This testimonial features the origins of the short story: La Llorona Loca: The Other Side by writer/performer Monica Palacios. Monica’s story is published in the anthology: Chicana Lesbians - The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About. Monica’s obsession with the folklore figure, La Llorona, leads her on a journey to create a comedy routine about the ghost woman in her stand up comedy act. Monica struggles with making the comedy bit work on stage and puts the story on the back burner. Years later, in 1987 Monica is a new arrival in Los Angeles desperately in need of Latina lesbian consciousness. Palacios meets fierce mujeres from the group Lesbianas Unidas who invite Monica to do a comedy performance at their March 1989 International Women’s Day celebration. The group’s support inspires Monica to finally create her Llorona story about lesbiana visibility, resilience, resistance, revolution and raunch. The late 80s and early 90s are turbulent times for queer Latinx people due to AIDS, homophobia, oppression, and politics but despite these challenges, Palacios turns fear into fuel, creating unique material as one of the first Chicana lesbian comedians.
This testimonial is written in loving memory of the beautiful Susana Brito. RIP.
I have always been fascinated with the legendary La Llorona, the Latino folklore ghost woman my Mexican parents warned me about. According to my mother and father, “La Llorona Loca,” the Crazy Crier, as they called her, came out at night roaming neighborhoods desperately searching for her dead children—that she drowned! To get me and my brother inside the house after riding our bikes up and down the street, my mother would stand outside the front door shouting: “If you don’t come inside the house right now, La Llorona Loca will grab you and take you away!” I pictured a Latina who looked like the wicked witch from the movie The Wizard of Oz, grabbing my upper arms with her gnarly thin fingers and long nasty fingernails, pulling me close to her ugly scary face—I always ran inside the house.
As much as La Llorona scared the H-E-double toothpicks out of me, she intrigued me because she was a Mexican ghost woman. The phantoms I knew from film and television were white scary people. The exception was the cartoon and comic book character: Casper the Friendly Ghost, who was white, personable and gay. Another factor that shocked me about La Llorona, she drowned her children! Killing her own children was horrible, but the fact she had the power to execute them was amazing! Men usually are murderers in stories and myths.
When I was in the 8th grade, I was in my neighborhood library working on a project and by chance I came upon a small thin paperback book about La Llorona. I was stunned but of course read the book from cover to cover. As it turns out, La Llorona was originally named, María, who was married to a man with whom she had two children. One day María found her husband with another woman and in a fit of rage flipped out and drowned his children. Regretting her unthinkable reaction, she forever roamed the river bank searching for her daughter and son. As an adult, I heard various versions of this story.
Because of my obsession with the Crazy Crier, I tried creating a comedy bit about La Llorona when I started doing standup comedy in the early 80s, but I couldn’t get the piece to work on stage. I always ended up giving too much of a history lesson before getting to the comedic part and the audience would stare at me confused. Due to this challenge, I put La Llorona on the back burner and continued my queer comedy career in San Francisco.
Five years later, when I arrived in Los Angeles April 1987 after being rejected from NYU, I felt like La Llorona because I was an emotional crying mess. I was so certain I was going to get into the MFA Film Program that I moved to New York before applying to the university. Dumb. Having trailblazing success as one of the first Chicana dyke comics in San Francisco in the 80s then blowing it at NYU was a gut punch to the panocha.
Luckily my one friend in Los Angeles, Vivian, invited me to stay with her for as long as I needed. Her kindness and hospitality made me feel less like a failure, and it even made me laugh when she referred to me as La Llorona from time to time because I cried so easily. Vivian assured me that my life was going to get better and I would soon be meeting new friends and performing comedy in LA.
And sure enough, three months later, I was no longer a weepy willow. I secured a waitress job at the Smoke House Restaurant in Burbank. I finally had a steady income and was fully able to check out the queer scene in Los Angeles. I was in desperate need of engaging with the LBGTQ community to let people know I was looking for places to perform comedy—and, I was horny. As I made my way to various socials, I couldn’t help but absorb the thick Los Angeles Latina lesbian consciousness seeping into my soul, inspiring my mind, and stimulating my loins. These fierce mujeres were part of Lesbianas Unidas (LU), a dynamic social political group of queer Latinas. Lesbianas Unidas was a sub-group of the larger Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos (GLLU), one of the first organizations of Los Angeles in 1981 to give visibility and pride to queer Latinos.
