La Llorona: Turning Horror into Light

<i>La Llorona: </i>Turning Horror into Light

Since even before Gabriel García Márquez published One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967, Latin American artists have grappled with the problem of how to make art from the terrifying history of organized violence that afflicts our hemisphere: the mass slaughters and dirty wars waged against civilians in order to maintain the grotesquely unequal and racist status quos of our societies. Should writers produce novels and filmmakers make films that expose and denounce what has occurred? Many do, but that isn’t what has motivated some of our most beloved artists. Early in his career, during the bloody era in Colombia known as La Violencia, García Márquez protested that, to accede to demands that he write condemnatory social-realist fiction, he’d have to create “catalogs of corpses.” Fiction is for the survivors, he said, who need art that explores how to go on living with the knowledge of what has happened—a challenge to, among other things, create imaginatively.

Jayro Bustamante faces just such a challenge in choosing how to convey Guatemalan realities in his cinematic storytelling. In his third feature film, La Llorona (2019), he engages with his country’s recent traumas not by documenting them but by conjuring an intimate, supernatural tale—one that drops us directly into the experience of communal horror and its shape-shifting aftermath, showing us how such crimes’ ghostly legacies stalk us and then refuse to let us go until we turn to look them in the eyes.

The Guatemala in which Bustamante grew up—and in which I partly did too—was a country enduring a three-and-a-half-decade-long civil war, waged primarily under military dictatorship. The rural, Indigenous Maya people suffered most of all, their communities destroyed by scorched-earth anti-insurgency campaigns that resulted in over six hundred documented massacres. In 1999, three years after a peace accord ended the conflict, a United Nations–backed commission found that from 1981 to 1983—a period dominated by dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s reign of terror—the brutalities perpetrated by the Guatemalan military against the Maya population in some parts of the country had reached the level of genocide. The intervening years of international condemnation over its human-rights record had turned Guatemala into a pariah state and a terrorized place, where the most obvious way to stay alive was to keep silent about or deny what had happened and what was still happening. The nation’s government today—allied with the same powerful, right-wing rich people and military officers as before—is still trying to repress the truth. But, as Bustamante remarked to me, that kind of denial is impossible inside the country now, when any child who looks up Guatemala on the internet will find that the whole world knows a genocide was committed there.

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