“It seemed the more I knew about people, the more I knew about the strange magic hidden in their hearts.” – Rudolfo Anaya
¡Saludos, todos! This month’s book reviews will explore the significance of death by looking at stories about Día de los Muertos and La Llorona. In the process, we’ll open a conversation about what death means in Mexico and emphasize why that discussion is relevant to our classrooms – namely, because students deserve a safe space in which to discuss loss and grieving. This topic is one way to offer them that opportunity.
We’ve tied together the celebration of Día de los Muertos and the myth of La Llorona because they both come from Mexican culture and address concepts of loss; however, we want to emphasize that they are not otherwise related. Although it would be easy to conflate the two topics given their similarities, we advise against this. Día de los Muertos and La Llorona are better viewed as two separate topics tied together by commonalities. October is an opportune time to broach the topic of death and loss given that Día de los Muertos is not far off (November 1 and 2).
We start the month by featuring the children’s book Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona, written by New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya and illustrated by Maria Baca. Anaya’s adaptation portrays La Llorona as a sympathetic figure whose haunting spirit reflects the enduring memories of love and loss. The book begins with an “Author’s Note” in which Anaya explains his choice in diverging from the traditional myth. As many of you may know, the well-known myth of La Llorona is about a woman who is wronged by her husband and, in a mad fit of jealousy, drowns her children in a river. Once her head clears and she realizes what she has done, she cries out and wanders the river looking for her children. As legend has it, the ghost of the “The Weeping Woman” has persisted in haunting rivers, lakes, and “lonely roads” ever since. However, Anaya’s story, as you will see, varies from the common rendition in many ways. Although this myth is usually used by parents to scare children out of wandering alone at night, Anaya’s motive in retelling this tale is slightly different: “Instead of using La Llorona as a character to frighten children—as she has been used by generations of parents—this story teaches youngsters about mortality. Through such motifs, I believe all myths of folktales can be adapted, especially for specific age-groups, to tell an interesting and valuable story”. Indeed, the story’s value has shifted from emphasizing safety through fear to focusing on love, mortality, and the fragile beauty of life (and not to mention, a little lesson on “the birds and the bees”).
The story begins “long ago in ancient Mexico” on the day of the Festival of the Sun, when a baby girl, Maya, is born. Maya is a child of the Sun God and destined to be immortal. She grows up to be beautiful, wise, and adored by everyone, even the Gods. All the Gods but one love her. Señor Tiempo, the God of Time, is outraged that Maya’s destiny has slipped out of his control; Maya is immortal and will live forever, despite the villain’s power to inflict the passing of time onto mortals. Upon learning that Señor Tiempo is scheming against Maya, her parents take her up the mountain to the jungle, where, at the edge of a lake, Maya is to live alone, safe from Señor Tiempo and all other dangers.
Up in the mountains, Maya keeps busy by weaving baskets, making clay pots, and talking to the animals. But eventually she becomes very lonely. Maya, taking the advice of her animal friends, decides to have children to keep herself company. At this point in the story, Anaya guides young readers through the following scenes with a creative metaphor for “the birds and the bees” that will undoubtedly humor adult readers.
As Maya grows to have many children whom she loves dearly, the reader experiences a sense of dramatic irony, anticipating the descent of Señor Tiempo‘s wrath and the inevitable outcome of the well-known myth. As Señor Tiempo‘s nefarious plot unfolds, we learn how La Llorona got her name, and came to wander the banks of rivers and lakes: “From that time on the villagers would hear Maya crying as she searched for her children along the edge of the lake.” This tragic tale reminds readers of the ephemeral sweetness of life.
Rudolfo Anaya, an Albuquerque native and professor Emeritus of English at the University of New Mexico (UNM), is a widely influential author. Before becoming a professor at UNM, He earned his BA and MA at the same institution and worked for some time as a public school teacher in Albuquerque. Goodreads summarizes his many achievements as concisely as possible, noting that:
Rudolfo Anaya is widely acclaimed as the founder of modern Chicano literature. According to the New York Times, he is the most widely read author in Hispanic communities. His works are standard texts in Chicano studies and literature courses around the world, and he has done more than perhaps any other single person to promote publication of books by Hispanic authors in this country.
Anaya has not only played an integral part in the diversification of literature, including children’s literature, but also in raising awareness of Latin American heritage and contemporary issues across the nation.
For those of you interested in learning a bit more about Anaya and this particular book, here are a few additional links:
- More on Rudolfo Anaya’s biography
- Rudolfo Anaya quotes
- Video of “a conversation with Rudolfo Anaya”
- More on Mexico and the Festival of the Sun
- More on the legends of La Llorona
Stay tuned for more great reads!
Image: Modified from illustration, Maya’s Children: The Story of La Llorona, pages 7, 13
Image: Rudolfo Anaya. Reprinted from the NNBD website.
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