The Legend of La Llorona

This story begins with a pocket knife, a piece of a limb pruned from an apple tree and a lazy fall afternoon on the banks of the Rio Grande near the junction with the Embudo River. I started cleaning the bark off without any real idea of whittling or carving a figure just content to keep my hands occupied while enjoying the warm sun. Every time anyone saw me running the knife over the wood, they asked what I was making. My reply over two days of working on cleaning away the soft bark was that I was hoping that something would rise up out of the wood begging to be released. The piece was alluring with its figure, bends and knots.


I put the apple down long enough to join friends on a trip to the studio of Jim Vogel, a painter with a distinctive style whose studio is nestled into a vineyard by the Embudo river. I had not met him before and was not very familiar with his work so I went into his studio without preconceived notions and unfortunately, not very much knowledge. I browsed the paintings and sketches while Jim visited with the rest of the group. Some of the paintings clearly had stories behind them and pulled the viewer with a natural inclination to a good yarn into the faces and activities of the characters portrayed on his canvasses.


I finally got in the way of the conversation and after introductions, I made the comment that I really enjoyed paintings that had a narrative driving the brushes. That's all it took. Jim's face suddenly took on the gleam of a prophet, a storytelling prophet. He and I went through closets and cabinets full of sketches of paintings that were in planning, in process or recently sold. Each of them had a story behind it and each painting was lovingly described as to the way the details told the story. We spent several minutes discussing the straw hats of the straw bosses on a wildcat oil rig and how the name straw boss came into common usage. Painter and storyteller, if only I had visited his web site first, where he describes himself in exactly those terms. His goal is to tell the stories of his childhood in New Mexico to keep those stories fresh and relevant.

The rest of the group was seemingly forgotten as we went on to talk about the importance of storytelling, the origins of Story Chip, the difference between stories on canvass and in text and the nuances of sharing a story with an audience. We probably could have spent the entire afternoon trading stories but then it happened. He brought out a sketch of La Llorona that he was working on for the Dixon Art Tour. I am Irish and did not have a great background in hispanic myths and legends so I listened eagerly to his tale and how it was coming to life as an image.

His version of the legend is the young woman who had two children but no husband. She fell in love with a well placed


member of her town and went to him to proclaim her love for him. He rejected her advances saying that he could not possibly marry her as she already had two children. She was devastated. She could not face life without her great love and began searching for a solution to her great sorrow. While walking by the river, the solution became obvious. She took her two boys into the river and drowned them. Sure that she would now be able to be with soul mate, she returned to him and told him what she had done. He was horrified and drove her away again knowing that he could never trust her to be a mother to his children. Trying to live with the weight of her actions and the loss of her love, she soon followed her sons into the river and she too, drowned. Her entry into heaven was blocked as she was not bringing the souls of her sons with her. She was sent back to find her sons so that they could enter heaven together. La Llorona still roams by the water looking for her sons. It is said that she gets confused and will take children that remind her of her own boys, particularly boys that misbehave are subject to being taken away by La Llorona.

The tortured soul of La Llorona was clear in Jim's sketches. I looked at the sketches and listened to the story while my fingers were back inside the grain of a piece of apple limb that had grown on the banks of the Rio Grande River and where I knew that La Llorona was now waiting to emerge from the twisted wood. Over the next several weeks, I divided time between working on La Llorona and researching her legend on the Internet. Many scholars believe that her legend originated with the Irish legend of the Banshee (bean sidhe) but there are similar legends in many cultures. Just another reminder of how our stories shape our culture.

Before talking with Jim Vogel, I knew that piece of apple had a story to tell. I could feel the sadness in the wood but did not recognize it. After hearing the La Llorona story, I knew the source of the sadness that my fingers had sensed in that shape. It is not part of this story to make enormous claims about magic and ghostly apparitions guiding a knife blade as it whittles at an apple limb, I would like that rather romantic notion, but to me the power here is not magic. It is the power of storytelling in the hands of an artist.

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