Suffering Women and the Supernatural: The Peculiar Sight of ‘La Llorona’ in 1970s Los Angeles
By Katlin Marisol Sweeney
Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona takes “The Weeping Woman” of Mexican folklore to the big screen to explore how two single-parent households in 1970s Los Angeles—one with a white mother of mixed-race Mexican children and the other with a Mexican mother of presumably non-mixed Mexican children—grapple with being “in-between” the cultures of Catholicism, curanderismo, and the dominant U.S. society. The protagonist of the film is Child Protective Services social worker Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini)—a white woman whose racially ambiguous first name and Latinx last name from marriage may cause her to be assumed by some audiences as a white-passing Mexican woman.
The film follows her as she adapts to her life as a single mother raising her son, Chris, (Roman Christou) and daughter, Sam, (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) in the midst of their grief over the recent death of her police officer husband, David (DeLaRosa Rivera), whose death occurs before the film. After grappling with the ongoing question as to whether or not La Llorona is real, Anna is eventually joined by curandero Rafael (Raymond Cruz) to fight against La Llorona when she wreaks havoc upon the Garcias’ suburban home.
The figure and story of La Llorona is introduced through Anna’s association with Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), a Mexican-American woman whose sons’ absence at school prompts a CPS visit to her home, with Anna asserting that she be the social worker assigned to the visit given her long-term involvement with the family’s case. Anna and an accompanying police officer discover that Patricia has been hiding the boys in a padlocked closet in their apartment to protect them from “La Llorona.” The boys are promptly removed from the home and placed in a room of St. Victoria’s Catholic Charities “for their own protection” while Patricia is arrested. When the boys turn up drowned in the river in the middle of the night, the central conflict of the film is revealed to be Anna’s process of figuring out whether Patricia is insane and murdered her own children, or if her fears are valid and La Llorona indeed stole them.
Audience members who are familiar with the story of La Llorona and with the horror genre’s engagement with the “supernatural” will go into The Curse of La Llorona with the foresight that the titular character will haunt Anna and her children until they believe in her existence. While the film begins in Mexico in 1673 with the famous scene of La Llorona drowning her children, the majority of the film is based in Los Angeles in 1973. When taking the setting and time period into consideration, it seems that Chaves’ film uses La Llorona as an opportunity to fuse horror film conventions with famous Mexican folklore to produce an odd combination: jump-scares in flickering hallways and explorations of how Latinx and mixed-race Latinx families worked to be accepted as legitimate citizen-subjects in the 1970s.
Throughout the film, both Anna and Patricia navigate the pressures of what to put their faith in: the heteronormative, patriarchal U.S. society that privileges the white citizen-subject yet “promises” future prosperity for non-white citizens who can successfully assimilate; Catholicism as the dominant, accepted faith amongst Mexicans and Mexican-Americans despite the religion’s ties to colonization; curanderos as healers and curanderismo as spiritual work practiced among a variety of Indigenous Mexican and Latinx populations that are often rejected by the dominant society as illegitimate or false. Though both women are raising Mexican children in Los Angeles in the 1970s, the circumstances that inform their abilities to protect their children from literal and figurative harm vary greatly.
The film takes place in 1973 rather than the present day, which is relevant to how Anna Garcia’s massive suburban home can be read compared to Patricia Alvarez’s small and dark city apartment. As soon as Anna is introduced to viewers as the protagonist, she is also established as an ideal resident of the suburban neighborhood: a mother who rushes to get her kids ready for school while she puts on nice clothes in preparation for her day at her respectable government job. She fights for justice at the office and returns home every night in time to give her youngest child a bath. Both Anna and David Garcia (until his death) are employed by government agencies that exist to “protect and serve” people in vulnerable positions, with these jobs and the consistent praise from their coworkers suggesting them to be morally upright, model citizens that should be trusted because they are on the “right” side of the law.
Anna’s orderly, large suburban home signifies her and David as having “made it” as respected citizen-subjects, whereas Patricia’s cramped, chaotic city apartment represents her as having failed to successfully provide for her children and assimilate to U.S. culture. The appearance of Anna and Patricia’s homes visualize their mental states at different points in their battles with La Llorona, as Anna’s home becomes increasingly unstable and disorganized when the attacks begin to occur.
Unlike Patricia, who faces a racialized pressure to “prove” her innocence when her sons show physical signs of violence and are eventually murdered, Anna is let off easy by her fellow case workers when her children also show the same signs. Rather than being removed from the home, Chris and Sam are left in the care of their white mother, with Anna being warned to simply “take care of” whatever may be going wrong in the home. This disparity exposes how Anna’s status as a white mother and educated social worker are not subjected to the same racialization that Patricia faces as a Mexican mother without economic or social privilege.
Consistent throughout the film is how Patricia Alvarez is portrayed as a negligent parent on the “wrong” side of the law. Her thin, sleep-deprived children are crammed into a small, boarded-up, messy apartment that is lit only by the many votives that line every open surface. The poorly kept apartment and vast number of spiritual accoutrements that she keeps, coupled with behavior that is at odds with the law (Anna remarks that she has spent multiple years checking on the Alvarez family) present her as an unsurprising candidate for government intervention and eventual arrest.
Unlike Anna, Patricia wears modest sweaters, takes little interest in her appearance, and often appears frantic and resistant in front of government agents. Later in the film, Patricia prays to La Llorona to descend upon Anna’s house to steal her children and forces her way into the Garcia home. Both of these actions contribute to the film’s ability to maintain the feasible possibility for the case workers that Patricia is indeed insane and may have murdered her children, rather than them being taken by La Llorona. The film suggests through the ongoing tension between Patricia and Anna that the U.S.’s tendency to separate Latinx children from their parents on the racialized “likelihood” of poor parenting is an ineffective preventative technique that in fact guarantees that the children will be made more vulnerable to danger.
The 1970s Los Angeles that serves as the backdrop for The Curse of La Llorona emerged as a key metropolitan area in this period after being bolstered by the success of different industries throughout previous decades in the twentieth century. The 1970s were a period of significant changes to immigration policy, the economy, and the housing market throughout the United States. The decade saw a large wave of Asian and Latinx immigration to the U.S. in the years following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which did away with the previous restrictions enforced by the “national quota system” for immigration. The 1970s also marks a period when millions of Americans—many of whom were middle-class and affluent white people—qualified for bank loans that allowed them to move out of their city apartments and into houses in thriving suburban neighborhoods.
The city of Los Angeles experienced significant economic growth in the 1970s that brought more people to the city—both immigrants looking for a new life and affluent Americans looking to live in an exciting city—with more jobs becoming available as more major industries moved to Los Angeles and set up their operations in the city and the surrounding counties. Many immigrants arriving to Los Angeles in the 1970s took up positions in industries such as garment manufacturing, custodial service, and restaurants, often times working in positions that ultimately served the hobbies and needs of the affluent in the city. In later decades, these groups would begin to feel the negative effects of the growing wage gap and the environmental hazards of working in some of these industries as L.A. became more polluted and as mounting tensions between racial groups became more distinct.
When The Curse of La Llorona shifts away from extensive scenes of creepy sounds, moving furniture, La Llorona’s screams, the film occasionally engages with the impacts of these sociopolitical changes on Latinx families in the 1970s. Chaves’ decision to update La Llorona to a variant of “the modern day” can also be understood as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience. The Curse of La Llorona represents one of the U.S.’s biggest and most famously “Latinx” cities during a decade that will not only be recognizable to older audience members who were alive during this period, but will also appeal to younger audiences, who increasingly declare a peculiar nostalgia for the decades of the late twentieth century, despite having never directly experienced them.
Indeed, the success of original series released in recent years that target younger viewers such as Stranger Things (2016-present), Riverdale (2017-present), and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-present)—which are all set in recently “repopularized” decades of the late twentieth century and use period-specific clothing and “retro”-style lighting as part of the show’s storytelling—reflect the potential profit to be made for studios that can effectively collapse the temporal distance between past and present so that younger audiences, too, can claim to feel a sense of longing or loss for decades such as the 60s, 70s, and 80s. The casting of Linda Cardellini as Anna, though indeed strange given that she is not Latina, acts as an appeal to the nostalgia of both older and younger audiences engaged with popular culture of the late 90s and early 2000s, given her recognizability in the roles of Lindsay Weir in Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), Chutney in Legally Blonde (2001), and Velma in Scooby-Doo (2002) and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (2004).
Other aspects of the film that work well include how it is filmed and the lack of excessive translation. The camerawork is successful in visualizing feelings of bated breath, as the film is primarily shot in handheld-camera-style shots that are reminiscent of other horror films like The Blair Witch Project (1999). Another highlight of The Curse of La Llorona is that it is a bilingual film that does not conform to the pressures of offering translations for monolingual audience members; characters who speak in Spanish rarely offer a verbal translation of what they have said and the film only offers one translated subtitle on-screen at the beginning of the film. Both of these details help the film to be somewhat successful as a horror movie/Mexican folklore mash-up.
However, some aspects of the film do fall flat, such as the exploration of the different spiritual beliefs of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Indigenous people of Latin America. Catholicism is not interrogated like curanderismo is throughout the film to determine if it qualifies as a legitimate spiritual practice. In particular, the characterization of the curandero Rafael by the Catholic priest, Father Perez (Tony Amendola), as a former Catholic priest who “abandoned the calling years ago” and is now a “shaman working on the fringes of religion and science” suggests curanderismo to be an archaic, demonic practice that is in opposition with the sanctity of the Catholic Church and lacking in credibility. Arguably, curanderos and curanderismo do not appear in the film for the purpose of advocating for the respect of these practitioners and this spiritual work, but instead as a way of further delegitimizing their belief system to the masses as being fictitiously “supernatural” and instead bearing a close proximity to evil.
Overall, The Curse of La Llorona is a strange grab bag of incongruous representations of Mexican culture. The film offers moments of sensationalized, escapist entertainment, in addition to limited “take-aways” about real Latinx people and cultures. The film’s translation of La Llorona into a believable horror movie “monster” ultimately falls short, a problem further exacerbated by poor visual effects and mediocre “disturbing” disruptions to the Garcia house that make it difficult to buy into these moments of the film as anything other than an interpretation of The Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland.