight beams across the empty road.

Domino was terrified. As she raced back to the safety of her bedroom to huddle under the covers, she realized that although no one had caught her sneaking out of bed, she had been punished all the same. The tale of La Llorona (Spanish for “weeping woman”) would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Today, Domino Renée Perez is an assistant professor of English and of the Center for Mexican American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. She has returned to the ghostly story from her childhood for inspiration. Perez spent 10 years researching the stories and images of La Llorona for her forthcoming book, “There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture.”

Domino Perez
Dr. Domino Perez, assistant professor of English, is a faculty affiliate of the Center for Mexican American Studies.

Since the days of the conquistadors, the legend of La Llorona has haunted Hispanic culture in the Southwest.There are countless interpretations of the story, but they all carry the same theme: a weeping woman in white roams rivers and lakes, searching for children to send to a watery grave. Mothers scold unruly children with the admonition, “If you don’t behave, La Llorona will come and get you!”

La Llorona is one of the most famous figures in Mexican oral and literary tradition,” Perez says. “Many variations of the legend’s origin exist. According to the traditional version, La Llorona is abandoned by the man she loves and left to raise their children alone. Grief or desire for revenge compels La Llorona to murder her children and throw their bodies into a river. Despair ultimately contributes to her death. In the afterlife, La Llorona is condemned to wander for all of eternity, crying, until the bodies of her children are recovered.”

The legend of La Llorona is as dynamic as it is old.

“She is alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, a person, legend, ghost, goddess, seductress, moral tale, metaphor, story and symbol,” Perez says. “As her story has evolved, storytellers and artists both inside and outside her community continue to adapt her story to new contexts.”

DVD cover art for 'The Curse of the Crying Woman'
DVD cover art, “The Curse of the Crying Woman”/“La Maldición de la Llorona” (1961). Courtesy CasaNegra Entertainment.

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For example, many feminist scholars reinterpret the narrative as resistance to patriarchy, she explains. By focusing on the agency of women to both create and end life, women can revise and transform the tale into one of empowerment instead of despair.

In recent years, La Llorona has wandered out of the oral stories onto pages, canvasses, celluloid and cyberspace. Complicating this movement is the fact that La Llorona is used around the world to sell or promote items ranging from coffee and women’s underwear, to films and academic conferences.

Record albums by Lhasa de Sela and Chavela Vargas, and a punk band in the graphic novel series “Love and Rockets” by the Hernandez brothers, are all named after her. Children’s books by Rudolfo Anaya and Gloria Anzaldúa, and sketches and paintings by artists such as Santa Barraza, Isaura de la Rosa, Elizabeth Lopez and Stevon Lucero, all feature La Llorona or her legend as subject.

In 2002, La Llorona appeared in a commercial for the California Milk Processor Board in which she is crying not for her children, but for milk. Her film career is well established in Mexico: four feature films have depicted her story, including the 1961 horror classic, “La Maldición de La Llorona” (“Curse of the Crying Woman”). In the United States, she has risen from a bit player in the David Lynch film, “Mulholland Drive,” to a starring role in an episode of the CW’s paranormal show, “Supernatural.”

Product image for La Llorona, Medium Roast coffee
Product image, “La Llorona, Medium Roast.” Created for Coffee Shop of Horrors by Gary Pullin.

“The woman in white has not yet reached the commercial status of the Virgin of Guadalupe—we haven’t seen La Llorona nightlights, dashboard figurines, or rear-window decals,” Perez says. “But I suspect we soon will. In fact, I recently saw a bumper sticker that read ‘Honk if you’ve seen La Llorona.’”

So what’s behind the universal appeal of this ghostly Latino myth? Perez says some people like feeling scared, while others want to believe that after we die, our soul lives on.

“Part of what inspires ghost stories is the fundamental desire to believe this isn’t it, that there is more to life in the hereafter,” Perez says. “And what makes ghost stories so universal is that they explore the full range of human emotions: greed, love, lust, anger, denial, grief, et cetera, and how we enact those emotions in our lives.”

Though La Llorona stories may be found throughout Latin America, the sheer volume led Perez to confine her study to Chicano representations of La Llorona in the United States. During her research, she collected more than 200 artifacts featuring La Llorona and conducted more than 100 interviews with artists, writers and folklorists.

According to Perez, the research process for “There Was a Woman” has been characterized by strange happenings, such as the photocopier producing pages of inky blackness when Perez attempted to copy articles about La Llorona.

“I’m not sure if it’s La Llorona being mischievous or just my complete lack of technical know-how at the time, Perez says. “What I do know is that when I called the technician, he found nothing wrong with the machine.

'The Band, La Llorona,' from the graphic novel 'Love & Rockets #7: The Death of Speedy'
“The Band, La Llorona,” from the graphic novel “Love & Rockets #7: The Death of Speedy.” Copyright 1987 by Jaime Hernandez. Courtesy Fantagraphics Books.

“Psychologists sometimes identify people who see ghosts as having hysterical hallucinations,” Perez adds, “but folklorists don’t take that view, and the people who tell La Llorona stories accept them as fact. I see folklore as our lens to read other stories, not just literature like ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Hamlet,’ but also the stories that are happening right now, such as Susan Smith and Andrea Yates,” Perez says.

Ultimately, Perez views her research as a starting point for dialogue.

“I hope communities will find ‘There Was a Woman’ useful as both an archive for artifacts and as a guide to decipher the many complex representations of the legend of La Llorona,” Perez says. “Many parallels may be drawn between La Llorona and other literary and mythological figures, such as the Greek Medea, Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Irish banshees. I’m excited to find out where the dialogue takes us.”

“There Was a Woman: Cultural Readings of La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture” is due from The University of Texas Press in 2008.

By Jennifer McAndrew

Banner illustration: Guy Kingsbery

Photo of Dr. Perez: Marsha Miller

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