The weather has changed, dried up, since I was a girl. On a day like today, grey and chill in early December, all of us counting down until school is out for a few weeks, there should be la lluvia, the rain. The rain should make an inescapable noise, a noise more than the ticking clock and clicking keyboard I hear now. It should be the noise of drumming fingers on the windows, beating hearts and stamping feet on the roof, the noise of a great restless mass of people who do not speak but must be heard. If there is wind in the rain there may be the moaning voices of ghosts; afterward, if there is fog in the evening, they can sometimes be seen.
Speaking an Impossible Language
How does a person survive who cannot speak up to explain what she wants, who cannot argue when she is pushed in a direction she does not want to go, who cannot insist that she be consulted when decisions are made about her future? Sometimes she simply endures, as Mary Luna reports of her childhood in the 1950s:
Sometimes, when words are forbidden and silence is insufferable, the one who cannot speak must find a way to wail. This, some say, is why ghosts are heard to howl like wounded animals; the hideous sound of her misery is central to the legend of one such ghost, La Llorona, the Weeping Woman.
La Llorona, said to linger moaning by riverbanks, sometimes singing in an unknown language, sometimes screaming like a beast, voices her infinite sorrow in wordlessness and nonsense; nonsense, however, need not be powerless. In How to Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin argues that some performatives, statements that are themselves actions, are correctly categorized as nonsense, "and the continual discovery of fresh types of nonsense, unsystematic though their classification and mysterious though their explanation is too often allowed to remain, has done on the whole nothing but good" (2). If it is good for language to include the possibility of functional nonsense, and good for philosophers like Austin to wrestle with its implications, is it good for all of us to hear wordless howls of misery like La Llorona's and wonder if there is something we can do to lessen her torment?
Remembering a Hometown Ghost
Most of what I know about the ghosts in this place I learned on rainy winter schooldays, when we girls went outside to play on the broad covered porch at the back of the school. I didn't know or don't recall what the boys did on those grey days: dodgeball in the auditorium, I imagine. I remember sometimes, outside the classroom and therefore free to laugh, we giggled at the silly faraway tales in our reading books, all about crystal icicles and singing sleighbells in a world where winter did not mean rain. In art class, we snipped out lacy paper snowflakes to hang from the ceiling and we poured silver glitter and water into bottles and called it all "snow;" on the porch outside at recess, we wondered whether there might be a magic way to make a rainman since it seemed we never would have the makings for a storybook snowman. Other times we played jumprope or jacks or foursquare, or maybe handgames, chants and gestures madly accelerating and growing more complex until all but the best dropped breathlessly out of the circle. Other times, on the greyest and chilliest and rainiest days, we huddled together, sharing jackets and scarves, and told ghost stories.
I had few stories of my own in those days, but I listened carefully and I remember still. There were the ghosts of the schoolbus kids killed on the railroad tracks, who would leave smudgy fingerprints on a chrome bumper as they pushed a car across. Los borrachos, drunks downtown, say they see soldiers dead all these years, Mexican and Texican, still patrolling near the Alamo, nervously humming as they clean their guns, waiting for the battle they know will kill them again in the morning; younger soldiers, pilots especially, blown to bits in the skies over Europe and the Pacific, come back to drink at their favorite hangouts near the Air Force bases where they were trainees, and to look for their buddies at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. My father was a soldier, buried there now among them; I hope he is with his friends after all, and that the Lone Star Beer is very cold where they are, and somebody has a quarter for the jukebox.
At San José and the other Spanish missions, Indios who refused to convert and Padres who would never give up paced the grounds together in the dark, most often silent except for their hushed footfalls, sometimes softly arguing. At midnight, when you should have been home hours ago and you hear a wild, crying sound from the trees and you know it isn't a cat and it can't be a bird, and there is a long shadowy way to run home, that was the worst: that was La Llorona, the crying woman, the one who jealously watched and followed the living, who would get you for sure if she could, especially if you were near water, where she lived, and trees, where she hid. We didn't know what it might mean for La Llorona to "get" us; we desperately did not want to find out.
