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'Mother Antonia,' from Beverly Hills to Prison Aid

Twenty-eight years ago, Mary Clarke left her life as a wealthy divorced mother of seven in Beverly Hills to live and work in a notorious Mexican prison. She became Mother Antonia; Pulitzer-winning authors Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan have written about her story.

27:48

Other segments from the episode on June 1, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 2, 2005: Interview with Stephanie Coontz; Interview with Mother Antonia.

Transcript

DATE June 2, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Stephanie Coontz discusses her book "Marriage, A
History"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Some of the things that we think of as defining traditional marriage are
actually relatively recent innovations, according to the new book "Marriage, a
History," by my guest Stephanie Coontz. In fact, she says, the idea that love
should precede marriage is a relatively new development by historical
standards. Coontz also challenged our preconceptions of traditional family
life in her earlier book, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the
Nostalgia Trap." Coontz is the director of research and public education at
the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history and family studies at
Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

You point out in your book that some of the things we talk about when we speak
of traditional marriage are actually relatively recent. What are some examples
of that?

Professor STEPHANIE COONTZ (Director of Research and Public Education, Council
on Contemporary Families; Evergreen State College): Well, I think that people
have this idea that couples of the past used to work harder at their marriages
and be more committed to their marriages and somehow had stronger ideas of
love than we have today. And, in fact, what you find when you look back
through history is that for thousands of years marriage was not about love at
all. People didn't work at their marriages. They worked in their marriages
sometimes because marriage was really essential to farmers and craftsmen. You
didn't--you couldn't run a career on yourself. But for the upper classes,
marriage was really more often political and economic convenience. It was the
way of acquiring good in-laws, of making economic and political deals, of
concluding peace treaties and making military alliances even. So the idea
that you would have to work at your marriage--the expectations of satisfaction
for marriage were very low through most of history.

GROSS: Did people expect to be in love with their spouse?

Prof. COONTZ: Not at all. In fact, one of the things that surprised me in
researching it is how threatening most societies through most of history,
including our own, considered love to be. It was a threat to a properly
ordered marriage. In some societies, it was considered nice if love developed
after marriage, but the idea that you would marry for love was something that
was quite threatening.

GROSS: Now you mentioned that in the upper classes--that marriage was really
about making political connections. It was about consolidating power or
money. What about in the lower classes?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, for them, too. In the middle classes in Europe, until
the late 18th century, the dowry a man received on marriage was often the
biggest infusion of cash or property he would get, so that was very important.
And the dowry was the way that parents invested in their daughter's future.
Today we save up to send them to college. That's a get-better investment.
But for them, to accumulate a dowry was the way you made sure that you could
get yourself a man who would, in fact, be able to support a wife or have at
least some property that they could work together.

Now some historians have said that perhaps people in the lower classes were
the only ones with the luxury of marrying for love, but I don't think that's
true either. I mean, if you were a peasant, you wanted to marry someone whose
land was adjacent to yours, somebody who had a good reputation as a worker in
the community, someone who was accepted by other members of the community
because it was very important. You know, people then relied on their
neighbors much more than we do today, and neighbors really intervened in these
decisions. They would, you know, make cat calling and even pelt unwelcome
suitors with stones or rotten fruit. And, of course, you also wanted--you had
in-laws. You know, having an in-law who had connections at court was very
good.

GROSS: People have always fallen in love. I can't imagine there was any
point in human history where people didn't fall in love. And even if romantic
love wasn't the basis of marriage, it didn't mean that romantic passions
didn't exist. So what did people do with those romantic passions if they were
mostly marrying for practical, economic and political and social
considerations?

Prof. COONTZ: That's a really good question because for thousands of years it
was considered perfectly appropriate for men to indulge their sexual and
romantic passions outside of marriage. In fact, there were sometimes in
places, such as 12th century medieval Europe, where the aristocracy developed
this whole theory that true love couldn't exist in marriage because marriage
was for mercenary reasons. The truest love had to be an adulteress love. In
other societies, there were other outlets. Many societies allowed men to have
more than one wife. A few--only a few societies allowed women to have more
than one husband. But in those societies where men married more than once,
often their third of fourth wife would be their love match. You know, they
would marry for practicality, and then they would marry a love wife.

So there was, as you say, always love in and out of marriage. But there were
very few times and places where you were expected to put all of your intimate,
sensual, emotional and romantic ideals in each other. And, in fact, one thing
that surprises most people is there's probably more disapproval of adultery,
more support for fidelity in marriage than ever before in history today. And
I think that's the other side of the fact that because you can divorce,
because you can have sex outside of marriage, because marriage is for love and
not for the political and economic convenience, people have higher
expectations than they used to.

GROSS: During a period when it was acceptable for a man to have a mistress,
was it acceptable for a woman to be a mistress?

Prof. COONTZ: That really depended on what social strata and what country you
were in. For example, in the upper classes of Europe, being a mistress was
quite a respectable occupation, and your daughters and sons were married off
quite well. You know, when you sort of retired from the mistress, you were
kind of pensioned off. So that was respectable. At the lower levels, of
course, it was not. And one of the things that's really interesting is that
wives were expected to put up with their husbands' mistresses and their
dalliances. I ran across a lot of cases where a woman did complain, and her
own family wrote to the husband apologizing for her inappropriate behavior
because it was just accepted that the wife is to shut up and put up with this.
Now there were even a few societies where women were allowed to have--to take
lovers, but that's much more rare.

GROSS: At what point does love-based marriage enter the picture?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, of course, it's the wistful hope of young people through
the ages, which is why you have love story tragedies in the ages. But it
really does not become socially respectable until this very radical turning
point that occurs in Western Europe and America in the late 18th century. And
I think two things have to do with that: first of all, the spread of waged
labor, the ability of kids to day, `Well, I can go get a job. I don't have to
wait until my parents have a dowry,' or a young man to say, `Well, I'm going
to go get work somewhere. I don't have to wait and make sure my parents
approve of who I marry, so that I'll get their land or their training to take
over their occupation.' So that was a part of it.

But another really important part were the new ideals of the Enlightenment and
the French and American Revolution, the idea that, as the Americans put it in
the Declaration of Independence, that people have a right to pursue happiness.
And it was in this climate that the ideal gradually developed and spread that
parents shouldn't be able to dictate to their kids who they had to marry and
people should choose their own mates and they should do so on the basis of
love. And they should give more. They should expect more in this
relationship than they had traditionally done. They should put that
relationship above their relations with neighbors and parents and cousins and
patrons.

GROSS: Was that considered a radical notion?

Prof. COONTZ: Oh, it was a hugely radical notion. And the people who were
defenders of what was then traditional marriage--that is, the arranged
marriage, the marriage of convenience--were appalled. And they basically
predicted a lot of the things that we seem to think of as just having
developed in the last 30 years. They wrote, `If'--you know, `How are you
going to stop this from unraveling?'--basically, the idea that love could be
the death of marriage. If husband and wife get caught up with each other and
love each other too much, what will make the husband continue to exert his
authority as forcefully as we want him to do so in marriage? If people get
caught up thinking that marriage should be about the good of the members, what
about the age-old practice of disinheriting children who were not born, you
know, into a legitimate marriage? Maybe that would be wrong. If people
married for love, how will we force the people that we need to get married to
get married if they don't love the person? How will be force them to stay
together if their marriage becomes miserable? And what about the people we
don't want to marry? Won't they demand that if they love each other, they'll
have some right to marry?

And, you know, the French Revolution not only legalized divorce and
forbad--they said that--one of the slogans of the French Revolution was,
`There are no bastards in France,' that kids of your body, whether legitimate
or not, should have equal rights. And the final thing they did was they
decriminalized homosexual relations. They didn't quite go so far as to say
gay and marriage, but they said the principle of this Enlightenment thought is
that the government should not prevent people from loving each other.

GROSS: Was there a fear that if marriage was based on love, then people could
fall out of love, and what would happen to the marriage after that?

Prof. COONTZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the earliest calls for divorce
came not from radicals--well, except that--I take that back. They were
radicals. But the radicals of the day who were in favor of what we now think
of as the conservative, traditional, love-based marriage were the ones who
raised the idea of divorce, who said that if marriage should be about love and
intimacy and fairness, then you shouldn't have to stay in a marriage that had
lacked or lost all those qualities.

GROSS: My guest is Stephanie Coontz, author of the new book "Marriage, A
History." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Stephanie Coontz, author of the new book "Marriage, A
History."

You write about something in your history of marriage called the `19th century
sentimental marriage.' Why do you describe this as the sentimental marriage?

Prof. COONTZ: The sentimental marriage was the first form that the loved-based
marriage took. It was sort of, you know, not conspiratorial theory, but it
was sort of society's and individuals' way of coping with the radical
implications of the love match. And what it was based on was a much more
strict segregation of the sexes than had occurred in earlier years and much
more rigid sense that men and women were completely unlike each other; that
they occupied different spheres, they had different emotions, different
qualities of life. And what bridged those was marriage; that women were
totally without passion, that men had these strong passions and that marriage
is what brought them together. So they sentimentalized the marriage
relationship. They didn't infuse it with sexuality, as happened in the early
20th century.

GROSS: And what happens in the early 20th century?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, in the early 20th century you had a sexual revolution that
was every bit as shocking to contemporaries as the sexual revolution of the
'60s and '70s--or was later on in the century. But, interestingly enough, the
sexual revolution was spearheaded by people who recognized how unhappy many of
these sentimental marriages were because the sexual tensions were so great.
The men, of course--to the extent that men and women lived up to the idea that
no respectable woman did have sexual passion, men were often forced to seek
their sexual outlets with prostitutes or mistresses. And, in fact, there
was--this was so common that there was a big epidemic of venereal disease as
men brought these diseases home to their wives.

Women looked forward to marriage in the 19th century often with dread. They
spoke in their letters to each other about, you know, the grosser sex, and
their worries. They--so--and, also, I don't want to bad-mouth men here
because a lot of men really were conflicted about this. They didn't want to
go use prostitutes, but they also really felt that if they treated their wife
in a sexual way, they would be disrespecting her.

So there was all this tension underneath the surface of Victorian marriages,
and the development of sex education and of the emphasis on sexual
gratification came from people who wanted to improve those love-based
marriages.

GROSS: So talk a little bit more about some of the changes in the early 20th
century that affected how women were seen as sexual beings.

Prof. COONTZ: Well, there was this new emphasis then on recognizing that
women did have sexual impulses. They were still made responsible for putting
on the sexual brakes, so this created its own new set of tensions for women.
But there was a whole new change in American courting techniques, for example.
By the end of the 19th century, the typical way that courtship was conducted,
at least among the middle class, was for a man to come calling. And he would
come to call on the woman, usually invited by the woman and her parents. In
fact, it was considered bad etiquette for the man to say, `I'd like to be
invited to call,' just as later it was considered bad etiquette for a girl to
drop a hint that she'd like to be invited out on a date. So courtship would
take place under the watchful eyes of the parents on the front porch.

And in the early 20th century, this began to change. The middle class began
to adopt a technique that was pioneered by urban working-class kids who had
more freedom from supervision, and that was for the man and the woman to go
out on a date. Now that had its pros and its cons, especially for women. On
the one hand, it meant that the woman could go away from the watchful eyes of
her parents and could have maybe a better time than she would have had. She
could explore her own sensual ideas. She could go have fun without being
chaperoned. On the other hand, a date took place in the public sphere. It
had to be paid for. Beth Bailey explains this beautifully in her book called,
"From Front Porch to Back Seat," and she points out that the men--of course,
the men were the ones with the money. They were the ones earning more money.
If girls worked at all, they were paid much less. And so a certain amount of
sexual commerce was introduced into this relationship. The guy pays for the
date and the girl wonders, `How much do I owe in return for this?'

GROSS: Do you think that there are legislative debates about marriage today
that are based on a historically inaccurate reading of marriage in the past?

Prof. COONTZ: Oh, very much so. I mean, I think there's a lot of magical
thinking going on here; that somehow if we would just keep talking about how
wonderful marriage is and should be, that we could return to a day when
marriage organized everybody's life course. It was the way that people made
the transition to adulthood. It organized the division of labor between men
and women. It took care of all dependence from raising children to taking
care of the elderly. Part of that is just a little bit of romanticization of
the past anyway. But another part of it is just misunderstanding of how much
and how irreversibly marriage has changed because of the changing gender
roles, the new economic independence of women, the fact that men no longer
need a full-time housewife to take care the house for them, that men and women
are waiting longer to get married, so marriage no longer initiates most people
into sex. And, of course, if you reach 60, you now have another two decades
to look forward to, so it's also not even going to take care of all of the
dependencies at the end of life.

GROSS: Are we living in the first era in which the issue of homosexual
marriage was actually an issue? I mean, it was actually a possibility,
something that people entertained the idea of?

Prof. COONTZ: Well, yes and no. There have been many other societies in
history and societies and culture that, first of all, validated gay and
lesbian relations, validated homosexuality. The Greeks idealized
homosexuality. Plato said that love was a tremendously ennobling emotion, but
he said, `I don't mean love of a man for a woman such as the meaner sort of
men feel. I mean the love of a man for another man.' There have also been
cultures that actually legalized same-sex marriage.

But one of the interesting things is that--almost invariably, that marriage
took place between people who, even if they were of the same biological sex,
they were playing different gender roles. A man among the Native American
societies or African who took on a woman's role could marry a man who took
on--who kept the man's role or vice versa for the woman. If--a woman took on
a man's role could marry a woman who did the traditional female work. And, in
fact, that would not--they didn't even have a term for homosexuality because
that would have been weird if two people of opposite sex had tried to do the
same thing. You know, the gender role counted for more than the sex.

So what's really new about the demands for gay and lesbian marriage today is
that they are being--it's on the basis of not playing a particular gender
role. And the thing that's ironic with all the people who claim that this is
such a threat to heterosexual marriage is the demand for gay and lesbian
marriage rode in on the coattails of the revolution that heterosexuals
pioneered in marriage. It was heterosexuals who said, `You don't have to have
a baby to have a valid marriage,' or, `If you're infertile, you can find new
ways to have a baby.' And it was heterosexuals who finally broke with the
long tradition of defining a husband as someone who does certain kind of male
things and a wife who does certain kind of female things. So gays and
lesbians are saying, `Hey, you've redefined marriage to the point now that we
fit your definition. So let us in.'

GROSS: Now you say in your book "Marriage, A History" that many countries
around the world are facing various crises in marriage. I'm wondering if
they're the same crises that Americans feel we're facing here.

Prof. COONTZ: Well, they take different forms, but almost everywhere marriage
is becoming more optional and women are gaining especially options outside of
marriage. The age of marriage is rising in most places. The work force
participation of women and their educational attainment is rising, and that
changes the traditional terms of marriage. But I really have come to believe
that this is a huge international revolution as big and unstoppable as the
Industrial Revolution.

Marriage has simply lost the monopoly it used to exercise over the
organization of personal and social life, and we just have to cope with that.
I'm not a Pollyanna about it. I think it raises some real challenges, but it
also raises some opportunities. And the main thing is we need to get our
heads out of the sand and deal with it.

GROSS: Stephanie Coontz, thanks so much for talking with us.

Prof. COONTZ: Oh, I've enjoyed it. Thank you.

GROSS: Stephanie Coontz is the author of the new book "Marriage, A History."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Another bride, another `gee,' another sunny
honeymoon, another season, another reason to make whoopie.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up: Mother Antonia, a divorced mother of seven who left her
home in Beverly Hills to live and work in one of Mexico's most notorious
prisons. She felt she was following a calling from God, but the church would
not accept her as a nun because she was too old and divorced. But eventually
the church blessed her work and enabled her to start an order for older women.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mother Antonia, who has lived and worked in Mexico's
La Mesa State Penitentiary in Tijuana for 28 years, talks about
how and why she has ministered to the prisoners all this time
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Experiencing a void in her life and responding to what she believed was a
calling from God, Mary Clarke, a divorced mother of seven, left her suburban
home in Beverly Hills, put on a nun's habit and moved into La Mesa State
Penitentiary, one of the roughest prisons in Latin America. Ever since then,
she's been known as Mother Antonia, and has devoted her life to helping the
inmates. Her work has ranged from providing aspirin to stopping a prison
riot. At a prison mass celebrating her 25th year of living in La Mesa, she
was given a standing ovation from hundreds of robbers, drug traffickers and
murderers.

During one of her recent trips out of the prison, she spoke to us from a
studio in California. Mother Antonia, who is now approaching 80, is the
subject of a new book called "The Prison Angel" by The Washington Post
reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. They found her while writing their
Pulitzer prize-winning series of articles on Mexico's criminal justice system.
They described Mother Antonia as one of Rome's most unconventional servants.

Mother Antonia, why after two divorces and seven children, when you were in
your early 50s, did you decide to start a new life by becoming a nun and
moving into a prison.

Mother ANTONIA (Humanitarian): Terry, I think that's a question everybody
would like to know, and one that's very hard to answer in the sense that I was
50 and it wasn't I decided to start a new life, because for many years I had
interests in mission--the mission fields. I had a particular love for Mexico,
and I had visited many times the penitentiary in Tijuana and it became a part
of my life in a certain way. And in reflection for about two years--a very
long retreat, you might say, in reflection on my life--I knew that I wanted my
life--that God called me, and a call from God is not something--it's
just--it's the same as when you fall in love. You can't exactly describe why
you're in love or what day you fell in love or how it was, but a time came
when I knew that it was time for me to go and a step, you know, to
become--being with, and not just observing and being aware of, but being with
those people that in a particular way I was called to serve. And that was
Christ in the prisoner, that I felt our Lord was a prisoner, and I felt very
called to serve that Lord that was in prison--hated very often and away from
his family and many--sometimes innocent, and almost always poor. And so it
was a call that came to me. It actually started many years ago in a dream,
but I don't know if you'd want me to tell that. But it was very--would you
like to hear it?

