meditations on The Curse of La Llorona
I. La Llorona
The Curse of LA Llorona opens in theaters on April 17, 2019 and tells a tale as old as hollywood itself: the white actor being thrown into a latino set surrounded by locals as props, attempting to right the wrongs inflicted upon them by the Foreign Monster.
Hollywood has been erasing color from leading roles since the moving picture first rolled. In some particularly hilarious examples, roles written as non-white are routinely cast with caucasian actors, yet surrounded by non-white people and settings that serve only as decoration and people with a consistent lack of agency except when it directly serves the white actor’s story.
These films tiptoe lines of cultural fetishism and appropriation so often that most people, regardless of ethnicity, are desensitized or disconnected entirely from the optics of it. And while the conversation about inclusiveness and diversity in the arts has only gotten louder in recent years, it’s 2019 and we have a horror film so guaranteed to be trash that its studio dumped it in the middle of April. A film that appropriates one of Latinoamerica’s Richest Cultures and reduces one of its most enduring legends to the creature of the week. Perfectly in line with White America’s panic of the moment. And that’s a goddamn shame. Because we’re not mad enough about this.
The story of La Llorona can be traced as far back as the 1500’s, not long after Columbus and his fleet would arrive in the Western Hemisphere and it is an ever-evolving one. Changing and bending and gaining new perspectives with every iteration and depiction. We can, however, strip it down to its core narrative. One about love, lust, betrayal, motherhood and grief.
Maria was a young, beautiful woman residing just south of the Border. Such was her beauty that many men would attempt to court her and offer her everything from favors to money, but she would reject any commitment. That is until she meets a rich nobleman from North of the Border.The nobleman would be the one who would successfully court Maria, offering her a life and stability previously foreign to her. He would go on to move her into a house in an area not too far from where she originally lived, and there she would give the nobleman 2 children. With time, however, the nobleman would begin to lose interest in Maria and would disappear for extended periods at a time. One particularly long period would see the nobleman return home by carriage with another woman of his status. Maria would look in disbelief as the nobleman would greet his children and completely ignore her. The nobleman and his new woman would depart, not even attempting to look back at the family he would leave behind.
It is at this point that Maria snaps, grabs the children and heads north in search of the nobleman, eventually coming across a river. Attempting to cross this river, Maria loses grasp of her children, who would drown shortly after. This would devastate Maria. Lost in a cloud of betrayal, agony and grief, she would eventually die in that same river.
Arriving at Heaven’s Gate, Maria is asked the whereabouts of her children. Lacking a real answer, she is sent back to Earth, cursed to search for her children for eternity.
The story goes that La Llorona will search for and find lost children, believing them to be hers, and drown them in an attempt at closure she will never find. Her soul is bound to a cycle that will never end, as punishment for her sins.
ii. archetypes and chicana feminism
Though primarily told as a warning to children not to wander alone in the night, La Llorona indeed serves as warning to all. The children she will take to replace her own. The men she will seduce and kill as vengeance for the betrayal she endured. And women she will terrorize in an act of envy towards their own stability and family. And the myth has taken on many variations of the same core narrative to serve any and every perspective and warning, all of which fall under the same trap: that of a Christian-Patriarchal System of behaviour.
To understand myth is to understand archetypes, and the persistence of a basis in gender and social status. In the case of La Llorona, this goes one level further and introduces race into the equation. A poor indigenous woman being courted by a rich nobleman should serve as a warning to an entire demographic of people.
In Latino culture, so many of the legends passed down from generation to generation find their basis in gender and religion. A post-Columbus, Catholic-influenced text informs so many of the stories told, to the point that it is understood that many of its female icons can be classified in one of 3 archetypes: La Virgen, La Madre y La Puta. La Virgen de la Guadalupe, La Llorona, and La Chingada.
And each dictates both expectations and warnings against transgressions by women in a Christian Patriarchal system of thought. The expectation that you are to be pure until you provide a man, your husband, with a child. The obligation of motherhood as a primary and almost exclusive aspiration to all women. And the threat of being shunned and condemned by society for committing any transgressions against the established order by the men in power, interpreted as betrayal to your programming. It is important to note that even Christianity’s most iconic female, the Virgin Mary, follows male thought so aggressively that even as she becomes the mother of God, it is through ‘immaculate conception’. Even the idea of a mother conceiving through sexual intercourse is suppressed.
It is interesting to note how La Llorona, or Maria, could cover all three archetypes. A young woman so beautiful that she was seen as a temptress. Then one that chooses a rich nobleman not of her region, betraying her people. Becomes a mother with all the social pressures that come with it, even when raising her children on her own. And a story that culminates in an act so severe she is cursed to roam the Earth, not as a spirit and not alive– a ghost. Doomed to repeat her worst moment again and again, never finding closure, until the end of time. Those who tell her story speak of a whore, an unfit mother, a monster. A boogeyman for young boys and young girls, planting the seed of an undying male perspective.
Feminine terror in stories is a time-honored tradition that pulls back the curtain on the crippling fear of men throughout history. Hilariously enough, the concern is a primitively simple one. Their power of creation is equaled only by their power of disruption, often deeming their sexuality, menstruation or pregnancy to a supernatural nature. Sexuality is a weapon, pregnancy is a trap, and manipulation is behind their every independent action. Fears of feminine power circles back to castration anxiety, the irrational fear in men of being castrated literally or metaphorically, being emasculated or not conforming to male expectations. Even the lack of a penis in women strikes a fear in men, according to Freud. Male fragility takes on a much deeper level by examining established gender roles, and reading between the lines of these stories, whether they be oral, literature or film.
“The Suppression of female sexuality can be regarded as one of the most remarkable psychological interventions in Western Cultural History (…) The sex drive of the human female is naturally and innately stronger than that of the male, and it once posed a destabilizing threat to the possibility of social order.
For civilized society to develop, it was allegedly necessary or at least helpful for female sexuality to be stifled.” – Roy F Baumeister and Jean M Trenge
In short: if female presence is threatening to the Patriarchy, gaining agency could prove downright disastrous to the social order.
Feminism might as well be terrorism against men. And yet, even traditional feminism continues to fail women of color.
Where the Anglo Feminist Movement of the 1960’s was driven primarily by white women, mid to upper class, Chicana Feminism was born as an alternative to the exclusion brought on by not only this Feminist movement, but the Chicano Movement of the same era. The Limited scope of each demanded Latinas to sacrifice their own unique needs for a larger movement.
Chicana Feminism as a concept is an intricate one, one that I couldn’t even really go in-depth on in this one piece. But we can attempt to gain a surface level understanding of it. I’ll also be swapping “Chicana Feminism” and Latina throughout, as it is a theory that transcends nationality:
By being an ethnic minority, she is a woman universally oppressed by men, an oppression further exaggerated within the Latino heritage. Her role is typically in the home, disconnected and unconcerned with the world surrounding her. Catholicism further perpetuates women as inferior and enforces gender roles in the home. “Marianismo” establishes the Latina as the Virgin Mary– motherly, virgin, wife and sex object. Chicana Feminism retakes this gaze, repositioning her through reworking the feminine space. Often, discourse on Latina Feminism rejects the notion of Race, Class and Gender as separate entities; for a minority female, these are all intertwined. There simply cannot be an examination of bias in each of these sections, for an ethnic minority. It is not realistic. Life does not afford a Latina that luxury. Intersectionality becomes the lens through which instincts and discourse are informed. Oppression must be understood in wholes, not the individual layers. (reference: Erin Lambers & Kelly Kieft)
In the last few decades, the rise of Chicana Feminism has opened the doors to new understanding and a renewed embrace of figures like La Llorona, recoding her as an icon of Female Rebellion against patriarchal rule. Authors like Sandra Cisnero and Cherrie Moraga have modernized and placed these icons in settings and situation that trace the core of their legend but allowing for new understanding.
In Cinema, we actually have seen reinterpretations of La Llorona’s story told in interesting ways that retain the essence of the legend, without the trap of cultural erasure. MAMA, the 2013 film by director Andy Muschietti and producer Guillermo Del Toro, places La Llorona in a contemporary setting and a ghotic aesthetic. In it, Mama is a benevolent but intensely protective being, finding and caring for two young girls when their father intends on killing them, and himself after. Modern society’s pressures, whether they be technological, financial, professional, are deemed toxic and it becomes necessary to strip everything back down to reconnect with the miracle of the human spirit. The brilliant decision to, in a sense, break up the story of La Llorona, and spread her characteristics throughout some of the main characters and conflicts, and writing the story to -not- be a Mexican setting frees La Llorona from any preconceptions about the story, the messages within, and the outdated perspective. Instead, Mama is a figure to be heard and understood, she is empathized with, and an unexpected resolution to the conflict becomes all the more satisfactory for it. Closure is found.
(As a fun side note, a surprising story with a similar core to La Llorona-as-feminist-rebellion is Kill Bill, the Quentin Tarantino classic that finds a mother and newlywed bride of a rich man that is betrayed, “killed”, and comes back to life, not sure how, and under the assumption her kid is also dead, feeling the guilt over it, then embarking on a mission to find closure and vengeance through “haunting”her husband and several figures associated with him. I’m not sure how aware Quentin Tarantino was during the writing of Kill Bill, but again, archetypes.)
