Blue Lines, Steel, and the Hour of Myth

Women in prison transcend violence, tedium, and the past

Behind Gloria, Theseus enters the labyrinth carrying a ball of imaginary string. The rhythm of the song shifts. Even though I get lost/I love the pain, the singer confesses. Baez lurches forward, and then jerks backward. She spins violently as though she is unraveling.

In a battle inside the labyrinth, Theseus kills the Minotaur. Natasha Rivera lunges forward, in slow motion. Cantín is still there, at the center of the labyrinth on her knees. Nearly six inches taller than her nemesis, Rivera bobs, crouches, and crawls, tracing out the labyrinth's path by keeping her feet in a heel-to-toe line, as though she is dancing on a tightrope.

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

In New York City, when she was making mad money, Rivera frequented dance clubs; now there is a subtle dance-floor funk to her twists and turns. At age 22, Rivera's been on her own for twelve years. Her mother died when Rivera was six. Four years later, she was kicked out of her grandmother's house, pregnant with her uncle's child. "My family chose him over me," Rivera remembers bitterly. "I had to go from guy's house to guy's house, because I had no place to live." Rivera bore a daughter who died before turning two.

Before she was a teenager, Rivera was making a living on the street. One afternoon when she was in high school, already tall and over 200 pounds, she snapped. She spotted the uncle who had raped her, threw him to the ground, and was kicking him savagely in the head before she could be pulled away.

As Rivera circles closer to Cantín, the boom box emits a tortured howl. Rivera cups her hand to her ear and walks on tiptoe, looking cautiously over her shoulder. She crouches close to the ground and swipes her hand across the brown tiles of the old VP. Cantín, as frightened as she is fearsome, turns in circles, telegraphing danger.

Rivera made enough as a dealer to provide for the family that rejected her. "I didn't use drugs," Rivera insists. "My thing was making money and taking care of my family. I wanted to buy their love." Now that she's almost completed a sentence for trafficking, she's wary about seeing her family again. "Where was that love when I was a kid?" she asks. "Where was that love when all I had to give was love?"

Cymbals crash. Cantín leaps up in surprise. Rivera recoils, then thrusts an imaginary dagger in the Minotaur's heart. Cantín moans. Rivera stabs her again: in the stomach, in the back, at least a dozen times. On her knees, Cantín pounds her chest, and croaks sadly, "I am the Minotaur." She falls on her back, arms outstretched below her horns. Rivera hulks over the body.

King Minos orders the arrest of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus and Icarus build wings out of wax and feathers so they can escape. A plaintive violin introduces a clip-clop beat. Yaneth Gomez swishes her hips and shifts her weight from toe to heel, dancing a cumbia. Her face slightly inclined, she stretches out her arms as though she is flying.

The 47-year-old is "deportable." In five years, when she finishes her twelve-year sentence, she'll be sent back to Colombia without seeing more of the United States than the prison, the courthouse, and the airport gate where she was detained.

Therese Miller walks behind Gomez, Icarus to her Daedalus. While Gomez cumbias in place, Miller measures her arm span once, two times, then picks up a set of white paper wings made earlier in the week in the prison chapel. As Miller slides the wings over Gomez's arms and head, the Colombian amuses the audience by twisting her body awkwardly and contorting her face in mock surprise. Flapping her wings and swishing her hips, Gomez swoops in a wide circle. She slides in front of the first row, tickling the audience with her paper feathers.

Unlike most women in prison, Gomez had a happy childhood followed by a good marriage to a man who treated her well. The couple raised three children while running a furniture store in Bogotá. Then her husband's health began to fail. The business went bankrupt; bills mounted. Gomez was barely keeping up with a factory job, when she learned that her husband would need open-heart surgery. A co-worker put her in touch with some people who could solve all her problems with a quick trip to Miami.

"I was determined to do something to get us out of this chaos," she explains. "This trafficking job seemed like the easiest and fastest way." Gomez left Bogotá at 7:00 a.m. on a Tuesday in April 1997. By 11:00 a.m. she was charged with trafficking and possession of 250 grams of heroin. "I was the only person on the flight [customs] stopped," she says, shaking her head. She didn't know anything about the people who hired her; wouldn't have made a deal anyway. "There were phone calls to my house," she explains.

"Daedalus managed to fly, but his wings melted," Gomez points out in the inmates' version of the myth. "That's what happened to me. I fell so low and it was so hard that when I got up I couldn't fly. Instead I walked slowly and cautiously. When I return to my country and my family, it will be in serenity and peace because here I learned patience."

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