Since 1976, Mother Antonia, now 78 years old, has lived in a cell at La Mesa in Tijuana, one of Mexico's most notorious prisons, caring for the inmates. What's even more remarkable is her background and the comfortable life she left behind for a life of service.
She was born Mary Clarke and grew up as a striking blond beauty amid movie stars and money in 1930s Beverly Hills. She endured two failed marriages, ran the family business and raised seven children before becoming Mother Antonia and moving into La Mesa at age 50.
Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters with The Washington Post, spent three years researching Mother Antonia's journey and have written her story, "Prison Angel."
You can read an excerpt from the book below.
Chapter One -- La Madre
A riot rages inside La Mesa state penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. It's Halloween night, 1994, and the twenty-five hundred convicts locked inside one of the country's most violent and overcrowded prisons are struggling, as they do every day, to live one more. Sixteen men are locked in a block of punishment cells on the third floor. They are there for insulting guards, fighting with other prisoners, breaking the rules. They've been here for days, some for weeks. They are agitated and angry. There is never enough food in these cells, there are never enough blankets for the cold nights. It's filthy.
Worst of all, visitors aren't allowed up here. No place in the prison is harsher than these fetid punishment cells, and it's never been worse than tonight. The men can hear parties for Day of the Dead ringing from homes just outside the walls. It's one of Mexico's biggest days of the year, a big, happy, noisy family celebration honoring the departed. Families are together at home or in decorated graveyards filled with light and music and tequila and the hottest, sweetest bread you can imagine, and here they are, stuck in the hole.
It's too much, just too damned much. The prisoners come up with a plan. Someone calls a guard over to ask him a question. When he comes close enough, arms quickly pass through the bars and grab him, pinning him there and taking his gun and his keys. The prisoners quickly free themselves, then grab another guard and his gun, too. They tell the guards to get the hell out, then they set mattresses on fire in the cellblock and start shooting into the air out the windows.
Fearing the worst, the guards abandon their posts and shut off the electricity. Much of the prison now belongs to the inmates, and it's completely dark except for the flames rising from the top-floor windows. Outside in the crowded neighborhood of modest concrete homes that has grown up around La Mesa, people see the fire and hear the gunshots for blocks.
Police in riot gear show up. SWAT teams assemble on the streets. Television cameras set up quickly. Mothers and girlfriends of prisoners have come running, and they are watching a small army preparing to storm the prison.
"My son, my son, what are they going to do to him?" one woman wails.
Then into the darkness comes a tiny woman in a white habit.
She has clear white skin and round cheeks, and her smile seems to start in her bright blue eyes then spread across her face until it glows. She looks so happy.
"¡Madre! ¡Madre!" the desperate women call out, holding out their arms and running to her.
Everyone knows her. She is Mother Antonia. She's the American sister who lives in a cell and shivers in the same cold showers as the prisoners. She calls the men mis hijos, my sons, and brings a mother's love to some of Mexico's most forgotten. There are rumors that she was rich once, maybe even a millionaire or a movie star. Nobody really knows exactly where she came from or why, but they know she will help them, and they know the prisoners trust her more than anybody else.
Mother Antonia was on an errand outside the prison when she heard about the trouble and has come rushing back to her adopted home, with its imposing walls and guard towers. She hears the ominous snaps and clacks of ammunition being loaded and smells the acrid fire. Terrified women mob her.
"Calm down," she says. "This is not the time to be screaming. The men can hear you in there. They're going to be all right, but you need to pray, not yell. Everything will be all right. I'm going to go inside to see your sons -- my sons -- right now."
The television cameras record it all and follow her as she turns and walks toward the darkened prison entrance. The warden, Jorge Alberto Duarte Castillo, is out of town. His assistant stops her at the office by the gate.
"I can't let you go in there, Mother. It's too dangerous right now."
She insists. She demands that he call her friend Duarte. She is sure he will give permission for her to go inside. It is her home and her life. She is needed in there now. He calls, and she tells Duarte she wants to talk to her hijos and persuade them to end the violence.
"No, Mother, you can't go in. It's too dangerous," he says on the other end of the phone.
"Jorge, you know my mission is to be in there right now," she says. "This isn't a time to back out."
Jorge Duarte knows the prisoners listen to her. He also knows that she is right, that a massacre could well be in the making; it has happened too many times before. He gives the order to let her in.
A guard unlocks the door and lets her pass.
It is black dark inside. She is alone, walking slowly down empty hallways, feeling her way along a route she knows so well. She can hear the shots and smell the smoke from upstairs. When the lights went out, some prisoners had run to their cells while others hid under tables and behind doors. Now they come out, surprised to see Mother Antonia instead of riot police.