But at the end of the day, La Llorona is a Mexican story. A Latino story. And for it to be told as such by non-Latino people becomes a tricky proposition, if not done with care, respect, and a willingness to provide a platform for Latinos to tell this story. Coco is perhaps the best recent example of this. A Mexican story, drenched in culture, told with love and respect and a deep appreciation for the people and stories told– helmed by a White director, but one who made sure to bring in a Mexican Co-Director as well. A story told right, a massive platform, and a beautiful product that came of it.
“From the moment that I first Pitched the idea, it was imperative to me that we make a film that was as authentic as possible, as respectful as possible, and free of clichés and stereotypes…” (Lee Unkrich, Director, “Pixar’s Coco”)
Hopefully, the point here is clear: stories are meant to be told. Shared. Passed down through the generations. Reinterpreted and appreciated in its many forms. Which makes the idea of a story with roots in latino culture being told in the studio system, but told by and starring a non-latino person, a little problematic and very frustrating. The issue is heightened when, at least going by trailers, the tragic story of La Llorona is stripped of any weight and message and we end up with a generic creature-feature to be assimilated into the once-great Conjuring universe. But, of course, in a genre that Latinos are more than happy to pour money into on any given weekend. Latinos often account for anywhere from 20-25% of box office numbers, and visit the theater almost twice as much as any other demographic, even though they represent about 15% of the total US population.
iii. on Latino Identity, or lack thereof
In so many ways, our outlook on life is informed by centuries of Eurocentric rule. Our instincts on race, sex, social and economical status. Beyond that, our family structures have historically been in line with Christian scriptures. Not only the idea of a man and a woman as the one true sacred union, but the roles of man and woman in such a union– their “rank”, as it were. Looking at individuals, as structured in the social ladder as a product of the past 100 years alone reveals increasing pressures brought on by their very identities.
White, Black, Latino, Asian. Binary, non-binary. Wealthy, Rich, Working class, Poor.
It is within these identities that stereotypes, conflicts, social status and financial freedom are often predetermined. It’s not a controversial statement that centuries of slavery gave way to a system that placed caucasians at the top of the American hierarchy (and, following that, the World). Placing Africans firmly at the bottom. A system that was only reinforced -immediately- following the abolishing of slavery, by way of Government-sanctioned measures that ensured White Supremacy through Economical, Legal and Professional powers– putting in writing the crippling limits on the black demographic that would not only stunt any real societal and financial growth, but the very perception of their place in society as “less than human”.
Job opportunities, voting rights and even real estate were systematically rigged to oppress generations of Black Americans to come. Segregation by way of Legislation.
These systems informed where and how the coming generations of immigrants of all ethnicities would look and behave. America told the world that Power has a face, and it is White. “White is Right”.
Racial identity is of particular issue in Latinos.
Perhaps the people most influenced by White America, beyond having gone through the most “mestizaje” throughout history, young latinos especially are, at different stages of their lives, grappling with the very core of their identities. Am I too light skin, or dark? Is my Spanish or English good enough? Being gay in a machismo culture, being a woman in a machismo culture. Leaving home for the first time and wondering if you’re leaving behind your “Patria”.
Many young Latino kids are raised to be more American than their parents could ever be so they could have a head start in making it in White America’s system, while also being faced with constant reminders to not forget their culture. This so often leads a person to refuse to identify as their ethnicity. Because you don’t want to be associated with “those”people. It goes one step further. Where racism stops, colorism takes it place. Beyond being marginalized for being Latino in America, within these Latino communities, being too dark becomes another obstacle towards acceptance and growth. “Blanquitos” y “Ojos claro” become the way forward even within these communities. Spanish media only further perpetuates this perception, with the overwhelming majority of on-screen personalities and actors being of the light skin variety. Even going as far as to put on brownface as parody, or as “education”. Being too dark or indigenous looking becomes its own layer of pressure on top of being latino, on top of being a woman, on top of being gay.
Latinos, in 2019, are a fractured people. Conflicted to its very core. Some enjoying the benefits of being light enough, others marginalized for not being so. Some countries, like Puerto Rico, enjoy commonwealth status within the United States and certain benefits, leading to a resentment of other Latino countries, like the Dominican Republic or Mexico. And Latinos live in a machista culture, one that objectifies and abuses women, ridicules gays and chooses violence against both as an acceptable solution to a dispute.
And on top of all this, a culture that severely undervalues the importance of mental health, whether because of a lack of funding or conversation. Or a willingness to understand. So many real mental health issues are simply dismissed as “loco/a”.
