By Estela Caballero
I had a love/hate relationship with La Llorona. It was real, not like Chupacabra. She was the most beautiful woman in the rancho. No one could believe she had drowned her children but it was true so now she haunts the river and lakes, cursed for what she did. Wailing and wandering, searching for something she lost that night. All for a man. My mom said that there was no forgiveness for the act and that she should have taken the maldito instead of those poor innocent kids. The Llorona wore a wedding dress as she floated around just a few inches above the ground. I knew at least five people who said they saw her. One was this cry baby boy I hated that rode the bus with us. He was a liar so he was probably lying about that too. There were no liars in my family. The real people that saw her, the ones I knew, they said unsuspecting drivers who pulled over to offer the damsel in distress a ride couldn’t see her feet. Her dirty dress had lost all the sparkles and pearly beads. The crinolina dirty grey from the eternity of wandering– it was the perfect cover for her floating. The once pure white starchy mesh covered her bare feet. By the time they realized it was her, it was too late for most.
One of my uncles said he barely escaped her. My other tio laughed and said, “You need to move faster hermano, she gets stronger every weekend. Look, she grabbed you by the neck again. You’re lucky you made it out alive.”
“Tio, why didn’t you stop at the store and call the police? Look at that big bruise she left you. I got hit on my knee one time at school and my abuelita put salt, vaporu and a hot towel over it so the bump would go down.” Everyone had stopped laughing except my aunt. She was standing with her back towards the table where we sat, all I could see were her shoulders shaking and head slightly bobbing forward. “No, mija,” she said, “I’m not crying. I’m laughing so loud it only sounds like crying. I’m just imagining the Llorona doing push ups everyday so she is strong enough to fight with men so they will stop escaping. I’m just worried for your tio.”
He was driving home from the bar when he caught a glimpse of white in the rear view mirror. It was a winding road that seemed to sink deeper into the rich mud of the mountain with each rainfall. My aunt still let him have it after she found lipstick on his collar. “Que Llorona que nada,” she said as she served him coffee in the morning. She packed his lunch but refused his goodbye kiss. He laughed and gave her a playful spank as he walked by her. “Mija, tell your tia she shouldn’t be mad because she had the good fortune of marrying such a gentleman,” he said. I had spent the night. They had a color tv and got more than three channels. Plus, they didn’t have kids yet so my aunt still had enough patience to not make me feel like I was bothering her. I asked my tio why she wore the wedding dress. “That’s what she was wearing when they found her. She went crazy after her husband left her. She wore it for a whole year before the night she became the Llorona.” My aunt told him to stop lying. I heard her tell him to see if that you know what was going to make his lunch from now on– if not, she said she should at least do his laundry, starting with his stained shirt. A few coins and bits of paper dropped out of the shirt pockets before it hit the door, just missing my uncle. She would forgive him by the time he came home from work. The paper scrutinized for clues and the shirt washed, ironed and hanging with his other dress clothes ready for the next weekend rescue.
If you were going to make it babysitting six kids, you needed something reliable like fear. I found that I could stretch the effect of the Llorona story twice as long if they heard the grown ups talking about it first. I felt sad about what the Llorona did to her kids but always wondered why they didn’t run or yell for help. I know you are not supposed to hit your mom unless you want your hand to be hit by a lightning bolt and immediately turn to human bacon. You would also go to hell. After we got a VCR I figured if someone ever tried to do that to me or my brothers and sister I could have God rewind the video of my life and see that I should not only be spared from bacon hand but also from hell. I would be a hero.
All the family was crowded in the two small spaces that made up the living room and kitchen of the tiny house we lived in. They talked of finding a faster way to get to California so you didn’t have to go all the way back up through Yakima- it saved at least 2 hours. The map folded away after the men drank beer and finished shaving the bristly hair from the skin of the pig hanging outside from a strong limb of the Animal Tree.
The house was becoming filled with flies from kids going in and out. When my mom told me to take all the kids to the small bedroom my whole family shared, I was ready. I began building on the story now that we were no longer under the watchful eyes and ears of the ladies. The flat bruises on my uncles neck were the first bit of proof the Llorona was real. If the grown ups started telling you about the Llorona it was only for two reasons…they wanted you to scram and play outside or you better be in bed and be quiet when the storyteller got to the part about that time when my uncle was driving back from the cantina and saw the Llorona. A rite of passage in my family happened on that special day a grown up looked at you and said, “Go tell those kids if they don’t go to sleep, the Llorona is going to get you.”
Crying was a regular occurrence. The morning my uncle awoke with the scars of battle from the Llorona, my aunt cried for a few minutes after he left for work. She had never once turned to away from the stove after she heard about how close he came to death. She turned around and smiled before going to the bathroom. She pulled little cold wet tissues from a small packet. She patted gently around her eyes and stretched her free hand towards the mirror. The corner piece was missing and each time the bathroom door opened and shut too quickly, the crack got bigger and bigger. “Be careful tia,” I said. She smiled and asked me to go get her the matches off the table. I stared at the little wet squares, “Can I do that too tia?” She shook her head and said to hurry with the matches. I thought wet squares were for wiping the counter and used the whole pack last time I was there. There was no need to wet a garra and then wash it and hang out to dry– if you skipped then hanging out to dry step, it would smell horrible and I would be called lazy. I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to know all the stories of all the people and all the places. Maybe there were kids like me in other places. Kids that had to be happy and funny so their brothers and sister would feel less afraid. I hated the night and cries from my mom as they would fight over things I wished I could make disappear. The best I could do was keep the babies from waking and comfort the ones crying themselves. I got it in my head that my house had been cursed. Jealousy was poisonous and I was sure this was why this particular curse was so hard to get rid of. Once the curse was broken, I was sure my dad would not drink anymore or get mad. He would love my mom and they would be happy again.
My mom, she would tell me that some people just can’t help it– they had the eye but couldn’t control it. Everyone needed to know about the evil eye and how to cure it if you fell under the spell. It was a mother’s duty to tell her children about these things early. The evil eye wasn’t the only thing mothers needed to prepare their children for. The boys were at risk of being netted by more tactics than I can remember. All traced back to a woman– one of those bad women. Mothers would start the conversation with them as soon as they noticed the boys beginning to gaze longer at the girls they once tormented and chased away. It wasn’t really a conversation– it was a lesson. Any questions would be met with a warning that the information was critical to their survival and a reminder that she would be dead soon and they would be sorry if they didn’t take her words seriously. A mother could be in her 20s and healthy as a horse and still throw out the reminder she could drop dead any minute– it was for effect. It was usually followed by a slap on the head or flying chancla if she picked up even the slightest of salsa picante in your voice. You’d better look sad and make the cross at least one time if she mentioned something unmentionable like an early death. If you could cry without it coming across as anything less than genuine, you should do it.
These things were told so they knew about the dangers that a beautiful woman with bad intent could mean. All the women seemed to know of an instance where one of the wicked women back home had given a man “calzon hervido” or boiled underwear. The man would never know if he had been given the feared potion made when a woman boils a pair of her underwear in water and makes food using that water. The underwear are long gone at the point the man will be sitting down waiting to be served his favorite meal. After all, she has to be sure he is going to eat it if it’s going to take effect. The food most often used with the calzon hervido water is white rice with meat in salsa piled on top, otherwise known as moriscetta. They all say that everyone else can tell when a man has eaten food made with “calzon hervido” except the man himself. At that point, he is bewitched and not even a mother can break that spell.
The girls needed to know they should never make food with “calzon hervido” because those tricks were only for women who were so bad and ugly inside that only God could save them. The women who used these shameful bewitching tactics were not always ugly on the outside. The women would say that the beauty may be the result of an almost unspeakable pact with the devil..almost unspeakable. They could go on for more than an hour picking apart the person and her family commenting on how some never seem to age and questioning how this could be. Sometimes in addition to being beautiful, the group would add that “a veces las que parecen mosquita muerte son las peores”– the one’s that look like a little dead fly are the worst. I think they meant because a dead fly doesn’t seem like it can do any harm, it’s dead right? Wrong. Dead flies can ruin a whole pot of food or a cup of your last soda with in it.
Teach me to cook,” I pleaded. “You love him don’t you?” “Yes, I do.” “Then you know how to cook.” Obviously she didn’t remember hot dog and egg experiment. Maybe she had fed it to the cat under the table. She was kind and would have eaten failed experiments every day. Her beautiful face could convince the worst cook in the world she was a culinary genius. The flavors secondary. To be a good cook you must always do it with love in your heart. The flavors would catch up to the expression she believed cooking for a loved one was. A meal was a message. It needn’t be expensive or complicated. In fact, simple food let the main ingredient shine. Whenever she emerged into the room to announce the food was ready, her children saw her as nothing short of a magical being that could make a small feast from a bare cupboard. The call to dinner was unnecessary. Wafts of vaporized love, the love of mother, had found their way to us long before the call. On those days, the call was lost on me because I never left the kitchen. That’s where all the women were and that’s where the stories where. News of who was a bad husband, a bad wife, and possibly not the biological child of this one or that one. I sat quietly and it was the only time I would help in the kitchen without being told to. I usually made myself scarce because I hated cooking. I’d pick up the babies and keep them quiet so the ladies could keep talking without interruption. My mother’s silence was her approval of me staying. She knew I usually ran the other way when it was time to start cooking on regular days. She knew where I would hide. She just pretended not to. Her silence was her approval of me being a child longer than she was able to.
She had heard the stories from her mother and she told them to her children and that’s how it went with everything. She would caution against eating anything from certain people. Every time she would tell me this I would ask how I would know which people. There was not a clear answer and I didn’t like that. Sometimes things like children become fussy around a certain person or houseplants dying after that person visited your home was a good sign you should be polite and accept the food, just don’t eat it. The person may not be intentionally causing these things to happen but some people just had the “mirada pesada” or a heavy look— the evil eye could exist within them even if unwelcome or uninvited. Then there were the one’s who had the “mirada pesada” or even “sangre pesado”, heavy blood and heavy look but they knew it. They might have even pursued it, invitation and all. I looked around my home. I had always had a way with plants and people often admired them when they came over. A little red thread, almost invisible, was tied to a stem low on the plant. This was how she saved the plants since she couldn’t just come right out and tell the person with the heavy look to not “chulear” my plants. It was ok to tell them to touch the plant– it is believed to be a way to minimize the negative impact of ojo.
The evil eye wasn’t something we read about– it would come up in regular conversation. It wasn’t a question of whether you believed in it or not. It just was. One of the ways we would be cured of ojo was with a raw egg. My mother and most of the older women in our family know how it goes. They say prayers while rubbing a raw egg over different parts of you, they make little crosses on you with the egg. My sister in law also gets a clean white cloth and does something that feels like she is dusting you. My mother in law has her own twists to that involve holy water mixed with lavender that she mists you with. Then they crack the egg and depending on how it looks, they tell you just how bad you were.
When I was very sick with different things brought on by lupus, many of my family thought it was brujeria and ojo. They held conversations to try and figure out how to stop bad spirits from entering the house and I would frequently wake up because I thought the roof was leaking. Family would mist me with holy water as I slept or they would perform cleanings of the house. They knew I went to the doctors and had a cabinet full of medicine prescribed by specialists. That was all good and fine. Hard science and medicine was necessary, almost as necessary as the work they were doing to keep me safe. It wasn’t a question of whether you believed it or not, it just was.