One day I was working with a fourteen-year-old Guatemalan girl, who I will call Cynthia, who was suffering from a rare form of psychosis. Although her family lived far from the treatment facility where I worked at the time, I decided to take the long ride to interview the Spanish-speaking mother, who I will call Maria, and to meet Cynthia’s siblings.
I finally reached the dirt road that led to the vineyard where her father was employed and where they lived in a large, rambling house. I was trying to explain the clinical aspects of Cynthia’s disorder to her mother Maria and obtain her consent to treat her daughter with psychotropic medication.
I found that, although I was greeted with hospitality and the family regarding me with sort of a curious friendliness, I wasn’t getting very far with my explanation in the best Spanish I could muster up. Finally, I asked the Maria about the outset of her Cynthia’s disease.
Her answer threw me off. She went right from the medical to the mystical. She said Cynthia’s break from reality occurred when Maria heard “La Llorna” wailing by the river during the night. I did not know what she was talking about and, worse, thought that her daughter had inherited some form of schizophrenia from the mother.
Finally, I took leave of their home and drove back to the facility where I worked. I asked a trusted Hispanic coworker what was this “La Llorna” stuff. She explained it was a popular myth in Latin America with many versions. One version tells of a woman who drowned her offspring in order to be with the man she loved. When she died, she was not granted entrance into heaven until she returned to earth to find her children. She can be heard at night crying by the water, weeping for her lost children.
Maria too had lost her daughter -- to mental illness. Cynthia had completely changed from the bright and cheerful girl she had been. Her prognosis to return to health was at best guarded.
I returned to the family home with a new sensitivity and compassion. Maria agreed to allow her daughter to take medication and Cynthia was able to return on a schedule of home visits to her be with her family.
We live in a wonderful culturally diverse world. Not everyone sees it that way. La Llorna’s wailing penetrates the darkness where sixty-nine youth were killed at a youth camp in Norway; where nineteen children under the age of six were massacred in the bombing of the Oklahoma Federal Building; or where approximately 20% of the total population of the country’s children in Rwanda fell victim to the gun and machete.