Illustration by David Fitzsimmons, Arizona Daily Star

La Llorona is alive and well locally, even though we lack running water. I have known teenaged Chicanas who wouldn’t ride their horses in the dry bed of the Santa Cruz (a good galloping place, that) because “that scary lady” was there.

I have friends who claim to have heard her at night, and one friend who swears she saw her in the middle of a daytime dust storm in South Tucson. (“Centuries of tears had worn furrows down her cheeks.”)

And the La Llorona story had been given a distinctly Tucson twist. According to this version, a Tucson mother warned her little boy not to play in the dry washes because of flash floods. They happen all too often in the rainy season, and anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time runs a good danger of being swept away and drowned. That’s what happened to this particular boy. He died, and his mother, mad with grief still wanders the washes, looking for her lost son. As is always the case, any child will do.

From here on, things get a little surprising. About thirty years ago, I was giving a talk to a class of fairly active middle schoolers. I had just discovered that the VHS tape I had brought wouldn’t work in the school’s Beta machine. Chaos was starting to reign. Desperately, I said something like “I’m a folklorist. Folklorists study stories. Stories like La Llorona.” Instant silence.

“Who can tell me about La Llorona?” I asked. A forest of hands flew up. Confident that I knew what I was going to hear, I called on one Chicanita.

"She’s the girl who died in the girl’s washroom, and if you turn off the lights and say 'La Llorona, La Llorona, I believe in you' twenty times, she’ll come at you out of the mirror.” Gulp! Not what I had expected at all.

I knew the story of the girl in the mirror — she is all over the United States. But she is usually called Mary Jane or Mary Wales or Bloddy Mary. Here, on Tucson’s Southwest side, she’s La Llorona.

What’s the connection between the scary girl in the washroom and the scary lady on the riverbank? Potentially running water, apparently.

That same day another girl gave the formula as “La Llorona, La Llorona, you murdered your babies.” And one friend who remembers Bloody Mary stories from her childhood tells me that to make her appear you have to sprinkle water on the mirror.

Well, that’s folklore. It belongs to communities not individuals, it's constantly changing, and there’s is no “correct” version.

And I can’t leave it alone. Stay tuned.