Introduction: The Tears of Llorona

Craig Chalquist, PhD

Image created by Carlos Encinas.  See the end of this document for a link to his site.

California can only be understood by those for whom
the symbols, if they come at all, follow the land itself
in the order of apprehension: it can only be known in
all its dimensions by the native, or by those like
him, from within and never from without.
— Wilson Carey McWilliams

It is my experience that the myths we enter most deeply
are not ones that we choose out of some book of myths.
Rather, in some profound way, these myths choose us.
— Christine Downing

Sing in me, O Muse, and through me tell the tale….

On May Day of 2000, having returned to San Diego County after being gone for eighteen years, I was shelving some books when one of them decided to strike my crown on its way to the carpet. I bent to pick up the travel-worn tome and inspected its creased gold cover. Homer’s Odyssey. I shook my head and put it away without knowing this to be the first of several signposts inviting me into a deeper relationship with my battered, neglected homeland. I had lived all my life in California without ever really learning her story.

The second signpost arrived in the shape of a depression that descended upon me as I conducted my doctoral fieldwork. At first it felt like a dark mist out of nowhere, that mood, accompanied by a free-floating defensiveness building up at work and in my new relationship. At work my friendly former boss, having gone out on a stress disability, was replaced by a micromanaging ex-Navy supervisor so controlling that he complained if we kept coffee cups on our desks. He refused to work with me on my school schedule, making it pedantically plain that my choice was to keep my job or stay in school, so I quit, not realizing that this would strand me in five frightening years of hardship. Others quit too, but for me it marked the beginning of a long but ultimately life-changing descent.

As the relationship began to sag beneath the weight of a mutual caginess as mystifying as the falling gloom, I was doing my best to tend to the San Diegan activists and welfare parents my fieldwork required I get to know. Meanwhile I tried to ignore the city itself. The passing years had not been kind to the place, what with the massive sprawl from overdevelopment, the ubiquitous flying, marching, and maneuvering military, the fearful demands to police and strengthen the border, the noisy crowded beaches, the ritualistic flagolatry preening itself as patriotic. Jets on patrol tore the air over an ecologically tarnished bay plowed by long grey warships. Maneuvering tanks and troop carriers churned up cloudbanks of dust at scrub-covered Camp Pendleton. Had San Diego been a therapy client, I would have diagnosed her as both paranoid and depressed.

The third signpost awakened me abruptly to the fact that something new had entered my life just as my relationship departed it. In a dream I held out my arms to a feminine figure I took for my former partner. She shook her head angrily when I uttered what I thought was her name. That is not my name, said her frown.

Then who are you? I asked as I felt myself beginning to wake up.

San Diego, she told me sternly as the dream—and my life—came apart all around me. My name is San Diego.

I will never forget the astonishment with which my eyes sprang open, my face still damp with tears, or the chilling certainty that the defensiveness of the militarized city of my birth had fallen down into my personal and professional relationships—yes, even into my supposedly inner world. The act of turning away from seeing and feeling what had been done to San Diego had twisted the iron key that wound up the terrible pendulum until its swings had knocked me flat.

Somehow the presence of this place had not only pressed on me, it had actively called out to me, finally personifying itself into a dream figure far grimmer and more warlike than the woman I had loved had ever been. But how?

A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture, just a passive or inert setting for the human events that occur there. It is an active participant in those occurrences. Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there. It is for precisely this reason that stories are not told without identifying the earthly sites where the events in those stories occur.
— David Abram


Now, I thought, the real research begins.

Although it seemed crazy at first, I decided to experiment by thinking about my city as a person: a nonhuman, unconscious, and far-flung person, injured for three hundred years but ancient beyond knowing. What would happen if I studied angry San Diego with assessment tools like those I had employed with therapy clients? If the city were my client, what would I do first?

Take a case history, or rather a place history. I needed information. I needed to know my client.

