Monday, June 30, 2014


La Malinche, La Llorona, La Virgen: My Mother's Ghost Stories

VirgenMom tells the story with a smirk on her face and an eyebrow raised, as if she's revealing something wicked. “It was late, sometime after midnight. I was on the phone with my boyfriend and all of a sudden I felt a cold draft. I thought I left a window open.” The words coming out of Mom's mouth are suspended in the air, waiting for a reaction. I'm listening, but not really; I have heard her tell this story countless times.

“All I know is that I tried to turn around to see where the cold was coming from, but I couldn't move. I was frozen! I was laying in bed on the phone and I'm paralyzed, I can't move. That's when I see her. She's in the doorway of my room just staring at me, dressed in all white. I try to scream but I'm just paralyzed.”

The first time I hear her recount this night, we are at my grandmother's house. It's after dark and I am very young, maybe seven. The women have gathered in Grandma's living room to tell ghost stories. “But they have to be true stories,” I say. “Something that has actually happened to you.” My mom goes on.

“I'm still trying to scream because I'm scared," she says. "But just muffled air comes out. Finally, I'm able to scream. She disappears when your uncle runs in the room to check on me.”

I ask better questions as an adult. Was she pretty? I'm curious. I've never seen a ghost, let alone La Llorona, the infamous one. I want to know. (“That I don't remember.”) How did you know it was her? (“I just knew.”) Have you ever considered that it wasn't her? That maybe it was some other random ghost? (A simple “no” is all I get.) Were you stoned? (“Teresa, no!”)

Most Latino families have a version of this same ghost story; it is folklore that is deeply embedded into our culture, and when my mom talks about it you would feel as if she were recounting history. I never thought about not taking her word about any of it. This is the power of belief, the staying power of legend that is widely held but wholly unsubstantiated. Latinos are a spiritual people rooted in Catholicism; the religion is so inherent to our history and identity that my Catholic guilt lingers even a decade after disassociating from the church.

My family grew up in the church, but we were not religious people. For starters we were usually late for service; a good Catholic family would have been on time. We also never went to church on Christmas Eve because the adults (and later, as we grew up, the grandchildren) were too drunk from tamale-making to drive, let alone show our sinner faces in front of God.

But when I was 27 years old I walked into St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, desperate to feel something familiar 3,000 miles from home. I sat down in a pew and cried as sunlight from the stained glass windows painted my face.

MalincheThere are three iconically potent female archetypes in Chicano culture: La Malinche, La Llorona (the woman my mother supposedly saw in her bedroom in the 1970s) and La Virgen de Guadalupe. Walk into any Hispanic household and your chances of seeing some representation (or even an entire shrine) of la Virgen de Guadalupe is very high. In Hispanic culture she is the ideal; the revered Catholic icon, the purest form of woman. She is the mother of God and the saint we pray to when our loved ones are on their deathbeds, or after we have just purchased a lottery ticket. In her form we are told that this is the impossible standard to which we should hold ourselves to. There is a silencing of female sexuality in our culture; we are often afraid of being even casually sexual, a fear I believe is perpetuated through the idealization of la Virgen de Guadalupe. Still, she offers comfort to many Hispanics, and it is this line between ancient belief and the experiences we have as women that Chicana feminists must learn to reconcile.

La Malinche, or Dona Marina, the slave and mistress of the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, has become the Hispanic representative of female sexuality. She is iconic in our culture for playing a role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire and later, for giving birth to one of the first Mestizos (a person of European and indigenous American ancestry). Malinche is known for having seduced Cortes and because of her role in the war, people believed she was the embodiment of treachery. To this day in Mexico, the term malinchista refers to a disloyal person. Many Latinas are told from a young age to deny or repress the kind of blatant sexuality we saw in La Malinche. If we don’t, we run the risk of being called a whore, a woman asking for it. There is not one thing more disappointing than this to a Hispanic father.

La Llorona is something else entirely. First introduced to me as a child, I knew her story to be folklore, but many people believe she was a real woman who existed sometime in the 1500s. She was a woman betrayed. When her husband decided he was done with her, he left to be with another woman, and she drowned their two children in a nearby river out of anguish and revenge. The legend is that she roams rivers and lakes in Mexico, California, and the American southwest, searching for her children, wailing from the pit of her soul. She is doomed to live eternity in “the in-between”—not quite on Earth, not quite in the afterlife. Hispanic parents tell their children this story as a cautionary tale so they don’t wander far from home, but I’ve come to believe that one of the reasons La Llorona’s story has survived as long as it has is because it reinforces a sense that women are inherently sinful and must be controlled. It’s an ancient, undying belief.

These three figures represent the roles available to women in Mexican heritage: la madre, la virgen, y la puta; the mother, the virgin, the whore. Many Chicana feminists (such as Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo, just to name two) are invested in exposing and deconstructing this severely limiting ideological structure. The belief is that if we dismantle damaging ideologies which are revealed and perpetuated through stories about “Our Three Mothers,” as they are sometimes referred to, we examine the virgin/whore dichotomy and reconceive the role of women in Hispanic culture.

I, for one, wasn’t exactly raised with feminism as a specific ideology. My grandmother, aunts, and my mother were too busy working, raising families, and taking care of the men (like good Hispanic women do, right?) to consider things like reproductive rights or the consequences of sexual violence. My grandmother certainly did not have the luxury to sit back and think about her status in a male-dominated world and wonder, what did it all mean?. She raised six children, kept up their modest home, dealt with racist neighbors (my family was the only non-white family on their block at the time), and got back-handed by Grandpa if she raised her voice at the dinner table. A thing like feminism was reserved for gringas.

In her essay “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess”, Sandra Cisneros writes:

La Virgen de Guadalupe was an ideal so lofty and unrealistic it was laughable. Did boys have to aspire to be Jesus? I never saw any evidence of it. They were fornicating like rabbits while the Church ignored them and pointed us women toward our destiny—marriage and motherhood. The other alternative was putahood.

La LloronaI keep a 2x4 laminated card with an image of Guadalupe (“The Queen of Mexico”) on my nightstand. She stands, hands posed in prayer, draped in blue cloth with gold stars (“to show that she is from heaven,” my grandmother says) and a red dress. The “luminous light” surrounding Guadalupe symbolizes that God has sanctified her. She is standing upon a crescent moon, and I only know this is a moon because of research—my entire life up until today, five weeks before my 30th birthday, I thought that moon was actually a set of horns.

My grandparents had a very large painting of la Virgen in the hallway of their home, and whenever I walked down that hallway, the same house where my mother saw the apparition as a teenager, I would see the horns and feel creeped out. Religion was a mysterious, almost scary thing to me as a kid; it rarely offered the kind of comfort my family and other members found in our church. And the moon supporting Guadalupe, I now know, represents her “perpetual virginity.” This idea is just one reason I rejected so many stories in the Bible; the immaculate conception was a whole lot of nah to me.

But I knew the impact she had on my grandparents, I knew how wholly and devotedly they respected her, and because of that I could not, I can’t dismiss her entirely.

I am the eldest granddaughter, and that comes with certain responsibilities and duties—to get married, have children, set the example for younger family members. I have mostly dismissed What Is Expected of Me because it simply does not fit me or my lifestyle. I am the wild one of the bunch, the unmarried, childless, almost-30-year-old writer. Up until very, very recently, “Chicana feminist” was a mirror I did not see my reflection in. As a teenager, a classmate used the word “spic” in my presence while talking about another Mexican kid in class. I knew the word was racist and bad, but I said nothing. I am, what some people might refer to as, a “white-passing Latina.” You look at me, you see a weta (white girl). In high school I fit in more with the white girls because I looked like them. I felt more comfortable with them because I didn’t feel accepted by the other Latinas, and it’s only now that I realize that this was probably because they did not feel accepted by me either. I knew Mexicans were looked down upon, even in the Bay Area where I was born and raised, which is home to millions of Hispanics, and I didn’t want the burden of being judged for something I had no say in—my race.

This is the overwhelmingly gross privilege of looking white, or more accurately, of not looking like a minority. I am ashamed of this, that I behaved this way as a snobby teenager while my grandfather, with his heavy Spanish accent and dark brown skin, was not given the luxury of accepting or rejecting his heritage. As I grow up I have become invested in embracing and celebrating what my Grandfather has worked so hard to give us, a sense of identity in a country that was not his own.

Women like Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo have dedicated their work and lives to reinventing and redefining our culture’s limiting ideologies; this has helped me to better understand the women in my own family. Women like my grandmother, my aunts, and my mother, all of whom married and had children very young and still helped a salvaje woman like me understand the complexities of contemporary identities without abandoning a connection to our history; I do not know who I would be without them.


Teresa Finney is a writer currently living in California. Her work has been featured previously on This Recording. She has affection for her nephews, burritos, and filthy hip hop lyrics. You can follow her on Twitter at @teresatothemax.

16 Comments / Post A Comment


This was great, The Hairpin's really good today!

But pleaseee, the typo in the title me está matando. Should be "Malinche" and, as someone said on Facebook, I think it should be "wera" and not "weta".

up cubed

@Mariajoseh - Yea, I think it means "blond(e)" more than white. Like my dad is pretty dark, but he has a lighter patch of hair, so they called him güero (güera). It sounds like wera/weta. My experience is that it isn't considered rude or derogatory, just descriptive. I was called it all the time in school when the teacher didn't remember my name, since I have light brown hair.


