The origin of La Llorona is told with many variations. Many of them involve a beautiful young woman in Mexico or New Mexico, who either married, or was seduced by, a local man, by whom she had several children. The woman is sometimes given a Christian name; Sofia, Laura, and María are sometimes used. The man leaves her, sometimes for another woman, sometimes for reasons of employment, sometimes just to be away from La Llorona and her several children. At any rate, La Llorona chooses to murder her children, almost always by drowning, either to spare them a life of poverty, or for revenge against their absent or estray father. The tales vary mostly in the several motives they give to the mother and father for the murder.
In another variant, La Llorona is a naive but innocent woman forced into a shotgun wedding with the father of her child; in this case, it is La Llorona's father --- or her husband --- who kills the children. La Llorona attempts to stop the murders, and dies in the attempt.
In either case, La Llorona's undead spirit becomes a sort of banshee. Her restless spirit walks abroad at night, crying O hijos mios! (O my children!). Sometimes she is dressed all in white; at other times, in black. She is weeping, of course; in some tellings her eyes are empty sockets. Those unlucky enough to see or hear her are marked for death themselves. The New Mexican La Llorona hunts after children, some say that she drowns them in the river.
A number of motifs have been woven into the multiple sources of this complex legend. The Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl or Coatlicue was said to have appeared shortly prior to the invasion of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, weeping for her lost children, an omen of the fall of the Aztec empire and the coming genocide. La Llorona is also identified by some with La Malinche, the Native American woman who served as Cortés's interpreter, and who some say betrayed Mexico to the Spanish conquistadors. In some folk stories of her life, La Malinche becomes Cortés's mistress and bears him a child, only to be discarded by him so that he could marry an aristocratic Spanish lady.
European folklore, also, seems to have been added to the legend; tales of banshees and other female spirits whose wails presage death seem to have influenced the tale. Like the banshee, the nixie, and the water-nymph, La Llorona is said to dwell near rivers, swamps, and water-filled pits, where La Llorona drowned her children. European ghost lore is full of hauntings by women clad in white, whose restless spirits seek vengeance for some wrong they have suffered, or who are damned to a twilight existence reliving the tragedy of their lives. There are also European analogies in mythological tales such as that of Medea, who likewise murdered her own children; and for that matter to the Biblical tale of the Massacre of the Innocents, which the Gospel of Matthew links to "Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted."