Context: I was teaching a class of 6th graders through the Joint Education Project (JEP) in a middle school near USC. Almost all of the students in the class are of Latino descent. When I asked the class to tell me any legends that they knew, this was the most commonly known one amongst the students (whose names have been replaced with aliases).
Instructor: Can anyone tell me a legend that they have heard of? Maybe one I would not know (the students knew that I was from Ireland and might not know some of their culture’s legends).
Angel: Oh sir, sir! (raising his hand high)
Instructor: Yes, Angel. (gesturing to him to speak)
Angel: La Llorona is a legend.
Instructor: Who’s that?
Angel: She’s like a evil spirit that roams around at night near lakes n stuff and if you hear her scream or…eh…see her, I think (slowed down expressing unsureness), it means you’re gunna die soon.
Instructor: Where did you learn this legend?
Angel: My mom told me.
Instructor: Has anyone else heard of this legend?
Most of the students nodded or said ‘yeh’ or ‘uhuhh’ in response.
Mr. Salamander (presiding teacher): When I was a kid, my mom told me that story too. It’s to scare kids to keep them from wandering around at night, especially near lakes or rivers ye’know? La Llorona means like uh…weeping lady.
Instructor: Do you know the backstory to the legend?
Mr. Salamander: Yah. Apparently, she drowned her kids after her husband left her for a younger woman and so know she is cursed to wander the Earth as a spirit. So she weeps for her children and looks for other kids to drown or replace her own or something.
Clearly this legend has a didactic purpose to keep children from wandering at night, especially near bodies of water. Legends can be useful in this way because children don’t have as much of an appreciation for how dangerous the world can be like adults do. Children have a tendency to think that they’re somehow indestructible and can put themselves in dangerous situations, like standing on the edge of river banks, without appreciating the threat of the situation. These kinds of stories help to give those dangers a face, and a scary face at that, which children respond to better than mere adult interdictions. An adult saying, ‘stay away from the water, it’s dangerous’ will not be taken to heart by a child as much as them saying, ‘remember, if you go too close to the river, La Llorona might come out weeping and drag you under the water’.