beware the river,
for here haunts la llorona.
in life, she was a fool for love.
then she drowned her children out of spite,
and now her ghost wants to drown you, too.
Excerpted from Felice and the Wailing Woman by Diana López Copyright © 2023 by Diana López. Excerpted by permission of Kokila. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Today, the students of Tres Leches Middle School in Tejas would rather eat dirt than go on a field trip. This field trip, to be exact. They’d rather stay inside and take pop quizzes. They’d rather eat raw broccoli for lunch and do 1,153 jumping jacks for PE. Instead, they move slowly, double-knotting their shoelaces and topping off their water bottles as Mr. Tercero hurries them along. “¡Ándenle!” he says.
They’ve heard of other schools in other towns with field trips to museums, or firehouses, or historic sites like the Alamo. They’ve heard that instead of hiking to their destinations, the students travel by bus. They’ve even heard—and this one’s hard to believe—that the field trips often include tour guides who know everything and then some, and gift shops—yes, gift shops!—where visitors can buy postcards or refrigerator magnets or tiny spoons. But for the pobrecitos of Tres Leches, there were no buses, tour guides, or gift shops. They went to only three places, and they went to these places every year—El Camarón Dance Hall & Arcade in the fall, the mud expanse in the winter, and La Llorona Park in the spring. The “park” part was always said tongue-in- cheek, and if anyone knew what the opposite of a park was, they would have used that word instead.
“Come on. Let’s go!” Ms. Peters calls out. And so the students start their trek, not bothering to look around or make jokes. They pass the playground and the library and the vacant lot. They march right out of town, crossing the soon-to-be bluebonnet field and a small, dark forest, and on the other side of it, a clearing of mostly dead grass. They gulp warm water from their bottles and swat at mosquitoes, the humid air thick around them, until finally arriving at a wooden marker—like a tombstone—nearly hidden by webs and vines.
“Stop!” Mr. Tercero demands. The students freeze, not daring to go farther. The teachers pull out hedge shears and pruners, and they start cutting away, little by little revealing a sign.
beware the river,
for here haunts la llorona. in life, she was a fool for love.
then she drowned her children out of spite, and now her ghost wants to drown you, too.
The teachers and the students take a moment to read. Some of the braver souls speak the words aloud, while others can only manage to mouth them silently.
Then the principal, Ms. Cavasos, says, “Any volunteers?” After a moment of silence, she asks again, this time with a “Hmm?”
The students look at their double-knotted shoelaces and the burrs clinging to their socks.
“Very well, then,” Ms. Cavasos says, opening a bag. One by one, the students utter a prayer and reach in. They pull out folded bits of paper. “Don’t look till I say,” Ms. Cavasos reminds them. The last student reaches into the bag. She has no choice but to take the remaining paper. At that, the principal says, “Okay. You can look now.”
The students unfold the papers, most sighing with relief except for Ignacio, whose paper is marked with an X. The poor boy shivers and asks his friends, “Want to trade? Want to trade?” but no one accepts the offer.
Ms. Cavasos puts a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a daring boy,” she assures him, but he looks scared.
Then Coach steps forward with a rope. He ties one end around Ignacio’s waist, and because Coach is strong and makes a good anchor, he ties the other end around his own waist.
“It’s time to step forward,” Ms. Cavasos tells Ignacio. “Report what you hear and what you feel. You’re our hero today. Your friends”—she waves an arm at them— “they need to be reminded.”
“And when we return to town, you’ll be rewarded with a delicious slice of tres leches cake,” she adds.
This is usually a strong motivation, but not today. Instead, Ignacio looks back at his friends as if to ask for help. They can only nod to urge him forward.
Ignacio turns toward the river. He clenches his fists, closes his eyes, and takes one step and then another. About ten steps in, he moans. “Oh!” he cries. “I hear La Llorona! She’s crying! It’s so terrible!”
“What is she saying?” Ms. Peters wants to know. “She’s calling for her children. She wants her children,” Ignacio answers. “She’s calling for me. I’m her child. I need to go to her!”
“Cover your ears!” his friends tell him. “Turn back!” “But she needs me!” Ignacio says with urgency.
He runs forward, and suddenly the rope goes taut. Coach digs his heels in the dirt to hold Ignacio back, but it works only for a few seconds.
“Quick! I need help,” Coach calls.
Mr. Tercero and five or six students grab the rope for an intense tug-of-war.
It shouldn’t be possible for one small boy like Ignacio to hold them off, but the dreadful lure of La Llorona’s spell is unparalleled.
“Pull!” Coach shouts, and the rope moves a little. “Pull!” he shouts again.
Coach, Mr. Tercero, and the students pull, using the full force of their muscles and will. Their hands get sweaty, and their arms and legs start to shake, but inch by inch, they manage to reel Ignacio in. When he’s on the safe side of the sign, everyone drops to the ground, exhausted. They ask for their water bottles, some for drinking and others for pouring the water over their heads.
After a stunned moment, Ignacio unties the rope, rubs at his belly, and starts to sob. “I wanted to go to her, even though her cries were like a nightmare. Why did I want to go to her? She would have drowned me. I knew she wanted to drown me, and I still wanted to go.”
Ms. Cavasos nods knowingly. “That’s the curse of La Llorona. She tricks you into thinking you’re her child, and when she sees that you’re not . . . well, let’s just say her rage takes over.” Then, turning to the group, she says, “You must never go past this sign, for if you do, you will hear La Llorona’s cries and feel compelled to approach the river, where she’ll grab you and—”
She stops midsentence. The students nod because they all know what will happen next. They’ve been coming to La Llorona “Park” every year since kindergarten, and they’ll keep coming till they graduate from high school, because you could never hear it enough: Beware the river, beware the river, beware . . .
Hardcover, 978-0593326497, 288 pages
April 18, 2023
Diana López is the author of the adult novella Sofia's Saints and numerous middle grade novels, including Confetti Girl, Nothing Up My Sleeve, and Lucky Luna. Her debut picture book, Sing with Me: The Story of Selena Quintanilla, is available in English and Spanish. She also wrote the novel adaptation for the Disney/Pixar film Coco. Diana retired after a 28-year career in education at both the middle grade and college levels, but she still enjoys meeting with students when she visits schools to chat about books and writing. She lives in her hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas.