K. Shimabukuro, University of New Mexico
Grimm and La Llorona: Liminal Space or Appropriation?
A couple of months ago, I sat in a class of fifty students where the professor asked them if they knew who La Llorona was, and to share what they knew of her. Every single student knew who she was, including me, but if you had asked me that same question a year ago, I would not have been able to answer. My exposure to La Llorona came from the 26 October 2012 episode of Grimm, titled, “La Llorona”.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a revival of interest in the character of La Llorona mainly in an effort to uncover and rediscover Chican@ heritage and culture. Kearney’s work was ethnographic in nature and focused on variations of the tale told in Mexico. His research emphasized La Llorona as a deceiver, seeking revenge, with little emphasis on redemption (201). He reads her story as a creation myth.
Jones’ work with La Llorona in the 1980s was also ethnographic in nature, conducting interviews in Spanish of the Hispanic population in Oregon . She sought to collect variations of the tale (198) but was not interested in the significance of the tale to the culture as a whole, or in how variations of the tale represented different cultural interpretations.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw more of a crossover between the character of La Llorona and Anglo pop culture as well as an emphasis on the meaning of La Llorona, and a reclaiming of the character as a cultural figure. Cisneros’ reimagines La Llorona as a vehicle to examine “mute feminine victims of male violence” in Woman Hollering Creek (Doyle 54), as well as a way to explore the literal and figurative borderlands (Doyle 55). Simerka’s work focuses on the “reinscription of La Llorona” as important “not only for reimagining the role of this female culture within chicano culture, but also for its contribution to the larger project of chicana reconsiderations of the entire pantheon of Indohispanic iconography” (56). Viewing La Llorona through a feminist lens is also present in Elenes work as well as post colonial. Perez’s work returns to an ethnographic approach but with a focus on how the character of La Llorona has been reimagined, revised, and used as a figure of resistance.
The character of La Llorona has crossed the border and therefore it is necessary to examine what the appearance of this character in television shows produced in the United States mean- is it an inclusionary tactic to reach a broader audience? Is it making statements on Chican@ culture? Perez argues that it is important to examine how La Llorona is being used, represented, and what our reactions are to these representations (145). For those familiar The X-Files episode “El Mundo Gira”, you’ll recognize that the issues of representation and appropriation are not new. I argue that Grimm’s episode illustrates the borderland that Chican@ culture occupies in mainstream popular culture. It is allowed to be present, to cross the border, but the authority through which this culture must be presented is still in Anglo hands.
Grimm is a television series that focuses on the adventures of Nick Burkhardt, a homicide detective in Portland, Oregon. Within the series Grimm is a birthright and job title- the line “He’s a Grimm” is often repeated in the show. Within the world of the show, the creatures from the Grimm Brothers’ tales exist, and are called the Wesen. The job of the Grimm is to police these Wesen if they step out of line. Nick reluctantly takes on this job, and each episode focuses on a different adaptation of a Grimm tale, although they have occasionally featured a Perrault tale. Each episode opens with a brief quote that references the tale.
What are we to make of the Season 2 Halloween episode which departed from this formula, not only because it featured a “ghost story” but also because it was a Chican@ tale?
La Llorona literally means the weeping woman. While there are variations in the tale, most share similar traits- a woman betrayed or wronged by a man, perhaps because he cannot accept her two children. She takes her children down to the river and drowns them, only to have the man still reject her. She kills herself, and then wanders, crying for her lost children. She is also used as an abject lesson- “Don’t play near the river/ditch or La Llorona will get you”, “Don’t go out after dark or La Llorona will get you”. Some variations of the tale focus on the maternal aspects of the La Llorona tale, highlighting the children while others focus on the revenge aspect, highlighting acts where she takes revenge on men who have wronged women.
Within this episode of Grimm, La Llorona is not only the “beast of the week”, but visual clues throughout the episode also reinforce her importance- both with the decorations outside Monroe’s house at the beginning, and in the costume of one of the children later.
La Llorona has appeared in mainstream popular culture before. In the pilot episode of Supernatural, she is presented as a version of the Woman in White tale, although those familiar with the La Llorona tale can spot the markers- drowning her children, and the revenge taken against men who have wronged women. She also appears in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2010), although this characterization, both that of a singer in a nightclub and a successful Hollywood actor, is harder to identify if one is not familiar with the tale. Both portrayals show the La Llorona figure as existing in a liminal space- both as a ghost, and as two characters straddling two different worlds (Perez 162). Perez argues that “changes to familiar elements or basic framework of the cuento may simply reflect a lack of familiarity with the subject” (152). However, I argue that the La Llorona portrayal in Grimm is making a statement on how Chican@ folklore and culture has to be interpreted and presented to an Anglo audience.
