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La Llorona (2019) tells the story of Enrique Monteverde (based on Efrain Rios Montt) who has recently been acquitted of genocide for his actions as head of state from 1982 to 1983. Protesters outside cause him and his family unable to leave the house and a new maid with a shadowy past begins to make them face their own past and take responsibility for their actions.
Guatemala’s Long Road to Peace
In 1985, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo was elected as the first civilian president. By 1987, he signed the Arias Peace Plan, a plan made by the president of Costa Rica who was then fighting back against the US. He wanted US involvement and civil wars to end. But just as things seemed to look brighter, the peace plan signing triggered the army to respond with new massacres and the announcement of a major offensive even though the URNG, the guerrilla group, was no longer a threat. Cerezo withstood two coup attempts but the implementation of the peace plan would have to wait. The next civilian president, Jorge Serrano, was conservative, but peace talks were delayed by attempts to overthrow the constitutional government (one by Serrano himself). Finally, Ramiro De Leon Carpio became president and allowed the UN to broker an agreement.
They downsized the military and disarmed the UNRG and by 1996, Peace Accords were agreed upon. Though democracy was still far out of reach. Today if Guatemalans want to vote, many rural Mayan citizens are forced to travel a full day to get to a voting station.
The 1999 elections also saw Alfonso Portillo, a confessed murderer and member of General Rios Montt’s party, take the presidency while General Rios Montt took control of the legislative assembly. Portillo would go on to end his term in scandal and flee the country in an effort to avoid arrest for drug trafficking. In the next election, Rios Montt campaigned for the presidency even though he was ineligible since he had previously taken power through a coup. But when his supporters rioted in Guatemala City on a day that would be known as “Black Thursday”, the courts changed their mind. Thankfully, 80% of voters elected Oscar Berger instead and Rios Montt was placed under temporary house arrest. Sadly, justice would evade Rios Montt in the long run. In 2012, he was formally indicted by the Guatemalan attorney general for genocide and crimes against humanity and he was convicted the following year. That is until it was overturned 10 days later by a higher court. Those who report on human rights abuses are much more likely to face a harsh end. The most notorious case is the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera who was bludgeoned to death in his home after announcing the results of his report implicating the military in 80% of the deaths and disappearances of 200,000 Guatemalans.
Still, there remains a light at the end of the tunnel. Mayans, especially Mayan women have become much louder voices in Guatemalan society. During the civil war, many Guatemalan Mayans were placed in refugee camps all over the region. Previously remote, they interacted with Mayan people all over the region, and the Pan Mayan Movement was born with some Guatemalan Mayans helping Mexican Mayans reconstruct the ruined ancient city of Edzna. Many of those who survived the events were radicalized like Rigoberta Menchu who later won a Nobel Peace Prize. She joined the Committee of Peasant Unity in 1979 and joined a guerrilla group before fleeing to Mexico. She is most famous for her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu about the atrocities she and others experienced. Though the government has fallen behind, women like Menchu seem to be dragging the country into the future.
Retelling the Myth
La Llorona is an extremely unique look at this age-old myth especially when you consider this came out the same year as the conventional and schlocky The Curse of La Llorona. The ladder, a part of the American Conjuring horror series, takes on La Llorona in the same way she has always been seen. The original story says that La Llorona was a mother who, despairing over her husband’s indifference to her, drowns her children. She immediately regrets her actions and drowns herself. She remains stuck in the past searching endlessly for her children and taking others along the way. Though the myth was created before colonization, she became conflated more and more with the ultimate betrayer Malinche who was a Nahua woman who served as Hernan Cortes’ translator and bore his son.
In this film, La Llorona is not a historical betrayer nor a woman caught in the past, she is of modern times and modern crimes. Jayro Bustamante, the director, inverts the sexist lens with which we view her as well. In this version, La Llorona is still looking to take souls with her but for good reason. Alma (the alias for La Llorona) never killed her children, it was Enrique who killed them as part of his genocidal tirade. She is also extremely fair. She does not want to kill his entire family, just him. The innocent around him should just learn from the situation and finally confront the truth. Through this film, La Llorona is finally treated with respect and understanding. No longer is she a hysterical villain. She is a fair seeker of justice.
What Justice Looks Like
One of the most surprising and welcome cameos in film history has to be Rigoberta Menchu’s in this film. The director’s friendship with the activist is very apparent and her spirit resonates through the film. Menchu has said “I don’t believe the conscience of the victimizers is at peace… because what happened is not rational or humane. I know that every human being has a conscience, even them.” Justice to Menchu and Bustamante is not about killing all the powerful elites, it is about confronting the long-ignored truth. The first half of the film barely focuses on the family’s troubles and showcases one of its most powerful scenes when a Mayan woman delivers testimony about what she experienced. It is even more powerful when you consider that the actress’ testimony was her own. From that point on the film establishes itself as more interested in healing than violence. This is not about revenge, it is about getting Enrique’s family to see the truth. The end of the film also establishes another truth about justice: it is a long process. His death is followed by the haunting of another general. Bustamante establishes that many more people will have to be converted to the gospel of truth before Guatemala can be fully healed.