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Although several variations exist, the basic story tells of a beautiful woman by the name of Maria who drowns her children in order to be with the man that she loved. The man would not have her, which devastated her. She would not take no for an answer, so she drowned herself in a river in Mexico City. Challenged at the gates of Heaven as to the whereabouts of her children, she is not permitted to enter the afterlife until she has found them. Maria is forced to wander the Earth for all eternity, searching in vain for her drowned offspring, with her constant weeping giving her the name "La Llorona." She is trapped in between the living world and the spirit world. Parents often use this story to prevent their children from wandering out at night. Often it is said that if you lock the doors to a room with a mirror, light red candles and say her name a couple of times in front of the mirror, you may see her.
In some versions of this tale and legend, La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who resemble her missing children, or children who disobey their parents. People who claim to have seen her say she appears at night or in the late evenings from rivers or lakes in Mexico. Some believe that those who hear the wails of La Llorona are marked for death, similar to the Gaelic banshee legend [according to whom?]. She is said to cry, "¡ay mis hijos!" ("oh my children!").
Local Aztec folklore possibly influenced the legend; the goddess Cihuacoatl or Coatlicue was said to have appeared shortly prior to the discovery of New Spain by Hernán Cortés, weeping for her lost children, an omen of the fall of the Aztec empire.
La Llorona is also sometimes identified with La Malinche, the Nahua woman who served as Cortés's interpreter and who some say was betrayed by the Spanish conquistadors. In one folk story of La Malinche, she became Cortés's mistress and bore him a child, only to be abandoned so that he could marry a Spanish lady (although no evidence exists that La Malinche killed her children). Aztec pride drove La Malinche to acts of vengeance. In this context, the tale compares the Spanish discovery of the New World and the demise of indigenous culture after the conquest with La Llorona's loss.
La Llorona bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek tale of the demonic demigodess Lamia. Hera, Zeus' wife, learned of his affair with Lamia, and then forced Zeus to give up the relationship and punished Lamia by forcing her to eat her own children. Out of jealousy over the loss of her own children, Lamia preys upon human children and devours them if she catches them. In Greek mythology, Medea killed the two children fathered by Jason (one of the Argonauts) after he left her for another woman.
La Llorona was referenced in the Multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends to commemorate the launch of the game in Hispanic America. Developer Riot Games released a skin for the character Morgana known as "Ghost Bride Morgana" in the United States and "Morgana la Llorona" in Spanish-speaking countries, directly referencing the legend.
La Llorona also appeared as the "monster of the week" in the NBC TV series Grimm in the ninth episode of Season 2 which first aired on October 26, 2012. She is portrayed by Angela Alvarado Rosa. In this Halloween-themed episode, La Llorona is given a specific pattern: she chooses three child victims, two boys and a girl between the ages of seven and ten, near a forked river: one from each leg of the fork and a third from the leg after the river joins. She is also stated to take all of the children during the day on Halloween, and then takes them back to the rivers' nexus and drown them by midnight that same night. At the end of the episode, she leads her newest victims to the water's edge and cries out to her lost children, begging them to forgive her. The ghosts of her children surface, and she again begs their forgiveness, offering her three victims to "take [their] place". Nick Burkhardt (the protagonist and eponymous Grimm), his partner and a Wesen that had been tracking La Llorona for years come upon the scene before she can lead the children into the water, and he tackles her into the river. The two characters are fighting under the river's surface when midnight strikes, at which point she fades from his (and the camera's) sight. La Llorona is one of the few "monster" characters to appear on the show that is not classified as Wesen.
La Llorona appeared as the first antagonist in the pilot episode of the TV series Supernatural. Sarah Shahi portrayed Constance Welch, The Weeping Woman who, after discovering her husband's infidelity took the life of her two children by drowning them in a bathtub at home and soon after, took her own by jumping off a bridge into a river. Her ghost was known to haunt the Centennial Highway, hitchhiking unknowing motorists, mostly men, and killing those who she deemed are unfaithful. Sam Winchester destroyed her ghost by smashing his car into the house where she used to live. Finally facing the ghosts of her children, The Weeping Woman was destroyed by her own guilt from killing them.
La Llorona appears as the main antagonist of the Mexican animated film La Leyenda de la Llorona. Here, La Llorona is portrayed as a more sympathetic character, with her children's deaths coming as an accident rather than at her own hands.
The story of La Llorona has been turned into a short comic book story by Love and Rockets writer/artist Gilbert Hernandez. La Llorona is also one of the various names used by Hopey and Terry's punk band in Jaime Hernandez's Mechanics series.
La Llorona appears in Josh Walker's 2014 novel, Luke Coles and the Flower of Chiloe where the Llorona is the mark of one of Luke's hunts.