Table of Contents
2 The Figure of La Llorona
3 Tracing La Llorona in Woman Hollering Creek
4 Rewriting La Llorona in Women Hollering Creek
The short story “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991) by Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros accounts for the themes of gender roles, sexual harassment and abusive marriage within Chicana cultural identity at the Mexican-U.S border. The protagonist Cleofilas marries a young man named Juan Pedro, with whom she moves across the border to the U.S. Soon after they get married, the first child is born and Cleofilas finds herself at the starting point of an abusive marriage. Her dreams of a happy life, which she has seen from the telenovelas, start to fade. Love and passion have been replaced by sufferance and violence. She finally escapes with the help of a Chicana woman who becomes Cloefilas’ heroine in the end. Felice stands against the stereotypical image of a woman and builds up her own standards and therefore inspires Cleofilas to break the silent suffering and to become a new version of herself.
The cultural figure of La Llorona, which is prevalent in both Mexican and American culture, plays an important role in Cisneros’s short story. The motive of La Llorona is addressed several times throughout the story setting and becomes of growing importance to Cleofilas’ personal development. La Llorona becomes an ally to Cleofilas because of their shared experience through a common enemy, the male oppressor. Instead of fear and weakness, La Llorona becomes a symbol for strength and therefore empowers Cleofilas to finally find her own voice and stand up for her children and herself.
The figure of La Llorona is presented as a beautiful young woman in a white dress, who is blinded by false declaration of love and is abandoned by her husband. As a consequence and also as act of rebellion or punishment, she drowns their child(ren). She dies violently and is doomed to wander on earth for eternity in search for them. The legend is generally associated with negativity or a bad omen. It is used by the patriarchal society to create certain expectations for women’s behavior towards men within that society. The myth holds women responsible for the ultimate satisfaction of their men and proclaims the consequence of an eternal curse if these responsibilities will not be fulfilled. On the other it disregards the male responsibilities and their behavior towards their wives and families.
Cisneros’s approach to the myth of La Llorona offers a new interpretation to the reader and shows this figure’s empowering force through a shout of triumph (hollering) instead of a suffering weeping. The author embeds the legend in her short story and thereby tries to alter the image of La Llorona from a doomed child murder to a strong female character with clear reason to raise her own voice.
In this paper, I will analyze the figure of La Llorona, traces of her within the short story Woman Hollering Creek and the way in which Sandra Cisneros rejects common understandings of the myth by replacing them with a positive empowering image that encourages Cleofilas to escape the cycle of abuse.
2 The Figure of La Llorona
Female identity in Mexican culture is highly influenced by the mythology of the Llorona-Malinche-Guadalupe-trio, which defines Mexican culture and the role of women within that cultural context. Each one of them, namely La Virgin de Guadalupe, La Malinche and La Llorona is a symbol on her own and has specific characteristic features. Alongside with La Malinche, La Llorona displays characteristics of the “terrible mother archetype”, whereas La Virgin de Guadalupe functions as a good mother who provides love, shelter and care. These three different figures of motherhood dominate the ancient and contemporary Mexican culture and create a shared imaginary that locks women into a cage of stereotypical role fitting. It thereby affects the definition of femininity and behavior of women within this male dominated culture, also on the Borderlands (Melero 32).
The figure of La Llorona is an oral myth that is popular across various cultures in different versions with different names and discourse. That is why its origin cannot be defined clearly (Nelson 6). After Luis Gonzales Obgregón (Kirtley 156) one version dates back to indigenous Mexican folklore in 16th century even before the Spanish conquest, the Llorona phantom-type appeared in Mexico City. The most common features that refer to the nocturnal figure are that she is dressed in white, wandering around at night near a body of water, crying for her lost child(ren).
Thomas A. Janvier claims a total Mexican origin, in which La Llorona is a descendant of the Aztec goddesses Cihuatcoatl and Coatlicue representing female power, strength and fertility of their land and people (Santos 68), but also depicted negatively as symbol for a demon or bad omen, created through Christian discourse.