So I began going back through the history of San Diego, and then of California, land of my many wanderings over the years. I read about that brutal butcher Cortés, responsible for the deaths of millions of indigenous people; about Cabrillo and Vizcaíno, those transient seafaring explorers who came, saw, claimed territory, and left; and about Father Junípero Serra, who opened a mission in San Diego before moving on to bless eight more (nine if we count Santa Barbara) before he died. It was he who led the first European colonization of California. Statues of the chamber of commerce version of him—hooded robe, sandals, shepherd’s staff in one hand, faraway look in the eyes—appear here and there along the coast.

Responding to a subvocal restlessness, I got up from my studies one evening, made my way around piles of books, and went for a walk through the Escondido Hills. Ten miles to the south stood the Elfin Forest, among whose green boughs and quiet dirt paths a ghostly woman in white was said to search in the night for her lost children. A familiar hawk circled high above my right shoulder.

The history wouldn’t let go of me. In my mind’s eye I saw a map of California with twenty-one crosses near the coast, each indicating a mission: an enclosed adobe complex in which padres who sailed over from Spain and walked north from Mexico in 1769 had sought to convert the indigenous peoples of California into laboring Christians and potential soldiers. Back in Spain crowned heads was afraid that the Russians were coming to the West Coast. Perhaps they were, if only to pull otters from the cold currents of the northern coast.
That jagged pattern of crosses…it seemed familiar, struck a hidden chord, refused to go away. I halted for a moment, puzzled. Distantly my ears caught the cry of the hawk. And then, abruptly, I had it as the fourth signpost swung into view: Those crosses marked the path of my wanderings throughout California.

Every town I’d ever lived in, felt compelled to get acquainted with, or visited for more than a few days was a mission town along El Camino Real, the “royal road“ that linked them all. Serra had compared the chain to a rosary.

For eighteen years, then, I had unknowingly pursued him up and down what had once been an actual paradise, the verdant, game-rich home of responsible and sophisticated earth-based people made out to be childlike savages by colonizing consciences eager to be soothed. Having witnessed what a place had become, I had moved on—was moved on—up the old King’s Highway to the next stop on my Californian odyssey. But why? What was it all for?

My doctoral studies were geared toward initiating me into depth psychology, the tradition of inquiry, therapy, and deep research raised for more than a century now on the strong foundation laid by Pierre Janet, William James, Sigmund Freud, and C. G. Jung. Basic to depth psychology is the premise that we always move within some storied situation, some psychic framework of fantasy, fable, or myth. “I am Oedipus,” Freud confessed in a letter to his one-time friend Wilhelm Fleiss years before following his daughter Anna out of Nazi-occupied Vienna as the limping king had followed his Antigone out of plague-stricken Thebes. Janet discovered unrecognized symbols and silenced stories in the psychological symptoms of his hospital patients; biographers of James, the first psychologist to take spirituality seriously, have called his creative efforts Promethean; and as for Jung, he started his Memories, Dreams, Reflections by telling the beginnings of his “personal myth.” In old age he believed myth to be an instrument of higher precision than science in describing and doing justice to the meaning of a life. He would have agreed with linguist George Lakoff that image precedes thought, and with Nietzsche’s pithy description of truth as a mobile army of metaphors.

It was through depth psychology’s attention to myth that I realized I was not alone, for another figure haunted me just as I had shadowed Serra.

Not long after the Aztec Empire fell to the bloody ministrations of Hernando Cortés, a ghostly woman was said to shimmer into being in the streets of destroyed Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) roaming and weeping and wailing. Stories about her proliferated, but in most versions a young, pretty mother gave birth to the son of an unfaithful lover, a heartless and powerful man who threatened to abandon her and take the newborn with him. To prevent this, she drowned the child (in some versions two children) under the full moon, and then she lost her mind. When she finally died, she was condemned to wander near bodies of water, a sad ghost wailing for her lost children, whose souls she must find in order to attain redemption. To this day some Mexican mothers still warn their own children not to stay out late or La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman,” pronounced “lah-yoh-ROH-nah”) might snatch them away, mistaking them for her own.

The Llorona sightings which occurred locally—and, as I would eventually learn, in every mission county—did not interest me much until I hit upon her presence in my own story.

I had been born in San Diego below a full moon, the double-Cancer son of a dark-eyed mother who had lived in boats and bays and beaches. A self-styled gypsy, she did not want to raise children, but my father did and made it plain that he expected to. To solve this dilemma, my mother arranged a secret adoption, then told the entire family—including my father, according to him—that I had died of heart failure at birth. I passed briefly into foster care and landed in the home of my adoptive parents, where I grew into my teens without knowing much about my past. When I finally learned my mother’s name after a long quest after my roots, it echoed that of the Weeping Woman: Lorna, dark of hair, olive of skin, and born with eyes biologically devoid of night vision.

No matter how estranged we may consider ourselves from the tangled, improbable—indeed monstrous—world of myth, in various ways and under certain circumstances unwilling tributes to its signs, fictions, and symbols are wrung from us.
— Frederick Turner


Defensive lows, nightly visions, subdued geographies, dreams, and myths: I was learning to understand these as threads of the story that bound me to California. Although not raised in the animistic traditions that regarded Earth as responsive and places as alive, it was dawning on me against my Western will that if my conquered homeland were capable of a kind of dreaming, then events in my life were included in that dream. What I had thought of as my separate self had transmuted in a few weeks into one small branch or qvist in the dense network of California’s past and presence.

These coastal places with their life now linked to mine: Their stories were my stories, their history mine, their outer geographies a match for inner landscapes I had believed to be autonomous. To my daylight self my homeland was a montage of mountains and strip malls, sunsets and smog alerts, timber and traffic, but at a deeper level, California had been seething like some vast, troubled cauldron. I had bent to study her as something taken oddly into my insides only to realize that I was part of her, and that my life course was not “on the path” in some story of supposedly free ascension up a ladder made of spirit, but an earthy El Camino Real rich with history, paved with dreams, and watered with many tears.

A series of post-colonial coastal pilgrimages, a wandering, weeping specter, and cities of asphalt and ambition sprung up from the former missions: doubled images seen but through a glass darkly. What did they all have in common? The old Mission Trail itself.

I still did not know what this story, San Diego, or California wanted from me. I resolved to follow El Camino Real all the way north to listen more consciously than before into unburied pasts and underground themes still pulsing in the shadow of what we like to call development (from words that mean both “enclose” and “expose”), a contemporary legacy of the relentless march of Cross and Sword six hundred miles up what are now routes 5, 72, 101, 1, 82, 280, 37, 121, and 12 (west fork) and 87, 92, 238, 185, and 123 (east fork) before angling once again toward 101. Only thus could I begin to fathom what I now think of as “deep California”: our land as a neglected source of interiority: a strange, polycentric attractor of legends, myths, dramas, dreams, griffins of the mind, and ecologies of the troubled heart.

It is not accidental that “home” and “haunt” share deep roots in Old English, that we speak of the home of an animal as its haunt, or that “haunt” can mean both a place of regular habitation and a place marked by the presence of spirits. Like scars, the spirits are reminders—traces by which the past remains present.
— Jack Turner

So I went forth to study the history, ecology, architecture, politics, and lore of the mission cities and counties of California, stopping in each to allow the presence and mood and pain of each locale to inhabit my body, my thoughts, my fantasies, and my dreams. I had lived in some of these places, visited others; this time I would engage them as consciously and sensitively as I could. And as I retraced the trail of Serra northward I often encountered Llorona’s sorrowful shade still pacing the path of the Cross and Sword, a persistent, shadowy wound seeking to embrace what it could not find alone.

