La Llorona

July 20, 2009

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There are stories we tell our children to make them sleep. Good Night Moon. They go on and on in somnambulant cutesy boredom until dreamless unconsciousness is the inevitable option. There are stories that now hardly get told. Fifteen years ago I was working in a wonderful alternative school in Galveston, Texas. My class demographic was predominately gang members, Blues versus Reds. Frequently we began class with an oral survey question. Sometimes we needed information for a grant we were writing, sometimes the students wanted to know things, sometimes I was curious. Who has books at home? guns? anyone at home? been shot? Who has ever had someone tell them a story?

After that response we began to have story time.

 When our work was done we turned down the lights and while street monstrous teenagers lay on the floor pretending to be asleep, I told them fairy tales. Afternoons I would chop Cinderella’s sisters feet to fit the glass slipper, search for the tinder box in the cave of the dog with eyes as large as windmills and slip Beauty’s hand into the Beast’s magic glove. Through it all the only complaint I heard was if I talked too slowly or ended too soon. Adolescents who had committed genuinely horrible crimes, been arrested, threatened, shot, beaten or escaped by running in fear of their lives waited on Fridays for the next chapter of “Wizard of Oz”. We danced lightly in a transitory world where fear and betrayal and violence existed in a framework that made emotional unconscious common sense. They went home to a world that had people passing poison potions, heroes fought to real deaths, poor people were imprisoned by the whim of the High Sheriff, and journeying aross dangerous territory in search of treasure or glory was neither mythic nor symbolic. I’d like to say this had a significant psychological impact on their development, but I’m not Bruno Bettelheim…I’m merely the story’s teller. 

One afternoon I asked if anyone knew the story of La Llorona.

 I grew up near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, my Spanish pronunciation is effected by the peculiar way we formed our vowels and mashed word endings. Thanks to too many hours of television most of my regional accent has disappeared in English, but it resurrects itself if I attempt a foreign language. When a native Spanish speaker says La Llorona it rolls to the back of the throat and comes out like a beast from a cave. When I say it, it sounds like the beast is soliciting on a cheap telephone.  At first the students looked sideways, and then began snickering and asking what I said, making me slowly repeat it a few more times. When I guessed the game and laughed, everyone laughed, even the students who didn’t understand the joke.

With some encouragement one student began telling the story to save us all from mine, but became too self conscious to complete the story. It didn’t matter, by then the next voice continued, and he was corrected, and that one was corrected and soon there was a laughing mêlée as the story was told, amended, retold and Rio Grande culture broke out. It’s a fantastic tale, about disobedience, illicit sex, betrayal, infanticide, a flowing river, an apparition of Jesus and a ghostly weeping woman. Its telling nearly always ends with an imitation of La Llorona’s weeping call and then wild eyed sincere anecdotes of when the teller or listener has seen her. 

Who am I? el bollio, white bread. My abuella or tia never told me that story to scare me away from rivers at dark. I hardly own the words it’s told with, but I have loved the terror of moaning women ghosts since I was a child. Some things seem to belong with us before we know they exist. It’s how most of us chose our pets (or lovers), not so much by wise husbandry, but by a kind of blind mutual recognition. As much as I enjoyed the duendes, lechuzas, and tricksters, they meant no more to me than a trip to the Disney Lands—distractions, amusements, grotesques. La Llorona resonates.

Some ghosts, like faith, appear sporadically and are often easier to retell in whispery tones, than deny or explain. We wander casually through our world of mixed realities and symbols—flags, statues, names, songs, curses, and secret misinterpretations in accretion without translation.  I would have to have employed a calculator just to sum the number of crosses I have seen since I left Houston in June. Made of wood, plasticine, flowers, pewter, clay, sticks, painted tile, malachite, crystal, leather and glass, cemeteries in bloom with them, nailed over doorways,flashing to  advertise radio stations,  walls of them for sale in curio and folk art shops, outlined in neon, in plastic envelopes next to bottles of Six Hour Energy, made in stacked lines of painted rocks,  in gumball machines, decorated with plastic flowers and red, white & blue tinsel at the site of a fatal automobile accident, hung in gold or silver on the sweaty throats of young girls and in hundreds of variations tattooed on falling flesh—a trefoil cross on the bicep of a basketball player on television, a delicately designed chain of Maltese Crosses around the wrist of  the man who sold me irises at the farmer’s market, or the jail ink between the thumb and forefinger on the left hand of a grocery clerk. In a motel I received an outraged please respond to this e-mail to enjoin me in a lawsuit pursuing a battle between an empty desert and an abandoned cross over how to honor World War I veterans. I’m incapable of stretching a string of logic between intention, action and the cross of Jesus that wouldn’t look like a spider’s web in a storm.  Symbols can lose their original meaning, but migrate on as if they had a kind of energetic life of their own. And we read these signs in varying levels from complete oblivion to psychiatric disorder.

 Driving to Taos to visit a poet friend and spend Friday afternoon basking in the tatters of  Summer of Love anniversary festivities, I found La Llorona translated onto a water tank by a very talented graffiti artist.

One of the many gifts the students at Galveston gave me was an appreciation of tagging and graffiti.  In exchange for helping them with their reading, they taught me to read the writing on the wall. It seemed a very fair trade. Whether this art outside of Taos was a transgressive portrait of love gone awry, or an adrenalized version of the Muralista tradition that extends back centuries in this part of the world, I can only guess. I do know that the artist who did it was intelligent, sensitive and sophisticated in his craft…and he had heart.  The face of a distressed woman bisected with a line of rivets like tattooed tears—her head, her existience is filled with unaccountable water in a desert that surrounds her, as if she subconsciously bears and barely contains the guilt that transforms her—that becomes her—La Llorona, The Weeping Woman…the wanderer who is condemned to search along shifting borders of life for something precious and lost.

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One Response to “La Llorona”

  1. Karen Vanek Says:

    From fairy tales to graffiti – so much that speaks to and of the children we teach and exchange a passion for sharing our mutual stories of living,loving, family and fear. There’s art and beauty found in it all and in all if them if we just listen and look for the primal connections. Thanks for the eloquent reminder.


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