The Mexican Folktale Schema

Holly Mathews (1992) collected 60 tellings of La Llorona (the weeping woman), a morality tale told across Mexico. Here is one telling, which Mathews says is typical:

La Llorona was a bad woman who married a good man. They had children and all was well. Then one day she went crazy and began to walk the streets. Everyone knew but her husband. When he found out he beat her. She had much shame. The next day she walked into the river and drowned herself. And now she knows no rest and must forever wander the streets wailing in the night. And that is why women must never leave their families to walk the streets looking for men. If they are not careful they will end up like La Llorona. (p. 128)

In another telling, La Llorona kills herself because her husband becomes a drunk and loses all their money. In yet another, she kills herself because her husband is seen going with other women and La Llorona, in disbelief, finally catches him paying off a woman in the streets.

Mathews found that men and women tended to emphasize different things in the story, but the woman always winds up killing herself, no matter who tells it. The morality tale succeeds in shaping people’s behavior, she says, because the motives of the characters in the story conform to a schema, shared by men an women alike, about how men and women see each other’s fundamental nature (Mathews 1992:129).

Men, according to Mathews’s understanding of the cultural model in rural Mexico, view women as sexually uncontrolled. Unless they are controlled, or control themselves, their true nature will emerge and they will begin (as the story says) to ‘‘walk the streets’’ in search of sexual gratification. Men, for their part, are viewed by women as sexually insatiable. Men are driven, like animals, to satisfy their desires, even at the expense of family obligations. In her grammar of the La Llorona tales, Mathews shows that women have no recourse but to kill themselves when they cannot make their marriages work.

Mathews goes beyond identifying the schema and tries to explain where the schema comes from. Most marriages in the village where Mathews did her research (in the state of Oaxaca) are arranged by parents and involve some exchange of resources between the families. Once resources like land are exchanged there’s no turning back, which means that parents can’t, or won’t take back a daughter if she wants out of a marriage. Then, as Mathews explains, the only way a woman can end her marriage is suicide (1992:150). And that, Mathews, says, is why suicide is part of virtually all tellings of the La Llorona tale (Further Reading: schema analysis, mental models, metaphor analysis).

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