The Tears of Llorona

Introduction: The Tears of Llorona 

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Image created by Carlos Encinas.  See the end of this document for a link to his site.

It is my experience that the myths we enter most deeply
are not ones that we choose out of some book of myths.
Rather, in some profound way, these myths choose us.

— Christine Downing

California can only be understood by those for whom
the symbols, if they come at all, follow the land itself
in the order of apprehension: it can only be known in
all its dimensions by the native, or by those like
him, from within and never from without.
— Wilson Carey McWilliams

Sing in me, O muse, and through me tell the tale….

On May Day of 2000, having returned to San Diego County after being away for eighteen years, I was putting away some books when one of them chanced to fall on my head. I bent to pick it up and noticed the title: Homer’s Odyssey.

Oddly enough, I had just been going back three hundred years into the history of San Diego and then of California. I had read about that brutal butcher Cortés, credited with naming our state after a fictional paradise; about Cabrillo and Vizcaíno, those transient seafaring explorers who came, saw, claimed territory, and left; and about Father Junípero Serra, who opened a mission here before moving on to bless nine more. It was he who led the first European colonization of my troubled homeland.

I had also been dreaming about San Diego, who personified herself into my nocturnal reveries as recounted in my book on Terrapsychology, the study of the presence, or “soul,” of the land. That book grew out of depth-psychological doctoral fieldwork begun shortly after my return to San Diego, the county of my birth. Local history, trauma, geography, dream: why did they seem to parallel each other image by image and event by event? Getting to know the past and present lay of the land might give me a hint or two about this.

Responding to a subvocal restlessness, I got up from my research one evening, made my way around piles of books, and went for a walk through the Escondido Hills. Ten miles to the south stood the Elfin Forest, where a ghostly woman in white was said to occur of a quiet night looking for her lost children. A familiar hawk circled high above my right shoulder.

The research wouldn’t let go of me. In my mind’s eye I saw a map of California with twenty-one crosses near the coast, each indicating a mission, an enclosed adobe complex in which padres who sailed over from Spain and walked north from Mexico in 1769 had sought to convert the indigenous peoples of California into laboring Christians. Nothing new in that story, especially for someone raised on this soil. I loved to travel and did so often, but I had lived in this state all my life.

That pattern of crosses…it seemed familiar, struck a hidden chord, wouldn’t go away. I halted for a moment. And then I had it. Those crosses marked the path of my wanderings throughout California. Every town I’d ever lived in, felt compelled to get acquainted with, or visited for more than a few days or weeks was a mission town along El Camino Real, the “royal road” that linked them all. Serra had compared the chain to a rosary.

For eighteen years, then, I had unknowingly pursued him up and down what had once been an actual paradise, the verdant home of loam-hued human beings deliberately made out to be childlike savages by colonizing consciences eager to be soothed. Having witnessed what each place had become, I moved on—was moved on—up the King’s Highway to the next leg of my long Californian odyssey. But why?

Nor was I alone, for another figure haunted me just as I had shadowed Serra.

Not long after the Aztec Empire fell to the ministrations of Hernando Cortés, a ghostly woman was said to appear in the streets of destroyed Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) roaming and weeping and wailing. Stories about her proliferated, but in most of them, a young, pretty mother gave birth to the son of an unfaithful lover, a heartless and powerful man who threatened to abandon her and take the newborn with him. To prevent this, she drowned the child (in some versions two children) under the full moon, and then she lost her mind. When she finally died, she was condemned to wander near bodies of water, a sad ghost wailing for her lost children, whose souls she must find in order to finally attain redemption. To this day many Mexican mothers warn their own children not to stay out late or La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman,” pronounced “lah-yoh-roh-nah”) might snatch them away, mistaking them for her own.

I had been born in San Diego below a full moon, the double-Cancer son of a dark-eyed mother who had lived on boats and bays and beaches. A self-styled gypsy, she did not want to raise children, but my father did and made it plain that he expected to. To solve this dilemma, my mother arranged a secret adoption, then told the entire family—including my father, according to him—that I, who would have been given my father’s own name, had died of heart failure at birth. I passed briefly into foster care and ended up in the home of the adoptive parents who raised me without knowing much about my past. But when I first learned my mother’s name after a long quest after my roots, its echo with that of the Weeping Woman remained hidden from me: Lorna, born with eyes biologically devoid of night vision.

