Christopher Rodarte was raised on stories of La Llorona (the wailing woman), the legendary Latina spirit that haunts rivers throughout the Southwestern United States and Mexico. She’s eternally searching for her children, whom she drowned in a fit of madness after seeing her husband with another woman. It’s said that as she wanders these bodies of water for all eternity, wailing and crying. She drowns any children that she comes across because she’s unable to stop herself from repeating her terrible mistake.
Parents often invoke her ghoulish reputation to scare their own kids into coming indoors before dark, saying, “You don’t want La Llorona to get you!”
Rodarte has been gathering people’s firsthand experiences of the wailing woman for 20 years. He transformed 11 anecdotes into full-fledged short stories with adolescent and teenage protagonists, and self-published La Llorona: Ghost Stories of the Southwest in 2019. The volume includes La Llorona-inspired drawings and photographs by Arizona and New Mexico artists. Each story is introduced with lyrics from the Mexican folk song, “La Llorona,” which has many versions and verses.
“The traditional song is haunting, elegiac. You definitely get a sense of the sadness,” Rodarte says.
He says that the stories in his book are best read out loud because La Llorona’s eeriest characteristic is her terrible wail.
“Where are my children?” he cried, in a screech that elicited chills during a recent video interview. “Bring me my children!”
The Tucson-based third-grade teacher has had plenty of practice getting the voice right. He’s been known to tell La Llorona stories to his students, especially during the Halloween season.
“Some of the kids are on the younger side, so I ask their parents if it’s OK. But if a kid gets a bad dream, that’s probably a sign of a ghost story well told,” he says. “Adults tell me they’ve gotten nightmares from the book, too.”
Pasatiempo talked with Rodarte about the history and mythology of La Llorona.
Pasatiempo: What are your earliest memories of La Llorona? Does she still scare you?
Christopher Rodarte: I’m from the Northwest side of Albuquerque where there aren’t a lot of street lights at night. My family owns a few houses adjacent to each other with a huge field and a ditch. I lived there until I was six, and most of my family still lives in the area. I grew up hearing stories about her from my uncles and other family members. When I visit family now, and I’m driving to and from their houses at night, I still have a habit of twisting my rearview mirror so I can’t see into the backseat. You won’t find me wandering out there alone.
Pasa: Are all La Llorona stories designed to scare kids into being good?
Rodarte: La Llorona didn’t just go after children. She also went after men who were unfaithful to their families and communities in some way. Generally, La Llorona would straighten them out. She didn’t drown or kill them, like she did to children, but she scared them straight.
Pasa: Where do the stories in the book come from? What kind of research did you do?
Rodarte: I have stories from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix. And now more are coming in from California and Texas as people are coming to the website [lalloronaproductions.com] and contributing stories. I did some research through the [Southwest] Folklore Center at the University of Arizona. They let me have access to some of their materials that went back over 200 years. There were handwritten stories about La Llorona from down into Mexico, and even some from the Aztec Empire that went back a couple thousand years.
Pasa: It seems like the entire Southwest and Mexico like to claim La Llorona.
Rodarte: A lot of people are very proprietary about La Llorona and insist that she’s from their city, or their town, or their lake or river. I’ve had people get into arguments. My barber got into a debate with a customer while I was getting a haircut. [Similar stories] go back as far as Cortés and his mistress. She was called La Malinche. But I’ve heard similar stories from Germany and Africa.
Pasa: Is La Llorona desperate or is she malicious? Is she redeemable?
Rodarte: I’ve never found much that indicates that she’s malicious. It’s a tragic story, and desperation is certainly a factor. In almost every version, she kills her children in a state of what would now probably be considered temporary insanity. She immediately realizes what she’s done and attempts to rectify it — attempts to save them or find them. But it’s too late, and she generally dies in the process. Through eternity, she’s searching for her children and wailing, weeping inconsolably in horror at what she’s done, but also what she continues to do. She thinks any children are her own children, and she hates what she’s done, and she loathes herself, but she can’t stop herself. So, unfortunately, she seems to be a tragically irredeemable character. She’s perpetually engaging in an action she despises and knows is wrong, and that’s why she’s constantly wailing and screaming. From grief and guilt. ◀
LA LLORONA: GHOST STORIES OF THE SOUTHWEST (2019, 159 pages, $14.95) is available at lalloronaproductions.com.