“Soy mujer que mira hacia adentro
Soy mujer luz del día
Soy mujer luna
Soy mujer estrella de la mañana” — María Sabina
“What do we make
of the flowering vine
that uses as its trellis
the walls of a prison?” — Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism
The doors opened then shut behind us. We waited between them for the next one to open. Open, shut, keys jangling the locks open, shut, while butterflies fluttered behind the fencing.
In March of 2020 I went with a group of artists, poets, and musicians to the Penal Femenil Santiaguito de Almoloya, Mexico—a prison center for prevention and social reinsertion. We were there with Rizoma, an initiative started by diSONARE cofounder and artist Lucía Hinojosa and supported by the NGO Reinserta, to facilitate a workshop in the women’s section of the penitentiary.1
After crossing multiple thresholds, I tried to shake the sense of claustrophobia as a group of the incarcerated women, the Calpulli—a Náhuatl word used to describe a tribe or family with shared land or spiritual beliefs—gathered on a rectangle of concrete, laundry drying on the line behind them. They wrapped duct tape tightly around the head of a drum and pounded a steady beat. With colorful bands around their heads and shakers around their ankles, they started to dance. The Ometeotl, a prehistoric Náhuatl dance, was their offering, an opening ritual. Throughout the day the women would continue to exchange words in Náhuatl. Inside the prison walls, the Calpulli —the self appointed name of the group of dancers—had formed an autonomous and alternative study group that focuses on the ancient dance’s detailed movements, gestures and symbolic imagination, as well as a glossary of words and phrases in Náhuatl—enacting a sort of process of personal decolonization, learning about, and reclaiming their indigenous roots. The dance was a tie to their lineage, but also a medium for liberated expression, a way of using their bodies to shout and vent, even if only temporarily, the injustice they endure inside of the prison and the pain they carry with them.
One can only guess at the number of unreported incidents of violence and abuse that occur within the penitentiary. Shortly after Rizoma’s second workshop at the prison, in July of 2020, the director of the prison, Olga Viveros Bravo, who we briefly met and heard some of the women refer to as “the devil”, was fired from her position for abusing six prisoners. She sent guards (both male and female) into one of the rooms in the maternal section of the prison and had the women tortured. They were handcuffed and beaten for hours to the point of losing consciousness while the guards forced their children to witness their mother’s assaults.2 No balm can exist for the humiliation and pain inflicted upon these women.
As they danced, children ran around the outskirts. I watched one little boy holding his mother’s hand, shaking his feet, and trying to imitate the dancers. With 389 prison facilities and a reputation for high levels of corruption and violence, Mexico’s carceral system has undergone multiple reforms in the last decade. In November of 2017 the Ley Nacional de Ejecución Penal was enacted, which permitted children to stay with their mothers and live in the prison up to the age of 3.3 Sitting in the shade of the prison’s tower, I thought of those mothers and how hard it would be to know your child would be taken from you in just a few years, I thought of the children not knowing they were growing up in a prison, I wondered how many of those children had been born within the confines of the penitentiary, and about what child care services were available to them.
The impulse for Rizoma began when Lucía Hinojosa and musician Adriana Camacho were planning a poetry and sound festival in Mexico City and invited Anne Waldman to participate in the event. Hinojosa and Waldman decided they also wanted to bring their efforts and art into a space where it was needed maybe more, so they started Rizoma.4 This was the second time Rizoma had come to Santiaguito. The aim of the first workshop in November of 2019 was to explore ritual and performance through the work of María Sabina, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Nahui Olin, and others. The women wrote their own poems inspired by Sabina’s shamanic chants “Soy la mujer Remolino,” and Waldman’s renowned version “Fast Speaking Woman.” A collective poem was written and performed at the end serving as an anthem of self-assertion and strength. In the second iteration, a week before the 8M Women’s March, we focused on the archetype of the woman warrior across cultures and contexts, questioning how this figure might inspire and empower us to forge ahead in our struggles. How can we have agency in our roles and rights as women? What is the power of ritual, performance, and poetry in this marginal context and how can it affect and change us? Many of the same women who had attended the first workshop returned. During a break, after a collective performance of sound, music and spoken word, a participant asked what was the name for the medium of what we were doing and Waldman stepped in and empathically said that we had entered “a poetic autonomous zone suspended in experimentation.” No statement could have been more accurate. Within a few minutes of being together we had cultivated a plane of experiment and performance dislodged and safe from all the corruption that lingered outside of it. We opened ourselves up, pushing to find a languaging for what we noticed, what we raged against, and what we loved. This is what we were here to do: to activate a space in which we could unleash ourselves, to facilitate an incursion into what was, for some, a new mode of expression that was both personal and collective, and to offer a slot of time that wasn’t controlled by the prison guards but rather allotted to self-expression, creative uncertainty, openness and connection.