When I was in the presence of women from Lesbianas Unidas, I understood the importance of my two identities: Chicana and lesbian. Never one without the other. LU often created events that were for Latina lesbians only because they felt that claiming space important, and they were tired of the racism they experienced from LGBTQ organizations that were predominantly white. I appreciated their energy and they soon became big supporters of my comedy performances that were gaining attention all over Los Angeles. These mujeres were in the audience when I was the Master of Ceremony at the LA Pride Parade festival on June 25, 1988. This was a landmark event in my career because I had come so far from being a broken woman who had newly arrived in LA just a year earlier. Feeling super comfortable at this gig, I started improvising, telling the audience: “If you see La Llorona tell her she owes me 20 bucks.” I got laughs, but then I didn’t know what else to say and I changed the subject. I tried.
It was only a matter of time before I got romantically involved with one of the women from LU, Lydia, who was also the president of the larger group Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos. Lydia introduced me to various queer Latino artists and activists who were going to bat for the Latinx LGBTQ community. I truly enjoyed being immersed in a landscape of queer people who looked like me and had similar beliefs. As I was in my new happy head space, I tried performing La Llorona comedy again at various places and although I had gotten further with the narrative, each time I felt like I was standing in front of a classroom. I was explaining too much. Lydia suggested I cry on stage for 2 minutes, “The crowd would surely get the joke,” she said. “Absolutely not,” I declared. I put the story on ice.
Although my Llorona material was on the back burner, I still let the story simmer in my mind as I went to check out comedians at clubs, hoping to get inspiration. One night I was at the famous Comedy Store and watched a female comic deep throat a banana, swallowing it whole. That was her entire standup set—no words—simply banana porn. The mostly male audience members busted out in thunderous applause. I felt sad and sorry for the woman who had to subject herself to a repulsive act in order to get attention as a female comic in Hollywood. The inspiration I got from witnessing this mess? Appreciating my Chicana lesbian comedy career, even more! I refused to be under the influence of the male gaze. I walked out of the nightclub in need of Latina lesbian love. Thank goodness I came home to a message on my answering machine from Susana Brito of LU.
Susana, who had become a good friend, asked me to do a performance for LU’s upcoming International Women’s Day event on March 11, 1989. Susana was the event’s coordinator, and specifically told me, “I know you’re going to be funny, Monica. But can you create a performance about a strong mujer, a feminista, a complex lesbiana? A woman that all the attendees can relate to?” Susana’s suggestions, her energy, and the sparkle in her eye, made me think of my incomplete La Llorona story, especially her asking: “A woman that all the attendees can relate to?” The upcoming event was going to be packed with Latina lesbians, an audience that was going to be very familiar with La Llorona. The thought was exciting, making me realize I had to write and perform a short story with a beginning, middle, and end, and not a quick comedy bit. La Llorona was a complicated ghostly gal, and she deserved a deeper emotional narrative. It became clear that I was going to create my version of La Llorona: a tragic comedic love story between two dramatic Chicana lesbians. My revelation came to me because I had been experiencing in Los Angeles Latina lesbian consciousness for two solid years. I was fortifying my self-confidence, fortifying my comedy writing and performing skills, and fully understanding the importance of my combined identities: Chicana Lesbian. Perfect timing.
I wanted to honor the tragedy of the original story, but I had to put my signature ridiculousness to it. I named my Llorona, Caliente, a beautiful ageless woman who lived long ago in Mexico City. Her neighbors were suspicious that she wasn’t married and lacked male companionship. Rumors spread that Caliente was a P.E teacher who secretly wore crotchless gym shorts. One day as Caliente was sitting on her porch balancing her checkbook, a handsome butch woman wearing leather and riding a black stallion, sashayed up to her. Their eyes locked. The leather clad equestrian declared, “If you want something good, ride with me and be my woman, mi mujer!” Caliente dropped her checkbook replying, “Yes, please!” Caliente quickly jumped on the stranger’s horse and the new couple briskly rode out of town. They had no choice–they were being chased by many macho Mexican dudes. The women stopped in Tijuana, got married by a curandera, and eventually settled down in Bakersfield. Caliente affectionately called her partner, La Stranger, because her real name was Petranilia de la Chihuahua y Que! Their first year together the women were one big sex machine but then infidelity reared its ugly head.