"Mother, what are you doing in here?" one asks her.
First one, then five, then more prisoners gather around her in the darkness. They tell her that she should get out, she could be killed. Don't worry, she tells them, I'll be safe. She leads the men, mostly poor young Catholic Mexicans raised to worship God and their mothers, into the small chapel off the prison yard. She kneels and prays out loud for angels to protect everyone in the prison. Then she rises and heads out the door, an inch at a time in the darkness, toward the punishment cells.
She shuffles her feet carefully along the prison's cement floor, her outstretched hands feeling the way along the walls. Finding the stairway leading up, she realizes she is not alone in the blackness. The men have stayed with her. She doesn't know if there are five or fifty, but she feels them and hears them all around her like a human shield. She is the closest thing to heaven most of them have ever seen, this woman who brings them pillows and pure white bandages, who keeps the guards from beating them, who never stops hugging them and telling them they are loved. They call her Mother. And they are going to take a bullet rather than have La Madre die tonight.
She can feel the heavy black metal doors of cells as she passes them. The screams and shooting are close now, the smoke is sharp in her eyes and lungs. She calls out to the men in the punishment cells.
They are shocked to hear her.
"Don't shoot! Mother's here!" they yell.
"Mother Antonia! Get out of here. You'll be killed!" one inmate shouts. "Please, go. You'll be shot!"
She doesn't stop. She moves forward toward their voices.
"What's going on here? The whole city is terrified," she says. "Your mothers and girlfriends and children are outside crying. Please stop. There's an army out there getting ready to come in."
She tells them that if they don't put down their weapons, more children will be orphaned, including their own. Think of your parents crying at another family funeral, she pleads. Her voice is warm, convincing, and urgent, and it suddenly changes the ugly night.
The metal door to the punishment cell block opens. She can now see a bit by the light of burning mattresses. Her white clothes are singed with ash. An inmate she knows as Blackie steps forward from the shadows.
She pushes her way inside like a running back.
"C'mon, C'mon. Give me the guns. Give me the guns right now. I'm not going to let you get hurt. I'm not going to let them hurt you and punish you. Give me the guns." "Mother," Blackie says. "We've been up here so long they've forgotten us. The water's gone, and we're desperate."
Mother Antonia falls to her knees in the smoky hallway. She is right in front of Blackie, looking up at him with her hands held out, palms up, pleading with him.
"It's not right that you're locked up here, hungry and thirsty. We can take care of those things, but this isn't the way to do it. I will help you make it better. But first, you have to give me the guns. I beg you to put down your weapons."
"Mother," Blackie says softly, looking down at her. "As soon as we heard your voice, we dropped the guns out the window."
Mother Antonia walks Blackie downstairs to the gate, shouting to the guards and police that he is coming out, unarmed. Duarte has hurried back from Mexicali, a nearby city, and arrives at the prison just in time to see Mother Antonia and Blackie emerge from the darkened yard. They all sit in Duarte's office, and he listens to Blackie's long list of complaints. The two men agree to a settlement. Blackie promises an end to the violence. Duarte promises better conditions. The lights come back up in the prison. The riot police pack up and leave.
Mother Antonia emerges through the prison's front gates. The mothers and wives and daughters rush to hug her close; this time their tears are from joy. "Why were the prisoners so angry?" one television reporter shouts.
Mother Antonia turns to face the cameras.
"They just wanted to be free," she says, her white habit shining in the hot glare of the lights. "They just wanted to be free."
There is more to the story. But she knows this isn't time to tell it. For the moment, she just turns and disappears into the night, back to her cell.
She lives there, past the guards with shotguns on the wall overhead, through the sets of iron doors, down banged-up hallways under cold neon lights. Years after the riot we visit her there, to begin discovering how such a gracious woman who lived so much of her life in the comforts of suburban Los Angeles chose to live in this hard place. She comes to greet us at the prison's main gate. Just five foot two, wearing a black-and-white habit and a crisp white veil framing her beaming face, she is a whirligig of energy and cheer. "¿Cómo estás, mi hijo?" How are you my son, she says, hugging and kissing each guard she passes. Visitors in the waiting area rush to her, holding out their hands to greet her: ¡Madre! ¡Madre! ¡Madre! She has a moment for each of them, fixing them with blue eyes so luminous they almost seemed lighted from within. She touches the children gently on their heads.
She turns to us, and her smile seems to give off heat.
We follow her down a few long corridors and into the heart of the prison. All around her are prisoners, a few wearing ironed shirts, clean jeans, and leather boots, but many dressed in rags. She greets every prisoner and guard she passes. She's exuberant, and everything about her says life is good, life is fun.
She sees one guard and practically shouts, "¡Buenos días, Sergio!"
Another can't cork his grin when she nearly sings at him, "¡Hola, mi amor!"
We see right away how warmly Mother Antonia touches everyone, how much she likes people. We look at the prison guards standing on the wall above her and see gruff men in knockoff Ray-Bans, the official eyewear of Third World law enforcement, and wonder what they do to prisoners when nobody is looking. She looks up all sparkly-eyed at the same guards as if they are the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. She has given them a copy of the movie "The Green Mile," dubbed in Spanish. It's about redemption, kindness, and hope, and it's set on death row. Her kind of flick. A guard tells her he loved the movie, and he's passing it on to another guard that night. "¡Qué bueno, mi amor!" -- How great, my love, she responds.
Mother Antonia's accent is pure gringa, as the Mexicans say. She doesn't care that she doesn't speak Spanish like Cervantes, she just plows ahead and everyone understands her. She believes that what she lacks in perfect verb conjugations, she makes up for in love for Mexico.
We arrive with her at the Gallinero, the Rooster House, a large cell filled with prisoners who have committed minor infractions. A couple dozen men are caged there, some standing, some lying on the concrete floor. The smell is brutal from the single toilet in the corner. Mother Antonia passes her arms through the bars and touches the men and kisses their cheeks. A few of them look hard and mean, but most of them just look sad. She asks them, "Have you eaten? Do you need anything? Is there anyone I can call for you?"
Most inmates are freely walking around the prison. To an outsider, the place doesn't look so much like a prison as a big, walled city. As we move on, Mother Antonia sees an inmate she knows. He is wearing lipstick and a dress.
"¡Mamá! ¡Mamá! ¡Mamá!" the man says to her, embracing her as if hugging his own mother. Three other transsexuals in full drag do the same. As they swish away down the narrow passageway into the crowd of inmates, Mother Antonia says that nobody has a tougher life, in the prison or outside, than they do. Not only are they struggling with their sexuality, but they don't fare too well in the prison's macho culture, so she pays them special attention.
"You love the unlovable," says Frank, a prisoner who is waiting for her at the heavy mesh door of her cell, which is only a few steps away from the holding cell for the newcomers.
"I love the people whom other people think are unlovable," she says.
Mother Antonia introduces us to Frank, a tall and muscular former U.S. Marine. Frank says he made a dumb mistake and he's learned from it, thanks to Mother Antonia. He's serving a six-year sentence for trying to smuggle an illegal immigrant into the United States. He was born in Peru but grew up in New York and Florida and became a U.S. citizen. While stationed with the Marines in San Diego in 2000, a friend dared him to try to sneak a young Peruvian guy across the border in the trunk of his car. Frank was caught and convicted, and at nineteen, he was thrown into La Mesa. Now he spends his days with Mother Antonia, helping her attend to the inmates who come in a steady stream to her door, at all hours, asking for everything from prescription medicines to advice on how to deal with their spouses.
Mother Antonia asks Frank about a female inmate. She's thirty-eight, dying of cancer, and has eight months left on a six-year sentence for a minor drug conviction. Mother Antonia is trying to persuade a judge to order her release on humanitarian grounds. Meanwhile, Mother Antonia's bringing medicine for the woman from the pharmacy to ease her pain. Frank says he's just been to visit her in the infirmary, which is clearly not his favorite place. All those sick people with every sort of disease, he says, shaking his head. He still can't believe that Mother Antonia touches them, even greets them with the traditional Mexican kiss on the cheek. "These people have tuberculosis and stuff," he says to her, "and you just touch them -- you even kiss them. I'm afraid to do that."
She has given Frank many of her favorite books, including Once There Was a War, John Steinbeck's dispatches of World War II. He never liked to read books before but now says he sees what he was missing. He wants to become a dentist when he gets out, his interest piqued by watching -- and sometimes assisting -- the dentists Mother Antonia brings to the prison to fix prisoners' teeth.
Mother Antonia unlocks the door to her carraca, as many prison cells are known, and leads us inside. She is home. "When I grew up in Beverly Hills, my father told me I'd brag all my life about where I lived," she says, looking around her cell and laughing out loud. "He was right!"
