La Llorona is New Mexico’s most famous legend, and the state’s most famous ghost. It is centered along the Rio Grande south to Juarez, Mexico. There is scarcely a child in New Mexico that has not been told the story of La Llorona as a youngster.
The legend of La Llorona (pronounced “LAH yoh ROH nah”), Spanish for the Weeping Woman, has been a part of Hispanic culture in the Southwest since the days of the conquistadores. The tall, thin spirit is said to be blessed with natural beauty and long flowing black hair. Wearing a white gown, she roams the rivers and creeks, wailing into the night and searching for children to drag, screaming to a watery grave.
No one really knows when the legend of La Llorona began or, from where it originated. Though the tales vary from source to source, the one common thread is that she is the spirit is of a doomed mother who drowned her children and now spends eternity searching for them in rivers and lakes.
Although there are many variations, the legend goes something like this:
In the early 1700s, there was a young woman named Maria living in Juarez, Mexico. As Maria blossomed into a young woman, her striking beauty attracted the charms of many local men. Coming from a poor family, her mother encouraged her to marry one of these dashing young men for a good life. However, Maria refused, stating her beauty would one day attract the charms of a very rich man.
Before long, the handsome young man of her dreams rode into town. He was the son of a well-known wealthy ranchero west of Juarez. He wore nice clothes and had a handsome, well groomed horse with a fancy saddle — all the signs of a man of wealth. Maria would follow him around, trying to catch his eye, but he seemed to only notice the young women who were fairly “well to do.” At night, he would charm the local ladies with his guitar and golden voice, breaking Maria’s heart.
One day, the young ranchero came into the tienda (store) where Maria was shopping. She blushed from embarrassment, as she was wearing an old, dirty, tattered dress. However, the blushing beauty suddenly caught the eye of the young ranchero. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. After a short courtship, the ranchero paid her father a large dowry and they were soon married, in spite of the objections of the ranchero’s father. After all, it was frowned upon for a wealthy man to marry a woman from a lower class.
After their marriage, they moved to Mesilla, where it is said he worked his own ranch and worked as a merchant along El Camino Real. Others say he moved to Mesilla to avoid the scorn of his father for marrying a woman from such a poor family. Regardless, over the following years, Maria bore him three children. As the years went by, Maria and her wealthy husband grew apart. He was often gone for months at a time on the ranch or shipping goods along the Camino Real. He had little interest in Maria or the children. Maria suspected he was frequenting the company of other women during his travels.
One day, Maria was walking along the street with her three children when her husband’s buggy approached. Sitting close was another woman — a beautiful young woman. He passed her and the children, pretending not to notice them. Maria’s heart was torn in two. Her anger exploded into a jealous rage. If only she didn’t have the children, she thought, then her husband would love her again.
In her rage, she dragged her three children to the Rio Grande and held their heads under the water until they were dead. Maria had committed the ultimate sin — deliberately killing her own children. Returning home later that night, she explained to her husband what she had done to please him. He was horrified and ordered her out of his life. It is said Maria roamed the streets of Mesilla for many nights, calling and crying for her children, which earned her the name “La Llorona” — the wailing woman.
Realizing she had lost everything in life, she went down to the river and cried for her children one last time. When there was no answer, she drove a dagger deep into her chest, and fell dead into the Rio Grande. The people of Mesilla, after finding her body, buried her in the town cemetery. It is said, even today, La Llorona can be seen roaming the cemetery and the river, crying for her children. It gives the Mesilla cemetery the reputation of being haunted.
Another popular version has the ranchero leaving Maria for a younger woman. In time, Maria killed her children when she could no longer support them, supposedly as a misdirected act of mercy. Other versions have Maria getting pregnant by a wealthy ranchero, who refused to marry her, and she killed the child at birth to hide the sin. And yet other versions, more common in northern New Mexico, tell of the husband killing the children.
In Santa Fe, Maria, of course, is from Santa Fe and roams the Santa Fe River. Even in 1700, Santa Fe thought the state revolved around them!
Was La Llorona deserted by her husband? Wronged by a lover? Or, the victim of a cheating husband? Regardless, most versions of the legend have La Llorona killing her children in the river, then herself.
¿Dónde están sus niños?
It is said when Maria appeared before God, he asked her, “¿Dónde están sus niños?” (Where are your children?).