No matter how estranged we may consider ourselves from the tangled, improbable—indeed monstrous—world of myth, in various ways and under certain circumstances unwilling tributes to its signs, fictions, and symbols are wrung from us.
— Frederick Turner

From the standpoint of depth psychology, the discipline that evolved from the pioneering work of Pierre Janet and C. G. Jung and the synthesizing contributions of Sigmund Freud, who founded the field of psychoanalysis, a myth is not a dead explanation for lightning or rain, but a living force in human affairs and assumptions. Dream, drama, symptom, folklore, ideology, religion, and perhaps psyche itself all display a deep mythic structuring. A fabled pathway unknowingly retraced and haunted from San Diego to Sonoma by a roving figment of Mexican folklore might seem coincidental to the thinking of mainstream materialism; but heaping on the head of Coincidence what does not fit a worldview imitates the ancient Roman habit of reflexively attributing uncanny happenings to the wheel-spinning goddess of luck and chance.

A series of coastal pilgrimages, a wandering, weeping specter, and a city of asphalt and dream, all repeating uncannily like doubled images seen but through a glass darkly. What did they all have in common except the old Mission Trail itself?

A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there. It is for precisely this reason that stories are not told without identifying the earthly sites where the events in those stories occur.
— David Abram

As I studied and walked and thought, at my side lurked a very San Diegan suspicion that El Camino Real, La Llorona, Lorna, Serra, and a frowning dream city might after all represent random spinnings of the wheel of Fortuna; but along the way my doubts melted like adobe in a downpour. If these images could flash from so many disparate realms of highly localized experience, from maps to moves, bays to births, then didn’t it make more sense to think of them as emanating like heartbeats from hidden but potent waypoints up and down the King’s Highway? Was it possible that a mythic-imaginal geography permeated the physical?

Psychotherapy knows all about returns of the repressed: unhealed wounds repeating themselves symbolically in encounter after encounter and decade after decade. Could the traumas inflicted by conquest, exploitation, and loveless domination similarly punctuate the history of a stretch of troubled terrain?

The more I learned about the places where I had lived, the greater grew the sense of a persistent voice I could not hear; of old local traumas, ironies, and unlearned lessons passing in succession like a series of repeating billboards written in an indeciphered tongue.

It is not accidental that “home” and “haunt” share deep roots in Old English, that we speak of the home of an animal as its haunt, or that “haunt” can mean both a place of regular habitation and a place marked by the presence of spirits. Like scars, the spirits are reminders—traces by which the past remains present.
— Jack Turner

My researches included the discovery that no one had written a history of the mission cities and counties of California before, let alone one informed by recurring local motifs now known to terrapsychology as “placefield syndromes”: facts of the land which symbolize themselves into the minds and souls they interact with. We are not as separate from the places we inhabit as we like to believe. Obesity rates parallel the sprawl of fattening cities. A fortified border is not just a very tall fence: it also recurs as a psychic division, a cleavage of the heart, a spiritual dam, a cultural barrier, a split within the self, a political regression, and an ecological absurdity. The matter we would master enters into us at will through openings of metaphor and bridges of dream.

To my knowledge, no one had investigated the thematic resonance of place before, but in terms of my role I had years of experience. As I had been for my clients, so I would become for the coastal counties that had infected me: a wounded healer, an unveiler of shadowy narratives, a chronicler of their reenactments, and a breathing repository of themes both current and archaic decanted into the psychic spaces I made available, unknowingly at first, but now opened freely.

“To come alive again,” wrote Albert Camus, “one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland. Certain mornings, on turning a corner, a delightful dew falls on the heart and then evaporates. But its coolness remains, and this is what the heart requires always. I had to set out again.” I had, at least, the homeland along with the resolve to initiate another recurrence: that of following the Mission Trail all the way up El Camino Real to listen more consciously into unburied pasts, into underground themes still pulsing in the shadow of what we like to call development (from words that mean both “enclose” and “expose”), a contemporary legacy of the relentless march of Cross and Sword.

