by Anna Madrigal
I don’t remember thinking much about my Mexican heritage as a kid growing up in San Antonio. Maybe because everyone around me looked the same. But one night changed me.
I was in a small Mexican town visiting my grandma. The town looked untouched by time. Cobblestone streets. No traffic lights. More horses than cars. The baroque style church was in the center of town, and it was the heart of the community. Nearby was the plaza, a courtyard where you might find young lovebirds taking leisurely walks accompanied by their chaperones. There was going to be a big celebration that night. I didn’t know much about it other than the procession would pass by my grandma’s street. I waited at the front gate until I heard the music.
I almost couldn’t take it all in. Against the dark sky was a sea of candles, lighting the way. Women in colorful Puebla dresses moved gracefully past me, their beautiful skeleton faces framed by marigold crowns or veils. Intertwined among the women were musicians, dancers, and singers. As we approached the cemetery, a man began playing a haunting melody on his guitar. A woman started singing what I found out to be an old folksong called “La Llorona,” the Weeping Woman, and that we were celebrating Día De Los Muertos.
Día De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead is not meant to be a sad affair. It’s a day we celebrate and remember the lives of lost loved ones. We build them an altar. We eat their favorite foods and share our favorite memories. We mock the inevitability of death by decorating our faces with ornate skulls. We sing about death until our voices release our pain like a catharsis – songs like “La Llorona.”
“La Llorona” conveys the yearning and lament of lost love. It is mournful and macabre. The words are poetry. Over the years, I’ve heard many versions of this song from both male and female singers. In fact, the most popular renditions have been by female singers. From the gravelly, pained voice of Chavela Vargas – a close friend and rumored lover of Frida Kahlo – to the delicate, rich voice of Angelica Aguilar, daughter of the famed Grammy award-winning Mexican singer, Pepe Aguilar.
No matter which version I come across, whenever I hear “La Llorona,” it takes me back to that night in the town that time forgot, surrounded by the scent of burning candles and marigold. The night I discovered my culture.
Here are a few of my favorite renditions of this song