During a talk at the Placitas Community Library last year, author Ben Radford recalled growing up in Corrales and hearing the story of La Llorona, who was said to wander the ditch banks crying for her children.
It was the localized adaptation of ghost story that has thrived in predominantly Hispanic communities for centuries, though Radford says the story likely originated in Germany in the late 1400s and brought to Latin America by the Spanish.
Radford dedicates a chapter to the legend of La Llorona in his 2014 book “Mysterious New Mexico,” subtitled “Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment,” one of nearly two dozen books he has authored or coauthored. He has also written thousands of articles touching on the unexplained, the paranormal and urban legends. He also hosts a podcast called “Squaring the Strange.”
Radford says he applies critical thinking to his investigations into the unexplained, including the legend of La Llorona. It’s one of New Mexico’s favorite ghost stories, largely due to the Hispanic communities formed here, especially those with rivers, streams and acequias flowing through. She’s sometimes referred to as the “weeping woman,” and especially around Corrales, the “ditch witch.”
While there are variations to the story, Radford writes that the most common depict a tall, beautiful young woman in a white dress born of a peasant family falls for a local man that is her husband or suitor, depending on the version. But the man won’t accept her children, “so she drowned them in the river to be with him,” he writes. “However, her grief and guilt drove her mad, and since then she can sometimes be heard wailing sadly near the river, calling and weeping for her babies.”
In some versions, she is seeking to abduct other children to replace her own. The story has been used by parents to scare their kids away from rivers and waterways.
A similar story can be traced back to 1486 in Germany, where tales of “Die Weisse Frau” (the White Lady) were told, Radford writes. The story spread to other locales in Europe and probably came across the sea with the Spanish. Radford writes that other researchers found a version of the weeping woman story circulated in Mexico City as far back as 1550.
Part of what makes great ghost stories so compelling are elements of truth, or if storytellers can bring familiar locations into the story, Radford says. While having La Llorona weeping along the banks of the Rio Grande works as well, the story becomes more credible if it’s a Corrales ditch bank, or a specific spot along a familiar ditch that can make the story seem “real.”
But, alas, La Llorona is hardly real. Radford says there are few people who claim actual encounters with La Llorona. Most stories are told from a “friend of a friend” (FOAF) viewpoint. He wrote that efforts to verify first-hand claims was “like trying to grab a ghost or wrangle a wraith” and proved fruitless. He also notes that there’s never been a news report of a tall, beautiful woman suspected of abducting children along a riverbank.
“The vast majority of La Llorona stories are old legends retold as FOAF tales,” he writes.
But Radford doesn’t doubt that some people may see or feel a presence that is very real to them.
“Sometimes our eyes and ears fool us,” he writes. “Other times we fool ourselves, scared yet eager to actually catch a glimpse of the terrifying legend herself.”