Do you know the story of La Llorona? Have you ever heard of the Weeping Woman, La Malinche, or the Ditch Witch? Last year’s movie The Curse of La Llorona (dir. Michael Chaves) granted this mythological figure massive national attention but, if you haven’t heard of her, let me start by saying that there are as many versions of the story as there are storytellers. And, every time the tale is told, a different Llorona emerges. Perhaps the only element that unifies the various—and often contradicting—renditions of the myth is the existence of a female figure who weeps. While we may want to enclose this tale solely within the fictional world, our current situation leads us elsewhere. In the middle of the largest global public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and mass protests denouncing structural racism and anti-blackness awakened by police killings, the image of mothers perpetually crying hits too close to home. Tales of La Llorona expose the long and painful history of violence, oppression, and abuse towards black and brown bodies. The particular version that will be introduced here is rooted in the context of New Mexico’s double colonial history, and it’s quite unique in that it’s told not through words or music, but through noise.
DJ, radio host, zine maker, and noise artist, Tahnee Udero (a.k.a. Tahnzz) was born in California in 1980 and has lived in Albuquerque most of her life. I came to know about her in 2014, while conducting research on the Albuquerque-based experimental music festival Gatas y Vatas: a platform for cis and trans women, genderqueer, and non-binary performers. As a network of activists/musicians, and as a performance platform, Gatas y Vatas blurs the political divide between the U.S. and Mexico. While identifying with Indigenous and Hispanic women of both sides of the border, the performers expose the flows of discriminatory violence that persist across the two nation states (Alonso-Minutti 2018). At the time I was writing about the festival, Tahnzz was one of its main protagonists and was emerging as one of the leading voices in the genre of noise, not only in the city, but in the Southwest at large (see figure 1).
Tahnzz’s noise work contains the history of her family and the complexity of ethnic and racial conflict in New Mexico, as well as the hardships that both Native Americans and Hispanics have endured to remain in the land. Her noise promotes female empowerment while rendering visible the challenges of living in the New Mexican desert. Tahnzz regards performing as a kind of ritual interwoven with folk myths associated with Nuevomexicanos/as. In her 2017 track, The Season of La Llorona, she pays homage to New Mexico’s oral traditions and folk storytelling while honoring the wisdom, resilience, and natural healing powers of mothers and grandmothers—the Lloronas of the Rio Grande.
The legend of La Llorona, one of the best-known folktales of the Southwest, dates back to pre-Columbian times and has been continuously transmitted throughout the American continent. Some of the earliest accounts link La Llorona with the Aztec goddesses Cihuacóatl or mujer serpiente (woman serpent). Although existing in many variants—and some of them contradictory—all versions of the story are centered on La Llorona, or the weeping woman. Why does she weep? In some versions, overpowered by anger after being betrayed by her (assumed male) lover, La Llorona drowns her children in the river and is condemned to spend eternity weeping in search of them. In the version that I was told as a kid growing up in Puebla—an urban city in central Mexico—La Llorona can be heard at night, meandering on the streets while wailing, “¡Ay, mis hijos, mis hijos!”
Many folklorists have pointed out that this legend remains largely in the hands of women and has mostly been transmitted by women. Chicana feminists have claimed that the figure of La Llorona symbolizes a voice of resistance against male domination and heteronormative expectations of the role of women inside the family unit. As Anna Marie Sandoval writes, “Like La Malinche and La Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona has been evolving into a positive cultural symbol as Chicanas continue to write themselves and represent their own version of their history, as they continue to re-vision theory. [La Llorona] is a gritona, demanding to be recognized as a strong, resistant figure who commands her own life” (Sandoval 2008, 43).
Although it is of Mexican origin, variants of the Llorona myth are found all across the Hispanic world. In my experience living in Albuquerque, the legend of La Llorona takes yet another spin. The area was once the home of Tanoan and Keresan peoples who lived along the Rio Grande for centuries before Spanish settlers arrived. By the 1500s, there were 20 Tiwa pueblos, among them the Sandia Pueblo and Pueblo of Isleta, as well as Navajo, Apache, and Comanche. Albuquerque was founded in 1706 and was named after the Duke of Alburquerque, then viceroy of New Spain (the first r of the name was later dropped). After the Spanish, the Anglo colonization of New Mexico followed in the 19th century. It involved not only dispossessing Native Americans and Hispanic Nuevomexicanos/as of their land and water, but also forcibly acculturating them (Guthrie 2013, 3). In this double-colonization history, La Llorona has gathered a significant place, for she is a figure that embodies the violence perpetuated by colonizing forces and her crying will not stop until there is justice in the land.
Although they may not understand much about the legend, children in Albuquerque know that La Llorona can be found near the Rio Grande, and that they’d better go home before dark or she might get them. In windy and dark nights, her wails and cries can be heard beyond the river and into the corners of the inner-city. La Llorona is a figure commonly associated with Halloween and with Día de los Muertos local festivities, but her presence is felt all year long. She belongs to the cultural memory and family histories of thousands of New Mexicans and, since the last century, multiple personal encounters with La Llorona have been documented by folklorists and scholars. La Llorona has been called the “Crying Woman” and the “Boogeywoman of the Southwest,” and since the mid-1980s, people in Albuquerque have also referred to her as the “Ditch Witch,” adapting the legend to keep kids away from ditches and arroyos.
In Albuquerque’s hot desert, ditches are commonly used for skateboarding and swimming during the summer months. However sudden storms can cause flash flooding, and swimming in ditches has caused multiple drownings. With the slogan, “Ditches are deadly. Stay away,” the local government has appropriated and exploited the story of La Llorona to issue a public safety campaign. Throughout the summer and fall of 1984, for example, city buses carried boards picturing a scary female figure with the words, “Ditches are Deadly!” Locals recognized that figure as representing La Llorona (Bareiss 1984, 2). The slogan has also been used in school programs and has been distributed in brochures, bumper stickers, and signs. Most recently, however, the advertisement phrase has been modified to “Ditch the Ditches,” and the scary figure of the Ditch Witch has been replaced with a bright blue, furry, human-sized, playful looking “Water Monster.” This change of slogan and figure can be read as one of multiple “whitening” strategies that have been implemented by the local government to water down Albuquerque’s strong Indo-Hispanic roots, making the city more attractive to (white) outside investors.
Tahnzz remembers the slogan “Ditches are Deadly!” from her childhood years but—even though she was aware of the association between the Ditch Witch and La Llorona—a scary woman warning kids about arroyos and ditches was not the Llorona she knew. The respect and admiration Tahnzz had for La Llorona and the place La Llorona had in her family history came from the bedtime stories that her mom, Norma, used to read to her while growing up. Being an avid story reader, Norma used to take her young daughter to the library to borrow books of regional cuentos (folktales). As a young reader, Tahnzz was particularly drawn to those written by New Mexican Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya (1937–2020).
Acclaimed and beloved writer Rudolfo Anaya—who passed away at the time of this writing—was regarded as the founder of modern Chicano literature. His novels, short stories, and plays have deep roots in rural New Mexico and Albuquerque’s working-class neighborhoods, like Barelas, where he lived. He considered his storytelling gift as his inheritance and, in his writing, he drew from the region’s cuentos to create narratives that deeply connect with his readers. Set in rural New Mexico in the 1940s, Anaya’s first and most acclaimed work, Bless Me, Ultima, centers on the story of a boy whose life is changed by an old curandera (spiritual healer) named Ultima.
Ultima, also known as “La Grande” is associated with ancient traditions, indigenous wisdom, healing powers, and natural forces. Her relationship with the seven-year old Antonio is at the core of Anaya’s story, and the transferring of her knowledge and worldview to the boy is paramount to the development of his identity and purpose. While not explicitly noted, Ultima is thought to be both Native American and Hispanic, thus, Indo-Hispana. For a reader familiar with the history of racial conflicts and wars in New Mexico, Ultima could also be thought as a genízara, a term applied to detribalized and/or exiled, formerly captive and enslaved Indigenous people, many of whom were Hispanicized, baptized in the Catholic faith, and given Hispanic names (Lamadrid 2019).
Being familiar with the story of Ultima since her childhood, Tahnzz has developed a deep connection with the character, and sees Ultima’s wisdom and worldview manifested in her ancestors. To her, Ultima is an amalgamation of both sides of her colonized and assimilated grandmothers (Udero 2020c). Moreover, to Tahnzz, Ultima belongs to the same world as La Llorona. And, as we will see, Tahnzz’s version of La Llorona is conflated with Anaya’s Ultima in deep ways. Therefore, when assigning a title for a noise track that makes reference to La Llorona, Tahnzz used the name of one of Anaya’s plays, The Season of La Llorona, as a way to pay homage to his storytelling. Right before Tahnzz began working on her noise track, in the middle of the November of 2016 election season, Anaya’s play was performed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center (located in Barelas, Albuquerque). While Tahnzz did not attend the performances, there was much talk about Anaya around her immediate circle.
Anaya dedicated significant attention to La Llorona, including a novel (The Legend of La Llorona: A Short Novel, published in 1984), illustrated children books (Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona, published in 1997, and La Llorona / The Crying Woman, published in 2011), and his first play, The Season of La Llorona, produced in 1979. While a deep analysis of this complex character in Anaya’s oeuvre is beyond the scope of my writing, I would like to highlight a few traits among Anaya’s Llorona(s) as pertinent to understanding Tahnzz’s own version. Anaya’s Llorona is a beautiful and kind indigenous Mexican woman who possesses healing powers. She is also a distressed mother who cries for her lost children. Whether she was the one who killed the children or not is secondary; ultimately, the children’s death is a product of colonial domination, subjugation, and slavery. At the core, therefore, La Llorona’s wails, cries, and noises sonically denounce the atrocities committed to brown and black bodies in the history of colonization. Only in death could her children encounter liberation.
Far from considering La Llorona a scary or shameful figure, both Tahnzz and her mother empathize with her. Being a devoted Catholic, Norma connects La Llorona’s eternal weeping with a line from the prayer “Hail Holy Queen” that enunciates: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears” (Udero 2020b). Both of them identify with La Llorona and they see themselves as Lloronas. While Tahnzz is not a mother yet, she yearns to have children, not only for the sake of her immediate family, but to bless her mother with more nietas y nietos. To her, being an abuela is a great honor and should be regarded a life aspiration. Very much in line with how Anaya portrays Ultima, Tahnzz sees old women as powerful carriers of knowledge. She’s exploring the idea of making a zine titled “Future Abuelas of America” in response to the organization once called Future Homemakers of America, whose programs proliferated in the second half of the 20th century. She is concerned that, in our colonial, neoliberal society, abuelas are easily disregarded and discarded. In that sense, Tahnzz’s zines and noise work honor motherhood as a decolonizing act. She believes that the ancient wisdom and worldview of abuelas illuminate a path to a better future.
The core layer of Tahnzz’s The Season of La Llorona comes from a field recording she made in Barelas, an inner-city neighborhood located just south of downtown Albuquerque and in very close proximity to the Rio Grande. She set a microphone on a second-floor balcony located at the corner of 4th Street & Cromwell Avenue, and captured hours of recorded sound throughout a given night in 2015. Her choice of location is far from arbitrary. Barelas, whose inhabitants are largely of Hispanic origin, is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods (dating back to the 17th century), and one of the poorest in average income. Historically, Barelas has retained a strong cultural identity and holds significant importance—not only to Bareleños (people from Barelas), but to all Burqueños (inhabitants of Albuquerque)—as a site where community activism and fiestas take place. While the area received significant attention and a degree of the revitalization in the early 2000s due to the creation of the National Hispanic Cultural Center located in the south side of Barelas, gentrification has negatively affected families who have resided in the area for generations. While facing tremendous economic pressures, Bareleños/as are known for their hard work, unbreakable resilience, and commitment to community. In Barelas, abuelas and curanderas have a central role in the community and are highly regarded. One of the staples of the barrio is the mural dedicated to curandera Maclovia Zamora, painted by Diné (Navajo)/Chicana muralist Nanibah “Nani” Chacon (see figure 2).
Although Tahnzz did not grow up in Barelas, the neighborhood represents a microcosm of rural New Mexico, where her family and the family of her partner are from. She feels a very strong connection to the barrio and has found in it a sense of cultural memory and personal identity. It pains her to see how gentrification is affecting the neighborhood’s families and fears that “their way of life is going to be eaten up.” “These geopolitical forces”—Tahnzz says—“are so big that you can’t do anything. How can you combat that?” To Tahnzz, things escalated with the 2016 presidential election and, while her community reacted very strongly against the results, she retreated. She came to her own understanding of the new sociopolitical reality and formulated a personal form of protest. By concentrating on the things that really matter to her, and focusing on the things she could control, she was able to create. It was through her main creative medium of noise that she could process the external turmoil and find a sense of catharsis (Udero 2020a). And what better way to protest the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that the current administration has promoted than by evoking the wailing that comes from a brown female genízara body meandering through the water banks of this country? La Llorona doesn’t abide by any borders, confinements, or language barriers. Her determination and yearning for justice empower others to defy systems of domination and control.
Tahnzz understands The Season of La Llorona as a soundtrack for a narrative. It is based in Barelas, pays homage to Rudolfo Anaya’s storytelling, and is her personal way to contribute to the infinite versions of La Llorona’s story. Her own take on the tale is one in which noise acts as a narrator that lets the human and non-human voices of Barelas emerge.
In what follows I offer a brief ‘listening guide’ to The Season of La Llorona. These annotations are the result of my personal engagement with the track and are meant to highlight certain aspects of a descriptive—and subjective—analysis. Tahnzz’s conceptualization of this piece as a soundtrack that carries a narrative gives listeners the freedom to manufacture personal narratives as they listen. Far from attempting to arrive at a conclusive understanding of the track, these are preliminary ponderings that result from my listening practice in the here and now. Thinking pedagogically, my hope is that what I highlight will be a point of departure for listeners to engage with the track at a much deeper level. The Season of La Llorona can be found in Tahnzz’s Bandcamp page: https://tahnzz.bandcamp.com/track/the-season-of-la-llorona.
Section 1: The Working Women of Barelas
The track opens with the voices of two Hispanic women interacting with each other:
• Ceci, hasta mañana . . . ¡Ceci! (Ceci, see you tomorrow . . . Ceci!)
• Sí, hasta mañana Lupita. (Yes, until tomorrow, Lupita)
• Nos vemos mañana. (We’ll see each other tomorrow)
• Mañana la miro. (I’ll see you tomorrow)
• Ándele pues. (Ok)
• Sí, hasta mañana. (Yes, until tomorrow)
This is the end of the women’s workday at the taco truck/restaurant “El Taco de México,” located in Barelas (4th Street & Cromwell Avenue), and they are getting ready to go home (see figure 3). Sounds of cars passing through the street permeate the first few minutes of the track; a bare reproduction of the sounds that Tahnzz’s microphone picked up at some point when she did her field recording. Other voices, in the distance, are heard too. Voices from neighbors, or taco truck customers, perhaps. At minute 2:26 a woman cries, “¡Niña!” Could it be a mother calling her daughter home? Or, is it perhaps a mother warning her child about the dangers of the night? Is it La Llorona calling out for one of
We hear more cars and a plane flying over the neighborhood—going or coming from Albuquerque International Sunport, located just a couple of miles away. Men’s laughter. A gate being opened (or closed?). Women’s voices at the distance. At 4:55 the clicking on and off of a car alarm—one, two, three, four times. In a city at the top of the list of most stolen cars in the nation, making sure that the alarm is set various times doesn’t fully provide a sense of security. But women still work, late at night, providing for their families. At 6:05 someone is heard pulling a garbage bin through the street. Perhaps it’s Ceci. Perhaps Ceci is the owner; the last to leave; the one who locks and takes care of the trash of the day. A car is parked. Interference.