I love being absurd on stage, so I went with telenovela storytelling elements: high drama, sex, betrayal, memorable characters, extramarital affairs, shocking deaths, and I knew the audience of all women would eat it up. Also, I was being revolutionary by featuring same sex marriage before it was legal. I had fun re-inventing La Llorona through my Chicana lesbian lens. I continued honoring the tragedy of the original story so upon finding out that La Stranger was unfaithful, Caliente slipped into a rage and drowned her spouse in the river. Realizing she had done a horrible act, Caliente started crying uncontrollably until she fainted into the river and drowned as well. Caliente then transformed into a ghost and roamed along the river bank crying out: “Have you seen La Stranger?” I lightened things up by having a villager encounter the phantom Caliente as she appeared from the bushes dressed in all white and wearing clogs. The man jumped back and gasped, “Clogs! That’s so 70s.”
It was amusing and liberating being silly with an iconic mythical figure. I felt confident my Llorona tale was the first of its kind. I titled my story: La Llorona Loca: The Other Side. I wanted to honor my parents and grandparents because they introduced La Llorona to me, and they added the “Loca” to the name. “The Other Side” comes from hearing relatives refer to queer people as, “Gente del otro lado.”
Two weeks before the event, Lydia and I broke up. We remained friends and she was curious to see how my Llorona story would be received at the International Women’s Day celebration.
As I expected, the day of the event was filled with wall-to-wall excited Latina lesbians from all over Southern California. Speakers, poets, and singers went on before me and the audience appreciated all they had to offer. Then I was introduced by Susana, and I eagerly stepped on stage, receiving a heartfelt applause from the audience who was also shouting out my name. I was definitely feeling the love. I said my hellos and then declared: “I look out and see that it’s Ladies Night, and the feelings right, oh yes it’s Ladies Night, oh what a night.” People cracked up as I quoted the popular song by the band Kool and The Gang. Then I said: “Can’t you feel the estrogen in the air? I swear to God I’m going to start my period any second.” I got big laughs with that one and I knew these women wanted to laugh with me. I told my first, all Latina lesbian LA audience that I was now going to share a world premiere and proceeded to perform my story. As soon as I mentioned “Caliente” in a silly sexy way, the women started hooting and hollering, massively approving my naming La Llorona, “Hot!” Performing my new story was delightful, and it was fun to see the audience in hysterics wanting more. A fourth of the audience had not seen me perform before; they had not experienced my Chicana lesbian comedy magic. I was outrageous, unapologetic, raunchy, smart, loving, and relatable! I felt proud to be on stage with my comedy, my words, my queer Chicana lesbian body while making everyone in the room release laughter and release love. We were one big lesbiana quinceañera party! And my act had nothing to do with a banana.
This performance boosted my popularity, and I got hired for future gigs by women in the crowd. I started performing this story at all my events. After shows, women would come up to me and tell me to create more stories about my characters Caliente and La Stranger.
My kooky Llorona narrative was taking on a life of its own, which was good timing because writer/editor Carla Trujillo, a person who I met when I first started performing comedy in San Francisco, asked me to be in an anthology she was working on, Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About by Third Woman Press. I was thrilled Carla asked me to part of a book whose mission statement was my entire career: promoting Chicana lesbian visibility, power, resilience, resistance and bad girls! I felt my Llorona character, charming Caliente, was a very bad girl and the whole story fit perfectly into the anthology. Carla loved La Llorona Loca: The Other Side and once the book was published, Trujillo traveled around the country promoting the anthology, always reading my story because it was funny and it allowed her to be silly as she presented it to audiences. Carla personally signed my copy of the book: “Monica, you have brought much to my life: joy, laughter and an ability to be a ham using your story.”
