By Sophie Lewis
Back in 2019, our beloved editor Sophie Lewis wrote a never-published take on the unconscious racial-familial politics of a regrettable “La Llorona”-themed blockbuster. We have dug this essay up and refreshed its political relevance by gesturing towards a (far superior) subsequent film on the same topic by Jayro Bustamante.
The Curse of La Llorona, dir. Michael Chaves (2019)
[with reference to La Llorona, dir. Jayro Bustamante (2019)]
What were we to make, back in 2019, of two Hollywood horror movies about “weeping women” (las lloronas) who want their children back? Why, I wonder, as the U.S. border regime gummed up the southern borderlands with caged infants and weeping migrant mothers, did we see a revival of attention in Hollywood to the demon La Llorona, re-imagined as a modern-day dispossessed indigene who wants… wait for it … YOUR children? The question bears repeating in 2021 – in fact, it arguably takes on more urgency – in the so-called post-Trump era. According to a report by the Transnational Institute, border security companies’ executives and top employees contributed more than three times more to the “family man” Joe Biden than to the dilettante Donald Trump. TNI also reminds readers that Biden’s record vis-à-vis migrants is terrible: he “approved legislation, such as the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigration Reform Act, that enabled the mass deportations under Obama, and the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which extended the wall long before Trump’s election.” Those responsible for the production of real-life las lloronas have not, in other words, left the White House.
A note for those unfamiliar: La Llorona, according to feminist Chicanx cultural scholars and historians, is an avatar of infanticidal motherhood and traumatized indigeneity who can be read – along the lines of Gloria Anzaldúa’s mestiza – as resistant. Edith Mora Ordóñez follows Anzaldúa in reading contemporary Mexican representations of La Llorona as freighted with the transgressive anti-patriarchal power of the “terrible mother” archetype, whose weeping, shouting, and ominous silences threaten to disrupt the state-sanctioned “violence of forgetting.” Far from geographically limited to Mexico, though, this monstrous-mother mythology spans almost the entire South American continent. Details vary, but the key ingredient is infanticide-by-water. And given that La Llorona is the fretful, deranged ghost of a woman who drowned her children, the plot of any movie tied to that lore is going to involve, at minimum, a female specter or zombie vengefully threatening somebody or something. In Jayro Bustamante’s version, premiered in 2019 and released in 2020, the insurgent female is imagined as a Mayan victim of Guatemalan state genocide – she is, along with the massed silent ranks of her people, the return of the repressed, knocking at the door of the national dictator’s family stronghold – and she emerges, in a sense, victorious. The same cannot be said of the other one.
Let me say upfront: I don’t recommend you see The Curse of La Llorona, directed by Michael Chaves. If you’re like me, you might get some inane enjoyment from spending the boring bits singing an adapted version of the 70s pop song “My Sharona” by the Knack – MY LLORONA! – but, otherwise, I’d give it a pass. Reviewers already seem agreed that it is a failure. So, as far as its lack of merit as a horror movie goes, I’ll be brief. Unlike the extraordinary and radical La Llorona (dir. Bustamante), The Curse of La Llorona (2019) is insipid to the point of comedy; the protagonists having significantly less personality than the stars of your average breakfast cereal commercial. That it is the latest in a franchise (“part of the Conjuring universe”) is mercilessly rubbed in our faces by a priest’s brandishing of the doll Annabelle. With its sub- Da Vinci Code acting on the part of priestly patriarchs, and its sub- Disney moral lessons about not being afraid (if you’re a boy) and “having faith” (especially if you’re a girl), it’s all just tacky, and farcically conservative to boot. There’s decent handicam work throughout, a strong passage with a see-through umbrella, a terrifying scene involving a routine hair-rinse during bath-time, and an effective sequence involving the kids alone in the family car. The movie is otherwise, however, essentially an uninterrupted succession of jump-scares, whose attempts to slightly mess with the established rhythm of the jump-scare – and thereby revive its efficacy – are painfully obvious. And I’m a sitting duck when it comes to jump-scares; it’s quite an achievement to fail to make me jump. (This is not, by the way, a plea for elevated horror. “Low” horror is just as capable of being smart and interesting as anything else, obviously.) The best thing one can say about The Curse of La Llorona, unfortunately, is that it is politically “symptomatic.” The few seconds at the end, when La Llorona (immediately prior to being destroyed) is a radiant, moving human being, instead of a ghoul, are captivating – and only serve, as such, to indict this xenophobic film all the more.
Ironically, given that the myth of La Llorona has pre-Hispanic/pre-colonial origins in south America – and has often been told in terms of a native woman destroying the babies she bore for a conquistador – The Curse of La Llorona is a pure vehicle for a settler-colonial border politics. With a clean-living citizen family and a virtuous white-passing single mom at its heart, the film depicts its monster as a hungry, sociopathic undead ex-mother, who will never stop grasping at the legitimate children of the land of the living (she wants to abduct and appropriate and care for and, somehow, also, murder them).
This depiction perfectly distils the mainstream U.S. attitude (which includes, by the way, many of those who opposed Trump’s “wall”) to the logic of the border regime. Throughout U.S. culture, the state’s murderousness towards migrant women, and the infants in their care, is systematically displaced onto those women in a supreme gesture of victim-blaming: “what kind of person brings their kids into such a lethal situation?” There can be no answering this woman’s claim. There can be no healing for her, no restitution. The only cure is exorcism and annihilation. It was her fault anyway, that her kids died, so.
The Curse of La Llorona’s plot is, as I say,symptomatic, then, of the in-built exclusions within the apparent universalism of “family values,” whereby America purports to stand for “keeping families together” (a terrible principle in itself, especially for queer youth whose biological family want to kill them) but then doesn’t apply to black and brown and poor and queer families. Especially when they have the gall to migrate. It is symptomatic of the fantasy that what causes suffering and unrest in families is the absence of a strong father-figure. Enter first Father Perez with his banal apothegms about faith; then the hyper-macho curandero Rafael Olvera with his stupid one-liners about not being scared; and lastly, the phallic end of a crucifix, plunged straight through the witch’s heart, such that, ta-da! (literally, “ta-da!” – that’s a direct quote) the badness is vanquished, with a CGI explosion of black goop. All told, The Curse of La Llorona is symptomatic, then, of a nativistic white-supremacist cultural ‘consensus’ in which white Anglo-Latinx subjects like “Anna Tate-Garcia” (Linda Cardellini) can – if they want – actively enroll, hoping to shore up their legitimacy as US citizens by carrying out the policing and (via Child Protective Services) kidnapping of darker-skinned Latinas like “Patricia Alvarez” (Patricia Velasquez).
To recap: La Llorona – according to The Conjuring Universe™ – is a demented, vagrant Mexican with yellow, reptilian eyes, dressed all in white as a traditional bride. Does she think that marriage will get her into the United States? Is she planning to put down anchor (babies)? She comes from the 17th century, a time before the Chicano Power movement, or even the United States itself. But she trespasses. She comes bearing the inconvenient freight of history.She invades temporally, and transgresses the border. In Los Angeles in 1973 (the 300 year anniversary of her murdering her children), any Latinx child who hears her sobs and allow themself to be drawn to her in curiosity and sympathy, will get grabbed (the skin on their arms singes), and dragged towards the nearest body of water to be drowned. That is Michael Chaves’s premise.
The racial misogyny of The Curse of La Llorona is, frankly, legible at a glance. It is worth lingering for a moment, for example, on the unexplained decision to have La Llorona wear a wedding dress. At the time of her double infanticide, three hundred years ago, it seems she has been a mother for about seven years. Thus, what her wedding-day has to do with anything beats me. Except, of course, that it’s a symbol of the xenophobic fear of “fake families,” and “visa marriages.” In her white dress and veil, La Llorona evokes the nightmare (itself a fantasy, as anyone who has actually tried to apply for spousal residency knows) of the migrant one cannot turn back because she has got her grasping hands on a marriage certificate.
For our heroine, Anna, a patriotic Child Protective Services officer who is also the widow of an LAPD officer, clearly, the worst possible thing would be to be, figuratively speaking, clutched at in that way. Is this childless, nationless freak trying to claim kinship with her – an ethnic bond of solidarity? A bond between mothers? Pre-emptively, violently, our border-guarding heroine refuses. This is an assimilated Latin American, you see, who takes care to pronounce “la llorona” in the whitest, Anglo-est possible way, to differentiate herself (and her secularism) from the first-generation, palosanto-waving Central American racial others around her. Anna is, in short, firmly on the ‘right’ side of that biopolitical line in the sand. She exoticizes and others native mesoAmerican culture. She is not the one whose children can be taken away. She is, by vocation, the one who takes away brown women’s children, without blinking.
Actually, that’s the first thing that happens in the movie, and it’s breathtaking, how diffident the movie is about that expropriation of two little boys from their apparently paranoid mother, “Patricia,” in the name of ‘what’s best for them.’ Shortly thereafter (basically as soon as they are taken into custody) the boys turn up dead in the LA river – the 17th century zombie having got to them. But instead of conceding that Patricia was not abusing them, rather, was keeping them safe, and thus that Patricia has every reason now to blame Child Protective Services for their death, the movie projects its settler guilt onto Patricia. It turns her into a vengeful human double of La Llorona: a crazy psycho Latina who hisses that she hopes Anna’s own children die, a demoness who even vows to actually catch and deliver them to La Llorona in the vain hope of bringing her own lost kids back from the dead. What structures relationships between the Latina mothers in the movie is, fundamentally, enmity, mistrust and competition, never solidarity.
For Anna, the ultimate horror: to be stripped of your whiteness, to have your children dragged under, denied their citizenship, and reduced to disposable life.
The viewer is invited to identify fully with this standpoint and this message. Part and parcel of its transmission is an almost accidental-seeming realism about the aims and ethos of social work that is quite striking. At the outset of the movie, we are told that CPS home visits (visits to check up on people’s parenting) are not stigmatizing, at least, not when carried out by Anna. On the contrary, they are motivated by compassion and altruism, not only for the children, but for the strained parents. But, later, when Anna herself comes under suspicion of child abuse, because of La Llorona’s burn-marks, which have appeared on her own children’s wrists, Anna is outraged, indignant and disgusted. Anna’s colleague conducts the house visit, to check on Anna’s children, and has to remind Anna that she is not allowed to be present while the kids are interviewed. “You may not believe me, but I take no pleasure in this,” says the colleague, as she leaves. Pleasure, it is implied, would totally make sense. Every good woman in this movie is not just a cop, but a cop who explicitly acknowledges that social work is state-sanctioned violence, a worthy violence, reserved for the less than human.
As for the bad women, the terrible women: a mother who kills her child is the epitome of unspeakable, taboo, haloed evil in many societies. In The Curse of La Llorona, supposedly, the undead woman committed the deed (which she immediately regretted) because her husband had left her “for a younger woman.” It is out of the question to think about structural factors. In reality, of course, poverty, overwork, racism, the conditions of heteronormative marriage, the private household, institutional and cultural matrophobia, and intimate gendered violence are among the things that might lead a woman to kill children in her care. There’s a reason, remarks Laura Briggs, why Adrienne Rich opened the final chapter of her classic feminist text on mothering Of Woman Born with a story of a woman slitting the throats of her three children on her suburban front lawn and the terrified, whispered acknowledgment of the mothers Rich knew that they all had had days when they felt like doing something similar. Maternal infanticide actually does happen, more frequently than we’d like to admit. But in the world of The Curse of La Llorona, once it has been stipulated that a mother has turned baby-killer, it’s a case of “enough said.”
The unspoken terror that this certainty papers over, on the other hand, is palpable all over the movie: the possibility that children might actually be attracted to this monster, heed her call, desire her company, and choose to go with her to her realm beneath the waves. What if “your” kids choose to be mothered, not by you, but by the thing you most fear? What if they were to voluntarily leave your comfortable American home and wander into the misty woods, hand-in-hand with a witch?
It would, by this token, have been so much more interesting for La Llorona, in The Curse of La Llorona,to be beautiful (as she in fact is, for one fleeting moment, while gazing into the boy’s face). It would be so much more interesting, had we had even a single moment of looking at the racist edifice of the American private nuclear household from the demon’s outcast, traumatized perspective. This is, after all, what makes the cinematic genre of horror worthwhile: some sense, at minimum, of what motivates the ghost. What is the nature of her pain? What does she want? What historic brutalities gave birth to her? What does her story tell us about ourselves?
As I have intimated, a film exists – La Lllorona, by Jayro Bustamante – which addresses these questions with radical conviction and an anti-colonial horror imagination. In this powerful, modern, Guatemalan version of the story, the undead “weeping woman” never, in fact, weeps. Nor does she smile. Rather, she unflinchingly lays waste to a bunch of colonizers’ denialism and domestic bliss. Alma – a seemingly alive member of the Kaqchikel people (a Mayan tribe) – calmly comes into the family home of Enrique Monteverde, the man responsible for the 1982-83 genocide, to clean and cook, and care for the dictator’s granddaughter. The country is honoring the old man; the women around him are, at least initially, standing by him, apologizing for his public and private brutalities; however, protests and vigils in the name of the dead, throughout the countryside, are growing. Alma is, in fact, representing herself as providing emergency scab labor for the imperial family, whose entire staff has deserted it in order to join the vast crowd of protestors besieging the Monteverde home compound.
But there is something uncanny about Bustamante’s normal-seeming anti-llorona. She slips across borders, slips beneath the surface of things, breathes underwater, deploys reproductive labor to anti-reproductive ends. Her uncanniness perturbs more than just the holy family inside the movie: it troubles us, the viewer, too. How can she be La Llorona if she is alive – and never killed any children? How can she be the fabled lonely vagrant, the unwoman, the anti-family monster if, in fact, she is a serene queer comrade to little white girls, and a rageful sister embedded in an insurgent community grieving together, a kinship network far more broad and ancient that any bourgeois dynasty? Does that mean other lloronas were similarly defamed? As the film unfolds, more than one set of biopolitical boundaries is threatened, not least that between the living and the dead. The call to mourn, to turn race traitor and decolonial accomplice, to militate against forgetfulness, whispers to the dictator’s lawful heirs, through the bubbles in the eutrophied swimming-pool.
There can be no going back to the right-wing Curse of La Llorona after this. If I were a kid, and my parents were CPS operatives and cops, I would certainly take La Llorona by the hand.
Sophie Lewis is a free-lance writer and a teacher at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. She is a member of the Blind Field collective and the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, out in paperback in August 2021.