The Madonna, as I express her, is a metaphor for maternal beauty. As a child in Mexico, I was surrounded by folklore and myths. To discipline children, adults invented a tall woman dressed in white, who would cry out for the children she drowned in the river in a moment of insanity. La Llorona, as we called her, howled like a wolf, her hollow cry full of lament. Just the thought of the sound would make the hair on our backs stand up. Therefore, we behaved!
Catholicism, too, played an important role in the culture of my home town, El Manantial. Both Lloronas and saints commanded respect. As a child, I could not separate the imagery of folktales from the religious rituals honoring our Virgin Saints. As Catholics, my family would turn to the Virgen de Guadalupe and celebrate our faith with prayers and offerings. The women would do most of the work for these religious celebrations. They would make tamales, dulce de leche, atole, capirutada and prepare bolo, guizzo, arroz and frijoles de la hoya. Wow, all of this for Virgen de Guadalupe! Our stomachs showed our appreciation for her, and our hearts showed our faith.
During the rosary of such events, the weepers would suffer exhaustion from crying. Eventually, a messenger would be sent by the head of the household to bring a professional weeper. In my community her name was Trinidad—we called her Trini. She cried like the best; show her a peso and out came tears. When she cried, she reminded me of La Llorona, and it would frighten me.
The tallest women in El Manantial were targets for ridicule by rude children because they resembled the description of Llorona. My grandmother, Piedad, and several of her friends were tall with long white hair that was always pulled back in a trenza, a braid. These matriarchs were dignified and respected by the entire pueblo. Their necks were long and stretched, like swans guiding their flocks, and they were very proud.
I have come to associate this sense of pride with Mexican women—my grandmothers, my mother, and now my five older sisters. Each one speaks straight from the heart and with such poetic nature! They are colorful, yet mysterious. Their language is often silent but can be heard through their actions. They are hard working and devoted to their families. They are instinctively primitive in thinking, yet wise and aware of themselves and others. They are the women of El Manantial— women who grow up fast while working in the fields.
De Madonnas a Lloronas—what a strange but beautiful description. Some are saintly; others just weep. My brothers and I often remind ourselves how fortunate we are to be men. We have witnessed the hardships of our culture, and we suspect that we would be Lloronas, not Madonnas. As grown men, it is time to show respect. We appreciate the beauty of the Virgin Saints and have a mature view of the myth of La Llorona. Both are reminders of our faith and metaphors of our own imaginations. They are an important part of our culture. So, I paint them, Willie sings about them, and Jose cooks for them.