GROSS: Sure.

Mother ANTONIA: Well, it was many years ago. It was many years before I went
to the prison. And I had a dream. It was a strange dream. And I dreamt I
was at Calvary, but I didn't know who--really who I was, because I was in a
dress of that time. And a Roman guard came to me and told me I was going to
be crucified, and I was horrified. I didn't know at that moment Jesus or the
crucifixion or--I knew crucifixion was horrible. And I asked why. And there
were many people there; each one turned away when I asked why. And then I
prayed that God would take me because I was so afraid of being crucified.

And a guard came back to me, a Roman guard, and told me, `You don't have to
pray. There's a man and he wants to take your place.' And I turned and looked
into--it was a cart, maybe that comes from what I've read of French
revolutionaries--executions being--taken away the people in carts. But I saw
this man standing there in a white robe, and he just looked at me. And he did
not look at me as if I owed him something. He did not look at me as if what
am I--look what I'm doing for you. He wants to take your place, as if he was
giving without asking anything back in return.

And I turned away from him and I said, `He's a man and he's very brave and
he's willing. He's willing.' And the guard came back and said, `He wants you
to stand by him.' And I said, `I can't. I can't stand violence.' I couldn't
stand by a man being crucified. He said, `Woman, he's there in your place.'
And so I looked back and there was my Lord stretched out on the wood but not
nailed down to it. And I suddenly--I loved more than I feared. And I ran
behind him and knelt down on the ground and took his face in my hands, but he
didn't have a face any longer. It was blank where a face should be. And only
his hair was coming down down on each side, his hands were stretched out, and
I said, `In my hands I'll hold your face.' And I thought, `I'm not afra--I'm
afraid, but I'm more afraid to leave him now.' I wouldn't leave him. I said,
`I'm not going to leave you. I'm never going to leave you, no matter what
they do to me.' And I stood--waited for the blow of the hammer, and I woke up.

Over the years in prison I realized, sometimes in the infirmary in particular,
when I first started and there was more violence than there is now--and I
would go into the infirmary, a man had been stabbed, and there was--he was
lying on the table, his hands were stretched out. And I would stand behind
the doctors and the police or guards that were questioning him, `Who did
this?' and `What happened?' And I would hold his face. And I would say,
`Look, Lord, I'm with you again.' And he would say, (Mexican spoken). `Don't
go. Don't go. Don't leave me.' And I would tell him, `I'm not going to
leave you. I'm never going to leave you.'

Well, that's a little background. That was the beginning of a very strong
call.

GROSS: You know, although you felt you were called and you knew the work you
wanted to do, and you knew you wanted to be a nun, you applied to several
orders, but judging from the book it sounds like the orders told--the church
basically told you, `You're too old. It's too late. You can't be a nun.'

Mother ANTONIA: Well, you know, it's not quite true today. They take woman
older today, a little older. But I was 50, and the age limit was 35. I
particularly loved the Maryknoll Sisters and their work. And I called, and
they loved me, too, but I was beyond--15 years beyond the age limit. And it
wasn't for me. And I knew that if Maryknoll would not accept me, that knew me
and loved me, that there wouldn't be any other order either that would accept
me at that age--perhaps a contemplative order.

And I might say something to you, if you'll allow me, Terry. You said, you
knew--I knew I wanted to be a nun. They'll always refer to me and other
sisters as nuns. Actually, nuns are women who live in cloisters and
monasteries. The Carmelites are nuns. The Benedictines are nuns. The rest
of us are called sisters because we're active in--and, well, the Carmelites
and Benedictines are in a great prayer life that--for all of us and you and
everyone in the world, and they're--works they do for the poor--but they are a
monas--they're monastic orders. And so, if you've noticed, they'll call us
sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the sisters, of this or that. I just wanted
you to know because I thought you might be interested.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely, and I appreciate that clarification. So I should say,
though, that you knew you wanted to be a sister, and you weren't able to
actually join an order in that capacity because you were too old. What--but,
so what you ended up doing was becoming almost like a freelance sister? You
put on a habit...

Mother ANTONIA: Yes, that's a good way to put it.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mother ANTONIA: That's a very good way to put it, Terry. A very good way.
But I had--you know it, I had a freelance--I was a freelance sister, but I had
the same boss that the other sisters did. So I was pretty sure of that, and I
was certain that if I didn't, I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

GROSS: So you put on a habit, you went to the prison in Tijuana where you had
been doing some work already...

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you wanted to move in there so that you could literally be with
the prisoners, live with the prisoners.

Mother ANTONIA: Yes, be with.

GROSS: And...

Mother ANTONIA: Be with.

GROSS: ...what did you have to do to get permission from the authorities to
do that? I mean, really, they must have thought you...

Mother ANTONIA: Well, I was in Mexico with the wonderful Mexican people, and
the Mexican authorities and the Mexican people are--they have that great gift
of flexibility. Everything isn't just--you know, I don't think I could have
done that at San Quentin--honestly. Because many people ask me, `Why don't
you go to San Quentin. Why don't you go, you know, to one of our prisons?'
Well, I don't really think I could knock on the door and say, `Could I live in
here and serve the people in here?' I don't believe I could. La Masa at that
time was different than it is now. I probably couldn't do it at La Mesa now
because it's become very Americanized.

GROSS: My guest is Mother Antonia. For over 25 years, she's lived in La Mesa
prison in Tijuana caring for the inmates. There's a new book about her called
"The Prison Angel." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mother Antonia. About 30 years
ago, when she was about 50, she felt that she was called to give her life to
Jesus Christ and the poor. She moved into a cell in a prison in Tijuana and
has basically lived there ever since working with and on behalf of the
prisoners. Now there's a new book about her that's called "The Prison Angel."

Would you describe what the conditions were like at La Mesa State Penitentiary
in Tijuana when you first got there about 30 years ago?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, to me, you know, there's various opinions about what
the conditions were like. For me, I was overjoyed that I could be in the
mission--the mission that God called me to--and the conditions were harsh. In
a certain way, we were poor. And it was very flexible, and families moved in
sometimes. And the nice thing was all babies were allowed to stay with their
mothers. Because a baby doesn't know if it's in a crib in a royal palace or
it's on a bunk inside a prison. It only knows the love of the mother. And
now we're not allowed to keep babies because we having got a place to keep
them. We may be able to one day, I hope, because--and that was one of the
beautiful parts. The parts that were difficult in those days--it was certain
that it was--there was more drugs and corruption, and it wasn't as--I don't
think the conditions were nearly as good as they are today. And that is...

GROSS: Well, what about routine torture and violence?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, you know, they speak of routine torture, and it's very
hard for me to speak of anything like that because I have to say that I'm very
loyal to the people that have been so good to me. Yes, there was torture. I
can't say there was not. I can say--I think I was very--that my presence was
a very positive presence, that I was an instrument of peace in this war zone,
because in--wherever there's torture and there's hate--and so it was a war
zone in that sense. And I think that I could do something about it. I could
stop it. Never was anyone tortured in my presence.

GROSS: Did you try to talk the prison authorities out of that kind of
behavior or...

Mother ANTONIA: Oh, yes, I did.

GROSS: ...was it--tell us more about what you did to intervene.

Mother ANTONIA: Well, you'd be surprised.

GROSS: Try me.

Mother ANTONIA: Oh, my poor commandante. I remember when I had a night--I'd
once in a while get to see him now when he was very, very young--and I heard
about a man being beaten, and I went to the director and told the director and
the sub-director. And I went to the cell and got this one man out of his cell
and brought him into the infirmary, because I said, `Look at his body. It's
marked.' Well, the guards were in so much trouble they almost lost their jobs.
And the commandante was very angry with me. And I said, `I'm sorry,' I said.
`But, you know, I serve Christ first.' And he said, `I serve the vigilantes
here. Three men almost lost their jobs today. Why didn't you come to me?'
But then I said, `Just give me another chance. Don't--let me continue to go
there. Let me continue to serve, let me--just don't stop me anyplace.' And he
said--he accepted that. He just motioned me away, but with the promise I'd
never again tell on them. And of course I did again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mother ANTONIA: And so the second time was just too much for him. And he
didn't talk to me after that. And so finally, I'd say to him, `Commandante,
do you love me?' And he would say, `No.' And then commandante just once in a
while--then I started to bring him a rose. And he didn't want to accept it.
And I said, `It's from St. Teresa.' And so there isn't any good Mexican that
wouldn't accept a rose from St. Teresa. And so he took the rose. But he
didn't talk to me.

So finally I got one of these little hand dolls. I forget what they call
them. Kermit? A little frog that came on...

GROSS: From "Sesame Street"?

Mother ANTONIA: That's right. And it was a hand puppet. And I opened the
door to his office, and I cried out, `Commandante! Commandante!' and I was
pretending to cry, `Commandante (foreign language spoken) (crying)' And I was
saying that he doesn't love me, and he started to laugh. And he said--I said,
`Do you love me?' And he said, `You know the answer to that.' And then we
became very good friends. Nobody, nobody, Terry, in my experience, can resist
being prayed for and loved

GROSS: In this book, the writers describe a prison in which you intervened,
and you basically got the men to disarm. Would you tell us what the riot was
about and your response to it was?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, I don't do anything without praying, and people say,
`She went in alone.' Well, it depends on what you believe. If you believe the
way I do, I never believed I was alone. I always called on St. Michael, and
I probably had a battalion of angels with me.

And I think the one that they're probably talking about in the book is where
there were shots being fired. And I walked in, and I asked the director,
Lizinjiero Jorje Duarte(ph), who was killed, unfortunately--he was a great
man, `Let me go. That's my mission. If you stop me now, you're stopping me
and my mission, because I must go be with those men.' If I wasn't there with
them in this moment of crisis, then what kind of a servant am I, really? A
frightened one? An unfaithful one?

And so I did go in, and I walked up the stairs. Men came out from--I don't
know where they a--made a circle around me. I couldn't even walk, because
they circled me and said, `Mother , what are you doing here?' and they shouted
out, `Don't shoot! Mother 's here!' And they said, `Mother .' And I told
them, `Outside, people are praying for you. They're crying. Your mothers are
saying rosaries. Your girlfriends and your wives, your children are all
frightened. And what's going on here?'

When they saw me and heard me, I said, `The guns. Give me the weapons right
now, sons. Give them to me. God is watching. God is with us, and we're
going to help you. You are right to be upset. You have every right to feel
upset. And I'm sorry I didn't visit you to see that you have needs, but we
can take care of those things, but in the meantime, give them the guns, and I
promise you, you won't be punished. I promise.' And they said, `Mother , when
we knew it was you, we dropped the guns out the cells. There was a window
alongside these cells with bars, too. But they took the guns and dropped them
down to the ground.

And so all the television cameras were there and the news reels and this radio
in from Mexico City and from San Diego. And they were marveling. Really,
they were marveling and saying that I was the one that stopped the riot. I
would say that love stopped it, caring about them, talking to them like they
were human beings, giving them the dignity that everybody needs. `Give me a
chance. Accept my apology. Accept the apology of the authorities. Give us a
chance to treat you better. Please, give us that chance.' That's all they
needed.

GROSS: You promised these prisoners that if they dropped their guns that they
wouldn't be punished, that you'd make sure...

Mother ANTONIA: That's right.

GROSS: ...that they wouldn't be punished. Were you...

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: ...able to deliver on that promise...

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: ...with a little bit of convincing?

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: How did you convince the authorities not to punish the men who...

Mother ANTONIA: Because I'm talking with Mexican authorities, and they
understand. When they have men that are armed, and they don't want to come in
against them, because they don't want to shoot anybody. They don't want to
kill anybody, just the way our police don't want to. They don't want a
violent, violent problem involving maybe 30, 50, 300. It would build up.
That--they had to make the promise that they'd be treated better, that they'd
be reconsidered why they were in the cells, that they would be sent back to
their own cells, that they'd improve the conditions in the cells of
punishment, that that was a promise that they should keep, because it was the
righteous thing to do. So I was certain when I presented it to the officials
in that way that they would accept it, and they did.

GROSS: My guest is Mother Antonia. For over 25 years, she has lived in the
prison in Tijuana, caring for inmates. There's a new book about her called
"The Prison Angel." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mother Antonia. For the past
30 years, since about the age of 50, she's been living as a sister in a prison
in Tijuana, working with the prisoners there and helping them. There's a new
book about her that's called "The Prison Angel."

You came from, you know--What?--an upper middle-class background?

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: You grew up in a prosperous suburb.

Mother ANTONIA: Yes.

GROSS: Where you're living now within the prison, are there rats? Does it
smell? Is it clean?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, you know, there are rats, of course. There are many,
many men there. It's kept clean. Yes, it's kept very clean. Today it is
kept very clean. There are people cleaning all the time. It's kept clean.
It's kept clean. There's huge bins for garbage, and the food is served on
trays today with men that were prisoners that wear gloves and have hats, and
they have ...(unintelligible) over their head. I'm not uncomfortable. I'm
accustomed to cold water, and it doesn't bother me. In fact, it's very
refreshing to me. And I have a bathroom. I have windows to look out of. I
have kittens outside my door.

