A woman’s life in Mexico
Yes, this is about women in Mexico but, guys, it’s not just a feminist tome, it’s also a story about a complex, interesting country.
NOW we make you ugly, my mother said. In the mirror I watched her move the piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.”
Thus begins Prayers For The Stolen, author Jennifer Clement’s take on being a woman in Mexico. Her views and even some of the book’s details are drawn from real life, for though Clement was born in the United States to American parents, she has lived in Mexico all her life.
As her narrator, she created 14-year-old Ladydi Garcia Martinez (pronounced “Lady Dee”), who is named after Princess Diana; Clement humorously describes how her protagonist got her name: “My mother named me Ladydi because she hated what Prince Charles had done to Diana. She loved any woman to whom a man had been unfaithful. It was a special sisterhood of pain and hatred.”
Ladydi lives with her mother in a village in the Mexican state of Guerrero. The village is unique in that only women live in it; the men, including Ladydi’s father, have either gone to the big towns or across the border into the United States in search of work. And, like most of the men, her father seems to have forgotten about his family, as regular occasions of money sent back home soon becomes sporadic.
In fact, everyone seems to have forgotten about this village of women; the few new faces that appear belong to dismayed teachers sent by the government on year-long contracts to teach Ladydi and the other children, including Ladydi’s best friends, Estefani, the beautiful Paula, and Maria who was born with a harelip.
The teachers’ dislike for the remote posting means that education is slipshod, and the students – as well as the village women – remain mentally underdeveloped. Clement makes us aware of this through Ladydi’s child-like observations, which serve at times as comic relief (especially during her conversations with her alcoholic mother) and also to underline how little the women and girls are valued by the outside world.
In what is probably the most horrific scene in the novel, Clement describes in excruciating detail how Paula is drenched in the herbicide Paraquat; touchingly, her friends come to her rescue and help to wash the poison off Paula, all the while reminding her not to open her eyes or swallow. And their teacher from the big city can only stare and watch helplessly as his students save their friend from dying.
No prior warning before fields are sprayed, teachers with little desire or incentive to impart any form of knowledge to the few students in the village ... it can be argued that Clement uses these scenes to illustrate how little regard the government and people from the big cities have for the village girls and women (and perhaps for women in Mexico in general).
And then there is the flip side, when some people pay very unwelcome attention to the village: drug lords and their men, also known as narcs, visit regularly, not only to tend to their business but also to take their pick of the girls.
This is why the girls are made to look as ugly as possible or dressed as boys. But some beauty is hard to conceal, and Paula, the most beautiful of the four girls, is taken.
However, it is only in the novel’s second part that Ladydi learns the reason behind Paula’s disappearance, and why her friend is a ghost of her former self after she just as suddenly returns to the village (having managed to escape her abductor, though not before she had been used terribly).
In a clever plot twist, after Paula’s return, Ladydi leaves the village, landing a job as a maid in Acapulco.
However, her time and happiness in the big city are both short-lived. By the third part of the novel, we find Ladydi in prison. As the novel is broken into three parts, it can be argued that each section represents Ladydi’s journey in life: village, big city, prison.
Generally, though, the plot is simple to the point of being almost perfect. The novel is told entirely from Ladydi’s point of view, and through her thoughts we catch glimpses of how Mexico works ... or doesn’t.
Apart from the rampant corruption, that is apparent, Ladydi’s thoughts – and, obviously, Clement’s own views – (a tad biased though they may be) also show how sexist Mexico as a country can be. Women are seen as objects for men to use and girls are treated as playthings.
As mentioned, there is an element of child-like innocence in Prayers For The Stolen, primarily due to Ladydi’s observations. However, Clement subtly reminds her audience that underneath this cosy exterior lies the horrific truth – the novel is based on real life events.
There are literally hundreds of girls being abducted every year, drug barons rule the country, and corruption is endemic.
Through Ladydi, Clement addresses these issues, focusing on the role of women in the midst of the problems Mexico continues to face.
I do have to say that the main characters in the novel are women, with only a handful of men given supporting roles. But, men, do not let this deter you from picking Prayers For The Stolen, as it is far from being a feminist novel. In essence, Prayers For The Stolen is a story about Mexico, a complex, interesting country. That alone makes it worthy of a read.