Memoir of A Myth
From Lorca to La Llorona
By RAHEL BUTAH '97
"You can't just go in there. You are not from the area. You should go back to where you live and interview the people there." How could I collect Hispanic folklore in southern Colorado? I was an outsider and didn't know anyone in these communities. I hadn't even taken any folklore or anthropology classes. The professor was right. Walking into the florescent-lit hallway, I stopped and stared at the display cases in the anthropology department. The skulls in those cases seemed to be watching me with their empty sockets."
hy would a Caucasian girl from California want to collect Hispanic folklore stories? It all began with a Spanish poet and playwright. In a theater class taught by Professor Tom Lindblade, we read "Blood Wedding," by Federico Garcia Lorca. In the late afternoon in a small video room in Armstrong Hall, we watched a flamenco version of the Lorca play. The dancers glared at each other with black eyes and beat the story out with fiery feet. Like all the students in the room, I was completely mesmerized. I knew I had to go to Spain.
I left Colorado College for a year to save money. Six months later I was on a plane to Madrid. Living in Seville and studying flamenco dance, I traveled to Granada and visited the Lorca museum. In Lorca's house a poster of "La Barraca" hung above his desk. "La Barraca,"a theater group formed by Lorca, performed the classics to rural audiences. His most famous work, the folk tragedy trilogy, depicted the folklore of southern Spain.
My travels in Spain took me to adobe dance studios, Easter celebrations and several flamenco festivals that lasted all night. My most memorable experience was at a Gypsy wedding where I got a real sense of Lorca's "people". At the reception, the families - grandparents, aunts, and cousins - danced for 14 hours. At one point the bride was lifted into the air while all the women in the family sang a traditional song. The women wept as they looked at the raven-haired bride. And there I stood as the music told the story; a story that had been passed down for thousands of years. The song was alive, imparting the myth of a rite of passage.
After returning from Spain, I directed Lorca's folk tragedy, Yerma. Shortly after the play, Professor Tom Lindblade and I met to discuss a faculty-student summer project. We decided that I could travel to an Hispanic area and collect stories and myths. I then jumped in with the idea of writing a play using the stories. My dream at the time was to have a group like La Barraca; a group that could travel, bringing folk tragedies to small towns.
I had an extraordinary summer interviewing the people of the Southwest. Through several different contacts I ended up with more than 40 interviews over a two-month span. I visited old neighborhoods in Pueblo, adobe houses on family ranches, and small towns like San Luis. My first interview was Rosa. She lived in Pueblo and was in her late sixties. We sat in her small kitchen with a clock-painting of "The Last Supper" hanging above our heads. When I asked her if she could remember any folklore stories, she told me the story of La Llorona ... the story of the weeping woman. It is the tale of a mother who finds out her husband has a mistress. Out of rage and disbelief she drowns their children in a river. After the murder, she weeps by the river calling for her children. Rosa told me her parents would recall this story to scare her as a small child.
I conducted several interviews in Pueblo and San Luis. Most of the interviews revealed tearful childhood memories and versions of Southwest folklore stories. At first I wanted to turn off the recorder and weep with them. I soon realized the tears were of pain, but also a kind of release when one stands at the gate of the past.
Sometimes a personal story would overlap with the folklore. A man in Pueblo, who grew up in the San Luis valley, told me a version of La Llorona that had a real life twist on the legend. One of his aunts was picnicking with her children and family members. They had to cross a bridge to find a shady spot on the other side of the river. When they had crossed, the mother turned around and noticed her two children were missing. She ran back to the bridge but her children had fallen in the river. The aunt walked up and down the riverbank, but never found them.
In the small town of San Luis, history and the present exist quietly on the border of Colorado. Nestled in the foothills of the Southwest, San Luis proved to be a preserved Spanish community. I remember leaving from Colorado Springs, armed with my notebook, blank tapes, tape recorder, and spare change for Taco Bell. The landscape stretched before me, taking me back to a time of complete solitude when I was in Spain. There was a stillness to the land. I thought of Salvador Dali's famous painting of the melting clocks. The yellow southern Colorado landscape melted around me, dripping with history and secrets. In this magical valley, I interviewed people who had 400-year-old family ranches. I knew I was a visitor in this land.
