The tale of La Llorana (and its many incarnations) has spread from Texas and New Mexico to Colorado and New York. (Do the words “urban myth” pop to mind?) Naturally, details get jumbled along the way. In some accounts she is a jilted lover forced to wander the earth in search of her lost children. In New Mexico she’s said to be a hitchhiker who wears black and disappears from your back seat. Is there any truth to the story? Who knows for sure. But like any good ghost story, you can’t help but listen.

In the Rio Grande Valley there is a ghost called La Llorana (Spanish for “cry-baby,” but referred to as “the weeping woman”). Legend has it she was a beautiful native woman who fell in love with a conquering Spaniard in the 1500’s. He loved her too, and they lived together and had a few children (two or three, no one is quite sure). But love would not last long. The Spaniard was called back to his homeland to marry a nice, Spanish girl of his own class and status. He left, and the native woman went crazy with anger and sadness. It was in one of these jealous rages that she took her children and drowned them in the river. When she realized what she’d done, she killed herself too. Ever since then, late at night, you can go down to the water, where the wind will pick up, and you will see a woman with long black hair wearing a long white dress, weeping and crying out: “¡Ay, mis hijos! ¡Ay, mis hijos!” (“Oh, my children! Oh, my children!”) She is now known as La Llorana, the weeping woman, who is forever searching for her children.

No one knows the origin of this account, but it could be based on two other legends. The first is a story about La Malinche, a native Aztec princess, who fell in love with Hernan Cortés, the famous explorer who conquered Mexico. La Malinche, who was sold into slavery by her mother, fell in love with Cortés, who was her owner. The intelligent woman quickly learned many Aztec dialects as well as Spanish, and Cortés used La Malinche to convince tribes to turn against the Aztecs. La Malinche became Cortés’ mistress. She was baptized “Marina,”given the title Doña, and they had a son together. But Cortés, being an explorer, came and went as he pleased. Cortés soon left Mexico for Spain, and Doña Marina later married another man—the rest of her life remains a mystery. La Malinche is known as the Mexican Eve, because she ascended to power by aiding in the suppression of her own people. She is a traitor (in fact, the Spanish word “malinchista” translates into “traitor”).

The other narrative revolves around Cihuacoatl, a protective spirit whom the gods had given powers of wisdom and augury. As the story goes, one night four wise Aztec priests were walking near Lake Texcoco in the ancient city of Tenochtitlán when suddenly an agonizing cry filled the full moon night. They went to tell their emperor, Moctezuma, that they’d heard Cihuacoatl, who had come to warn them of the impending doom about to befall the Aztecs. For many nights after, Cihuacoatl filled the night with her terrible, woeful cry. She would walk the mountaintops in a white gown and her black hair would blow in the wind. “Oh, my children!” she would say. “Now has come the time for your destruction!” As we all know, Cortés did conquer and enslave the Aztecs of Mexico. Later, in Mexico City, residents began to hear the same disturbing, bloodcurdling cry. Unknowing who or what it was, the town instituted curfews and stayed in at night. Still, people saw the woman in white trudging through the plazas. When she would reach Plaza Mayor, she would fall to her knees and let out one last bellowing moan before disappearing. It was the Mexicans who gave her the name La Llorana, and since then the story has spread across the Americas.