Perhaps one spots a freshly fallen tree, or a bit of flaking paint, or a house where none has stood before—any disturbance, large or small, that inscribes the passage of time—and a place presents itself as bearing on prior events. And at that precise moment, when ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold, a border has been crossed and the country starts to change.
– Keith Basso

This book is a collection of California tellings arranged in chronological order county by county. Rather than laying down dead in a text caught in a fantasy of objectivity, they constitute a multidimensional history in the spirit of Nietzsche’s term “genealogy”: a quest through events, prime movers, Great Men, “facts of history,” ecological anomalies, character quirks, and other forces often lab-coated as causes to uncover the themes and images in motion behind them. Put simply, this book is less a case history of California’s edgy psyche than a “place history” set forth in a series of vignettes: briefly sketched deepenings into what has happened here.

As with most case presentations, woundedness will remain a chief concern as we move from city to city and county to county up the King’s Highway through emplaced, paradigmatic, and often ironic motifs whose echoes outlast lifetimes and defy monocular assessments. Our focus will not dwell on the self-congratulatory spires of Progress and Development, for example, but must linger with their unpopularized umbrae as we move an incident at a time from Baja through Alta to the terminus of the Mission Trail and beyond it to the hope for fresh sights and soundings that make for healing and an end to anguished reenactments.

Our wanderings upon the trail of Serra and Llorona move back and forth within magnetic lines of geography, trauma, biography, reverie, psychology, relationship—and myth, “myth” not as lie or fiction, but as collective manifestation of a storied presence beyond the daily ken. To describe Llorona as a mythic figure is not to declare her unreal (those who so regard her do it at their peril), nor does it reduce her to a byproduct of human thought. She is a ghostly, wailing psychic body, a tortured tissue of dreamstuff looking in on the maulings of malls and the damnings of dams, and transgressing at will customary notions of propriety, landscape, gender, and power. What she has to teach us awaits at journey’s end.

As for the architects of the historical and contemporary events described in these pages, some, like Cortés, were deliberate, ruthless opportunists, and some were not. There were missionaries who beat their “children” while others stood up for their rights. The missions founded and guarded to house the Indian converts were neither “concentration camps,” as Carey McWilliams has written, nor blessed outposts of civilized pure-heartedness, as the Catholic Church maintains even now against documented evidence to the contrary. Into the so-called New World rootless men carried new ideas and a measure of good will as well as diseases of body and mind. Whether their motives were akin to those of gentle St. Francis, nominal patron of a colonizing Order, or corrupt Alexander VI, writer of the papal bull of 1493 that handed a brave New World to Spain, what these true believers and wandering conquistadors did here lingers on to demand recognition, even to haunting us from within.

Starting out from a Prelude in conquered Mexico and Baja, we will learn the story of each mission town from its founding days onward, listening for themes and meanings and gleaning the symbolic from the factual as we feel our way into the past of each county—San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, and on up to Sonoma—whose colonizers still struggle in localized returns of the ecohistorically repressed. Quotations throughout highlight themes latent in the material.

History was part of the baggage we threw overboard when we launched ourselves into the New World. We threw it away because it recalled old tyrannies, old limitations, galling obligations, bloody memories. Plunging into the future through a landscape that had no history, we did both the country and ourselves some harm along with some good. Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we stop raiding and running, and learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.
— Wallace Stegner

For these unhealed and highly symbolic events have not been left in the past, as the biographical material in each chapter will emphasize. Old motifs of wounding haunt our occupied territories—inner and outer—as persistently as Llorona haunts her children. In nightmares, symptoms, families, freeways, and barrios along El Camino Real, a contemporary Cortés still charges across a promenade, a resistance still greets the gold-seeking invaders, ideologies obliterate indigenous values, and Llorona still moans for a chance at redemption.

The men responsible for starting us along this five-hundred-mile trail are long gone, as are their most immediate victims. But the will to colonize—places, people, resources, economies, cultures, even gods—is no bygone relic of a less evolved era. It has grown clever enough to pitch for the planet and “the people”: for democracy, globalization, progress, even freedom (from a Sanskrit term for “to own”) in the totalizing campaign to enforce widespread dependence on rosy pseudo-worlds of pleasant fantasy. Yet, “The dream lives on,” notes Kevin Starr, former state librarian, “promising so much in the matter of American living. It also threatens to become an anti-dream, an American nightmare. Memory, then, must come to our aid; for while the recovery of the past can traumatize, it can also heal.”