But, perhaps worst of all is, as big and diverse as the latino people are, from all places, upbringing and color, Latinos are a people that refuse to accept that we are one people. We are quick to judge and quicker to distance ourselves from our brothers and sisters by the geographical borders that separate us, the variations of our mother tongue, its many regional vocabularies and accents, and our proximity to the United States. Cherrie Moraga perhaps put it best, saying “Black Americans remember they’re black, because the history of racism in this country told them that(…) Latinos are not always convinced that they’re people of color.” That somehow, with enough years in the States, they can simply be American.
One zoom into the arts highlights this lack of unity. The success of a Black Panther or a Crazy Rich Asians as displays of a united identity creating cultural moments underlined by box office validation has not given way to a Latino equivalent, except for maybe, kind of, Pixar’s Coco.
Which brings me all the way back to The Curse of La Llorona.
iv. Hollywood & Horror
Perhaps more than any other film genre, horror taps not only into primordial archetypes and fears, but also serves as some of our most urgent and essential explorations of the human psyche. Race, sexuality, gender and societal structures provide the engines that drive important stories that speak to our deepest machinations. It is perhaps why horror finds so many of its advocates in those who have been marginalized, cast off by society for their uniqueness, for being “weird” or different in any way. The Other. They are the ones these stories reach. It speaks to them. There’s an indescribable comfort in feeling understood by a film, or in finding answers to questions you probably didn’t know you had. Anxieties burrowing through your subconscious suddenly find words to pair with.
The Power of metaphor, subtle or not, is that it allows for interpretations far beyond the text of the work, or the artistic intent. And few genres of art allow for such liberties like horror does.
Which is why I find it so disappointing (but fitting) that horror has always been looked down upon as a lesser form of art or storytelling. And studios consistently oblige this bias, crapping out cuanta mierda puedan with small budgets for easy profit from audiences that simply don’t know better or don’t care. That yearly dose of manufactured frights, jump scares and unsurprising lack of substance or self awareness.
Now, I know I’m probably sounding like the same elitist assholes that ignore horror-as-art, but I’m honestly not above a good, fun popcorn flick. I just find myself constantly expecting more from studios, filmmakers and filmgoers. We should demand more. And, in some ways, we have.
In recent years, as the collective consciousness and taste have risen and found new enlightenment, so too has the quality of the horror genre.
So called “post-horror”, or as I prefer to call it, “Prestige Horror”,has opened the door for audiences to experience, and filmmakers to express, an elevated brand of horror, marked by stunning, stunningly minimal or hyperstylized cinematography, nuanced stories and fantastic performances and direction.
IT FOLLOWS’ Supernatural Slasher as dressing for the spread of STD’s, all in a synth-drenched 80’s throwback wave.
THE BABADOOK as an intense, gothic look into Post Partum Depression, PTSD and the threat of neverending anxieties.
GOODNIGHT MOMMY is a brutal take on the dissociation brought on by traumatic events in a young boy and his mother’s lives.
And of course, there’s GET OUT. The 2017 Jordan Peele banger which tackles race relations, racial identity and the hypocrisy of White Liberalism in the post-Obama era, all at once. Taking Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby into the modern era with uncomfortably sharp writing, instantly iconic visual moments and what I consider to be a near-perfect balance of horror and humor.
(Get Out would go on to win Best Original Screenplay at the 2018 Oscars, perhaps signaling a shift in the stigma and elitism that has held horror back. The Gatekeeping is less so now.)
It is also very interesting how Jordan Peele’s latest, “Us” takes the concept of the Other and flips it, bringing the Other beyond the uncanny and making the protagonists as morally antagonistic as the figure of the Other. By establishing an even moral playing field, Us blurs the lines of characters to ask a crucial question: Is privilege, or lack of, something born into, to be placed into by a system that predates us all? (Us went on to receive critical acclaim and a record-setting opening weekend Box Office)
There is something to the idea of reaching across the aisle to start a conversation, of knocking on the doors of those who might be your demographic as well as those that are not, of packaging a message in a language that can be widely understood. Communication really is the key to real progress and evolution, and few mediums allow for a universal language like Cinema does. With its combination of visuals, sound, writing and performance, film feels uniquely suited to say something, through as many senses as possible to as many people as possible. And Horror, with high return-on-investment, remains the most consistently profitable film genre.
And In these scary, toxic and rapidly changing times, there really is no better moment to both embrace horror (and more diverse stories overall) and reject the bullshit that studios feed you. In the era of information-overload and misinformation-as-weapon, it is almost imperative that works of art attempt to reflect reality as we truly know it. We need art now more than ever. Conversations about race, gender, sexuality and politics are begging to be started and clearly, Studios remain somewhat reluctant in providing a platform for storytellers to tell these stories. So make no mistake–
These stories are not Green Book.
They aren’t Bohemian Rhapsody.