Discussing the centrality of tales of the supernatural in American literature, Toni Morrison points out that, although Americans like to believe everything of importance was invented or reinvented on American soil, tales of terror simply continue European traditions carried to the new continent with the earliest white settlers:
For Morrison, we write and tell frightening stories because we find ourselves inescapably surrounded by the things we fear; telling ghost stories around the campfire, we persuade ourselves that we are brave, safe within our small and flickering circle of light.
My own studies of American literature, beginning in high school and continuing all these years later, have shown me no stories as heart-stoppingly frightening and believable as the whispered schoolyard tale of La Llorona was and, however hard I insist on reason and logic, still is to me. Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 "Ligeia," the tale of a great lady who refuses to accept her own death, comes the closest:
The Lady Ligeia, dead but undefeated and unsilenced, her tale told in breathless questions, seems a sister to La Llorona, the wailing ghost who will not suffer quietly and who will not go away. Poe, I still think, had profound knowledge about this type of stubborn woman ghost, whose desire for something in this world is so strong she cannot abandon it.
Looking for other sisters of La Llorona in the body of "classic" American literature, I found a few chapters of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1853 Uncle Tom's Cabin in which two escaping female slaves hide in an attic said to be haunted by the spirit of another female slave tortured to death there, "after that, it was said that oaths and cursings and the sound of violent blows, used to ring through that old garret, and mingled with wailings and groans of despair" (346); after giving new life to the legendary haunting by arranging ghostly apparitions and a wind-powered shrieking "such as to credulous and superstitious ears might easily seem to be that of horror and despair" (347), they hide safely in the ghost-rackety attic, knowing that not even the murderous Simon Legree would dare pursue them into their haunted hiding place.
The Place of the Weeping Woman
In The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch argues that much of American literature, certainly the political and religious exhortations that shaped and expressed the national imagination from colonial times through the end of the Civil War, is a continuation of the European tradition of the Jeremiad, the Biblical prophet's furious rhetoric redirected to a new time and place. Examination of Jeremiah, though, reveals that Bercovitch has neglected to mention an important feature of the prophet's technique: the central and controlling metaphor in Jeremiah is the inconsolably weeping woman, her unabating misery a constant reminder that the situation has become intolerable and something decisive must be done and done immediately.
The figure of a weeping woman appears in one mid-nineteenth-century example offered by Bercovitch, an exhortative speech predicting that "the expiring cries of Liberty shall be heard in accents of agony, bewailing the fate of her last and loveliest abode" (150) if Americans abandon the precepts of the Founding Fathers; otherwise, it seems that the role of the woman in the American Jeremiad is "voluntary and self-initiated submission to authority," which "process of submission involved the familiar jeremiadic formula of affirmation through lament" (157). The woman may make a sound, even a sound of complaint, but never a sound of rebellion or refusal; her lot is hard, and she may say so, but she must not act to alter it.
A different understanding of the weeping woman's voice in the Jeremiad, in which a word of complaint is necessarily a call to action, is celebrated in Sutton E. Griggs' 1899 Imperium in Imperio, the tale of a secret nation of black citizens hidden within the United States:
For the men of the Imperium, to hear what a woman says and to act upon her words is one of the great joys of freedom, the highest expression of noble manhood; failure to respond to a woman's misery is a return to the impotent days of slavery, when black women suffered horribly and black men had no means of assisting or protecting them. In Imperium in Imperio, presumed to be a work of fiction but framed as non-fiction, the Imperium's secret plan was to gain control of the state of Texas; what better evidence that the plan was never carried out than La Llorona's continued wailing presence here? The spirit of a weeping woman, openly miserable, with no brave knight advancing to her rescue: could the tale of La Llorona persist in a society which, like the Imperium, pledges never again to tolerate a woman's sorrow? Ay de mí, Llorona; the experiment seems worthy of an attempt.
Same Ghost, Other Stories
Folklorist Angel Vigil considers the tale of La Llorona to be one of the oldest stories told in the American Southwest, one of "two stories that show the effect of the momentous collision of cultures that occurred when the indigenous culture of Mexico mixed with the emergent Spanish culture in the New World--the legends of the Virgin of Guadalupe and La Llorona, the Weeping Woman" (xv). The story itself may be a conflation of similar tales of Spanish and indigenous origin: the unfaithful lover is a common European motif, unknown in Aztec folklore, while "such motifs as the wailing, water, knife, and general appearance of the weeping woman are directly linked to Aztec mythology [. . .]. There can be little doubt that the foreigners confused their legend with a similar one of the Aztecs and, consequently, passed it on to the natives, who in turn added their own elements" (Barakat 288).