A newly ecopsychological sensitivity informed by myth, history, and folklore must also remember an ancient human truth: those who alienate themselves from the natural world by attempting its domination always alienate and dominate people.

Disregard of the invisible landscape—and impressing change upon the physical terrain that anchors that landscape—forces psychic pain and dislocation on others, pounding flat those imaginative bumps by which they orient themselves and which give meaning to their worlds.
— Kent Ryden

California has ever been pictured as an exquisitely spiritual place—but one insisting that the spiritual ground itself in the earthly, in cool rivers and dank, tangled roots. In psychological terms this means taking our highest aspirations here with a healthy dose of sorrow, protest, humility, and absurdity, blending them soulfully in the cauldron of the heart. Only then, when the stories and themes have grown slowly within us, can we claim the authority to have heard even a little of what California has to say. She is many things, but I have yet to know her as silent.

The fictional Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s sappy novel is our most well-known weeping woman, but she is in no danger of being our most vocal. Shunned everywhere else, Llorona has been invited to come forth from the shadows of the mission communities and haunt this work of hearing and witnessing, contemplate its stops along El Camino Real, and moisten it where needed with a few of her copious tears. For after all, our excursion moves not just into bright Californian daylight, but into the shadows too, where sightseeing must surrender pride of place to another mode of vision, namely: soul-seeing.

Table of Contents
Introduction: Setting Out Again
Highway’s Beginning: The Cry of Cihuacoatl
San Diego
Los Angeles
Santa Barbara
San Luís Obispo
San Benito
Santa Cruz
Santa Clara
San Francisco
Highway’s End: Sonoma
Afterwords: California Indian Voices

© 2004-2006 by Craig Chalquist. All rights reserved.

La Llorona image created by Carlos Encinas.

West of the West

Juana Alicia‘s newest project:
“La Llorona” mural, San Francisco Mission District to the July 10, 2004 fundraiser at Mars Cafe! (pdf flyer here)

How you can help

   Juana Alicia is presently creating a new mural, entitled “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) for the corner of York and 24th Street in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. This is the current site of her 1983 mural “Las Lechugueras.” Juana Alicia is currently raising funds to replace the deteriorating Lechugueras mural with the new Llorona mural.

In her imagery and practice of art, Juana Alicia attempts to break down traditional barriers between genres, media and categories, combining the personal with the political, the public with the private, to create images that are simultaneously decorative, educational, critical and celebrational. Her art often pays homage to ancestors and contemporary, living people.  Through her paintings, artist and educator Juana Alicia seeks to create visions of hope by reflecting histories of both trouble and triumph. These images also project the possibility of asserting our highest human values in scenarios of a compassionate world. In the past twenty-five years, Juana Alicia has created over thirty murals and a large body of drawings, prints, paintings, mixed media and ceramics.

Although the Llorona Mural Project is a work of art, its “work” is to support environmental and social justice and raise awareness about water issues. The new mural will illustrate the effects of globalization on our natural environments, both urban and rural. The work reveals environmental conditions, crises and hopes shared by the local Latina/o, indigenous, and other communities of color who share the sacred ground we call The Mission. The planet and our physical bodies are composed mostly of water. Water connects and affects all of humanity and all life on the earth.

This mural seeks to educate viewers about the central importance of water in our lives, and about the crisis we face with regard to its scarcity and contamination. The mural will also celebrate the role that women play as caretakers of the environment, using as it’s central protagonist “The Crying Woman” of Mexican history and legend. The new Llorona mural, like her predecessor, will focus on women and environmental health and justice. Juana Alicia created the existing Lechuguera mural in 1983, and it is one of her most published works. It has traveled across the world as an image on book covers, postcards, posters, and via the Internet. Because the existing wall has deteriorated excessively, it will need to be resurfaced and this process will necessarily wipe out the existing work. Instead of re-creating it from “scratch”, the artist has elected to create a new, updated work on the topic of working women and the environment.

The mural has lent its message about the struggles of farm workers to many organizing struggles and has received wide exposure; Juana Alicia is satisfied that the Lechugueras mural has lived a long and fulfilling life! Las Lechugueras depicts the dangers of pesticides, factories in the fields of California, and the menace of the field bosses and immigration service while it honors the strength of Mexican women farm workers and the beauty of our natural environment. The new mural will address the worldwide environmental crisis over water. The new piece will celebrate as a heroine La Llorona, the much-maligned mythical Mexican woman who haunts the riverbanks in search of her lost children. For Mexicans and Chicanos, La Llorona is the protagonist in an oral history rooted in the conquest of Mexico. It’s a story that is still told to children today. There are many versions of the story, but over many generations, children have been warned to stay away from the river banks because La Llorona might capture them, mistaking them for her own children. Often it is said that she herself drowned her children in a fit of rage, insanity or despair, though other versions portray her as saving them from enslavement and conquest. In Juana Alicia’s mural design, she reclaims La Llorona as a heroine instead of presenting her as a crazed victim, which is frequently the case. In the image in the planned mural, La Llorona will be pictured in the act of saving her lost and “at-risk” children, and the river will be pictured as a source of life, beauty, and restoration. The mural features diverse scenes of environmental struggles over water: The U.S./México border; Cochabamba, Bolivia and the Narmada River Valley in India.

In the center of the composition, a thirty foot tall Chalchiuhtlicue (the Aztec goddess of the water), surrounded by clouds and mountain waterfalls, gives water to the world. The ancient lake Texcoco that once covered the Valley of Mexico emerges from the mists that make up her skirt. To the left of the goddess, Bolivian peasants defeat the fat cats of corporate domination in a fight for the water rights of their country, and to the far left, the farmworkers of India’s Narmada Valley hold a protest by refusing to leave their flooded homelands, threatened by an enormous dam project. To the right of Chalchiuhtlicue, we see the Llorona herself, embracing one of her children, while extending her hand to those still in the water. She revives the spirits of her children and preserves the planet for future generations. Behind her is the nopal, symbol of Chalchiuhtlicue, the cactus that flourishes, gives fruit and flower despite the harshest of conditions. Its secret is an internal reserve of water. To the right of the Llorona, the Women in Black of Juarez march alongside the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande), demanding to know what has become of the murdered daughters of the border. A maquila (border sweatshop) pours pollution in the background. , reviving the spirits of her children and preserving the planet for future generations.

The Llorona mural is a new addition to Juana Alicia’s body of work which bears witness to the deepest challenges of our communities, and to the marvelous potential of our imaginations to transform crises into triumphs of the spirit. Juana Alicia’s work can serve our local community and its organizations that serve our civil rights and equal opportunities as well.

If you would like support the Llorona Mural Project, you can do so in various ways:

  • Donations in any amount, can be made out to “The Women’s Building” (Juana Alicia’s fiscal sponsor), with a notation “for the Llorona Mural Project.”
  • You can donate services such as assistance with publicity, printing, fundraising, website building, or documentary film or video assistance.
  • You can volunteer as a project assistant, hauling water, washing brushes, bringing food and answering questions from passersby.

If you would like to support this project in any way, please do not hesitate to contact Juana Alicia at or see her website:

Bibliographical Resources for the Llorona Mural Project

  • Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke (2002) Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, New York, NY: The New Press.
  • Basu, Amria, Ed. (1993) The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Davis, Mike (2000) Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, New York, NY: Verso Press.
    Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic, Eds. (1998) The Latin@ Condition: a Critical Reader, New York, NY: New York University Press.
  • Galeano, Eduardo (1973) The Open Veins of Latin America. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
  • Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon (2001) Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory, Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  • Macy, Joanna R. with an introduction by Thich Nhat Hahn (1999) World As Lover, World As Self, , Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  • Nelson, Barbara J. and Najma Chowdhury, Eds. (1994) Women and Politics Worldwide, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Ruiz, Vicky and Ellen Carol Dubois, Eds. (1994) Unequal Sisters: a Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Schultz, Jim (2002) “Bechtel Corporation vs. Bolivia’s Poor” The Democracy Center On-line.
  • Schultz, Jim (2000) “Bolivia’s War Over Water” Earth Island Journal, Fall 2000 Vol. 15, No. 3.
  • Sen, Rinku, Ed. (1995) We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, United States Rural Mission of the World Council of Churches. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications.
  • Shiva, Vandana (2002) Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit, Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  • Shiva, Vandana (1999) Stolen Harvest: Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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