Collecting and sharing the folktales & ghost stories of Southern California. 

These are our stories. Let us tell them once more & re-enchant our world.

Episode 8: THE LEGEND OF LA LLORONA with guest Dr. Domino R. Perez

Susan Burns

20 Oct, 2016


                                              The Weeping Woman has wandered riverbanks and roadsides for hundreds of years.

Is she really a restless spirit, or just a misunderstood goddess?



Today's guest is author and professor Dr. Domino Perez.  Dr. Perez

is the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the

University of Texas at Austin and an associate professor of English

in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at

the University of Texas Austin.

Dr. Perez is the author of the book There Was a Woman: La Llorona,

from Folklore to Pop Culture, which is currently available on Amazon.


The Mexican folksong,  "La Llorona," is peformed by Joan Baez from her 1974 studio album Gracias a la Vida.  The single and the album are available from iTunes.

Other music heard in today's episode includes:

Special Thanks

Dr. Domino Perez

James Conroy

Podcast Garden


Links to other things mentioned on today's show:

The Florentine Codex

Hobb's Grove

"Supernatural" - Episode: Pilot

Universal Studios' Halloween Horror Nights

"Got Milk?" Advertisement featuring La Llorona

"Grimm" - Episode: La Llorona

Bruja, an original novel by Mel Odom, based on the television series "Angel" by Joss Whedon.

The Story of the Legend of La Llorona


There are some who say that before she was called La Llorona ("LAH yoh ROH nah"), she was simply known as Maria. Maria was born to a peasant family in a humble village, and though her life was very simple – her startling beauty captured the attention of both the rich and the poor in the area from an early age.  And from the moment she was old enough to entertain male suitors, there seemed to be no end to her options. But because she was so beautiful and had been fawned and cooed over for much of her life, Maria had come to believe that she was a bit more special than everyone else.  And though she may have spent her days with her family in her humble peasant surroundings, in the evenings she would don her best white gown and dance with all of the men who came to admire her in the local fandangos. As Maria grew older, her beauty only increased - and with it her vanity.  She no longer gave the time of day to the young men from her own village. They had no money, they had no land – what could they possibly do for her? She began to tell her sisters, “When I do marry, it will be to the wealthiest, most handsome man in the world..."  And then one day, into Maria's village rode a man who seemed to be just the man she had been dreaming of.  He was a very charming young ranchero, the son of a wealthy rancher from the southern plains. And he could ride like a Comanche!  In fact, if he owned a horse and it grew too tame, he would simply give it away and go rope a wild, unbroken horse from the plains. He found no challenge in mounting a steed if it wasn't half wild.

And was he ever handsome! The moment he rode into town, women seemed to be appear out of their homes as if by a magical spell. And he could play the guitar and sing beautifully... Maria made up her mind – this was the man for her. And she knew just what to do to get his attention. If the young ranchero spoke to her when they met along the pathway, she would turn her head away. If he came to her home to play his guitar and serenade her, she would refuse to even come to the window. She would return any gifts he sent – no matter how expensive. And, certainly, the young handsome ranchero played right into her hand. "That haughty girl, Maria!” he said to himself. "I know I can win her heart. I will make her want to marry me." And so, before long, everything began to play out just as Maria had planned. She and the ranchero became engaged and, soon after, they were married. At first, their life together was every bit as beautiful as they were. Then they had a child…. and then another…  From the outside, they seemed to be a very happy family – the envy of everyone who knew of them.  But after a few short years, the handsome ranchero began to tire of his tame, domestic life and his tame, domestic wife – and so he returned to the thrilling challenges of the wild prairies. When he left town for his adventures, he would be gone for months at a time. And when he returned home, it was only to visit his children. He no longer had any interest in the beautiful (but lonely) Maria. There were those in the town who had even heard him talk of leaving Maria altogether , sending her back to her humble peasant family, and marrying a woman more suited to his own wealthy class.

Through all of this, Maria remained very proud and she still was very vain. And while she was angry with her husband for his lack of attention to her, she pretended to those around her that he doted upon her as much as ever.  She even tried to pretend she did not hear the whispers of those who claimed to know otherwise. But each time her husband returned home and spoiled the children, but ignored her, a little more resentment would begin to build.

Then one evening, as Maria was strolling with her two children on a shady pathway near the river, her husband came by in a carriage with an elegant and beautiful lady beside him. He stopped and spoke lovingly to his children, but ignored Maria as if she wasn’t even there -  and then he drove the carriage down the road without ever looking back. At this final and most egregious insult, Maria went into a terrible rage - and turning against her children - she seized them one by one and threw them over the riverbank into the rushing waters below.

The horror of it all ultimately shook Maria back to her senses and, in a fit of tears, she jumped into the river herself to save her children … but it was far too late….the river was wild and the current took them out her sight quickly and mercilessly.  Unable to find them in the water, a soaking wet and terrified Maria pulled herself back on the river’s edge and broke down into inconsolable grief - running along the riverbanks, screaming and wailing.

Maria walked along the river in her white gown - sobbing and searching for her boys day and night – until the gown became soiled and torn.. She refused to eat or sleep, she only searched -- hoping against reason that they would somehow come back to her – until she finally collapsed and died on the banks of the river, grieving her children.

 Legend has it that in death she has become La Llorona, the crier, and that she will not permitted into the afterlife until she can find her children… and so she is trapped on earth, searching in vain for her drowned children for all eternity. On the darkest of nights, the horrible specter of a woman in a long white gown can sometimes be seen… She who wanders near the riverbanks searching for her children, crying…wailing, “WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN?” 

"La Llorona #2" by James Conroy

 “The weeping woman” is a boogeyman that centuries worth of parents have used to scare their children with as insurance that they will be home before dark. It also works well as a warning to love-struck teenage girls about falling for boys with questionable motives or who are otherwise considered dangerous. It is an effectively frightening tale either way: What could possibly be more frightening to a child than a mother who kills?  Or to a girl approaching courtship than a husband who recklessly abandons?

By the second half of the 1700’s, the area that is now known as California was then called Alta California.  It, along with the areas that are now known as Texas and New Mexico, belonged to New Spain – a colony established after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521. New Spain was also comprised of areas now known as Mexico and Central America (among others).  In 1822, the Mexican Empire gained its independence from Spain and Alta California became one of its provinces. Mexico governed the area until 1848, when it was ceded to the United States as part of the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War - at which point it became merely “California.”  It is somewhere in this messy past that La Llorona appears.

The legend of La Llorona often sets itself in local areas, specific to wherever the story is being told - and yet is present in one form or another throughout Mexican culture.  While there are innumerable variations on the details, the nuts and bolts of the story are always the same: La Llorona is the ghost of a woman who lost her children and she cries while looking for them by the river - often causing bad luck or even death to those who hear her. What is most interesting about how this piece of folklore evolved is that the origin of the story may go back to the Aztecs.

Among their deities, the Aztecs had a fertility goddess named Cihuacoatl (See-wah-COH-ad), the patron of motherhood and of women who die in childbirth. In fact, according to Aztec legend, women who did not survive childbirth became a specific type of spirit known as Cihuateteo (See-wha-teh-TEH-o). Among other things, these spirits are known for haunting crossroads, stealing children at night and seducing men. 

According to some version of Cihuacoatl’s own legend, she abandoned her son, Mixcoatl (Meesh-COH-ad), the Aztec storm god, at a crossroads. After a short period of time, she repented of her actions and went back to retrieve her son – but Mixcoatl was gone. Only a dagger remained at the place she had left him. Cihuacoatl cried continually for her son and her tears were so many that they filled the waters of Lake Xochimilco (zAH-chi-MIL-coh). Haunted by her pain, she would not leave the area, searching for her son, regretting what she had done. Between her screams could be heard the words “Oh my son!” Ever since that day, the Great Goddess has haunted the waters of Xochimilco, where she continually weeps for Mixcoatl. 

There is also an element of foreboding with Cihuacoatl in the hearing of her cries. Chapter Twelve of the 16th Century manuscript, The Florentine Codex, includes a first-hand account from community elders during which the goddess Cihuacoatl appears before the Aztec people and weeps just before the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish forces - a meeting that resulted in the fall of the Aztec Empire.

The Chumash here in Southern California, have a mythological, otherworldly creature that has some similarities to La Llorona as well. It is known as the ‘’maxulaw.’’  It looks like a cat with a skin of rawhide and cries up in the trees like a newborn baby. To hear the cry is an omen of death. I probably don’t need to point out how similar the word “maxulaw” is to “Mixcoatl” – the Aztec goddess’s son for whom she weeps – but perhaps that’s just an eerie coincidence.

Outside of the Americas, La Llorona bears more than a passing resemblance to Euripides’ take on the myth of Medea – in which the tragic heroine kills her two children after their father leaves her for another woman.  But even when the story is actually about La Llorona, there are endless variations. One of the most well-known involves Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés and his mistress. This version is thought to have arisen in the late twentieth century as an expression of hostility towards the rising dominance of European culture – and La Llorona's loss is an allegory for the demise of the indigenous culture after the land’s conquest by the Spanish.

But another popular, and as far as I know non-political, version has her as a widowed mother of two who falls in love with a man who does not want children. Determined to win his affections, she drowns her children in a river so that she will be free for him to love her. To her surprise, the man is mortified when he learns what she has done. In some versions of this tale, La LLorona is eventually either hung for her crime. In others, she drowns herself in the river in her sorrow.

Most versions of the story involve water and the deaths of the woman's children. The woman always either kills her own children or gets them killed through her neglect (she must blame herself for their deaths). She often drowns herself in the same river as the children, even in one version being found dead on the river's banks with tears frozen on her face. However, in a few versions she is executed for her heinous crime. And in at least one version, while trying to get into the afterlife she is tricked by the Devil, posing as God, into killing more children.

One version of the tale says that that La Llorona was simply a poor young girl who loved a rich noble man, and together they had three children out of wedlock. The girl wished to marry the nobleman, but he refused – instead telling her that he might have considered marrying her if she had not born him the three bastard children, which he considered a disgrace. The girl was determined to do whatever it took to cause the man to marry her, so she drowned her children to be that which he wanted. However, this changed nothing for the man and he went on to marry another. Mad with grief, the woman walked along the river, weeping and calling for her children, ultimately drowning herself.

In yet another version, she is an evil woman who cheats on her husband and eventually kills her children who are keeping her from joining her latest lover. As in the version you heard at the top of the show, God condemns her and bans her from a peaceful afterlife, and thus she is forced to wander the earth, appearing at night in rivers and lakes looking for her drowned children for all eternity.

A drier version of the story again begins with a widow who needs to find a husband to support herself and her children: In this tale, the widow spends much of her time away from her children, in places where men congregated such as saloons and dance halls. One night while the widow is entertaining men at a bar, bandits raid her home and slaughter her two children. When she arrives home and finds the bodies of her children, she becomes despondent; realizing that if she had not gone out that night, her two children would perhaps still be alive. From guilt and grief she goes insane, wandering the countryside looking for her children.

In some versions, La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who resemble her missing children, asking her children for forgiveness, but they never forgive her and she keeps trying. Though the legends vary, the apparition is often said to act without hesitation or mercy. The extent of her cruelty depends on which version of the legend you hear. Some say that she kills indiscriminately, taking men, women, and children -- whoever is foolish enough to get close enough to her. Others say that she looks only for children, snatching them away in the darkness before dragging them screaming to a watery grave. Mothers are warned: Don’t let La Llorona see your children, for she will mistake them as her own and snatch them up! Children are warned: If you’re caught by La Llorona alone in the night, once she realizes you are not one of her own, she will drown you in the river.

And in a similar fashion to other folkloric femme fatales, such as Tennessee’s Bell Witch and the infamous Bloody Mary, if you lock yourself in a room with a mirror, light a candle, and say her name a few times, she'll appear just long enough to do a little damage. You don’t even have to visually SEE La Llorona to be affected by her. In a similarity to the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl, to hear her cry is a harbinger of death, believed to happen soon after the spine-chilling encounter! 

In fact, La Llorona is as active as ever.  In some places, her tragic legend has even received a modern update. Near Fresno in the town of Sanger, La Llorona is said to wander Channel Road, also known locally as Snake Road. This Llorona is the ghost of a woman who was driving her car too fast along the curves and crashed her car into Kings River. She and her two children drowned in the crash. The woman is said to have drowned in her car; the children, having escaped the car, could not escape the icy pull of the water and died a mile downstream. She now walks Snake Road, all done up in a white dress, asking those she comes across if they've seen her children.

To go along with modern-day tellings are modern day encounters – many alleged to have happened throughout California.   One of them, again in Sanger, began at a place near Channel Road called Hobb's Grove (it’s a Halloween funhouse) where a mother and daughter were told the local version of the story of La Llorona. The duo decided to investigate the tale themselves by traveling down the infamous stretch of road after their night at the funhouse was over. They went all the way down the road and saw nothing, and by the time they turned around to come back they were convinced there was nothing to see.  Just as they were prepared to turn off the road and go home, they were confronted by what appeared to be a tall bright, white light standing in someone's front yard. Just as suddenly as they noticed it, it was gone.  A year later, again after a night out at Hobb's Grove, they decided to try their experiment again – this time with friends. As they drove down Channel Road, everyone in the car noticed a sudden drop in temperature. The daughter began calling out for La Llorona, asking her to reveal herself. Moments later, everyone in the car saw an apparition run across the road right toward the river!