The positive feedback from my story was endless, and one queer LA theater group asked permission to present my Llorona tale as a short play. I absolutely gave the gang an enthusiastic yes! My play was part of a month long run of three short plays in February 1994 at Los Angeles Celebration Theater. It was interesting and disappointing to find out that the group had a hard time finding female actors to play the lesbian couple, Caliente and La Stranger. The actors were concerned that playing a lesbian couple would ruin their careers. The actors were not required to kiss or hug, but the sheer action of playing a lesbian couple on stage was dangerous to them. I guess these women truly feared Chicana lesbians: the girls our mothers warned us about. Finally, the group found professional Latina actors who truly brought the lesbian couple to life. I personally enjoyed their commitment to my play which received favorable reviews especially from the LA Times, “Palacios has a hip way with anachronisms and speech quirks, not to mention a ribald sense of humor.”Footnote1
A year later in Fall 1995 when I was teaching in the Department of Chicano/a Studies at UCLA, I was asked to teach Spring Quarter 1996 and had to come up with a new class. Since the anthology was doing well and my Llorona story was maintaining its buzz, it made sense to make my new class about La Llorona—and that’s what I called it. The course focused on the history of La Llorona and the many versions told around the world. Students were required to read, Chicana Lesbians, and develop their own fictional short story of a modern day Llorona, which they read in front of the class as the final. The students were all over the map creatively with their unique stories–dramatic, funny, science fiction, operatic, and musical. It was eye-opening to witness their innovative narratives all based on a mythical folklore figure. The class was popular enough that the Department asked me to teach it again Spring quarter 1997. The majority of the Chicano/Latino students experienced La Llorona stories in their childhood; their parents, like mine, used La Llorona as a disciplinarian tool to get their children to do what they were told under the threat that La Llorona was going to get them! It was interesting to see these students of a younger generation exposed to the same characteristics and parental tactics involving La Llorona.
Even though I wrote La Llorona Loca: The Other Side more than thirty years ago, it is my most downloaded required reading for students on my Academia.edu page. I believe my Chicana lesbian Llorona tale remains popular because of the themes it foregrounds: Chicana love, same-sex marriage, folklore, comedy, betrayal, heartache, death, and a bite of a jalapeño. It’s fun and funny to read and there’s no other Llorona story like it. My piece is the only humorous work in the entire Chicana Lesbians anthology. Editor Trujillo was a big fan of my work and believed my funny Llorona story would be comedy relief for the book mixed in with the serious entries of Chicana lesbian life. My comedy has always had a relief/healing element to it, and I refer to this as my comedy curanderismo.
My story still holds up today because it’s a representation of my legacy: I am one of the first Chicana lesbian comics to be out and proud on stage during the early 80s in San Francisco when the AIDS crisis was raging and homophobia was rampant. I am a rebel. My character Caliente is a rebel. La Llorona is a rebel. The anthology is a rebellious book. Carla Trujillo wanted to ruffle the feathers of the mainstream and show off Chicana lesbians as a community of fierce mujeres who were bold, intelligent, passionate, women who desired other women and who absolutely didn’t need men. Dangerous! I was dating a woman who told her mother she was seeing me: Monica Palacios, bold hilarious Chicana lesbian writer/performer. Concerned, her mother did some online searching about me and told her daughter I was a very bad lesbian who said the word, cunt, on stage. I have never mentioned the C-word on stage. The mother said I was dangerous—it made me proud!
Notes on contributors
Monica Palacios is a queer Chicana writer/performer, creating performance and written work promoting the LGBTQ Latinx experience. Monica is a 2024 United States Artists Fellow Nominee. Palacios is featured in the new film: STAND UP, STAND OUT: The Making of a Comedy Movement, winner of Best Documentary Santa Fe Film Festival 2021, about the first gay comedy club in the nation in San Francisco during the 1980s. Monica received the Nancy Dean Lesbian Playwriting Award 2021 by Open Meadows Foundation. Monica was selected as the Lucille Geier Lakes Writer-in-Residence at Smith College, Spring 2019. Monica received a Postdoctoral Rockefeller Fellowship from UC Santa Barbara, enabling her to write, direct and produce her play: Sweet Peace. Monica has received numerous awards, most notably from the City of Los Angeles as a Latinx LGBTQ Trailblazer 2017. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared October 12, 2012 “Monica Palacios Day” honoring her 30-year career as a pioneering Chicana lesbian writer/performer.
1 “Unfinished Plays, Provocative Voices,” review by Jan Breslauer, LA Times, February 4, 1994.