Along the way I found I needed tools other than those offered by psychology or ecology or any single discipline familiar to me; from this need came my book Terrapsychology, which introduced the deep study of the presence of the places we inhabit and that inhabit us, usually without our knowing it. It has long been surmised that the spirit or soul of place exerts an unrecorded but important influence on the human psyche, blowing through it like wind raising ripples on a lake; terrapsychology offers a conceptual framework for understanding this influence and techniques for tracing and demonstrating it more convincingly than appeals to “energy” or “vibes” could ever do.

What I found upon the trail of Serra and Llorona and ultimately myself moved back and forth within magnetic lines of geography, trauma, biography, reverie, psychology, ethnography, myth, and relationship. If we resist the greed for quantifiable proof of our deep connection to place, putting aside the endless fussing with apparently isolated variables to open the mind to broad patterns of story and resonance, we begin to discern protostories: recurrent motifs and narratives that gradually appear across many domains of experience. These relational structures operate at the level of shared metaphor and correspondence—the natural language of the unconscious—rather than limiting themselves to the literal causal chains they contain. That is how we can speak of San Diego and its protective harbor as a haven and sanctuary at best and as a paranoid borderland at worst; of the mechanical gigantism of oil-rich Orange County; of Los Angeles as a natural stage projected (a key word, that) upward from the ocean floor to beam messages into the air and out into space; of quaking Dionysian San Francisco, named after the exuberant saint of nature who celebrated his idealism out in the world; of Marin, whose tricksterishly drawn outline recollects the god of healing, commerce, and thievery; and onward up to Sonoma, a blooming land as abundant as the fertile lap of the ancient Great Mother.

These ancient themes, supported by examples too numerous to recount here, offer glimpses of the character or spirit or soul of a place; for in the final reckoning, the aliveness of a place transcends the sum of the parts that flesh out its ongoing story. (You will find recurrent syndromes of the mission counties substantiated in my book Deep California.) That is why it must be understood from the inside, on its own terms.

Each of the chapters in this book emerged from within a local motif or protostory active in a particular Californian place. Each illustrates how what happens somewhere takes on and resonates with that somewhere’s particular character, color, spirit, and mood. What effect the resonance exerts, whether it explodes, hammers, soars, or sings, depends on whether it goes ignored or receives the invitation to express itself benignly. The book as a whole unfolds the tale of a native’s journey up the King’s Highway to its terminus and the revelations awaiting him there.

As this diagram of the psyche of coastal California should make clear, the depth-psychological discoveries of the compulsion to repeat and the return of the repressed operate for places much as they do for people. Perhaps there was a time when the snoring citizens of a conquering power could remain relatively unawakened by the consequences of conquest, but if so, that time has vanished like dew at dawn. What was done to the oppressed and their lands ricochets back into the lives of the occupiers for generations unless very deep healing and earnest witnessing bring back home what was exiled and deprived of voice.

As for Llorona:

To describe her as a mythic figure is not to declare her unreal (those who so regard her do it at their peril), nor does it reduce her to a byproduct of human culture. She sweeps through mission towns as a wailing psychic body, a tortured tissue of dreamstuff looking in on maulings by malls and damnings by dams, and transgressing at will customary notions of propriety, landscape, gender, and power. Hers is the voice that will not be silenced and only grows louder with clumsy attempts at suppression.

The fictional Ramona of Helen Hunt Jackson’s sappy novel remains California’s most well-known weeping woman, but she is in no danger of being our most vocal. Shunned everywhere else, Llorona comes forth from the shadows of the mission communities to haunt this work at will, contemplate its stops along El Camino Real, and moisten it where needed with a few of her copious tears. She is at large and at liberty to do this because our excursion moves not just through bright Californian daylight, but into the shadows too, where sightseeing must surrender pride of place to another mode of vision, namely: soul-seeing.

2004-2009 by Craig Chalquist. All rights reserved.

La Llorona image created by Carlos Encinas.