La Llorona's noisy habits and her affinity for riverbanks may be connected to the customs of some indigenous groups who avoided physical violence by channelling aggressive energy into verbal confrontations: "Animosity, when it did surface, was often worked out ritualistically--for example, through verbal battles in the form of war songs, or song fights that lasted eight days, or encounters in which the adversaries threw stones across a river at each other with no intent actually to hit or physically injure the other party" (Castañeda 17). Whatever unsettled anger keeps La Llorona wailing by the river, running away from her in fright probably does nothing to soothe her; perhaps we would do better to stop and yell back at her or throw a few stones across the water, giving her a chance to settle the problem peacefully once and for all.
It may be though, that what La Llorona is wailing about is beyond solution under present circumstances. Sometimes she is said to have killed her children; other times, it seems they were simply lost or mysteriously taken from her. If there was ever a real person at the root of this story, the details have been so muddied that she can no longer be seen. What folklorists do claim to see in the hundreds of variants of the La Llorona tale are "Mexican-American cultural attitudes toward mothering activities and [. . .] the conflicts and stresses that Mexican-American women experience in relation to the mother role" (Jordan 36), as well as "insight into the interpretation of the infanticide motif as a psychological device related to the frustrations of child care," showing that "contemplation of infanticide provides a momentary 'escape' from the problems of child rearing" (Jones 210). The ghost also seems to be drifting from her old rural haunts into the cities, seen now and then at landfills and garbage dumps as "the first signs of a merging of the traditional La Llorona legend and the contemporary stories of babies found abandoned in trash dumpsters, a more modern method for disposing of children than drowning" (Walraven 209).
Bess Lomax Hawes reports that La Llorona is well known to the female inmates of Juvenile Hall, even those who do not know her by name. Of thirty-one ghost stories collected from the inmates, twenty-eight are about adult women, most of whom are dangerous threats to the living; this is in contrast to ghost lore generally, in which most ghosts are males, disinterested in the living, who may be seen or heard but seldom initiate interaction. The girls' stories vary in many details, but insist that the ghost is female, vicious, and very much inclined to attack; the inmates
Repetition with variation, such as that found in the many strands of the La Llorona story, does not undermine the essential unity of the tale; "in the discourse of Chaos, where every repetition is a practice that necessarily entails a difference and a step toward nothingness (according to the principle of entropy proposed by thermodynamics in the last century)" (Benítez-Rojo 3), this is the way a complex natural pattern evolves. Step back, a little farther, still farther, and seeming-disorder becomes a system, multi-layered, predictable and, perhaps, even beautiful. Repeated moans of ghostly sorrow take on a rhythm, become a weeping music, a song, a story.
When the Ghost Speaks
"Humans fear the supernatural," Gloria Anzaldúa says, "both the undivine (the animal impulses such as sexuality, the unconscious, the unknown, the alien) and the divine (the superhuman, the god in us)" (39). To live in fear of the ghost is serious enough: what does it mean when one sees her, or even hears the ghost speak? Anzaldúa calls the ability to understand the hidden, to interpret language from the other side, "la facultad":
Considered in this light, one who senses more than is apparent is gifted in an important and valuable way, perhaps, as Anzaldúa claims, in a way that enables survival in a hostile world:
No surprise, then, that my rainy-day circle of shivering brown schoolgirls worried and whispered about La Llorona and other ghosts: we knew there were many strange and powerful things out there, waiting to get us.
In "The 'Uncanny'," Freud argues that the sense of connection to the dead is not a positive adaptation but a vestige of earlier, primitive times: "Most likely our fear still implies the old belief that the dead man becomes the enemy of his survivor and seeks to carry him off to share his new life with him" (242). So, our link to the ghost may be our unstated realization that we are her survivors, her heirs in some way, next in line to share her fate. What happened to La Llorona, her tragic story of seduction, abandonment, and death, could happen to any of us, leaving us wandering and wailing; it is not she who will "get" us if we are not careful, but our own ordinary and dangerous lives.