This episode of Grimm focuses on the abduction of children on Halloween. A detective from Albuquerque, Valentina Espinoza, sees the Amber alert after the first child is taken and flies to Portland, offering to help, stating that she has tracked this case for five years. Espinoza states that the woman always takes three children, and the bodies are always found at certain points of a nearby river. The children are always killed before midnight on Halloween. Nick, and his partner Hank discover she is a Wesen, and also that she was fired from the Albuquerque police department for her “obsession” with this case. They decide after the second and third children are taken that they’re willing to risk using her help. They are able to track La Llorona to a confluence of rivers, and while Nick struggles with La Llorona beneath the river they are able to free the children from her spell, and La Llorona disappears. As it’s after midnight, they wonder if she’s truly gone, and the comment is made that they’ll have to wait until next year.
It is still unusual to see Spanish on a mainstream television show without subtitles. While the issues of Spanish use and translation and its significance on mainstream television is beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth noting that the opening scene of “La Llorona” between the father, Luis, and his son, Raphael, is spoken almost entirely in Spanish with no subtitled translation, and only a couple of brief lines in English from Raphael.
This opens a lens through which to view the episode, as the next scene with the father focuses entirely on translation.
When Nick and his partner Hank arrive at the scene Sergeant Wu mentions that they need a translator, as their current translator Sanchez is on sabbatical in Botswana, and Luis is shown screaming in the background in Spanish. Even with the closed captioning, there is no translation, it just says [speaking Spanish], so the audience has no way to understand his speech, or by extension, the cultural roots of the episode.
Nick calls in his girlfriend, Juliette, to act as a translator. She is consistently referred to throughout the rest of the episode as “translator”. Her purpose in the episode becomes her defining role. The next scene is Juliette in the interrogation room with Luis, getting him to answer Nick and Hank’s questions.
The action of the show next moves to Luis’ house, where the neighbors speak in Spanish, which is again not subtitled. There are specific references to Día de Muertos, and then there is a break in the format they’ve used so far in dealing with Spanish on screen. When a neighbor woman speaks to Juliette, all of the dialogue is subtitled.
This break in format gestures towards the importance of the information exchanged while also emphasizing Juliette’s importance as translator. It also establishes Juliette as an authority in her interpretation, both of the language, and the culture.
When the neighbor woman asks Juliette where she learned Spanish, Juliette answers that her grandmother was from Spain and she grew up there. Juliette as translator occupies a liminal space within the episode, as she serves as a bridge between the Chican@ culture and language of the father, and by extension an interpreter of the folklore of La Llorona. However, this is problematic as it privileges Spain over Mexico by Juliette identifying Spain as where she learned the language. Juliette as translator and authority is also problematic for while she is a bridge between two cultures in the episode, she is also a pale Anglo, with red hair, visually marked as different from the people whose words and culture she is interpreting.
The scene shifts to Luis showing Nick and Hank Raphael’s room, where again he speaks in Spanish, with no subtitles. When Luis walks out and sees the neighbor woman speaking to Juliette, the conversation they exchange is in Spanish, but again, without subtitles. Juliette translates the neighbor woman’s story of La Llorona: that it’s a ghost story about a dead woman who steals children and drowns them. Her interpretation of the story, dismissing it as a ghost story diminishes the importance of the tale in Chican@ culture, as well as diminishing the beliefs of Chican@s in general.
When Nick and Hank leave, the neighbor woman continues with her subtitled conversation with Juliette, stating “we need to talk” and “you must believe what I’m telling you”. This emphasis on speaking, and information shared through speech again emphasizes Juliette’s role as translator and as an authority.
Later, when the neighbor woman speaks again, we have the same pattern repeated: the father speaks in Spanish that is not subtitled, but when Juliette is there as translator, the speech is subtitled, reinforcing her authority. In this second scene with the neighbor woman, she tells Juliette she must decide between two choices. While this dialogue is meant to be a reference to Juliette choosing between two men within the plot of the show, it can also be read as a reference to a choice between the two worlds/cultures that Juliette occupies as translator. The implication is that one must choose one world or another, that there cannot be a coexistence.
When La Llorona appears on screen she does not speak through most of the episode, instead humming a wordless lullaby (although some internet sources identify it as a specific Mexican lullaby the lyrics are indistinguishable within the episode). When Nick and Hank are researching La Llorona in old Grimm diaries, they believe she’s a ghost, another oddity in the series as their dialogue reveals: “I thought we didn’t believe in ghosts”, “We didn’t”. While Grimm deals with supernatural creatures, they are always presented as grounded in the reality of the show.
Their research references 1519, Cortez, and Vera Cruz, that there are many stories about her and references that her stories have been translated into many languages. This agrees with some variations of the tale, which connect La Llorona to Malinche, the woman who betrayed her people to Cortez and was herself a translator.
At the end of the episode, La Llorona takes the three abducted children to the edge of the river, and calls out “forgive me” to her ghostly children that appear floating above the river. Her Spanish is subtitled. If we follow the internal logic of the episode, La Llorona’s dialogue being subtitled indicates not only the importance of her words, but also illustrates a shift in the authority of the show from Juliette as translator to La Llorona. While there are problems with Juliette’s portrayal as translator, and the implication that Chican@s must choose between two worlds, this last scene illustrates that in the end, it is the Chican@ figure who holds authority, who can make the choice. However, given the show’s association of La Llorona with Malinche, her dialogue of “forgive me” can also be read as an appeal to Chican@ descendents to forgive her betrayal. La Llorona’s dialogue goes on to say that she has brought three children to take the place of her own children.
At the end, she is not defeated, or destroyed, but simply fades away. Despite being presented as an authority, the ending suggests that if Chican@s choose to cling to their beliefs, or if forgiveness is not granted, then their fate is to see their culture fade away.
The changes to the La Llorona story within the episode indicate that the character must change in order to be accepted in the Anglo world- she must be associated with Halloween, and not Día de Muertos. She also needs to be associated with known folklore markers such as a ghost, or an angel as the abducted children call her, as she is not likely to be recognized by Anglo audiences for her own story. This indicates that this episode, as with the Supernatural pilot reinforces what Perez calls “Anglo mythologies about domination” as well as highlighting issues about “Indigenous identity, colonial history, the oppression of women, and cultural appropriation” (157).
This episode of Grimm gestures toward Chican@ folklore and culture making inroads into Anglo, mainstream media. It has literally been given a voice, seen here in the character of Juliette acting as translator/interpreter. The issues with privileging Anglos over Chican@s is problematic, as well as the troubling issues raised over whether or not Chican@ culture must make a cultural choice in order to survive.
Their 29 November episode “El Cucuy” reinforces that Grimm at least is making a move in this direction. Once again, the episode features a Chican@ folktale, the opening tag about the tale is featured in both Spanish and English.Again Juliette is named as translator/interpreter of the tale/culture. The neighbor woman from the “La Llorona” episode also makes an appearance, this time named (Pilar) and speaks in Spanish and English, gesturing towards the fluidity of the border the show is inhabiting. The episode again uses a large amount of Spanish, although there is still the unique use of subtitled, and non-subtitled Spanish, as well as the generic use in closed-captioning of [speaking Spanish]. These two episodes indicate that Chican@ culture and folklore is crossing the border into mainstream television. One can only hope that it also indicates a move towards recognizing Chican@ culture and folklore as authority.
Aldama, Arturo J., Naomi H. Quinonez, eds. Decolonial Voices: Chicana and Chicano Cultural Studies in the 21st Century. Indiana University Press, 2002. Print.
de Aragon, Ray John. The Legend of La Llorona. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press, 2006. Print
Doyle, Jacqueline. “Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros’s “Woman Hollering Creek”’. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16:1 (1996): 53-70. Print.
Elenes, Alejandra C. Transforming Borders: CHicana/o Popular Culture and Pedagogy. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011. Print.
Jones, Pamela. “‘There Was a Woman’: La Llorona in Oregon”. Western Folklore 47:3 (July 1988): 195-211. Print.
Kearney, Michael. “La Llorona as a Social Symbol”. Western Folklore 28:3 (July 1969): 199-206. Print.
Kirtley, Bacil F. "’La Llorona’ and Related Themes”. Western Folklore 19:3 (July 1960): 155-168. Print.
Perez, Domino Renee. There Was a Woman. University of Texas Press, 2008. Print.
Simerka, Barbara. “Women Hollering: Contemporary Chicana Reinscriptions of La Llorona Mythography. Confluencia 16:1 (Fall 2000): 49-58. Print.
Walraven, Ed. “Evidence for a Developing Variant of "La Llorona"”. Western Folklore 50:2 (April 1991): 208-217. Print.