Jayro Bustamante’s ‘La llorona:’ Combating Genocide Denial through Horror Narrative*

Bevan Fogdall

Jayro Bustamante’s 2019 film, La llorona, addresses the Guatemalan genocide through the unique lens of the horror genre. Generally, the horror genre consists of works that represent human fears through monsters, or beings that are perceived as threatening. Horror films are typically driven by a desire to eradicate the monster (Carroll 35), so the horror genre appeals to its audience by depicting fear as conquerable through the defeat of the monster (Gelder 3). Horror analysis often focuses on European and North American cinema, overlooking the prevalence of horror cinema and ghost stories in other regions, especially those that have been colonized (Gelder 350). Communities traumatized by colonization become haunting grounds for the ghosts of the past, so “the ghost story may very well become an appropriate medium through which to chart contemporary anxieties—and reactivate old traumas” (Gelder 350). Horror is suited to challenge the status quo by contradicting popular perceptions of certain historical events. Since the colonization of Guatemala has resulted in continuous violence against Indigenous people, the ghost story is an appropriate way to bring this history into the present, where it can be dealt with anew.

Through its focus on the traditional horror legend of the ghost of La llorona, Bustamante’s film initially seems to adhere to the convention of using monsters to represent human fears. However, the film uses traditional horror moments sparingly and is practically devoid of jump-scares and gore. Instead, the film creates a different type of horror, as it provokes actual Guatemalan fears surrounding genocide acknowledgement. In this article, I will focus on sound as a vehicle to create horror and as a device to direct the audience’s attention and expectations without visual cues. In films like La llorona, which lack conventional horror visuals, sound can be an essential way to generate suspense and evoke terror. For example, the soundtracks of horror films often add unexpected auditory stimuli to familiar settings, conveying that not even these everyday spaces are safe (Lee 110). As film critic Linnie Blake writes, sound in horror cinema can be a political force, as it provides “a visceral and frequently non-linguistic lexicon (…) in which the dominant will to repudiate post-traumatic self-examination through culturally sanctioned silence may be audibly challenged” (189, emphasis mine). In this article, I will argue that La llorona repeatedly includes audio representations of Indigenous protesters and the ghost of La llorona, empowering these forces and creating an unexpected emphasis on the real horror that plagues Guatemalan society: its erased history of genocide.

La llorona addresses the Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s[1] from a modern standpoint, drawing attention to the legacy of denial that follows it[2]. The film fictionalizes the story of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide against the Mayan people in 2013 before his sentence was overturned on a technicality (Kistler 251; Clouser 4). In the film, Montt’s fictional counterpart, General Enrique Monteverde, undergoes a similar trial. Following Monteverde’s acquittal, Indigenous protesters gather outside his home and the spirit of La llorona comes to haunt him. La llorona is a popular figure in Latin American legend, typically depicted as the ghost of a woman wearing a white dress and haunting areas near water, crying for her dead children (Perez, There Was x). There are many variations of the legend, but most of them tell the story of a woman who becomes angry with her husband, causing her to drown herself and her own children (Carbonell 54). The La llorona legend has Indigenous origins, and La llorona is often depicted as an Indigenous woman, making her an appropriate channel through which to convey the struggles of Indigenous people (Leal 134). Bustamante’s film creates a unique version of the legend in which La llorona seeks revenge for the murder of her children, who were drowned in the genocide. General Monteverde hears La llorona’s crying early in the film, foreshadowing her arrival to the home in the form of the character Alma, an Indigenous woman who comes to work for the Monteverde family as a housekeeper. Monteverde lives with his wife, Carmen, his daughter, Natalia, and his granddaughter, Sara. Throughout the film, these women struggle to come to terms with the past actions of the Monteverde family patriarch.

As Bustamante’s film develops, the sound of Indigenous voices becomes a prominent motif. Notably, depictions of Indigenous peoples in film have often denied these groups the right to speak for themselves (Ulcué 31). In an analysis of Bustamante’s previous film Ixcanul, film producer and professor Amanda Alfaro Córdoba questions “whether the subaltern has a voice and, in particular, the catch-22 situation whereby if the subaltern achieves a voice, he/she at that point ceases to be a subaltern” (94). Regardless of the implications of this catch-22, centering Indigenous voices may allow Indigenous people to transcend their marginalized status in Guatemalan society. In La Llorona, Indigenous voices are represented in a protest that begins about thirty minutes into the running time and is audible almost constantly for the rest of the film. Even when the Monteverde family is playing games, sleeping, and grooming, the protest invades these domestic moments with chants demanding justice and calling Monteverde a genocidal murderer. The bodies and voices of the protesters surround the periphery of the home and creep into the space, trapping the family inside the house with constant noises of dissent and reminders of the genocide. Similarly, audiences of La llorona cannot escape the persistent sounds of protest. Bustamante reports that “[t]he genocide in Guatemala is a topic my people don’t want to touch. They run away from and just don’t want to talk about it” (Aguilar). This is the source of the film’s terror: La llorona refuses to give in to this desire to ignore the genocide. At every moment, the protest reminds the audience of the genocide, creating a fear less jarring than that of a ghost but nonetheless disturbing for Guatemalan audiences that feel unprepared to face the country’s history.

The film also includes representations of Indigenous voices through the character La llorona, who walks through the house sobbing at night. As La llorona scholar Domino Renee Perez writes, the legend of a woman weeping due to injustice is suited to communicating political issues, because“[h]er eternal wandering and wailing teaches us the consequences of racial, gender, and class prejudices in a colonial world” (“The Politics” 156). La Llorona’s tears serve as a physical and audible materialization of her strife, allowing her to communicate the consequences of the genocide despite her marginalized identity as an Indigenous woman. In her article “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlique in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros,” Ana María Carbonell analyzes the significance of crying and yelling in feminist re-tellings of the La llorona legend. She writes that women who transition from weeping to yelling “reclaim their voice by transforming themselves from Llorona figures [Weeping Women] who wail at their loss into Gritonas [Yelling Women] who holler at their oppressors” (58). These women gain the courage not only to mourn but to vociferously cry out against forces that have caused their pain. Thus, the transition from crying to yelling that occurs in some La llorona stories marks the significant development of feminine political agency.

On the left, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) with Valeriana (María Telón).

However, instead of encouraging female agency, many traditional versions of the La Llorona legend encourage the oppression of women. La Llorona has been connected to other Latin American legends, including La Malinche, who is perceived negatively because she exercises agency through her sexual promiscuity[3] (Carbonell 55).La Llorona experiences similar denigration, as in some versions of the legend, she seduces men in order to lure them into the water and drown them (Perez, There Was ix). When La Llorona and La Malinche are compared with figures like La Virgen de Guadalupe, viewed positively due to her virginity, it becomes clear that these myths establish a dualistic standard for women, forcing them to choose either sainthood or demonhood. Carbonell describes this system as the “virgin-versus-whore paradigm, a dualistic structure that attempts to police female behavior by extolling the Virgin’s passivity and selflessness while denigrating women who take action, such as La Malinche and La Llorona” (56). Traditional forms of the La Llorona legend often uphold systems that oppress women, encouraging them to be silent about their trauma instead of speaking out. Bustamante’s film partially participates in the virgin-versus-whore paradigm through La Llorona’s seduction of General Monteverde, who watches her naked in the bathtub. This scene allows La Llorona to attain power through seduction but simultaneously objectifies her through the fetishistic gaze of Monteverde, stripping her of her agency.

While La llorona includes aspects of the virgin-versus-whore paradigm, the film generally rejects this negative perception of female agency. La llorona legends almost always represent her as a selfish woman and bad mother who murders her own children (Carbonell 54), but Bustamante’s film reinscribes La llorona as a protector and good mother. In the film, La llorona actually attempts to save the life of Sara, Monteverde’s granddaughter, a clear departure from La llorona’s usual role as a child murderer. In multiple scenes, Alma, or La llorona, teaches Sara to hold her breath in the family’s bathtub and swimming pool. Alma counts for Sara in the Indigenous Mayan language of Kaqchikel, a threatening sound in a home that has actively worked to silence Indigenous voices through genocide denial. However, Alma’s counting proves to be protective, not harmful, as learning to hold her breath prepares Sara for the climax of the film when she mysteriously begins to choke and cannot breathe. Afterwards, Sara tells her mother, “She [Alma] told me not to drown,” suggesting that Alma taught Sara to hold her breath in order to protect her. Notably, although water is a destructive force in most La llorona legends, water acts as a constructive force and allows Alma and Sara to develop a positive relationship. Thus, the film subverts typical conceptions of La llorona as a bad mother, turning her into a good mother who fell victim to a relentless campaign of military violence. The close, supportive relationship between Alma and Sara demonstrates the plausibility of not only coexistence but cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Guatemala. The two women are able to establish a relationship despite racial boundaries, evoking the hopeful consideration that new generations of Guatemalans may be able to overcome racial tensions within the nation.

