where the legend started
For centuries, children have been taught to fear the water. From the Japanese Kappa demon, with its hunger for cucumbers and human organs, to the hideous frogman of Slavic folklore known locally as the Vodyanoy, danger has always lurked for any child who dared venture too close to the water’s edge.
In Latin America, the same can be said, and there are few who take these warnings to heart as closely as those who’ve heard the tale of La Llorona—the weeping woman.
For centuries the name has instilled fear, whispered in the darkest corners of the forest and lingering on the lips of children who have been warned, time and time again, what happens to those who are naughty, or wander too far from the safety of home.
Where the ghost of La Llorona waits.
Believe it or not, this is no simple fairy tale. No campfire story. What makes La Llorona different from the others is that she wasn’t some mythical creature born of the imagination of man. She was a person. A wife. A daughter. A mother of two. A flesh-in-blood woman with hopes and dreams and a family she loved, not unlike the devoted parents who have come to fear her.
Simply, she was one of us—until she wasn’t.
What turned La Llorona from just another face in the crowd to the subject of many of our nightmares was one, simple act. A deed so tragic that it is unforgettable, so heinous that it is unforgivable: the cruel, heartless murder of her very own children. The most heinous of crimes. The ultimate sin.
It so happened that the father, her one true love, had abandoned her for another woman, breaking her heart and fracturing her mind, making her an outcast in her own community. Racked with the agony of his affair, she became bent on revenge, paying him back in the most horrific way imaginable—leading their children down to the water and drowning them both, one after the other.
A truly selfish act for La Llorona, but it did come with one consolation. So disgusted at the sight of what she had done, she decided to follow right after them, taking her own life in those very same waters. An easy way out, for certain, but the only way for her to avoid the shattered reality she had created, and wrap up this horrible tale of love and loss and a mother’s betrayal.
If only this story were that simple.
The truth is, she never really left. Denied from heaven and bound in purgatory, La Llorona still haunts our mortal realm, a divine punishment for the lives she took. Her spirit, trapped for eternity, now roams the waterways, crying, wailing, searching desperately for her lost children, or any other unfortunate souls who might tempt fate and happen across her path.
Sometimes, she can only be heard, her wails so hopeless, so shrill, that they are mistaken for the cries of a lost or endangered child, luring unsuspecting victims into her waiting arms. But, more often than not, she is seen at night, dressed all in white with long black hair falling over her face, standing at the forest's edge.
She beckons to lone children, making false promises, luring them past the treeline and toward the water—replaying her sins over and over for the rest of time.
While the story has evolved since the day La Llorona took her life and those of her children, one fact remains the same: those unfortunate enough to hear the cries of the weeping woman rarely live to tell the tale, their bodies either found floating in the waterways, drowned, or never seen again.
Mother, murderer, and, ultimately, monster, the tale of La Llorona has surfaced many times throughout history, ranging from the mysterious jungles of South America to the harsh deserts of northern Mexico. Eventually, making its way to the American Southwest, where a newfound fascination with the legend has taken root thanks to the integration of Mexican-American culture along the borderlands.
There are many renditions that span many cultures, but the most common telling of La Llorona starts with a young woman named Xochitl, the beautiful daughter of a local peasant. One day she catches the eye of the richest man in the village, often described as a ranchero, and they fall deeply in love. It is a match made in heaven, a true Cinderella story, and it isn’t long before they are wed in the biggest and most expensive ceremony the village has ever seen.
They are the perfect married couple. They are happy. And with that happiness comes the next logical step, and it isn’t long before their family starts to grow and Xochitl brings two healthy children into the world. Her family is now complete, and it would seem that a peasant girl’s fantasy has finally come true—a happily ever after ending.
Unfortunately, we know where this story is actually headed, and it isn’t long before Xochitl starts to sense that something is off about her husband. He seems distant. He’s staying out late. And there is something notably off about him, as if he were no longer the same devoted man she had married.
Xochitl begins to suspect the worst, and one day those very fears come true when he brings home another young, beautiful woman. He claims that they are in love. He claims that it is God's will that they be together. And he denounces both his first wife and their children, expelling them back into the poverty-stricken streets from which she came.
What comes next down by the water’s edge doesn’t need to be retold, but, needless to say, it is the last time that the peasant’s daughter, or her children, are seen alive.
While unique in its telling, the story itself is nothing new. Xochitl, and the wailing woman she will become, follows in a long line of fabled, forsaken mothers who were driven to infanticide by the lovers who spurned them.
Take for instance, the ancient Greek tragic figure of Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis and granddaughter of the sun god Helios, who murdered her own sons in revenge after her husband, Jason of the Argonauts, abandoned her for another woman.
Or the story of Lamia, daughter of Poseidon, who, after an affair with the god Zeus, was forced to devour her own children by Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife. An act so horrid, that it twisted her mind and transformed her body into that of a terrifying beast, forever cursed to spend the rest of her days seeking out more children to feed her appetite.
Regardless of the potential influences, it’s clear that the tale of La Llorona and her doomed children has withstood the test of time. But, the question still remains: was Xochitl, that beautiful, young daughter of a peasant, ever a real person?
