Blue Lines, Steel, and the Hour of Myth

Women in prison transcend violence, tedium, and the past

The poet's delivery is inflamed by a recent rift with her family. "They disowned me and I disowned them," she says. She imagines that she is reciting the poem directly to her mother. So go ahead, gaze/And hate, she dares, hands on her hips, right thigh hitched. You too live in a maze/I just hope you find the right way.

From the love of the White Bull and Pasiphaë, the Minotaur is born. Minos commands Daedalus to build a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur. Margarita Cantín emerges from behind Carr's red cape. Wiry and five feet two, the 52-year-old from Santiago, Cuba, hardly has the physique of a monster, but the expression on her face is so fierce beneath her black paper horns that her size hardly matters. When she strides center stage and falls to one knee with her arms outstretched, the Minotaur is monstrous.

Jonathan Postal
From the top: Yaneth Gomez takes wing; Gloria Baez 
reflects on her life; prison poet Evelyn Chapman; 
Maggie Carr with her mentor, Artspring founder Leslie 
Jonathan Postal
From the top: Yaneth Gomez takes wing; Gloria Baez reflects on her life; prison poet Evelyn Chapman; Maggie Carr with her mentor, Artspring founder Leslie Neal

That same awesome presence made Cantín a legend in the Miami underworld of the late Seventies and early Eighties. The petite go-go dancer used to collect $2000 to $3000 a night in her garter belts and discovered she had a head for business. Marijuana was still an import crop then, and somebody had to move it. Later came cocaine and other opportunities. She made a name as a shrewd crime boss.

An injured party sought vengeance, putting Cantín's children at risk. The scrappy exile shot her enemy dead in the street. In a highly publicized police chase in 1983, Cantín jumped from a bridge and was shot six times before she was subdued. She served ten years in the federal pen, didn't see her daughter for twenty. Devastated and destitute after her release, she discovered crack. Mired in petty crime, she was hauled in for auto theft six years ago and sentenced to fifteen years.

"My life has always been a labyrinth," says Cantín. "My brother tries to rape me. My husband cheats on me. My mother kills herself. Even my own family betrayed me. I couldn't trust my own lawyer. That's what my life has been, a labyrinth. From the beginning I wanted to be the Minotaur."

An unannounced understudy, Cantín watched the Minotaur in every rehearsal, learning the choreography. At night, in her bunk, she prayed to God to give her the role. Then, inexplicably, the day of the presentation, the veteran dancer who had been practicing the part backed out. Cantín was ready. "They didn't have to teach me anything," she boasts. Crouched at the center of a widening spiral of white paper plates laid out to suggest the maze, Cantín lowers her head and swivels the horns, bull-like, from side to side.

"Everything comes from your situation," she explains. "If you don't know it, you can't do it. It's in your flesh." Cantín knows the Minotaur. "He didn't ask to be brought into this world," she points out. "How is he to blame for turning out the way he did?"

Every seven years seven virgins are sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year a handsome young virgin named Theseus arrives who determines to kill the beast. Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, falls in love with the hero. To help him, Ariadne goes to Daedalus, who gives her a ball of yarn for Theseus to carry into the labyrinth so he can find his way out.

Gloria Baez stands at the edge of the first row of inmates, her eyes scanning above the crowd as though she is looking at a horizon far beyond the bleakness of the prison. She wears prison blues and made due with a limited makeup palette -- a single extra lipstick or blush is considered contraband -- yet her face is as dramatically shadowed as if she were wearing an evening gown.

To a lilting guitar arpeggio from the sound system, the 35-year-old Puerto Rican reaches daintily in front of her as though she is picking up long pieces of string. Fluid as a ballerina, Baez wraps the imaginary string around her wrists, her arms, her belly, her neck. Her lips parted in an enigmatic smile, she looks down toward an imaginary basket that holds all that is precious about her. She wraps herself in these gifts, closing her eyes, tilting her head, and arching her back. She appears to be utterly alone in a private ecstasy.

When Baez was a little girl, she had what she calls a "safe place" between her dresser and her bedroom wall where she would hide when her mother and father fought. "A tiny little hole for tiny me," she recalls. "There in my hole I cried, talked to myself, and dreamed of being an actress and a singer." Her mother, married at fourteen to a much older man who punched and pummeled her, used to beat her children in turn. After a family friend molested five-year-old Baez, she believed him when he warned her not to tell her parents or her mother would beat her. Besides, she says of the man's groping, "It felt good. I was used to it."

Then the familiar prison story: cigarettes, weed, coke, unprotected sex. Miscarriage at fourteen. Runaway at sixteen. Inured to pain, she pierced her own ears and burnt a cross into her shoulder. Baby at eighteen. Stripping. Drug deals.

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