“La Llorona,” Indigenous History, and Guatemala’s Political Amnesia

La Llorona cover art - María Mercedes Coroy

My recent exploration of fem-horror led me to La Llorona (2019) directed by Jayro Bustamante, known for developing stories centered around Indigenous characters. The film tackles the complexities of class, race, and gender in Guatemala during the brutal genocide of Native Mayans, using a well-known Latin American folktale, La Llorona, to elevate the themes of injustice, community solidarity, and generational trauma that define Guatemala’s DNA. Embedding folk stories into historical events is not only a clever way to highlight Native culture when oppression and public amnesia are the status quo, but it also provides a counter-story to the narrative that Indigenous people are powerless.

Haunting Like a Heavy Fog

In one of the most captivating scenes, Kaqchikel women, wearing veils, speak into a microphone about the killings, rapes, and displacements they experienced during the civil war. Their united front in court conveys female courage, in direct opposition to masculine elitism, represented by the aging dictator, here Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), based on Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt who ordered the death of 1,771 Ixil Mayan men, women and children. An Amnesty International report estimated that over 10,000 Indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed. La Llorona depicts the dictator’s final days, as he confronts a past he cannot escape with protestors at his door, demanding his arrest, often carrying photos of their loved ones. 

Seeing the protesters under her balcony, Monteverde’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) exclaims, “It’s an invasion. When will they leave us alone?” These lines could have come from a Mayan, wondering why their villages were being destroyed. Too many times in Latin America, European-descendants invade Indigenous communities with the excuse of eradicating guerilla insurgents, but they indiscriminately kill Native people. And they generally get away thanks to the clear imbalance of power in race and social status. When Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) appears behind the multitude of protestors, her face searches for an answer, as she begins unfolding a plan, pushing against the powers that want to erase her people and their memories. 

The film’s delicate framing and lingering shots lends itself to a slow haunting, as Alma invades the house like a heavy fog. Supernatural elements appear, as the family is forced to hide indoors from deadly riots. Once Alma becomes the family’s maid, she teaches the dictator’s granddaughter, Sara, to hold her breath in the pool, prompting the girl to steal her grandfather’s oxygen cylinder to use as a weight while practicing holding her breath longer. Along the way, we discover that Alma and her children were drowned by Monteverde’s soldiers, killed like so many others and the collective memory of suffering emboldens her to seek revenge.

Instead of becoming just another retelling of La Llorona, the film conveys the intertwining of social justice and solidarity within Indigenous communities. It falls on the community to seek justice when the law fails to protect them, as when the court decides not to convict Monteverde, similar to the real-life outcome. When Kaqchikel ghosts surround the house, we see the pain of generational trauma in their heavy faces. Alma inflicts justice, by sending Carmen into a trance, which allows her to experience the final hours of Alma’s life, as her children were drowned by soldiers. In a show of female solidarity, or perhaps acknowledgement for her own culpability, Carmen strangles the dictator to death. Though this makes for a vivid representation of empathy, in reality, the burden of responsibility usually falls on Indigenous women without support of white women. 

The Legend vs. Reality

The trail in "La Llorona"

Though the film makes an argument for female solidarity regardless of race and class, and redemption through intentional acts, this message doesn’t translate on the ground. Reality can be much crueler when cultural amnesia permeates, as in the case of Guatemala’s elections this week. The daughter of dictator Montt and former congresswoman, Zury Ríos, is running for president without much opposition, after Indigenous leaders Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas, the presidential ticket for the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), were excluded, as well as other candidates. Ríos is currently leading the polls and has received support from electoral arbiters and far-right political operatives. She is backed by the military, and an alliance with the economic elites and authorities has allowed her to run despite a constitutional ban of the offspring of coup presidents running for office. 

Guatemalan schools now barely teach the civil war, effectively erasing the past depicted in La Llorona. And that erasure, combined with older generations dying out, makes communities easily manipulated – a point the film makes in reverse, showing the power of remembering the past and using that memory to change the present.

The Anti-Feminist History of La Llorona 

The tale of La Llorona is ubiquitous in Mexico and Latin America, but its origins can be traced to 1509, before the arrival of Hernán Cortés and his Spanish troops. The many versions typically depict La Llorona drowning her children, abandoned by their father and ostracized by her community. This version surfaces taboos about sin, wayward women, and particularly the punishment of bad mothers. As such, the story is used to deter children from wandering late or as a warning to not over cry and accidentally invoke the haunted spirit. As little girls, we feared La Llorona, because not only was she sinful, but irrevocably alone. 

Past interpretations of this popular folktale often leave the central character with no recourse other than living in eternal sorrow. Some scholars have interpreted the female character as the immortal embodiment of pain. In contrast, Bustamante’s La Llorona gives agency to the weeping woman and to Indigenous women who gather their community and uphold their memories in an effort to claim justice. The director’s retelling of this classic folktale connects Alma’s pain of losing her children to the on-going genocide of Mayan people at the hands of European-descents – and gives her a path to achieve justice.

On María Mercedes Coroy and Exposing Injustice

Alma’s power and her Indigeneaty are evident by the choice to cast Coroy in the role. Known for her evocative work in Black Panther and Ixcanul, the Guatemalan actress recently explained to the New York Times the importance of staying true to her Mayan roots in the face of modernity and fame— both which have the potential to erase and overshadow her ancestral traditions. When not acting, she works at the market with her mother, weaving colorful huipiles, and working on a farm, cultivating cabbage and pumpkins. Coroy is determined to continue acting while keeping her customs and exposing discrimination against Guatemala’s Indigenous population through her work.

Being a fan of horror films and a writer of fem-horror short stories, I was excited to watch La Llorona, since it sheds light on a modern issue while elevating culture and exposing the evils of colonial remnants. Bustamante takes an old story enveloped in taboo and gives it an alternate explanation which exposes injustices in Latin America. It’s through these stories and art activism, that we can stop nations attempting to erase past traumas for political advantage. Let us fight back by keeping Indigenous memories alive in a world that wants to wipe them out.

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