Even before the early Mexican sightings of La Llorona, a similar character springs up in Germany. She is called the White Lady (in German: die Weiße Frau). Like in most of the Llorona tales, she is a lowborn beauty, abandoned by her male counterpart and therefore she murders her (bastard) child(ren). It depends on the saying, but in most cases she goes insane and/or dies violently. She returns as a ghost and every one meeting her sees it as bad omen. The German and Mexican myths are “allotropes of a basically identical plot” (Kirtley 159). Whether they have sprung up independently or stand in a genetic relation to each other is up to debate. Kirtley argues that several female mysterious, fascinating and destructive all at once phantom-types with similar patterns of traits and a similar script of the story developed over various cultural contexts (also in Asia, Santos 61) representing the general ambivalence of a male dominated society towards the female character. His thesis claims the transmission of the narrative pattern from Europe to the New World through the help of clergy by the Catholic Church. Pilgrims have moved around and once they reached Mexico, the myth of the White Lady was adapted by the local folk and transformed into their cultural context. Therefore Kirtley states, that “we must assume that one of the best known legends of Mexico is largely European in origin” (168). Baring that in mind Mexican stories seem to employ the European social and moral values that were transmitted by the White Lady narrative.
The Mexican myth combines the two binary opposed figures of Mexican folklore. On the one hand there is the Virgin of Guadalupe, which refers to the catholic figure Virgin Mary and entails the character of an innocent virgin and docile mother that serves as protectoress of the Mexican. On the other hand there is the historical figure of la Malinche, which is defined as a whore or traitor because she betrayed her own people and therefore functioned as scapegoat for the colonization of the indigenous by the Spanish conqueror (Nelson 3). The popular virgin-versus-whore paradigm shapes the character traits of La Llorona, which describes a woman’s behavior as “safely passive or dangerously active” (Carbonell 56): the docile passivity of the Virgin Mary and the dangerous activities of La Malinche as a traitor.
Speaking of the ‘original’ Llorona figure, the Mexican prototype describes La Llorona “as a treacherous, selfish woman [who] murders her own children, usually through drowning. The motions provided include: insanity, parental neglect or abuse, a revenge for being abandoned by a lover. In addition, La Llorona seeks to murder other children or women out of envy for her love to seduce or kill men out of spite. Since she is usually associated with water, water emerges as a negative image through which she commits her treacherous and vengeful deeds. Sometimes she is condemned to wander eternally the streets at night lamenting sins, echoing a Christian model of repentance that attests to the enormous destructiveness of her actions” (Carbonell 54). So every definition of her is associated with evilness, envy and annihilation leading to a strong negative image of the Llorona figure, that is contemporary told as a bedtime story to scare children or as a warning to keep them close to home at nights and away from water. The warning goes also against the crossing of social class or racial lines when it comes to love and aspiration to marriage. The warning addresses the women of a society rather than young men (Santos 80).
According to Perez, the Llorona figure is nowadays “sketched in so many ways that depicting her social and cultural function in relationship to traditional versions of the lore in which she only weeps and wanders can be difficult” (3). The story is not only told to children as a warning, but also for entertainment amongst adults. Over the years, the oral stories “wandered out of this genre onto pages, canvases, celluloid and even into cyberspace where, in a substantial change in the narrative’s structure, we must instead look for her” (Perez 3). The myth adapts to contemporary cultural features and is still part of the cultural habitat. The website llorona.com offers a platform for users to talk about their experiences with La Llorona. They can talk about their meetings with her and they can add sighting places to a map that collects data of the phantom’s apparition.
The website divides the Spirit of La Llorona into four categories that each tell a different version of the myth. Category one is labeled witch (bruja) and tells the story of Sofia. She is a beautiful young woman, aged 19, getting to know Luis. Soon after they fell in love, she is pregnant with a baby boy. Shortly after giving birth, Luis leaves and disappears. Besides her anger, she is also blamed for his disappearance. When she learns about Luis being with another woman in a nearby village, she acts from rage and drowns her baby child. Once she realized what she had done, she stays by the lake, crying for her dead son until she dies as well. Since then, children playing near the lake have mysteriously disappeared without a trace.
