I had lived in Mexico for 17 years when I suddenly found myself in prison, arrested on invented charges. I spent 33 days in Ixcotel State Prison in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the fall of 2003.
My book recounts stories of the women I met there, illuminating my biggest surprise and my only consolation in prison: the solidarity that formed among the women I lived, ate, swept and passed long days with while inside.
Nine lyrical tales show the depth of emotions that insist on their own space, even in these harshest of circumstances.
The largest and brawniest woman in the prison, doing time for armed robbery, kills a rat with her foot, then turns to me for help with a very special letter. Another young woman, only nineteen years old, has already been in for three years, guilty of kidnapping her own child. And Ana, a political prisoner, teaches me about creative ways to turn the tide, one including frog-eating snakes.
I weave my own tale through the stories. Accused of a crime that doesn’t exist by a powerful man in Mexico, I depend on the fierce solidarity of friends on the outside, and a brilliant lawyer who trusts in the rule of law… even in Mexico.
The women incarcerated in Ixcotel State Prison said that the blackbirds chattered in the lone pomegranate tree in the courtyard whenever a woman was about to be released.
They are chattering now.
The book is my love story to the women of Ixcotel, who saved me every day.
Excerpt from Introduction by Elena Poniatowska:
To see others with kind eyes is also a way of rescuing oneself.
Mary Ellen puts their stories before hers: Berta, Susa, Natalia, Citlali, Flor, Concha –who stomps a rat to death and once wielded a gun in a bank robbery — Lucia, Soraya, Ana and all her companions who shared the “talacha” – the relentless sweeping and cleaning of the prison, all her companions who were with her day and night. Mary Ellen sweeps. In prison, as soon as one finishes sweeping it is time to sweep again. They sweep again and again and over and over and at all hours. Everything gets swept. Crimes, shame, anger, sadness all get swept by the brooms.
Mary Ellen’s hands blister, but she never shows her wounds. Nor does she show her resulting callouses. She assembles in the courtyard and joins the circle of women who at first reject her for her blond hair and her blue eyes. She shares pistachios with them, and when she innocently tells them that she likes to write poetry but the words won’t come here in the pen, Concha sends her a lifeline:
Don’t worry, blondie, someday you’ll write the good stuff again.”
Photo in this post taken by Vida Yovanovich as part of her series of photos of women in Mexican prisons: Resonant Solitudes