The lack of manipulation of the original field recording allows the listener to get a sense of the place. As someone who frequents taco trucks in the city, the sounds captured in this long introduction are quite common. It is women who usually work the taco trucks until long hours of the night. Tahnzz sets the stage for the protagonists to be heard loud and clear: the working Hispanic women of Barelas.
Section 2: Meandering
Starting around minute 7:00, a layer of distortion is superimposed on the pristine field recording. While we still hear the cars passing on the street, this new layer of interference resembles the search for a radio frequency. External pitched sounds, high and low, now form part of the texture. The ground field recording layer gradually disappears while the interference becomes louder and louder. Coming from afar, at around 11:00, one hears a canción ranchera playing in the radio, sung by a man. We don’t know what he is singing about, or to whom. His voice soon disappears. A musical motive played by an accordion reminds the listener of conjunto, one of the beloved musical genres of the Southwest. This section introduces the world of La Llorona. After all, while she meanders in the streets where the humans live, she’s not human. And when she is heard by humans, she is usually perceived as an interference. Calmness becomes slippery, for her wailing is meant to disturb any sense of peace.
Section 3: Manic Longing
This section, which starts around 11:25, is clearly marked by a regular low beat that, while starting at the end of the previous section, gradually becomes louder and dominates the texture. A layer of interference accompanies it, leaving the songs of the radio and the street sounds behind. The regularity of the beat, and its pervasiveness, infuses me with anxiety. When I inquired Tahnzz about this incessant pounding, she replied, “It is an impendingness. The impendingness of something you can’t see. Like when you experience supernatural things [ . . . ] as warnings” (Udero 2020a). I read this regular low beat as representing the manic, painful, incessant longing of La Llorona across the water banks of the Rio Grande (see figure 4). We, mortals, know that she has been around for a long time and, as an immortal creature, her longing, wailing, and yearning has a reason and a purpose: she will not stop until her children are free, at peace, and with her.
Section 4: La Llorona's Children
While listening together one afternoon in November, 2017, Tahnzz turned to me and said: “I don’t know how it happened, but there’s a point in the track [16:43] where you can hear sounds like weird little digital voices. It’s kind of creepy . . .” (Udero 2017). Metaphorically, to her, those are children’s voices. The “little voices” start from afar, but soon after, they take front space in the track’s texture. And yes, they are creepy. When you hear them loud and clear, you realize that the pounding of the regular beat has disappeared. Has La Llorona found her children? Are those voices the children she’s been desperately longing for? By 17:30 the listener has a partial answer: the voices are gone and the impending pounding is . . . back.
Section 5: Change is Coming
But not for long. Starting at 18:36 the distorted layer overpowers the sounds of the pounding and introduces a different kind of beat, higher in pitch and faster. The digital voices of children were, perhaps, an illusion. She has not found her children. In the track, things have moved to a different locale. The sounds of the street are gone. While the listener is teased into believing that the track’s end is approaching with a small fade-out introduced at 19:24, there’s a sudden cut in the track, and we hear the radio frequencies again. The voices of the radio are being heard from afar, and if we listen closely, we might hear reminiscences of the digital voices. A sense of return is felt in the very last seconds of the track, when we’re taken back to the corner of 4th & Cromwell, to the place where it all began. But, is it the same place? Are we the same?
No, we are not. The 20-minute noise narrative of La Llorona has left us changed. We felt the discomfort, the yearning, the despair. We also followed the resilience, and the maniac perseverance, too. We are left undone, perhaps. But also, transformed.
Has there ever been a version of La Llorona told through noise? Now, more than ever, this folk legend permeates U.S. popular culture at large: it is found in paintings, murals, poetry, novels, plays, cartoons, films, songs, opera, TV series, advertisement, and local campaigns. But, La Llorona has been known in the Southwest for centuries. In New Mexico she is heard and seen along the banks of the Rio Grande and her story continues to create familiar bonds between mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and granddaughters. Her message is one of female empowerment, resilience, and love.
