Beyond colorful figures and fantastical tales, folklore often serves to transmit sage advice or words of caution from generation to generation. But what happens when there is a widespread, organized attempt to snuff out the intergenerational structure that allows for these stories and cultural traditions to thrive? Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente posits that when the national narrative refuses to recognize the atrocities its own country committed against an entire ethnic group, weaponizing popular legends in order to convey horrifying reality is perhaps the most effective rallying cry—alongside the anguished wails of a tortured mother.
The tale of La Llorona is nearly ubiquitous in Latin American culture. She is an apparition said to wander on riverbanks or near bodies of water, eternally sobbing over the children she drowned in a selfish attempt to win a man’s heart. In other, more sinister retellings, she masquerades as a babysitter, perpetually in search of more children to join her own in the afterlife. In Bustamante’s La Llorona, she is less a monstrous mother and more an avatar meant to represent the estimated 200,000 indigenous people murdered or forcibly disappeared during the brutal Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted 36 years from 1960 through 1996. The violence reached its pinnacle under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt, who assumed power in 1982 and committed crimes against humanity and rampant genocide specifically targeting the indigenous population of the country.
La Llorona centers on the family of General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who stands trial for decades-old war crimes perpetrated against indigenous villages in Guatemala. Though found guilty, much like Montt, Monteverde’s conviction is ultimately overturned, causing mass demonstrations that are eventually localized outside of Monteverde’s lavish estate. His wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), throws around the term salvaje to describe protestors with racist chutzpah, while progressive-leaning daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) subtly reckons with the gravity of the charges brought against her father. As Monteverde evades repercussions for his crimes, it becomes clear that the living cannot be tasked with administering justice. Coincidentally, new housekeeper Alma (María Mercedes Coroy, who also played the heroine in Bustamante’s Ixcanul) arrives just as the majority of the estate’s Kaqchikel staff has hit the road.
While Montt never did get his comeuppance on this mortal plane, activism and art in Guatemala has long attempted to tandemly condemn the government for genocide while also imploring the general population to recognize the atrocities committed. Renowned Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo’s 2003 performance ¿Quién puede borrar las huellas? (Who Can Erase the Traces?) entailed the artist carrying a white basin filled with human blood, gingerly lowering it to the ground to dip her feet into and walking from the Congress of Guatemala building to the National Palace in Guatemala City, leaving blood-soaked footprints in her wake. The act commemorates the victims of genocide during the Civil War—while also denouncing Montt’s 2003 presidential election bid. Galindo’s body art incorporates aesthetics of horror—such as carving words into her flesh and undergoing televised hymenoplasty—in order to highlight the very real human bloodshed perpetrated against indigenous peoples, specifically indigenous women, ingrained in Guatemala’s recent past.
Similarly, Bustamante’s La Llorona is less concerned with eliciting genre conventions than it is ensuring that the visceral terror felt by those who were persecuted is given a global platform. There is no need for gratuitous jump-scares or bone-chilling monsters when flesh-and-blood boogeymen walk among us, their sadism justified by the country’s highest order and international courts. In fact, the struggle for indigenous liberation is so ingrained in the film that Rigoberta Menchú, whose advocacy regarding the oppression of her native K’iche’ people in Guatemala (and indigenous struggles globally) earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, was involved in the film’s trajectory and even has a brief cameo. According to Bustamante, Menchú’s appearance in the courtroom scene places her in exactly the same seat she sat in during Montt’s real-life trial—forever cementing La Llorona in the ongoing movement for indigenous liberation.
While the Guatemalan Civil War may have ended decades ago, the dehumanization of indigenous peoples imparted by Montt’s regime has continued to fuel violence. Activists who push for land redistribution and consequences for those who perpetrated genocide have been killed and disappeared alongside indigenous civilians, their murderers never brought to justice. This reflects a larger, worldwide truth: indigenous people (again, women in particular) are murdered disproportionately. Native American women in the U.S. face a murder rate 10 times the national average, while thousands of indigenous Canadian women have been murdered since 1980, yet the country’s lack of data concerning these murders has left the number largely under-reported and quantified.
Bustamante’s La Llorona is a bold assertion of the embedded prejudice against indigenous populations in his home country of Guatemala while also asserting that women and children in particular bore the brunt of the violence. Yet in Menchú’s cameo and in the realistic testimonies of the women who spoke of the injustices of the fictional Monteverde’s rule, it is clear that the film has far-reaching hopes for the amplification of indigenous voices—and for their continual struggle to be recognized. This cannot come from surface-level apologies or even from a formal investigation of the Guatemalan government (which has repeatedly been thwarted over the years), but from meeting the specific demands of indigenous activists. As Menchú asserts: “We say no to the peace that keeps us on our knees, no to the peace that keeps us in chains, no to the false peace that denies the values and contributions of our peoples.” Indigenous filmmakers like Bustamante can reshape the global narrative of violence against indgenous populations, always validating the experiences of the exploited instead of relegating national atrocities to a cultural amnesia.
Director: Jayro Bustamente
Writer: Jayro Bustamante, Lisandro Sanchez
Starring: María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenéfic, Julio Diaz, María Telón, Juan Pablo Olyslager, Ayla-Elea Hurtado
Release Date: August 6, 2020 (Shudder)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.