Although several variations exist, the basic story tells of a beautiful woman by the name of Maria who drowns her children in order to be with the man that she loved. The man would not have her, which devastated her. She would not take no for an answer, so she drowned herself in a lake in Mexico City. Challenged at the gates of heaven as to the whereabouts of her children, she is not permitted to enter the afterlife until she has found them. Maria is forced to wander the Earth for all eternity, searching in vain for her drowned offspring, with her constant weeping giving her the name "La Llorona". She is trapped in between the living world and the spirit world.
In some versions of this tale and legend, La Llorona will kidnap wandering children who resemble her missing children, or children who disobey their parents. People who claim to have seen her say she appears at night or in the late evenings from rivers or oceans in Mexico. Some believe that those who hear the wails of La Llorona are marked for death, similar to the Gaelic banshee legend [according to whom?]. She is said to cry, "Ay mis hijos!" which translates to, "Oh, my children!"
La Llorona bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek tale of the demonic demigodess Lamia. Hera, Zeus' wife, learned of his affair with Lamia, and then forced Zeus to give up the relationship and punished Lamia by forcing her to eat her own children. Out of jealousy over the loss of her own children, Lamia preys upon human children and devours them if she catches them. In Greek mythology, Medea killed the two children fathered by Jason (one of the Argonauts) after he left her for another woman.
Local Aztec folklore possibly influenced the legend; the goddess Cihuacoatl or Coatlicue was said to have appeared shortly prior to the discovery of New Spain by Hernán Cortés, weeping for her lost children, an omen of the fall of the Aztec empire.
La Llorona is also sometimes identified with La Malinche, the Nahua woman who served as Cortés' interpreter and who some say was betrayed by the Spanish conquistadors. In one folk story of La Malinche, she becomes Cortés' mistress and bore him a child, only to be abandoned so that he could marry a Spanish lady (although no evidence exists that La Malinche killed her children). Aztec pride drove La Malinche to acts of vengeance. In this context, the tale compares the Spanish discovery of New Spain and the demise of indigenous culture after the conquest with La Llorona's loss