Just this summer, the city of Temecula was given a fright when a photo of someone standing in the middle of the intersection of Rancho California and Ynez roads was posted on Instagram, with many pegging the figure as La Llorona herself. The photo, which was widely circulated on several Temecula-centric Facebook groups, showed what appeared to be a person with long black hair wearing a white dress or robe. Some of the people who commented on the image pointed out that the appearance at that particular location shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the intersection is a short distance from the city's Duck Pond.  After Temecula’s Police Chief received numerous inquiries about the figure in white, he released a statement calming everyone down: "It was a male adult dressed in a long robe who was walking through traffic. We got a lot of calls about him between 9:10 - 9:17 p.m. and our officers were able to locate him in the intersection of Ynez and Rancho California. He was transported to a facility for mental health evaluation," Kubel wrote in an email. Rest easy for now, Temecula.

In other story, two young men were allegedly car-pooling home from work with the windows down when they heard a terrible wail. It sounded like the desperate cry of a baby or perhaps an injured tom-cat. Beside the road, a white mist began to gather. It moved swiftly among a grove of palm trees and when it reached the largest tree, it became the figure of a lovely young girl dressed all in white. Long dark hair hung loose down her back. She began to weep and wring her hands in agony, and the men realized that they must be seeing none other than Llorona. The driver gunned the engine and they drove away as fast as they could. The glowing figure of La Llorona remained visible in the rear-view mirror until the car turned the corner.

The men were upset by the vision, afraid that the rumors of injury and death surrounding a La Llorona sighting might be true. But when nothing happened to either of them the rest of that night, they laughed away the incident, deciding that they had imagined the whole thing.

The next night, the men were riding home from work when their front tire burst in the same place in the road where they had seen the ghost the previous night.  The car spun out of control and hit the largest tree in the palm grove in the exact place where La Llorona had appeared to them.  The story goes that both men were killed instantly.

And while that story might be chalked up to urban legend, there are plenty of Californian’s with first-hand accounts they claim as their own.  A resident of Escondido tells of a time she was on her way home late at night with a friend. It was 3 a.m. and they were driving down Washington Avenue. As they passed by a small hill near the side of the road, they caught sight of a lady dressed entirely in white, walking over the hill. Initially, they drove right past her but the eerie sight prompted them to turn the car around and take a closer look…  As they approached the woman for a second time the friend pulled out a cellphone to record the mysterious lady, but that plan was quickly abandoned as the woman in white reached her arms out toward the car and its inhabitants.  They swerved the car to the far lane in a panic and then hit the gas, driving straight home as fast as they could, forever changed by their encounter with La Llorona. 

A resident of Adelanto recounts a story from her childhood, when her father had left the house for work as he was accustomed to do – shortly after midnight - leaving the children, his wife and his sister in the home continuing in their slumber. Hours later, at 4:00 am, the sister was awaken by the sound of wailing out in the darkness. The wife was also awaken, though she did not hear the wailing – instead, she heard a door open… then she heard footsteps. She felt somebody standing next to her, but she saw no one. When she arose from her bed and walked around the house to make sure it was still secure, she encountered her concerned sister-in-law standing in the kitchen watching nervously out the window.  The wife, now very worried, called her husband at work just to make sure he was in fact, alive and well.

One of the more famous places to sight La Llorona is in San Juan Capistrano, where she is known to haunt several different bodies of water. There are dozens of stories from those who claim to have seen or heard her cries as she wanders along Trabuco Creek - and there are those who say she can often be found near O'Neill Regional Park and Rancho Santa Margarita Lake.  It is also said that she can be seen and heard late at night by the well in the San Juan Capistrano Mission.

The legend of La Llorona’s nightly wanderings only continue to grow wider over time.  Today her tale is not only told throughout the Southwest, but also as far north as Montana where she haunts the banks of the Yellowstone River. But it’s not just the rivers and lonely roads she’s inhabiting. In recent years, haunting images have depicted La Llorona in film and on popular television series’ such as the CW’s “Supernatural.”  The legend of La Llorona may be as ancient as the Aztecs, but the old girl has gone mainstream. For a few years, one of the haunted houses at Universal Studio’s Halloween Horror Nights was dedicated to her story. She even appeared in a controversial "Got Milk" ad –aimed at teenagers, the ad was mostly seen as a cultural misfire.  Jim Griffith, a former director of the Southwest Folklore Center, expressed everyone’s concerns most succinctly when he said, “Milk, when you get down to it, is what mothers give to their children. And what this mother gave to her children was death.”

Appropriateness of Llorona as a pitch-woman notwithstanding, she’s clearly not disappearing into the ether any time soon.  So, if you're in an area where La Llorona is known to wander the darkest of nights, looking for her drowned children, be careful! If she can't find them, she may find you



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