The Racialized Horror of Lost Children: From ‘La Llorona’ to ‘Immigration Nation’

Sep 15, 2020
1:36 PM

L: Scene from IMMIGRATION NATION (Via series’ press kit; R: Scene from LA LLORONA (Via film’s press kit)

They say there’s nothing worse than losing a child. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Of horror films. And this rings particularly true for the Latinx community, we of collectivism, family separation, and La Llorona.

Like all stories, the narrative of losing children depends greatly on who’s telling it. Take Netflix’s Immigration Nation out last month. It’s six hours of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) exposé told from the white perspective. Show creators Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz are certainly well-meaning white people—they spent years making “the documentary Trump doesn’t want you to see” after all. But they open their series with raids and child separation, fathers weeping for their children and pleading their humanity in subtitled Spanish. And they end it with death, the dismembered corpses of people who die crossing the border.

Along the way, the immigrants in question have no power. The third episode’s title may be “Power of the Vote” but the irony is that in Immigration Nation there is no power in the vote (something the immigrants in question don’t have anyway). The episode follows deported veteran César López, who’s been working to change the laws to protect his fellow servicemen and women from similar fates (seems like the LEAST the U.S. government could do). He lost his status because of a marijuana conviction in New Mexico and is hoping the sympathetic Michelle Lujan Grisham will get elected governor there and then pardon him. Well, she wins and he goes to her office on her first day to ask for the pardon. But he doesn’t have an appointment and the episode ends when her staff gives him what appears to be the brush off.

One catch though—Lopez did get a pardon. It was after filming but before the series premiered. Meaning, the creators could have added one of their dramatic black-white-and-red title cards saying as much but choose not to. His self-created success doesn’t fit their narrative of the powerless immigrant. Immigration Nation is filled with these choices. Like the organizers who successfully stop local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE only to see raids ramp up in their communities. Or how the show contrasts those entering “the right way” by seeking asylum with those trying to cross illegally—it’s death either way. In this worldview, there’s nothing an immigrant or their supporters can do in the face of the all-powerful ICE. It sucks and it upholds the basic tenet of white supremacy—that white people hold all the power.

Of course, it’s not true. And even a story as disempowering as losing your children can show it. You see, this summer we also got to see Guatemalan Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, a horror movie of the more traditional kind. The film tackles many of the same themes as Immigration Nation, from state-sanctioned violence to the personal tragedy of losing children but with the opposite takeaway.

La Llorona takes place in Guatemala and follows the fictionalized “El General” Enrique Monteverde and his family as the entire country reckons with his sins. He’s an old man now and on trial for the genocide of the Maya-Ixil people. Thanks to the harrowing testimony of countless indigenous women, the court finds him guilty. The ruling class overturns the verdict though and he walks free. Sounds like another case of the powerless brown victim, right?

Well, that’s just the start of the film. The Monteverde house is surrounded by protesters who won’t let him or his family leave, curtailing his freedom and haunting him with their chants, their photos of the dead and disappeared, and their very presence. In addition, most of the help has quit and the replacement, Alma, is not who she claims to be.

We first see Alma at the front of the protestors as if she’s been born of their rage. She’s a small, young, indigenous woman and as we see her looking up at El General’s windows, I could feel her power. I may have hollered, “get the f*cker!” And she does. Strange things begin to happen in the house, perhaps the most worrisome being El General’s granddaughter playing at holding her breath underwater. Alma’s quiet presence grows until she snuffs out Enrique’s life before moving on to the next leader of the genocidal regime.

So La Llorona manages to acknowledge the loss of brown children from oppressed communities while also showing their power—the power of the organized, of the survivors, of the righteous. The evil here is the white devil and his state even if director Bustamonte graciously allows the complicit Monteverde family some redemption. Enrique’s wife must relive Alma’s tragedy and see her husband for who is to do so but she is spared. Likewise, Alma is only trying to protect the granddaughter by having her practice holding her breath. In the end, the film undermines white supremacy by placing the true power with the people.

It’s so very different from Immigration Nation and the contrast reveals just how important it is for Latinxs to tell our own stories. Yes, the horror is the same, but the perspective, the imagined audience, the format, the heroes, and the villains are all determined by the identity of the storyteller. And only when you de-center the white perspective do you get to the root of the problem—white supremacy. It’s white supremacy and its adherents who villainized the indigenous communities of Central America to the point where all this violence, all the decimating of families and pushing them to flee their homes happens. And if we’re ever going to stop it, we have to tell different stories. We can’t just expose the atrocities. We have to undercut the ideology that powers them.


A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. You can follow her on Twitter: @cescobarandrade.