The Legend and Ghost of La Llorona

A photo of the Wild Refuge Center at night, located near Savannah Georgia
The Wild Refuge Center at Night

Hair as dark as night slips down her back, as she crouches low next to the creek and sinks her hands into the cool water. A dress as white as her hair is black drapes over her frame. It’s a haunting image, made even more eery by the fact that there is no sound save the tinkling water of the stream . . . But then, the rough hiccup of a woman crying splits through the silence, growing louder and louder until the woman with the long black hair and the white-as-white dress turns and looks directly at you.

Still, the desperate wailing surrounds you, picking up speed, picking up strength, until there is the very present fear that something is wrong.

And her face?

It’s not human. Maybe blank with no features at all, no eyes, no nose, no mouth from whence the wailing came.

. . . Or worse, her face is not blank. There are eyes, a nose, a mouth, but they are elongated—protruding—in the shape of a donkey’s or a horse’s.

Hers is the face of La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman—and the fact that you’ve met her acquaintance? We wish you the best of luck, for, as the legend goes, her presence almost always meets with death, disease or something else horrifyingly bad.

Who is La Llorona?

If you’ve never heard of the Weeping Woman, rest assured, you’re not alone. Her notoriety, her claim to fame (if you will) is most commonly found in the South Texas area, where the Spanish influence is still well and vibrant, or in Mexico itself where the story is said to have originated. It’s a legend that tells the story of greed and selfishness, as well as sticking to the high, moral road.

It’s told to young children with a troublemaking bent, and to adults who put their own needs first and foremost.

But who is La Llorona?

It depends on who you’re talking to—like many legends all over the world, there are a few different variations of the same tale. For the most part, though, each variation circulates around a woman who drowned her children . . .

The One Who Lied

As one version of the tale goes, La Llorona was once a very happy young woman who married the love of her life at a grand, stone church in Mexico.

There she was standing at the altar, her white dress cascading all around her, as she grinned brightly up at her new husband. The priest then turned to her and requested that the woman promise to give her firstborn son to the priesthood. Quickly she agreed, no doubt excited to start in on married life with her husband. But as her children were born, one son, and then another—and a daughter, too—she realized one thing: she did not want to give any of her children, son or daughter, to the Church.

The young woman reneged on her word, hoping that the priest would never notice . . .

Then one day her house caught on fire—the flames licked at the building, swallowed it whole as though it had never existed at all. And the woman’s children? Caught in the fire itself, burned into nonexistence like they had never existed at all. In a twist of fate, the woman suffered burns but somehow managed to survive. But in doing so, her features took on that of a donkey or a horse and she thereafter became known as the “donkey lady."

Fate damned her into searching for her children for all of eternity. For the rest of her life, she wandered along the dips and winds of the nearby creeks and rivers, forever hoping to find her beloved children.

She never did.

Since her death, many others have claimed to see La Llorona (the weeping woman) along the same rivers and creeks that she had scourged during her life, in particular around the Alazon and Martinez creeks in the San Antonio region. While women tend to catch a glimpse of her long black hair or the long snout of her nose, it is the men who more frequently hear her desperate pleas.

“Mi hijo, mi hijo!” she’s known to shout, calling for a son that has been gone for generations.

As a word to wise: don’t rush out to save her, should you find her in the depths of the river. Those who have gallantly attempted to pull her from the water have drowned themselves.

The Unbaptized One

While La Llorona from the first tale intentionally went against the priest’s request and therefore was damned to face the consequences of her decisions, in the next version of the story this was not the case at all.

Like the first tale, this one too starts at a Church. But whereas the first tells the tale of a marriage, this one tells the tale of a set of twins. Apparently they were so identical that the first baby girl was baptized twice, without the priest ever realizing that he’d made an error.

Over the years, both twin girls grew up and got married. But while the baptized girl found love and true happiness, the twin who had been accidentally skipped over by the priest—the one who had never been baptized—found none of this.

She burned with constant anger and fury, for what seemed like no reason at all. She gave birth to a son and a daughter and did not love either one. In fact, she disliked them so much that she drowned them both in the acequia, one of the area’s many irrigation canals.

Life continued on unchanged, but when the woman passed and faced Judgment, she was turned away to forever look for the children she had brutally drowned. Only on Judgment Day could her sins be forgiven. Ever since she was resent back to the plane of the living, La Llorona’s ghost has roamed the area where she first drowned her children.

Considering that she has been spotted along the creeks and acequias, her cries heard from miles away, it’s clear that her soul has not found redemption yet.

The Jealous One

While there are literally hundreds of variations of the ghostly legend of La Llorona, this is the one perhaps most commonly repeated.

It starts, like many others, with a beautiful woman who just happened to be a peasant. Like in Cinderella, Luisa was wooed by a wealthy, older man. His name was, according to Corpus Christi psychologist and writer Jane Simon Ammeson, Don Muno Montes Claro. As the story goes, Luisa and Don Muno were of different social classes.

Luisa hoped that a marriage proposal might be forthcoming, Don Muno—well, he could not imagine actually marrying someone of Luisa’s social station. So, he put her up as his mistress. He gave her a nice little cottage on his estate and visited her whenever he wished. For her part, Luisa was all to pleased by the turn of events: she not only had all of Don Muno’s love and affection, but she was also given jewels and beautiful clothes and . . . children. (She was his mistress after all).

For a long while, all went exceedingly well. Until suddenly, it wasn’t any longer.

Slowly but surely Don Muno stopped visiting Luisa and her children. Visits multiple times per week cut in half, and then it seemed that all that was left was the ghost of Don Muno—Luisa had not seen him in ages.

Gathering every bit of courage that she had like a set of armored chainmail, Luisa took a deep breath and made the trek over to the main house. She would ask him personally as to why he had not come to see her and their children in so long. When she arrived at Don Muno’s home, she tracked down a servant to ask if she might be granted the chance to see her lover.

The servant sagely shook his head. “I’m sorry, Señorita Luisa,” the servant murmured, “but Don Muno is set to be married this very day."

“Today?” Luisa answered shrilly. “It cannot be true."

But it was.

Don Muno, wealthy man that he was, had arranged a marriage to a woman equal in his social stature, another member of the aristocracy.

Completely beside herself with grief, Luisa made the long walk back to her little cottage that should have represented love but now only represented a lie. By the time she reached her front door, the grief morphed into anger and the anger . . . Luisa was not herself when she threw open the door and snatched up her children. She marched down to the river and threw them all in.

She ignored their calls for help just as she ignored their frantic attempts to kick their little bodies to the surface of the water. They drowned.

Unsurprisingly, Luisa’s sins were discovered and she was hauled down to the county jail. Not long after, realization that she’d killed her children began to set in. And when it did, it’s said that she died from the grief.

According to this particular story retold by Jane Simon Ammeson, Don Muno’s new wife died on the same day that Luisa herself did. And, naturally, Luisa’s spirit was doomed to wander the streams and creeks and watering holes until she found her children.

They have not been found and her wails can still be heard throughout the area.

The History Behind La Llorona

Like many urban legends, there are countless tales about La Llorona, or the weeping woman. There’s another about a teenage girl who became pregnant though she had never actually been with a man. In this rendition, it was not the girl who drowned the children but her father in an attempt to hide the shame . . . the girl died along the riverbank from losing too much blood.

In others, La Llorona is the cheating wife who drowns her children.

But is there a possibility that the legend once was founded in truth? According to anthropologist Bernadine Santistevan, the earliest reference to a “weeping woman” or La Llorona within the Spanish culture dates to the sixteenth century and the Spanish conquistadores in Mexico.

In 1502, Santistevan found, a young Aztec girl named La Malinche fell hopelessly in love with the famed conquistador Cortez. Their relationship culminated in two sons. But then Cortez made the executive decision to travel back to Spain, and he intended to bring his two sons back with him. The invitation was not extended to La Malinche—she refused to let Cortez leave with her children.

Taking matters into her own hands, she dragged both sons down to the river where she killed them. As the story goes, she spent the next ten years searching and grieving over the children she had sacrificed to her own anger.

In history, La Malinche (also known as Malinalli, Marina, or even Malintzin which referenced both Cortes and La Malinche together as one) was one of twenty slaves given to conquerer Hernan Cortes and the other Spaniards in 1519. This means that at some point the dates were switched, as it’s believed La Malinche was not even born until c.1496-1501.

A 1901 banknote from Tabasco, Mexico, which has the historical figure La Malinche on it
A 1901 banknote from Tabasco, Mexico

La Malinche and Cortes’ relationship struck up almost right from the start. She acted as his interpreter to the other people of the Tabasco area as she spoke both Mayan and Nahuatl, as well as a political advisor. It’s true that she gave birth to one of Cortes’ sons—who was reportedly the first Mestizo, or the people of mixed European and indigenous American heritage—but it is unlikely that La Malinche drowned her child.

In fact, after helping Cortes stave off a rebellion in today Honduras, as well as to set up current-day Mexico City, she was married off to Juan Jaramillio, a Spanish hidalgo. With him, she gave birth to a daughter, and historians generally agree that they do not know what happened to La Malinche after this. It’s thought that she may have died in 1529, just ten years after the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Her son, Don Martin, did return to Spain with his father Cortes, where he was raised by his Spanish family. As for Dona Maria, La Malinche’s daughter with her Jaramillo, she was raised by her father and his second wife Dona Beatriz de Andrada.

Today in Mexico, La Malinche is seen as being the mythical archetype of all Mexican women: brave and courageous, knowledgeable and motherly. In 1901, she appeared on the five peso banknote which had been issued by the Banco de Tabasco. In the 1960s, poet Rosario Castellanos made La Malinche the center of a poem, in which she was depicted not as a traitor among her people but a victim.

But in time, modern culture has also associated this historic figure with La Llorona, the weeping woman who not only lost her children but also killed them).

And in modern times, there have even those who have claimed to be La Llorona.

La Llorona in the Flesh

In 1986, in the Buffalo Bayou surrounding the San Antonio region, a murder took place that rocked the people to their core.

After years of suffering abuse at the hands of her husband, Juana Marie Leija refused to deal with it any longer. One morning she brought her seven children down to the dark, murky waters of Buffalo Bayou.

There’s not so much information if the children fought against her, but Juana Marie Leija was too far gone. She saw no other option than taking the life of her children—she threw six of her seven children into the river.

Two of her children, Juana and Judas Dimas, did not make it. The rest were saved by rescuers who were called to the scene. As can be expected, Juana Marie Leija protested her innocence by claiming that she’d had no choice; her husband was violently aggressive, to her and the children.

The court ruled that Juana Marie Leija would receive ten years of probation because of the deaths of her children and the attempt to drown her other children.

But there was one thing that struck the police officers as strange. When they asked Juana Marie Leija why she had committed such heinous crimes, yes, she claimed it was to escape her husband. There was also one other reason, however, and that reason?

Juana Marie Leija claimed to be La Llorona herself.

Finding the Spirit of La Llorona

While we'd love to point you in the right direction, the urban legend that is La Llorona has reportedly been spotted all over the South Texas region. From Buffalo Bayou on the outskirts of Houston to the rivers and creeks bisecting through San Antonio, the Weeping Woman is part mythological creature and ever-elusive ghost. If you happen to cross paths with her, do be sure not to follow her! Allegedly nothing good ever comes of that.

In the meanwhile, if you're keen on learning more about San Antonio's Haunted History, please be sure to take our Ghosts of Old San Antonio Tour! In the map to the right, you'll find where we start out nightly tours.

Stay spooky, y'all!

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