Changing the Narrative
by Regina Garza Mitchell
“When you were little, La Llorona came for you.” The story was always a bit different, but the gist was that I was sick with pneumonia and my family didn’t know if I’d pull through. My grandma saw a woman in white coming close to the house and told my mom to pick me up and not let me go. The wind increased and the house shook as she tried to get in, raking her long nails on the windows. They held on tightly, and eventually she went away and I got over the pneumonia.
We spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house, along with my cousins. There were usually anywhere from four to ten of us there over the weekend, staying up late and watching horror movies, falling asleep on the sofa bed. I was the güerra of the bunch, the outsider. They could have easily let her take me. But they hadn’t just handed me over to the spirit that my grandma gleefully told me at different times either fed her own children to the pigs so that no one would find their bodies or held them down under the rushing river water until their poor little bodies couldn’t take it anymore and they floated away. Afterwards, the woman who would become la llorona drowned herself. She didn’t kill her children because she hated them; she did it because they were the thing their father loved the most and he had betrayed her. She killed them out of spite, to hurt her husband in the way that he had hurt her. St. Peter wouldn’t let her into heaven without her children and he sent her back to Earth, so she searched for children who were bad or who were near death already so that she could get in. The trick was that she’d never find them because they were already in Heaven. Another betrayal.
That story, and the various versions I’ve heard of it, has haunted me my entire life. It made for a lot of sleepless nights as a child. Every time the wind blew I was sure she had come back to get me. I might not be sick anymore, but I was never anyone’s idea of a “good” child. I was sure every noise was her long, twisted fingernails raking down the screen, reminding me I couldn’t get away forever. I avoided the canal by my grandparents’ house and the resacas near my friends’ houses because she stayed near the water.
I wrote at least one short story about her that was published, and when I started writing my first book, a novella, I was sure she would play a central role. The book was to be a splatter western, and I knew immediately it would take place in my home state of Texas, in the borderlands that will always be my home. My first drafts placed her as the central character. The perfect character for the book I planned, a western told from a Tejana perspective. She was ruthless and brutal and angry.
As I researched the history of the Rio Grande Valley and Texas itself, my perspective changed. The history I had learned in my many years of Texas History classes and virtually every movie I’d seen in the western genre simply wasn’t true. As I read about the land being stolen from Mexico and again from the Mexican people who lived there before annexation, I thought about the stories I’d heard from my dad and grandpa, and the focus of my story changed.
I’ve always loved supernatural horror. I grew up hearing stories about la llorona, la lechusa, haunted gold buried in the desert, the devil at the disco, and so on. My cousin and I held seances, hoping and fearing to wake some evil spirit. My dad told stories about the “ghosties and toasties” that haunted the large mansions in downtown Brownsville. My grandmother regularly visited a curandera. As I learned a different truth about my ancestors and the places we were from, I realized that true horror is not supernatural. It’s not the ghosts and monsters we create. People do worse things to each other than any supernatural entity I could dream up.
The atrocities of war, the deception of the American people who invaded the ranching communities on what is now the border of Texas and Mexico, the invasion of the Spanish settlers on Native Mexicans and Americans, the murders, rapes, and robberies committed to satisfy individual greed are things that terrify me. The more I read, the more I realized that some things don’t change. People just camouflage it in different ways. Racism still exists and, if anything, has gotten worse; the invasions on property, goods, and bodies of people viewed as “lesser” – usually people of color – continues under the guise of law today. These are things that make me angry, that make me stand up and fight. My rage grew along with my desire to do something. Say something.
So I decided my splatter western would be a counterstory. A (counter) splatter western, if you will. Shadow of the Vulture would still be a western from a Tejana perspective, but not in a traditional way. I studied the conventions of a western and realized they stemmed from a view through a white lens, glorifying the people who committed atrocities in the name of westward expansion. White people’s manifest destiny was an attack on the people of color who already lived in the areas they desired. José Antonio Lopez points out that Texas History is wrongly viewed as beginning in 1836 when Anglo-American settlers began moving in, but Spanish Mexicans had been there for at least two hundred years before and Native Americans before that. My dad has always said that the Garzas tend to be either bandidos or teachers. I did not want to write a story about bandidos, not because they didn’t exist but because that feeds into the rhetoric that portrays Mexicans and Mexican Americans as thieves, robbers, murderers. When white men do these things, they are seen as heroes. When white men (or women) kill for racist reasons, it is shrugged off; when they thwart the law, they are heroic. But when people of color break the law, they are bad, evil, no good. And they don’t necessarily have to break the law to be viewed that way. The existing narrative is that the white people had to come in and “tame” the people of color. If that taming resulted in killing, well, those people were inherently bad. Those sins were forgivable. Women in westerns tend to be around for three reasons: to be raped, to get revenge after having been raped, or to have their hetero partner or mate take revenge for them after they are raped or killed. These women tend to become like those who wronged them.
I wanted a different narrative. Since I am a teacher, it wasn’t hard to decide that I’d take the approach of teaching through introducing a different narrative. My narrative focuses on women and is grounded in truth. My own, my family’s, and the truths I gleaned from reading stories of Spanish-Mexican, Mexican, and white women during and after the Mexican-American War. My characters are largely based on women I read about: a young Mexican woman who enlisted as a soldier with the help of her father; a hotel owner who worked both sides and married an Anglo; the rancheras whose land was taken; the curanderas, brujas, and caballeras who lived, worked, and died.
La llorona doesn’t make an appearance in my book (or does she?), but plenty of Tejanas do. This is their story, and I hope you like it.
Shadow of the Vulture will be released through Death’s Head Press in late 2020 or early 2021 as part of their splatter western series.