@up cubed I'm Mexican and very white, I've been called güerita all my life. I just had never heard o read the term weta with a "t", but maybe it's more a chicano thing.

Teresa Finney@facebook

@Mariajoseh Hey, thanks for noticing! I did indeed use the incorrect spelling of that, which I did not realize until after publication. 'Güera' is correct.


@Mariajoseh thank you for writing this! I found it very interesting because some aspects of your experience are so different from mine, even if I'm Mexican and was raised catholic, but "la madre, la virgen, y la puta"? Oh, yes. Every Mexican woman has to deal with that.


since moving back home i have been considering my own place as the wild child oldest granddaughter who is loved, but ultimately a disappointment against expectations. i don't know what it is to be latina, but i do know a bit about being raised in a restrictive religion that touched seemingly every part of my personhood until i shrugged it off entirely some time ago. and yet, maybe not entirely shrugged off - being surrounded by family, and specifically the men in my family, has me considering the gendered expectations that were ingrained in me. after a month of near constant talking by my dad and brother it was only today that i considered for the first time in my life, "maybe they said i talked too much when i was a kid not because i actually talked too much, or at least not more than them, but that i talked too much for a woman."

i've also been spending time reflecting about the lives my cousins chose, or rather, the life that was to be mine that they didn't fight against and i did. they're not even 30 yet and have 3-5 kids. they home school, and garden and can their crops. they share casserole and party planning tips. they feel so foreign to me and simultaneously so familiar, repeated models of the majority of women i knew growing up. i feel like i need to open myself more to learn the lessons my grandmothers, mother, and aunts have to teach me - but i also think they don't know how to teach those things outside of the framework of maternity.

thanks for writing this - it's going to be swirling through my brain for weeks.


This is a very nice piece of writing. Will look for more from you, Teresa.


oh man. the feels and the thoughts. Maybe growing up in Kansas we didn't have as many tales of La Llorana or Malinche or maybe they had died out by the time we came around. However, as a Chicana coming up on my wedding, the whole, heavy gravity of virginity and waiting and purity and church and the classes and constant familia and what you "have" to do is just there, constantly. My cousin even asked me if I was nervous to have sex for the first time...

I grew up in a dichotomy of these ideas. On the one hand it was always, "make your grandfather his plate. The men eat first. boys with boys girls with girls. Don't hug your uncle face forward that anymore you're too old to do that. side hug." and on the other hand, they constantly talked about sex! Jokes, gestures, my aunts and mom poking fun of each other and their husbands. However, it was always within the context of marriage. Marriage was/is this thing to attain and aspire to so then you too can be a real woman, once you legally and in the eyes of God can have a dick in you. I was never told to be quiet though, I was constantly being told to speak my mind (except to my elders). To be ashamed of nothing (except your body, dress more modestly) Or that I am just as good/smart/equal to if not better than everyone else (except in my own family where I was never better than anyone else). but like Picastina said, it all feels both foreign and familiar. Something you can't fully let go of and I'm constantly trying to reconcile. Hope to read more diverse/feminist essays like this. Loved it.


Beautiful! Thank you. Thank you, thank you. I am untangling my own Catholic background and feminism - I'm sure I will be fore life - and I love hearing other women's stories of feminism and faith.

And a fun fact that I've come across in my explorations: the crescent moon was used as a crown in goddess images in various religions older than Catholicism, and there was no distinction between it being the moon and it being horns - often cow horns. If Mother Mary is depicted with the moon, she's standing on it (same goes for a snake), rather than crowned with it, but it's definitely a holdover from the pagan days. La Virgen de Guadalupe is undoubtedly the most famous instance, but I've seen others a lot now that it's something I look for. It's not much, but it's something I hold onto the handful of times a year I walk into a church anymore. Images from when she was whole and powerful in her own right, instead of tamed and repurposed as a tool of oppression.


Each family has spread like a ghost story.


Very interesting piece. Thanks for that. Just one comment: the Immaculate Conception doesn't refer to Mary's virginity. It means that she was conceived without Original Sin.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@Ev I had the same reaction! In this context, it actually makes sense, though: the idea of Mary's purity being associated with the fact that she was born without sin.

In almost every other non-religious context I've read the term, though... I just shake my head. Teresa is the only person I've seen who's come close to getting it right!


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Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Loved this! I'm Italian, and I see some parallels with Chicano culture, though I really need to learn more about Mexican culture to know more about how exactly I relate to it. The virgin/whore dichotomy is, as with most cultures, right up there, though.


Do you have a collection of such stories??
By the way it sounds interesting and you describe so well. It creates curiosity in our mind to know further and what happens next all the time.

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