There was a beautiful widow who had two children. Although her children meant the world to her, she knew that she could not support them on her own and so she began to search for a new husband. She spent most of her evenings in saloons, cafes, anywhere where the men of her town would gather, searching for a husband who could help support her family. One night while she was out, bandits attacked her home and killed her children. When she returned home, she saw what had happened, and the knowledge that she might have been able to stop the murders had she been home rather than at the saloon drove her insane. She began to wander, crying "where are my children?" To this day, her ghost is still seen wandering the countryside, calling out for her lost children.
If that sounds a bit off, try this version:
A widow with two children fell in love with a man who had no interest in children. After trying for a long time to get his attention, she finally decided that her children were the impediment, and so she drowned them in the river. When the man discovered what she had done, he was horrified and refused to have anything to do with her. She was hung, but her ghost can still be seen wandering the riverbanks, crying for her lost children.
Still not quite right? How about this version:
A woman married and had two children with a horrible man, a ne'er do-well and a philanderer. One evening, he came home with another woman on his arm. He told his wife that he wished to see his children, but that she meant nothing to him any longer, he had replaced her with someone younger an prettier. The only way to get revenge against this man was to kill the children, which she did. After she had drowned them in the river, she realized what she had done, and gave herself up to the authorities. To this day, her ghost can still be seen wandering the banks of the river, crying and searching for her lost children."
...and there are many other versions. In some, the mother murders her children, in others they die due to her neglect, and in others she is arguably blameless in their deaths, and yet blames herself anyway. In some versions, she kills herself, in others she is executed, and in others she dies a natural death but is condemned to Earth by God for her failings as a mother.
Commentary: La Llorona (pronounced La Ya-Rona) or "the crying woman" is one of the classic ghost stories. Although this story is a common urban legend, it has been attached to many specific locations throughout the Americas, primarily Latin America and locations with large Hispanic populations within the U.S. and Canada. In addition to tellings of the story, reported sightings of La Llorona are common in these areas as well.
The origins and meaning of the story are very much open to intepretation.
One origin claimed for the story is that the Aztec the goddess Cihuacoatl or Coatlicue appeared before the Spanish arrived, crying for the death of her children, thus prophesying the destruction of the Aztec empire at the hands of the conquistadors. Over time, this story may have evolved into the La Llorona story. However, I am very skeptical of this, as the story of the prophecy sounds like a story developed after the destruction of the empire in an attempt to mythologize and make sense of the empire's destruction, and therefore it seems just as likely that later La Llorona tales influenced this story as that a pre-Colonial story morphed into La Llorona.
Another source that is often broguht up is the Banshee of Irish folkore. While there are some similarities, and a few specific La Llorona stories clearly claim that the crying woman is a harbinger of death, there are also a number of differences (La Llorona is a ghost, while the Banshee is a fey spirit, just for starters). Also, La Llorona appears in places with large Spanish-speaking populations, begging the question of why these people would be continuing an Irish story. It is nonetheless very likely that Banshee stories did influence the development of various La Llorona stories.
Most likely in my own personal estimation, the story began as a folktale in Latin America and moved along with immigrant populations throughout the Americas. Local conditions, different storytellers, and local traditions influenced the further development of the story, and as such, you have a number of different variations now.
The purpose of the story is also variable. First and foremost, it seems to be a campfire story - the sort of story that friends tell each other for entertainment, without taking the story too seriously. A second function appears to be as a safety tool for parents - water figures prominently in many (if not most) versions of the story and the ghost is usually reported at the riverbanks, suggesting that the story may be used to scare kids away from drowning hazards, and in the arid southwest of the United States (one of the places where this story is especially popular) flash floods in the arroyos are a deadly hazard.
Also, La Llorona appears to have become something of a boogey man, with parents telling their children "if you're not good, La Llorona will get you!"
The ghost story is a popular one, and has served as the basis for a film. What seperates it from most urban legends is that, as mobile and clearly "urban-legendish" as it is, there are still sightings of La Llorona, elevating it to an allegedly true ghost story.
Special Treat: The guys from Hometown Tales put together a video segment on the La Llarona legend as it is known in New Mexico. Check it out:
SOURCES: Internet, Internet