Learning to Love the Ghost
La Llorona may once have been a woman; now, she is only a ghost, or the imagined story of a ghost, her existence maintained in the whispers of frightened children who do not know what she wants, fearing that she somehow wants them. As argued by Terry Castle in The Apparitional Lesbian,
La Llorona weeps wordlessly, "unspeakably," expressing her longing for the precious things she has lost and cannot find: her home, her family, her body, her life. The many versions of her story differ as to what her losses were and how they occurred, but they unite in judging her to be certainly miserable and probably dangerous, jealous of those who still have the treasures she long ago lost. Perhaps, though, La Llorona, has been misunderstood all this time; perhaps, like the ghostly women in Castle's study of the literary portrayals of lesbians, her apparitional presence is the only means available for La Llorona to express her true nature as one to be noticed, admired, and even loved.
A woman who will not suffer silently, who makes her displeasure heard and expects it to be dealt with, is an exceptional and amazing creature in a culture like the one that created La Llorona's legend, a culture that values patient endurance above many other virtues. For other exceptional creatures, La Llorona may be a source of inspiration and strength, evidence that it is possible for women to "'SHOUT OUT' the deep-seated resentment in their souls about the conditions that have subordinated them and depleted their energies" (Dernersesian 48).
One of Anzaldúa's poems in Borderlands, "El sonovabitche" (146-151) is a tribute to such a woman, a woman who cannot keep silent while money is stolen from workers unable to speak for themselves; she speaks for her people, demanding,
Her voice, to her amazement, becomes a powerful weapon:
The threat that she will speak again is enough to force el sonovabitche to meet her demands:
Not even a full sentence is required to get her meaning across: "Cash," she says, and el sonovabitche fearfully complies. A "sinorita" who has a voice and knows how to use it: el sonovabitche's worst nightmare, the no-longer-ghostly La Llorona promising to return "in broad daylight" to punish him if he repeats his crimes.
Wondering if the Ghost Left Town
Reading Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands, I became re-acquainted with La Llorona after seldom thinking of her for many years. La Llorona, the most frightening of the many hometown ghosts of my childhood, takes on an unimagined significance in Anzaldúa's writing. Others who have studied La Llorona say her major function is to remind children that they should obey their parents, staying close to home rather than exploring a dangerous and unknown world. Anzaldúa sees something more in the ghost of the weeping woman: rather than being simply a tale to frighten children, Anzaldúa presents her as an embodiment of "the Indian woman's history of resistance [. . .] Like La Llorona, the Indian woman's only means of protest was wailing" (43). Anzaldúa's impassioned discussion of La Llorona's importance convinced me that I should try to meet her again, not as a frightened child now but as an adult woman who admires and supports the voice of resistance and protest. I thought I should hear her song, the corrido of La Llorona, again and pay attention to more than the chorus this time; I learned that Tish Hinojosa, a local recording artist, had included it on a recent album, so I set out to find and enjoy the album and the song.
Openly looking for a ghost is the surest way not to find her. In one music store I was directed, once I explained that I wanted a Spanish-language recording, to the "International" section; I protested that the artist was from just the other side of the city, my old neighborhood, no passport required, but no matter; if anybody named Hinojosa were for sale, "International" is the only place she might be found. Qúe lástima, she was not found, even there. At the next record store, "Folk" was suggested, and several of Hinojosa's albums were there, next to Celtic Harps and Indian Sitars; not the album containing "La Llorona," so my search continued. At the superstore by the highway, the "¡Tú Música!" section looked encouraging; it was abundantly stocked with music from Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, a fiesta of song from much of the Spanish-speaking world, but nothing at all from hometown artist Tish, by now feeling to me like a missing and misunderstood friend. The clerk at my last hope, El Norteño Record Store, was sorry to say that Tish Hinojosa was out of stock just now, "pero la proxima semana". I suppose I'll catch up with them someday, the singer and the song and La Llorona, the wailing ghost; for now, it seems the ghost has left town, perhaps to start a triumphant world concert tour. ¡Hasta Luego!
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