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How THE CURSE OF LA LLORONA Failed Its Latino Audience

It was last year at San Diego Comic-Con during preview night, at a special event by New Line Cinema they call “ScareDiego,” that we got our first glance of the movie that was up to that point referred to as The Children, revealing its new title of The Curse of La Llorona. The reaction was overall positive, with excitement among fans to see the very first studio horror movie about a Latin American folktale starring a mostly Latino cast. So when SXSW announced The Curse of La Llorona as part of its film festival lineup earlier this year, I had high hopes.

Jump to early in the day of the film’s world premiere, where I was walking around Austin with our Editor-in-Chief, Jonathan Barkan, and we came across a group of curanderos waving sticks of sage over festival-goers to protect them from evil spirits. In the theater itself, we were greeted by another curandero on the stage who warded off the evil eye by shaking a maraca and waving a collection of white charms before ending with a prayer where he instructed the audience to brush away negative energy with a red pañuelo (handkerchief), which we were to leave in the theater lest we risk bringing bad spirits home with us.

All of this is to say that New Line Cinema seemed to be legitimately trying to appeal to the Latinx audience with this movie, as it should. As Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and most recently, Captain Marvel proved, studios appealing to underrepresented audiences will bring out box office success if the movie is good. However, all attempts at pleasing the Latinx audience stopped as soon as the opening credits rolled and any goodwill points were completely lost.

For those who aren’t familiar with the folktale, the story of La Llorona, or The Weeping Woman, is as diverse as Latin America itself. Every country has at least one variation of the story – including a Guatemalan version where the ghost has the face of a horse and goes after unfaithful husbands – but they mostly share the same basic traits. A woman, usually low-born, falls in love with a rich, usually white Spaniard man, they get married and have children. For some reason, either jealousy from the woman after finding her husband cheating on her, or outside forces looking down and disapproving the relationship, her children are killed. Stricken with grief, the woman kills herself and is cursed for all eternity, forced to roam the Earth looking for children that resemble her own. The folktale is rich in detail and serves not only to scare children into behaving and not going outside after dark but also comments on historical issues of Latin American society like class, race and gender prejudices.

The Curse of La Llorona decides to throw all of that aside for a generic, vanilla-lite ghost story of a beautiful woman who drowns her own children out of jealousy when she catches her husband with another woman and then kills herself. Nothing about the real struggles of Spaniard-indigenous relationships, or class separation, just jealousy and rage. Naturally, the movie needed to pin down one background for their titular ghost – although how cool would it have been if it were an Into The Spider-Verse type of story with multiple versions of the Weeping Woman? – and they decided to go with the Mexican version of the legend. This one tells of a mixed or indigenous woman who kills her children after her Spaniard beloved refuses to marry her out of fear of public outrage and instead leaves her to marry an upper-class Spanish woman.

The movie tries so much to appeal to the non-Latino audience who isn’t familiar with the legend that they took away everything that grounded the story to Mexican culture. When we see the drownings happen, they occur in a random river by a random field where there’s nothing to show they are in Mexico. Screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis approach the horror movie as if you’ve never seen a horror movie or heard a single word of Spanish in your life. The story is as bare-bones as it could possibly be, as if they thought anything too Latino would instantly alienate the audience, or as if a fleshed-out backstory to the ghost would be too complicated to an audience that has already seen two movies about Annabelle. This gets worse when it comes to the dialogue, which over-explains everything, including the few Spanish lines that are in the movie.

Coming off the successful and well-thought-out Spanglish in Coco, of the relatable and respectful use of Spanglish lines in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Curse of La Llorona feels like a step backward. Instead of characters using simple lines in Spanish and then switching to English, like Miles Morales packing for school and talking to his mom in Spanish while his dad speaks in English (all without subtitles), La Llorona instead has the characters repeat the same lines in both languages, one after the other. It is great that the film doesn’t feel the need to translate the sporadic words and handful of sentences in Spanish, which are basic enough that non-Spanish speakers can get the context, but the film feels too afraid of alienating part of the audience and, instead, resorts to Dora The Explorer-like bilingualism, treating the culture from which its titular character is from as otherworldly and foreign. Indeed, the film pushes any trace of Latin American culture to the side and the only characters who speak Spanish end up being a deranged woman, the murderous ghost, and a folk healer.

This feeling of otherworldliness extends to the cast, which is led by a white woman named Anna (played by Linda Cardellini). Though the film’s credits reveal her to be married to a Latino man with the last name Garcia, her family doesn’t seem to keep up any cultural ties other than the name, with her children not looking particularly Latino, and unable to speak or understand when other characters speak Spanish. Director Michael Chaves told Dread Central in an interview following the film’s world premiere that his reason to cast a non-Latino actress in the lead role was because he wanted “an outsider that came in with no understanding, so you can have a sense of discovery”, but by doing this we made the only Latino characters in the film mere plot devices. From Raymond Cruz’s curandero, whose only purpose is to literally hand Cardellini’s character a magic weapon to fight the ghost, to returning character Father Perez, who only appears for less than five minutes to deliver exposition and connect the film to the larger Conjuring universe.

For a film that is being sold as a Latino story, with actors from Latin America or of Latino descent, it doesn’t feel like either the writers or producers gave much thought to either their Latino characters or their story. The movie had so much potential to bring Latino audiences front and center with a story that would be intrinsically ours, that is simple enough to be understood by audiences of all backgrounds. But a desire to appeal to those not aware of the folktale above all else ends up taking all Latino flavor out of the film. The end result feels like one of our traditional dishes made without enough seasoning.

Written by Rafael Motamayor

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