What did I know of Mexico? To begin with it was Speedy Gonzales. The lyrics of Pat Boone’s 1962 hit song Speedy Gonzales are frankly racist. The cartoon mouse had a comic squeaky voice, wore a sombrero and represented Mexicans for Warner Brothers. This stereotyped image of primitive and stupidity was confirmed by the villagers in The Magnificent Seven. As part of my history degree I studied the Aztecs who had a dramatic but disappeared civilization. I never thought much about Mexico.
Two things happened to change this for me: 43 trainee teachers disappeared on 26th September 2014 and have probably died in Guerrero State. Both drug gangs and the police are implicated. I read Prayers for the Stolen for our Book Group meeting in November. I begin to have a more vivid understanding of the dark side of Mexico.
Prayers for the Stolen is fiction, but Jennifer Clement, a Mexican-American, has done her research, and what we are presented with is an authentic account of what happens to young girls in Guerrero State. It’s fiction but it’s real life. Ladydi lives on the mountain an hour from Acapulco. The men leave for the drugs gangs or to cross the border to the US. The girls wait to escape or be captured by the narcos. Here is the opening paragraph.
Now we make you ugly, my mother said. She whistled. Her mouth was so close she sprayed my neck with her whistle-spit. I could smell beer. In the mirror I watched her move the piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered. (3)
There are more dangers, scorpions, the fast road to Acapulco, the pesticide dropped by the police to spoil the poppy crops. They get some education, but mostly it is from their mothers.
The story is narrated by Ladydi. Her mother named her as a reference to a famous betrayal by a man. The main thing in Ladydi’s life is not to be caught by the narcos, a task that becomes harder as she and her friends become older. The men have all left to work illegally in the US or to join the narcos or they are dead, killed by border guards or the gangs.
The first section follows the girls as they complete an irregular schooling on the mountain. Ladydi’s father leaves to cross to America. Women and girls are stolen. They must always take care, even have holes dug in the mountain in which to hide if the gangs come in their SUVs to find the girls. Ladydi’s friend Paula is the most beautiful girl in Mexico, and she disappears. From all the dangers Ladydi’s fierce and vindictive mother tries to protect her.
After graduating from primary school Mike a neighbour finds Ladydi a job as a nanny in Acapulco. She is going to be a nanny, but it turns out that the family have been killed. In the middle section the housekeeper, Ladydi and the gardener/lover live in luxury in the abandoned house for some months. Then Ladydi is arrested for a murder committed by Mike.
The third section takes place in the women’s prison outside Mexico City. The inmates are victims of the corrupt world in which they have tried to live. Many have killed men, sometimes because they were stolen and abused themselves. And here Ladydi experiences the strength that women give to each other, the tips, the advice, loans, and the knowledge of the prison rules.
The novel ends as the cycle begins again, with hope for a new life, and fears that it will be a girl.
Ladydi’s voice is very strong, and her closeness to her mother allows us to hear the older woman’s voice as well. This is a strong story, themes of endurance, mother’s love, women who look out for each other. Jennifer Clements knows what she writes about as she is an American-Mexican writer.
I especially enjoyed her descriptive writing with its wry notes and vivid pictures. This is how the third section begins.
The Santa Maria Jail in the south of Mexico City was the biggest beauty parlour in the world. The bitter and citric scent of hair dyes, hair sprays and nail polish permeated the rooms and passageways of the building. (157)
And in prison Ladydi thinks about her world and how it has been destroyed by heroin production.
I thought of the hills and valleys around my house planted with red and white poppies. I thought of the towns on our mountain like Kilometer Thirty, or Eden. These were the towns along the old road to Acapulco and not the new highway that tore our lives in two pieces. These were the towns that you could enter only by invitation. If you accidentally went there no one would ask you your name or ask you what time it was, they’d just kill you Mike once told me that there were huge mansions in those towns and incredible laboratories that were built underground to turn the poppies into heroin. He said that a miracle occurred at Kilometer Thirty a few years ago. The Virgin Mary appeared in a piece of marble. (171)
This novel is about the corruption, destructiveness and violence caused by the trade in drugs to ordinary lives, and to women’s lives in particular. It is a terrible indictment of what damage is done, here by the drugs trade, by the inability of governments to protect the weakest. The women of Guerrero State are given a voice in this novel.
And the book group said …
Prayers for the Stolen opened our eyes to the situation in Mexico. We would recommend the book because it read as an authentic story. It avoided violence, explicit sex and sentimentality. We often laughed. We liked its focus on women.
Prayers for the stolen by Jennifer Clement, published in 2014 by Vintage. 222pp
The novel was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in September 2015 but sadly the play is no longer available. Perhaps it will be repeated.
Kirsty Gunn’s review in The Guardian on 13th February 2014 places the novel within an American tradition of writing about reality.
And here’s another blog review that also picks up on reality in the novel on Whimsies & Words
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