This project was created in collaboration with incarcerated women in Chiapas and their children (under 4 years old), who resided with them in the prison. The women wanted to express painful parts of their past that they hoped to leave behind. They also wanted to focus on the present as a moment to dream about the future, where they can rebuild their lives in peace and reunite with their estranged children. This project was the inspiration for the If Walls Could Talk project.
I had never worked in or visited a prison before, and the experience was one that will never leave me.
There are approximately 40 women, 9 children under four and 400 men incarcerated at CERESO #5. One therapist told me that an estimated 80% of the women were imprisoned for killing their husbands, mostly in self-defense. Self-defense, she told me, did not hold up well in court. Many, if not most of the women spoke one of several regional, indigenous languages. Many of the women did not speak Spanish, which made their already extremely limited access to legal assistance, essentially impossible.
I went into the prison not knowing what to expect. While passing through multiple layers of security, every sealed can of paint was opened and inspected, every bottle of water smelled and every item of food carefully examined. Everyone was very surprised the prison let me in as a foreigner to do a project. It was unbelievable luck, largely attributed to Nancy Cruz, a fierce activist and organizer who does gender workshops with the female inmates. I was surprised and relieved that the mural was to be painted outside in the prison yard where probably about 65% of the women and their children spend the majority of their time. I spent the first day just speaking with the women and meeting their kids. Listening to their stories and their hopes for the future. Unfortunately I was unable to communicate with a large number of the inmates because I don’t understand their indigenous languages, mostly Tso Tsil. The lack of translation services and legal representation for these women is shameful.
Not too many inmates wanted to talk about the specifics of what happened that landed them in prison, but their words that appear in the mural speak volumes. Their words, like, ‘It was in self-defense,’ and ‘I don’t want to be hit anymore,’ combined with our deeper conversations about invisioned futures, helped me understand a little more about the women’s past that they chose to share.
Some of the women will be leaving within the next four months, and others in the next 25 years. Developing the mural concept was extremely different for me. It wasn’t so much a consideration of public art, as it always is, rather a moment of thinking how to design a space that has to acknowledge the past ( without allowing it to be definitive), while creating a space where the present becomes a place to consider what one can do for their own survival and growth within the extreme limitations and daily spiritual abuses survived in prison. Looking toward the future, the idea was how to unlearn lived violence, how to cultivate a self-love that will guide them out of their cycle into what they all said they hoped to cultivate-freedom. Freedom to live as they so desire and to be reunited with their estranged children.
I had three days, from 10:00 a.m.- 3:30 p.m., to paint the mural and at least twenty women participating. It was a large wall, an insane pace and devastating in a way that I couldn’t really recognize at the moment. For me, I had the combined experiences of getting to know these women, understanding in some small way their circumstances, playing with their children and feeling their desperation to express themselves, to work, to hope and to feel love. To see that these women have been judged for life, for perhaps what was their most difficult moment was devastating. To then consider so many of our own country’s leaders, the greatest purveyor’s of global violence and greed, governing with impunity, was sobering. To paint, surrounded by the quiet conversation of different languages, women seated and weaving, their kids playing all around, forced me to consider again the multitude of ways our world is so deeply broken, and who pays the price. And then after all was said and done, the wall painted, to leave. To go home while they are there with their mural, every day prison life etching away at so much of what makes us human. I left with an overwhelming feeling that prison, among so many other things, is the greatest waste of human spirit that I have ever witnessed.