The women we came to know that day had been charged with harsh sentences—up to 80 years —mostly either for crimes they didn’t commit or crimes they had been lead into by male relatives. I met a 19-year-old woman who had been living in the prison for a year without receiving a sentence or knowing what she would eventually be accused of. Apart from one woman who was charged with homicide for killing an abusive husband, the rest of the participants had all been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Into the third hour I held a woman in my arms while we both sobbed. It was cathartic for us both, a moment of unconditional humanity. We were overwhelmed by the injustice of her situation and by our respective, and very different, inabilities to do anything to change it. What could she do without the lawyer she couldn’t afford? Where could she place the rage and sadness of knowing her teenage children were incarcerated in a juvenile facility down the road? What could I do to make a change within a criminal justice system that doesn’t protect marginalized people from violence but rather inflicts additional violence upon those victims at the hand of the state?
We wrote poems, read them aloud, cried, danced, and sang, but most of all we listened. When someone shared, the whole room cheered them on. “Fuerza Guerrera!” they would shout to one another when someone was breaking down. At one point, a woman delivered a lengthy and moving monologue which began with: “I didn’t write anything because I do not need paper to write.” She proceeded to list injustices that had been committed against her and other incarcerated women. The room, a sea of heads nodding along with every example she elucidated, some bursting into tears, others overcome with anger. The air was charged with an urgent type of feminism, collective care and respect. Maybe this thrilling stir was enhanced by the imminent strike, the 8M (8 de marzo), which was held just a few days after we visited the prison followed by the “9M a day without women”—both organized and amplified by feminist collectives to protest the rise in violence against women that Mexico has experienced in the last few years. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), in 2018 there were 3,752 registered feminicidios—an approximate 10 murdered women a day—the highest number registered in the last 29 years (1990-2018).5 Maybe the anticipation of the strike stoked a sense of empowerment, a gleam of possible change which heaved us into that zone void of obstacles to our flourishing expression.
A month after we visited Santiaguito, they cancelled all the workshops due to COVID-19. When the prison allows us to return, we will. Until we can be in the presence of each other, diSONARE publishers Hinojosa and Diego Gerard are gathering poems written in the workshops with the intention of publishing them through their editorial platform. We have also suggested to Reinserta the possibility of writing letters and starting a correspondence with the women as a way of continuing to provide a platform for self-expression, an epistolary exchange to fortify ourselves and the connections we have made.
In the last workshop, towards the end of our time together, Nadine Faraj introduced a traditional Náhuatl song used in the Danza de la Luna, and we all sang the refrain “Diosa, guerrera y mariposa / tú eres diosa, guerrera y mariposa” which translates to “Goddess, warrior, and butterfly / you are a goddess, warrior, and butterfly”6. Luna Montenegro, from the art collective montenegrofisher, started pushing her arms out, moving around us, animating the space, enhancing the chant, performing a ritual. The drum from the Ometeotl was brought in and we pounded on it together. We moved, our heads shaking, our arms waving to the beat of the drum, butterflies fluttering behind the fencing.
- Poetry workshop facilitators: David Rojas Azules, Ambrose Bye, Zazil Collins, Nadine Faraj, Adrian Fisher, Carolina Fusilier, Diego Gerard, Emma Gomis, Lucía Hinojosa, No Land, Guro Moe, Alejandra Monroy, Luna Montenegro, Adriana Camacho, Anne Waldman, Devin Brahja Waldman. Poetry workshop participants: María Luisa, Melissa, Berenice, Lucy, Silvia, Marisol, Ana, Norma, Cecilia, Itzel, Judith, Vianey, Azucena, Norma, Verónica, Mercedes, Eloísa, Cinthya, Iraís, Juana, Rocío. (Due to legal reasons as well as for the women’s protection, the full names of the participants cannot be disclosed.)
- Verónica Díaz, “Torturan a reclusas y menores en penal de ‘Santiaguito’,” Milenio, published 23 July 2020,
- Reinserta, https://reinserta.org/mujeres-ni%C3%B1os (accessed 5 August 2020)
- They chose the name Rizoma to make reference to the rhizome that extends and connects us all to one another.
- Of the 46.5 million women 15 years and older that live in Mexico, 66.1 have been victims of domestic violence (INEGI, https://en.www.inegi.org.mx)
- Seidy Morales Chicomecoátl y Norma Laureano Yaya “Diosa, Guerrera y Mariposa” https://cantandoparasanar.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/diosa-guerrera-y-mariposa/