Additionally, the changing attitudes of Natalia and Carmen as a result of the protest demonstrate the possibility of older generations of Guatemalans becoming more racially progressive. The protest escalates dramatically when the protesters throw objects through several windows, making the physical danger posed by the protesters clear. In a book on the haunted house in film, Barry Curtis writes that “walls are boundaries that help to constitute an inside and an identity (…). [T]he penetration of sound into an environment is a violation of this carefully constituted architectural ‘self’” (188). As La llorona and the protesters invade the home both physically and through sound, the Monteverde family members begin to question the beliefs they have used to justify genocide denial. The persistent accusations of the protesters force Natalia, Monteverde’s daughter, and Carmen, his wife, to consider their possible validity. The potential for physical harm resurfaces when the ghostly forms of protesters suddenly appear in the backyard during the film’s climax. This supernatural transposition of the protesters evokes a sense of inevitability: the family can no longer avoid the demands for justice. This effect is further intensified by the sound of Alma crying out for her children throughout the scene. The family gathers with their Indigenous housekeeper, Valeriana, to ward off the spirits. They light candles and join hands as Valeriana begs the spirits not to harm them in the Maya Kaqchikel language. The spirits disappear minutes later when Carmen is possessed by a dream that she is strangling Monteverde and simultaneously strangles him to death in reality. This moment finalizes the deconstruction of the family’s “architectural self”, as the invasion of La llorona and the protesters into the home exhausts the family’s ability to deny the genocide. Notably, Alma is not physically present in this sequence. Although her presence is important in the film, the real terror the family must confront is not the haunting of La llorona but the presence of a perpetrator of genocide in their household. The fact that the film’s resolution occurs not through the defeat of La llorona, but the death of Monteverde, suggests that he was the monster all along.

Following the defeat of General Monteverde, the final sequence of the film illustrates that the ghosts of the past will continue to haunt members of the Guatemalan government. The final scene shows a Guatemalan general entering a public restroom at the funeral of General Monteverde with distant sounds of a woman crying in the background. Suddenly, the restroom begins to flood with water from the toilets, an image that evokes the idea of drowning and suggests that La llorona plans to target the unnamed general next. The film ends with the sound of La llorona crying out for her children in Kaqchikel as the screen goes black. As Carbonell notes, this transition from Llorona to Gritona allows women to find agency in the midst of their grief (58). Alma finally uses her voice, crying out against the atrocities of the genocide and the ignorance of modern Guatemalan society. This scene weaves together history, legend, and voice, reviving La llorona in order to comment on the past and simultaneously allowing her to find agency in the present. Though Monteverde has been defeated, La Llorona (or now, La Gritona) remains angry and determined to seek her revenge, and the cycle of the haunting begins again. The subversion of the horror genre maximizes La llorona’s focus on the genocide and reveals parallels between innovation in genre and challenging audience perspectives. Instead of allowing the audience to fear supernatural figures, the film uses constant auditory reminders of the genocide to evoke fear based on real events. By depicting the permeation of sounds into the Monteverde family’s house, the film disrupts the previously comforting space of the home, turning it into a battleground for genocide acknowledgement and Indigenous rights. The invasion of the home through sounds and physical bodies initiates a deconstruction of the family’s “self,” challenging its reliance on genocide denial. Specifically, the representation of Indigenous voices, including that of La llorona, erodes the Monteverde family’s capacity to ignore the events of the genocide. Through the strategic use of sound, La Llorona brings awareness to issues plaguing Guatemalan society, including genocide denial and Indigenous rights, an essential action when these issues are systematically ignored and actively denied.

Image

Notes:

* This paper received the 2nd Award at the 2021 Rockford University Undergraduate Student Humanities Conference “Words, Ideas, and Cultures” held by the Department of Languages, Philosophy, Religion, and Cultures on April 24, 2021.

[1] The Guatemalan genocide, also referred to as the Mayan genocide, occured as the result of a 35 year civil war between the Guatemalan government and multiple communist guerrilla organizations (Oettler 7). Truth commissions estimate that political violence killed over 200,000 people throughout the conflict, and more than 80% of the deaths in the early 1980s, when the violence peaked, were Mayan (Garrard-Burnett 6).

[2] This legacy of denial has largely been perpetrated by business, military, and government officials in Guatemala (Clouser 3). One of the most important examples of denial occured in 2014 when the Guatemalan Congress approved a resolution that no genocide had occurred: “it is legally impossible. . . that genocide could have occurred in our country’s territory during the armed conflict” (Associated). Mayan communities continue to suffer from the impacts of the genocide and still seek justice for the atrocities committed against their communities (“Meet”).

[3] La Malinche, translated to ‘the violated,’ is based on a real Indigenous woman who became sexually involved with a Spanish conqueror (Carbonell 55). Many legends interpret her as a woman who “willingly opened herself up, sexually, politically, and culturally to the Spanish, permitting the downfall of Indigenous Mexico” (Carbonell 55, emphasis native). Thus, she is perceived as sexually promiscuous and a traitor.

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