And I have a little bodega, which is where I keep the things I bring in to
give out to the people. I'm never alone because I'm always with the Lord and
with the guards. I love the guards, too. I might mention that. And I serve
them, too. They're a very important part of my work, and the police are, too.

GROSS: I'm assuming that there are prisoners in La Mesa in Tijuana, where you
live, who have tried to take advantage of you, who have tried to steal from
you, who've said nasty things about you, who've tried to undermine your work.
And when that has happened, as I assume it has, what have you done in response
to it? 'Cause sometimes that's just a way of testing you to see...

Mother ANTONIA: Yes. Yes, you're quite right.

GROSS: ...`Well, if she's so compassionate, what's she going to do after I
steal from her? Let's see.'

Mother ANTONIA: Yes. Well, things like that have happened occasionally.
However--they've been very occasionally. However, I don't--I have a very
selective mind. And maybe you notice this on this tape. I don't select to
remember and take heart to anybody what they say against me. And once again,
I have a motto; Jesus Christ did not defend himself. If my work does not
defend me, Terry, I have no defense. That's how I feel. I thought my work
itself which--by the fruit, you know the tree. And when you're there with a
woman when she's having a baby and you're helping somebody that's been hurt
and you need a bandage for somebody else or an antibiotic that somebody needs,
you don't get it to gain their attention or gain their love or gain their--you
do it because it's the right thing to do.

GROSS: I assume that, you know, most or at least many of the prisoners who
you are serving in Tijuana are guilty, that they're there because they're
actually guilty, and guilty of murder or rape or robbery. And a lot of people
might be wondering, why do you feel called to help them as opposed to helping
the people who they victimized?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, I'm not opposed to helping the victims, either. And I
certainly do whenever I can. And I have to explain to prisoners, to the men
in prison that I call my sons--and I'd like to state this clear--the majority
of people in prison are not in prison for rape or murder or kidnapping or
trafficking drugs. The majority of people there are for robo simple. They're
there for robbery, but not armed robbery, not bank robbery. And the root of
the problem is--really, whether people want to see it or not, is poverty and
ignorance. Those are the two things that breed crime. And this has been
proven in every single city in the world. Prejudice and ignorance and
poverty--three things breed crime, wherever, in every city. However, to help
them is to bring down the crime rate, too. When they realize--person after
person has come to me that's changed their life because I'm there. I always
bring up the victims every single solitary day.

GROSS: You've started a new order, and it's an order specifically for older
women. And I'm really fascinated by this because, you know, as we were
discussing, at the age of 50, when you wanted to become a sister, you couldn't
because you were considered too old. And you've said that you think that, you
know, you understand why younger women might want to become sisters, but you
understand why older women might be much more inclined to. And could you talk
a little bit about why you wanted your order to be specifically for older
women? What is it about older women that you think might be--you think that
their lives might be more open to serving?

Mother ANTONIA: Well, I don't--what I felt, Terry, is that the gift, the call
that a woman at 50 did go and did serve and there was fruit on the tree there,
that there are other women out there at 50 years old that have meaning and
they've been through many things in life. They've been through almost all the
experience of life--life and death, success and failure. They've been to the
top of the mountain, the depths of the valley, and they have all this
experience to give to people that are crying out for understanding and
kindness and mercy and compassion. And that's what I believe I had to offer
to women and to men one day and even to those who have failed. And maybe in
the darkness you see the stars, and that's when, by the time you're 50, you've
had experiences that have been devastating in your life if you've lived at all
in the world, and you've come to new understandings, as sorrow brings you into
understanding that pleasure does not. And so you're not bitter, and if you
are, you shouldn't be, because there's a world out there that needs you. You
don't have to necessarily be a sister, a servant of the 11th hour of St. John
Youths. You could go with some kind of peace corps for one of the many
organizations that help people locally and worldwide that there's so many
people that need a visit, that need a hand, just a hand to hold, their--to
hold their hand, just a look in their eyes and understand something of what
they're going through, just to show them a kindness.

GROSS: Mother Antonia, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mother ANTONIA: I'm very happy. I hope it was worthwhile, Terry.

GROSS: Mother Antonia is the subject of the new book, "The Prison Angel."
It's written by the Washington Post reporters Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan
who won a Pulitzer prize for their reporting on Mexico's criminal justice
system.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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