Category two is labeled siren (sirena) and tells the story of Laura, who is a young beautiful hard working girl of humble origin. Soon after she got her dream job as a sales clerk, she meets Miguel, who pursues her until she finally agrees to go out with him. After a few weeks Miguel proposes to Laura and they make love for the first time. The next morning, Miguel leaves her, but Laura has become pregnant. She tries to hide her pregnancy as long as possible, but when her family finds out, they abandon her. Laura is left behind by her fiancé and her family. She gives birth to a sick and undernourished child. Out of desperation, she decides to kill herself together with her baby child, and so she walks into the water and they slowly drown to death. A few weeks later, Miguel mysteriously disappears. Since then, wayward men who have been drinking or cheating on their partners have also disappeared.
Category three is labeled harlot (ramera) and tells Linda’s story, who grows up in a dangerous part of town, where circumstances forces her to use her female charm from a young age. She is a single mother and works as a waitress, where she meets Alejandro, the man of her dreams. She knows how to seduce men and already plans a better future in marriage with him. When she asked him about his thoughts on her plans, he refused the marriage because there were “prying eyes”. Linda interprets the hint as if her baby is the factor that bothered Alejandro and kept her from her dream life. So she decides to murder her child and approaches Alejandro a second time, now that she had taken care of the matter. He is outraged and rectifies, that the prying eyes were the ones of his mother. Linda loses control and stabs first Alejandro and then herself with a knife, because she did not only lose her child but also her hopes for a better future.
Category four is labeled virgin (virgen) and tells the story of Maria, who is living in a small town with her parents. At the age of fifteen, she becomes pregnant, although she has never been with a man. Her parents hardly believe her and struggle with the thought to raise a baby without a father. Maria’s father decides to solve the miserable situation by drowning the innocent baby in the river during one night. In the next morning, when Maria realizes what has happened, she runs to the river in search for her baby, but it is already too late. Not only her baby has died, when she reaches the river, blood runs out of her body until nothing is left but a trail of blood beside the river. People around town start seeing apparitions of a young girl sitting beside the river, crying and holding a baby in her arms.
The four depictions tell different stories with similar endings. The female protagonist is suffering and abandoned (either by lover or family or both), loses her child through infanticide and dies violently with some sort of postmortem wandering on earth and mysterious apparitions. All stories stress the insanity of the female protagonists and accuse them of child murder disregarding the reason or source for their behavior. They have to bear all the consequences. On the other hand none of the men, who had cheated on their wives or abandoned them are blamed or judged by a higher force. The only justice the Llorona figures can assure, is the one that they create through their postmortem revenge. But still they cannot find peace and calm and are cursed to wander on earth for eternity.
These and similar anecdotes are told among the people from Mexico and the Borderland to maintain the Spirit of La Llorona in contemporary cultural context. Perez remembers from her own childhood, that the storytelling in her family was up to the male members. Stories of La Llorona were told in a “space where my uncles and cousins had the authority to determine what was real and to define characteristics or traits in women that they perceived as threatening, which they then wrote across La Llorona” (Preface xiv). So La Llorona was and still is a tool used to make a society aware of the insanity and danger that a woman is able to inherit. During her research the author realizes that first of all, only men shaped her knowledge of the legend La Llorona and second of all, she did never ask female members of the family about La Llorona. Realizing the imbalance of input, Perez approaches her grandmother, who then tells her experience with La Llorona at first hand. The way she encountered La Llorona was mostly for sake of entertainment: La Llorona was a woman who had died of loneliness, she was obsessed with love for her husband, when jealousy overtook her and her children were obstacles that stood between herself and her beloved husband. When the author asks her grandmother Maria Perez about the moral of the story, she cannot give a clear explanation, but at the same time describes that there is a moral to the lore: For her, La Llorona is a symbol of strength, because she removes anything that is in her way and keeps her from reaching a goal; also Maria Perez adds the side note that men “they are all cabrones (laughter)” (xiii).
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- Institution / Hochschule
- Universität des Saarlandes – Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen
- La llorona Native American American myths La virgen de Guadalupe Folklore Sandra Cisneros Woman Hollering Creek Borderstudies Borderculture habitat North American Borderlands Cultural Practices