Maria replied, “No sé” (I don’t know).
God then disfigured her to punish her selfish pride and then damned her to prowl the rivers forever in search of her children. Horrid to look at, she roams the deserts, particularly along the Rio Grande, looking for her dead children to this day. It is said if she encounters children, she drags them into the river and drowns them, hoping to present them to God as her own.
Over the centuries, many claim to have seen, or heard, La Llorona. Many describe her as being a beautiful, alluring woman dressed in a white dress with long black hair. Others say she is dressed in black. Only up close do people see her old, contorted face, and realize who she really is. Her spirit walks the rivers at night — often during a full moon — calling for her children or luring the children of others into the river.
Some say she carries with her an evil aura. Anyone who survives an encounter with La Llorona will soon be followed by tragedy. Others believe she is a bruja (a witch) casting spells of death or misfortune on those who clash with her. Her eerie spine-chilling cry is said to be an omen of death. Many believe La Llorona is the cause of so many children drowning in the ditches and rivers of New Mexico. Others claim it is contact with La Llorona that causes the occasional mother to kill her own children.
In interviewing many Socorroans, there are few that did not know one version or another of La Llorona. The legend was taught to them at a young age. Some remember the story scared them to death every time the wind blew, or they heard mysterious sounds in the night. A few shuddered when La Llorona was mentioned, often followed by a personal experience with the wailing woman of the river.
One might question, “Then why write a history article on a story that everyone knows?”
Well, because not everyone in Socorro had the good fortune of having a Spanish-speaking grandmother to forewarn you of the evils of the river. If you’ve ever caught an image of something in the corner of your eye, or heard an unexplained scream in the night — now you know. It was La Llorona. She is the most enduring legend of New Mexico in both story and song.
Not long after her death, her restless spirit began to appear, walking the banks of the Santa Fe River when darkness fell. Her weeping and wailing became a curse of the night and people began to be afraid to go out after dark. She was said to have been seen drifting between the trees along the shoreline or floating on the current with her long white gown spread out upon the waters. On many a dark night people would see her walking along the riverbank and crying for her children. And so, they no longer spoke of her as Maria, but rather, La Llorona, the weeping woman. Children are warned not to go out in the dark, for La Llorona might snatch them, throwing them to their deaths in the flowing waters.
Though the legends vary, the apparition is said to act without hesitation or mercy. The tales of her cruelty depends on the 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 is very barbaric and kills only children, dragging them screaming to a watery grave.
When Patricio Lugan was a boy, he and his family saw her on a creek between Mora and Guadalupita, New Mexico. As the family was sitting outside talking, they saw a tall, thin woman walking along the creek. She then seemed to float over the water, started up the hill, and vanished. However, just moments later she reappeared much closer to them and then disappeared again. The family looked for footprints and finding none, had no doubt that the woman they had seen was La Llorona.
She has been seen along many rivers across the entire Southwest and the legend has become part of Hispanic culture everywhere. Part of the legend is that those who do not treat their families well will see her and she will teach them a lesson.
Another story involved a man by the name of Epifanio Garcia, who was an outspoken boy who often argued with his mother and his father. After a heated argument, Epifanio, along with his brothers, Carlos and Augustine decided to leave their ranch in Ojo de La Vaca to head toward the Villa Real de Santa Fe. However, when they were along their way, they were visited by a tall woman wearing a black tapelo and a black net over her face. Two of the boys were riding in the front of the wagon when the spirit appeared on the seat between them. She was silent and continued to sit there until Epifanio finally turned the horses around and headed back home, at which time she said “I will visit you again someday when you argue with your mother.”
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the tall wailing spirit has been seen repeatedly in the PERA Building (Public Employees Retirement Association), which is built on land that was once an old Spanish-Indian graveyard, and is near the Santa Fe River. Many people who have been employed there tell of hearing cries resounding through the halls and feeling unseen hands pushing them while on the stairways.
La Llorona has been heard at night wailing next to rivers by many and her wanderings have grown wider, following Hispanic people wherever they go. Her movements have been traced throughout the Southwest and as far north as Montana on the banks of the Yellowstone River.
The Hispanic people believe that the Weeping Woman will always be with them, following the many rivers looking for her children, and for this reason, many of them fear the dark and pass the legend from generation to generation.