The myth of La Llorona to Tahnzz and to many Nuevomexicanos/as is not just a bedtime story or a cautionary tale; it is a system of knowledge, a way to understand the world. While locally placed in the Southwest desert alongside the Rio Grande, Tahnzz’s noise challenges the superficial outsider’s view of New Mexico as “The Land of Enchantment,” pointing out the racial tensions, the class conflicts, and the reality of being a doubly colonized land. Tahnzz is constantly revitalizing her mixed Hispanic and Native American ancestry, and she regards herself a perpetual learner of all cultures. She continues to gather knowledge and practical wisdom in the stories she was told by her mother and her grandmother—her Nana. In that sense, Tahnzz’s work is a noise archive of family history and cultural memory. It is her personal attempt to document the past, present, and future of her people and her land.
Scholars Enrique Lamadrid, Brenda Romero, and Peter García have demonstrated that the musical traditions of Nuevomexicanos/as unveils the ethnic complexities at the core of this land’s double colonization history. Given New Mexico’s complex history with colonizing structures, therefore, this region is a unique space for the investigation of how music and sound practices incorporate (whether intentionally or not) decolonizing strategies. As we have seen, Tahnzz’s noise rendition of La Llorona contributes to the tradition of New Mexican experimental music that acts as a sonic protest against colonization and at the same time offers a path for transformation. Tahnzz herself understands performance as a kind of ritual where she, as La Llorona, becomes a curandera. She extends an invitation to imagine noise as a space where memory and family traditions become acts of resistance that grant healing to the land.
In the middle of a global pandemic, in the midst of a national hunger for justice after accumulated centuries of abuse, violence, and discrimination to brown and black bodies, the wailings of Lloronas are louder than ever. Their cry continues to be embodied in word, in image, in sound, and in silence. They won’t find rest until their children are truly liberated and until justice is done.
I would like to thank Tahnee Udero for her immense generosity with her time and her willingness to share her personal stories and family memories with me. Thanks also to Eddie Garcia for his help proofreading this text. I dedicate this essay to the memory of Rudolfo Anaya. Que descanse en paz.
Anaya, Rudolfo. 1972. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International.
———. 1984. The Legend of La Llorona: A Short Novel. Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International.
———. 1997. Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona. Illustrated by Maria Baca. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.
———. 2011. “The Season of La Llorona.” In Billy the Kid and Other Plays, 1–31. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
———. 2011. La Llorona/The Crying Woman. Translated by Enrique R. Lamadrid. Illustrated by Amy Córdova. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Alonso-Minutti, Ana R. 2018. “Gatas y Vatas: Female Empowerment and Community-
Oriented Experimentalism.” In Experimentalisms in Practice: Music Perspectives from Latin America, edited by Ana R. Alonso-Minutti, Eduardo Herrera, and Alejandro L. Madrid, 131–160. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bareiss, Warren J. 1984. “La Llorona, as She Appears in a Song and in Legends from
Mexico and New Mexico. Interviews of Frank McCulloch and Sally Horner, Conducted by Warren J. Bareiss in 1984.” Unpublished paper for course Fieldwork in Folklore and Oral History, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.
Cummings, Raymond. 2019. Review of Tahnzz’s We Fed Them Cactus & The Citizen Ship. The Wire, May 2019, 64.
———. 2019. Review of Tahnzz’s Merchants of Labor Part 1 & 2. The Wire, November
Guthrie, Thomas H. 2013. Recognizing Heritage: The Politics of Multiculturalism in New Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Lamadrid, Enrique. 2019. “Sueños del Coyote: The Emergence of Genízaros in the Nuevomexicano Literary Imagination.” Latin American Literature Today 1, no. 9.
Sandoval, Anna Marie. 2008. Toward a Latina Feminism of the Americas: Repression and Resistance in Chicana and Mexicana Literature. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Personal Interviews and Other Communication
Udero, Tahnee. 2017. Personal interview with author, Albuquerque, NM. November 1,
———. 2020a. Personal interview with author, via Zoom. May 28, 2020.
———. 2020b. Email message to author. June 3, 2020.
———. 2020c. Email message to author. June 9, 2020.