Though Xochitl wasn’t a real person, just a tragic character passed down from generation to generation as a way to explain the strange sightings and whispered rumors of La Llorona, it’s likely that her experiences were much more than just the basis of a ghost story. In fact, there was a woman, much like Xochitl, whose notoriety left a long and enduring impression on Mexican culture, lasting even to this day.
It is even likely that her life’s story has had the most influence on what would become the legend of La Llorona.
In the early 16th century, as the Spanish conquistadors were laying siege to the vast empire of the Aztecs, a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast, known now as La Malinche, gained notoriety as one of Mexico’s most memorable embodiments of treason. And it is her famous betrayal—though modern interpretations have cast new light on her supposed crimes—that led her from the pages of history to the tongues of local storytellers.
At a young age, the noble-born La Malinche, along with several other girls from her region, were sold into slavery, eventually being gifted to the Spanish in an attempt reach a peaceful agreement after a particularly gruesome defeat. La Malinche, because of her ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl, soon found herself to be the personal translator and consort of the most notorious of the Spanish conquistadors—Hernán Cortés.
It is said that the two fell deeply in love, but, in reality, modern historians note that there is little evidence to suggest that their relationship involved any intimacy, and she was more likely conditioned to an abusive and controlling relationship that had been her reality since a very young age.
Regardless, her relationship with the European conquerors, who she mostly aided in their negotiations, was seen by history as one of Mexico’s greatest acts of disloyalty. While being forced into the role of an interpreter was, alone, nothing more than a drop in the bucket when considering the overwhelming might of the Spanish, as well as the deadly plague that decimated millions of the Aztec people, much of the pain and frustration was laid solely on the shoulders of La Malinche.
This was especially true after the birth of her son, Martín, who was considered an abomination by the Aztecs, as well as a constant reminder of La Malinche’s unforgivable betrayal. How she could not only dare to take the side of the enemy, but to bear their children, was difficult for the people to understand. And, as time went on, the resentment began to grow.
Not only grow, but take on a life of its own, and soon rumors had spread far and wide about her wicked deeds, transforming the young interpreter into a larger-than-life monster. Most notably, a story in which, after learning that Cortés was planning to sail to Spain with Martín and leave her behind, La Malinche dragged the boy down to the river and drowned him. It is thought that this early tale laid the foundation for what would later become the story of La Llorona.
In reality, we know this never happened, and that Martín went on to live a full, if not controversial, life. Still, it’s not difficult to see how La Malinche’s story, turned to allegory, continues to influence the legend of La Llorona, especially when comparing the murder of millions of indigenous children, for which she is blamed, to the weeping woman’s fabled tale of infanticide, curses, and ghostly hauntings.
Today, thanks to a more enlightened understanding of the horrible abuse La Malinche must have endured, the young slave-girl turned betrayer has a different image in Mexico, seen instead as a brave and courageous woman, even motherly—a symbol for duality and complex identity. She has since been the subject of countless songs, paintings, books, and movies, and even has a statue of her likeness adorning a park in Mexico city.
The legend of La Llorona has a complicated past, transcending the history books and transforming itself into the ghostly tale we know today. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it has nonetheless become deeply rooted in popular culture, spreading past it’s Mexican borders as more and more reports of weeping women in white start to surface from all corners of the globe.
What started off as a story to encourage children not to misbehave or wander off after dark has become a common theme in the public eye, reaching far and wide with scores of songs, books, games, television shows, and even feature films. Some of which have even gained notoriety, like Michael Chaves’ 2019 film The Curse of La Llorona, a well-received addition to James Wans’ famous Conjuring series.
It’s had a long influence on music, as well, including a Mexican folk song titled simply “La Llorona” that has been around so long that it’s origin is debatable. In 1949, it was recorded and popularized by well-known composer and writer, Andrés Henestrosa, and has since been covered and performed an innumerable amount of times by musicians across all over the world.
It was even featured in the 2017 Disney film, Coco, the story of a young Mexican guitar player who travels through the colorful Land of the Dead in search of his family history.
The weeping woman can be seen off-screen, as well. In the Xochimilco borough of Mexico City, a yearly waterfront theatrical performance of the legend of La Llorona, known as "La Cihuacoatle, Leyenda de la Llorona", has coincided with the Day of the Dead holiday since the play first debuted in 1993. It is a huge occasion, and play itself has been drawing a large number of tourists to the area for many years.
Even in true crime, La Llorona has made herself known, as was seen In 1986 when a Texas woman named Juana Leija, suffering at the hands of an abusive husband, attempted to drown six of her seven children in the Buffalo Bayou outside of Houston. Unfortunately, two of her children did not survive the attack, and when Juana was later asked why she would commit such a heinous crime, it was reported that she said to be La Llorona herself. A bold but terrifying claim.
Regardless of how the name reaches you, through reputation or personal experience, one thing remains clear after many years of whispers, rumors, and eye-witness testimonies: La Llorona is here to stay.
So, the next time you find yourself alone at night, walking at the forest's edge, the sound of a nearby creek trickling through the fog, remember to tell yourself that if you hear the sound of a weeping woman, it might not just be your imagination—and that death could be following close behind it.
While we'd love to point you in the right direction, La Llorona has been spotted all over South Texas. From the outskirts of Houston to the rivers and creeks of San Antonio, the Weeping Woman is an ever-elusive ghost. If you happen to cross her path, keep your distance!
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!