The Weeping Woman

The legend of la llorona, or the “weeping woman” has a long history in Mexico, as well as elsewhere in Central and South America. (Wikipedia has an overview.) I watched one mediocre movie version a while back. But much more interesting is using the legend not as a convenient Hispanic horror trope, but as part of a cry against injustice and, in La Llorona(2020; streaming on Shudder and for rent on other services), genocide.

In the film, an aging general, Enrique, is accused of being responsible for the killing, among other things, of thousands of Ixil (an indigenous Guatemalan people) during the Guatemalan civil war. The government claimed to be fighting against those who had supported the guerrillas, including the indigenous people. It is based on the real trial and conviction of Efraín Ríos Montt, who was sentenced to 80 years in prison for his part in the genocide, but whose sentence was later overturned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. (Montt’s story has all sorts of interesting U.S. connections, in terms of both American Evangelicalism and politics.) 

But even though the general based on Montt is the central character in La Llorona, he is not the main character. The main characters end up being his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and Alma, the woman whom Enrique fears is la llorona. How do he and his servants (who resign and leave together) know that la llorona is coming for him? Because Enrique hears soft weeping in the middle of the night, though he attributes it to a spy sent by the guerrillas who has infiltrated his house.

The weeping woman weeps because her children have died. (Depending on the version of the legend, she is sometimes responsible for the deaths of her children and so she seeks to take out her grief on other children. Other times, she kills out of revenge against those responsible for their deaths.). In this version, the grief of la llorona is turned against Enrique, because she is herself an Ixil woman, whose children were killed by soldiers in the civil war. It is a fascinating use of a horror legend, and it illustrates the endless utility of horror to highlight and examine the horrors perpetrated in this world.

Mothers weeping for their children is obviously not a phenomenon unique to any single society, or to women in any single circumstance. It is also not foreign to the societies and circumstances of the Scriptures. A weeping woman, and one whose name recurs over a period of hundreds of years, appears as an emblem of horror and grief in Genesis, Jeremiah, and Matthew’s Gospel. In Genesis 35, the family of Jacob is traveling between Bethel and Eprath (or Bethlehem), and Rachel goes into labor. But the labor is hard, and as Rachel is dying in childbirth, she names her final son Ben-oni, or “son of my sorrow/trouble/wickedness.” In light of the later passages, it seems most likely that she calls him “son of my sorrow,” perhaps as a relief of her sorrow of sometime childlessness, or that she gave birth to him in the sorrow of death.

Either way, the prophet Jeremiah picks her up as the mother of Israel in exile, including those descended from Benjamin: “Thus says Yahweh: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more’” (31:15). And then Matthew writes that the fulfillment of that prophecy happened in Bethlehem, near where Rachel was buried: Herod was furious at being deceived by the magi, and “he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained” from the magi. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah (Matthew 2:16-18).

Whatever the origin of the la llorona legend, something like its beginning can be found in the Scriptures, where Rachel appears 1400 years after her death to weep over her children. In the legendary versions, la llorona appears to take revenge, but Rachel has no recourse, except to cry out to God. Unlike horror movies (or revenge movies), where we find a sometimes unrealistic catharsis or vicarious living-out of what we would like to happen—both are present in La Llorona—in the real world, there is often nothing to do but lament. But Rachel’s weeping lament in Jeremiah finds its resolution only in a promise: “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares Yahweh, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares Yahweh, and your children shall come back to their own country’” (Jeremiah 31:16-17).

The promise is even more explicit starting in 31:31. Beyond being brought back to the land, there will be a new covenant based on the forgiveness of God (31:34). This stretches both up to Matthew 2 and beyond, to the point where there will be no more exiles, no more Herods, no more genocides, and no more weeping mothers; when every tear will be wiped away from every face, and the new creation Land of Promise will be free of violence and death.

La Llorona expertly turns a common horror legend in a creative direction to focus our attention on an historic evil, and gives us the revenge/justice we naturally desire. But the claim of God, Jeremiah, Matthew, and Jesus is that the true justice and the true right-making—the end of weeping mothers and fathers—comes in the one who was born where Rachel died, her divine descendant. He says, Look! I am making all things new! “He will wipe away every tear from [His people’s] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4-5).