After a second trip to Spain, I returned determined to write a play about La Llorona. La Llorona was not simply a "story" - it was a living myth. Many of those I interviewed had encountered La Llorona by the river, either during an argument or when they were out past curfew. Mothers told me they would scold unruly children, saying, "If you don't behave, La Llorona will come and get you." Every town in the Southwest seemed to have its own La Llorona.
I had three weeks to write the play. I called it "La Llorona Del Valle" (The Crier of the Valley), and I weaved in many stories of witches, devils and viejatias (old women). I used the basic story line of La Llorona: a wife finds out her husband is having an affair and drowns their children. But in my writing, I made the mistress the godmother to the children, not some distant character. I realized I could end it in two different ways - I could make La Llorona an angry wife or I could make her a troubled woman who sacrifices the children. I opted for the second version. I purposely used the image of the Virgin Mary in every scene. Right before La Llorona kills her children, she reveals that her only choice is to "give" or sacrifice them to the Virgin.
I formed a cast and we began practice. We held rehearsals in basements, lawns and rec rooms. We kept everything simple, low budget. A white Spanish shawl I had purchased in Southern Spain pulled the set together. It first appeared as La Llorona's mother's shawl. Passed down to La Llorona on her wedding day, it was also used as a baby blanket in the baptism of La Llorona's first child. Finally, the shawl was draped over La Llorona as she drowned her children.
After three weeks of rehearsals we went to San Luis for our first performance. We were about to present the people of San Luis with their own legends. All of us were walking on sacred ground. I took my seat in the audience and waited. There were probably 60 people in the audience. For me, this was the most special performance. The ending was unforgettable. La Llorona did her final monologue and then gathered her children for the drowning. As one of the musicians began to sing the haunting "La Llorona Negra," the audience began to weep, gathering stray Kleenex clumps from their purses. I too wanted to weep, but I didn't. The lights came up and the standing ovation began. The cast smiled, exhausted and relieved. That standing ovation was not the cast's first or last. Every performance that followed received a standing ovation. When the cast performed again, we had a full house. Word had gotten out.
To my surprise, the play became a traveling show. We performed in Colorado Springs and then at a junior college in Pueblo. In our second Pueblo performance, we packed the theater with 250-plus people. Some sat in the aisles. We had to turn others away. A month later, the cast performed again in Pueblo's large arts center. Six weeks later the cast headed to Trinidad, a town on the border of New Mexico and Colorado, and we were interviewed at a radio station. We have since fielded offers from Castle Rock, San Luis, and Pueblo, and the annual State Fair in Pueblo wants the cast to perform this Labor Day weekend.
Who could have foreseen this success? In his famous interview, "The Power of Myth," scholar Joseph Campbell states, "Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive." Those people who saw our play were participants of a theatrical representation of a myth. Their response, according to Campbell, "is part of the search through the ages for truth." Why was Lorca known as the "Gypsy" playwright? Lorca did not write about rural Spain simply because he loved Gypsies. I believe he loved the stories and myths of Spain and, as Campbell points out, "the function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment. . . ." Lorca understood the profound power of myth and used his poetic talent to create folk tragedies. His works have a profound impact on the literary world, even 70 years later.
I think back to the beginning of this project when the skulls in the anthropology case stared at me. Those skulls remind us of ancestors, of storytellers who know the same myths. Tucked away in deserts and valleys with names like San Luis, we must listen to those who preserve the myths. Their stories belong to all of us.
I gave my heart and soul to this project, not necessarily out of choice. I had to. There were so many hearts and souls I met along the way. It began from Gypsies in Spain, to Tom Lindblade, to the 40 people I interviewed. The actors in the play. The audience. Back in California, above me are two pictures, one of "La Llorona Del Valle," the second a black and white picture of Federico Garcia Lorca.Back to Index