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La Llorona (2019): History, Genocide and Memory in Latin America

In the introduction to Memory of Fire, his three-volume history of the American continents, historian and journalist, Eduardo Galeano, once called Latin America an “intimate land condemned to amnesia,” and I think that speaks to the heart of this analysis. It is only through films like La Llorona, directed by Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante, that this amnesia can be cured. Centered around a former dictator, Enrique Monteverde, now aging and on trial for the genocide of native Mayans which took place under his regime, this film causes viewers to not only ask what role the past has in shaping the present and future, but also looks at what it will take to heal these histories of trauma and move forward.

While Bustamante’s film is obviously fictional, it clearly draws on a lot of real history, so no analysis of this film would be complete without talking about the world from which it stems. The democratic election of Jacobo Árbenz was a highlight of the Guatemalan Revolution (1944-1954); but he was swiftly overthrown in the 1954 Guatemalan Coup d’etat, replaced with the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas, who would be the first in a series of US-backed dictators in Guatemala. When communities began to form leftist rebel groups in an attempt to free themselves, they were heavily repressed with support from corporations in the United States along with its government, who went as far as to train Guatemalan military forces. This period of conflict would become known as the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), a battle between those who supported dictatorship and those who suffered from unfair land distribution, racism by European-descended residents, and foreign companies such as the American United Fruit Company dominating much of the agricultural industry, terrorizing the rural poor for cheap labor and exploitable land. During this period, countless genocides were carried out by the government, often targeting Mayan communities. Bustamante’s film is set after the Civil War, as protests demanding justice erupt across the country.

After a trial in which he’s found guilty, General Monteverde starts to have auditory hallucinations, seemingly the only one able to hear a woman crying throughout his mansion. The past has come back to haunt him. As these hallucinations get more intense, his wife, Carmen, and daughter, Natalia, argue about the proper course of action. While Natalia says they should simply pay the victims, Carmen insists there’s no point in fretting about the past, that everyone’s better off forgetting anything ever happened. While this would certainly be convenient for the Monteverdes and everyone else in their elite social circle, it proves to be impossible: the hallucinations only get worse after General Monteverde shoots one of the maids, believing she’s a leftist spy. As all other staff flee in fear, only the most loyal housekeeper, Valeriana, stays behind. She puts out a call for work in her local village, and Alma shows up. While history and its ghosts are present throughout the film, it is through Alma’s character that we realize the past can never be ignored or bribed away, because it actively shapes the present and thereby shapes the future. Like Alma, the past is always with us, demanding to be acknowledged. This is true not only for the Monteverdes, but for Guatemala as a whole. Only when there’s a reckoning for the suffering done in the name of ‘anticommunism’ can the people and society move forward.

When Alma proves to be the spirit that’s been haunting General Monteverde, and the mansion is surrounded by the ghosts of those who his dictatorship murdered, Carmen has a flashback of a memory that isn’t hers: she sees herself as a native woman watching her children be murdered by security forces. In a panic, she strangles her husband, and the ghosts surrounding the mansion disappear. This scene highlights how it is only through the extinguishment of not only General Monteverde, but the class-based system he represents, that Guatemala—and Latin America as a whole—will be able to determine its own economic and social destiny. While outright military dictatorships are no longer as prevalent in Latin America, many of these countries now find themselves in a neoliberal period of rampant privatization, led mostly by the same foreign companies. Since the working classes in these countries are still largely repressed and kept in poverty, these new ‘liberal democracies’ can be considered a kind of cry from past tyrannies, a reminder that yesterday’s struggle is not over.

Miguel León-Portilla’s The Broken Spears gives an Aztec account of the Spanish invasion, including the original Nahuatl myth La Llorona is based on. After reading this, it becomes clear this supernatural entity was a way of expressing indigenous anxieties post-Spanish colonization. “My little children,” she’s said to have cried while walking along the streets, “we have to go far from here! Where shall we go, my little children?” Through its dazzling use of color and shot composition, as well as a few well-timed camera movements, Bustamante’s film attempts to answer this question: like the protestors camped outside Monteverde’s mansion, we won’t go anywhere. We will stay and fight until these histories are acknowledged and reconciled with the present. This terrifying, smart, and important movie is on Shudder. Stream it while you can!

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