Her cell is concrete and cold. Her small bed is along the back wall, and two thin windows near the ceiling look out on a guard tower and barbed wire outside. A large crucifix hangs on one wall, and a few photos are scattered about on a small table, next to a Bible and a Spanish dictionary. Her pressed white blouses hang above a plastic garbage bag filled with hotels soaps and shampoos, stamped with "Hotel Del Coronado" or "Grand Hyatt," donations from friends in California that she passes out to inmates. She keeps a big jar of peanut butter near her bed so she always has something to give to any hungry prisoner. The door to the bathroom, nothing more than a bare toilet and a cold-water shower, is only a sheet. An oxygen tank sits next to her bed, evidence of her increasingly poor health.
She was born with an unusual problem with the tendons in her hand, which left her unable to make a fist. She underwent surgery to repair the problem when she was a child, the first of her long list of operations. Her real pain and health troubles began when she was nineteen and she lost her first child during delivery. Seven more pregnancies compounded the problems, and she developed a hiatal hernia. During an operation to repair that in 1992, when she was sixty-five, her esophagus was punctured by mistake.
Over the next seven months she had six major operations, and during one of them, surgeons removed her spleen. For two years she could swallow only liquids. Friends jokingly called her the Sword Swallower because of the rubber tube she had to slide into her esophagus to keep it from closing up.
Her heart is weakening. She has two leaky valves and significant blockage in her arteries that give her trouble breathing. Doctors recommended that she leave the prison for health reasons. When she refused, they insisted that she keep an oxygen tank at her bedside. She sees it as part of her work, insisting that "my pains make me even more aware of other people's pain."
Mother Antonia has a million little sayings, distillations of what she has learned from seeing so much hardship and loss. She sprinkles them into her conversations constantly, like the little drops of chile sauce Mexicans put on everything from eggs to pizza.
"Life is a boomerang -- what you do for others comes back to you."
"Everything you do either adds to the beauty of the world or takes away from it." "Life is not a series of green lights."
Over the years, inmates have sometimes lied to her, stolen from her, even swiped her cell phone, but she doesn't let it get her down. She sums up her philosophy this way: "Live within the day. Forget about yesterday; it's over. Take everything bad and negative, and toss it away. Learn to step out from what is holding you back. To hate people will not change anything; to love them will."
Her mission has expanded over the years to include as many of Tijuana's poor and sick as she can reach. She even visits the dead. At the city morgue, bodies not claimed after nine days are buried in an unmarked common grave at the municipal cemetery. Mother Antonia often holds funerals for these people, who are sometimes known by only a number. Once a month, she holds a mass for all the unknown dead in Tijuana. The city supplies simple pine coffins, and she buys plots in the cemetery and small grave markers. On and off over the years, when there was no other transportation available, she would sometimes stand on the busy street outside the morgue and flag down a passing van or pickup truck to get a coffin to the cemetery.
"Excuse me, could you please help me for a minute?" she would ask, and soon a truck driver who happened to be passing by would be on his way to the cemetery with a nun and a coffin.
"She'll ask anyone to do anything," says Joanie Kenesie, her longtime friend and assistant. "And they always help her."
At the cemetery, she buys a cross to mark the grave and writes "We love you" on it in Spanish. Then she calls over the grave diggers, vendors selling the crosses, anybody she can find to join in a prayer for a stranger as the coffin is lowered into the ground.
She helps people nobody else goes near. "Without her, we would have nothing," a seventy-year-old woman named Eloísa tells us. She lost both legs below the knee to leprosy. When Mother Antonia met Eloísa, her husband, Roberto, also a leper, was carrying her around the prison yard on his back. She had no other way to get around. Roberto had been arrested for selling drugs, because, he says, nobody would give a leper a job. Lost without him, Eloísa went out and sold drugs on the street as openly as possible, so she would be arrested and sent to La Mesa to be with him. While they were in prison, Mother Antonia brought them food and kept them company when nobody else would have anything to do with them. She paid to fix Eloísa's teeth, because, she tells us, "If you don't have legs, you should at least have a beautiful smile."
When they were released in 2003, Mother Antonia worked the phones until she found someone who was willing to rent to them. She asked a former inmate, whose freedom she had won by paying his bail, to paint the apartment for them, and she bought Eloísa a wheelchair. As Mother Antonia's work became better known over the years, Mother Teresa visited with her on several trips to Tijuana and California. President Ronald Reagan wrote her a letter from the White House in 1982 praising her "devotion to a calling beyond the ordinary." Mexican President Vicente Fox has lauded her, and she was featured on a calendar honoring women who have made great contributions to Mexico.
She met Pope John Paul II in 1990 when he came to Chihuahua City to say Mass for hundreds of thousands of people. Bishop Emilio Berlie, then the bishop of Tijuana, chose Mother Antonia to carry the offertory gifts to the Pope. Over the microphone, the announcer called out Mother Antonia's name and said she was devoting her life to prisoners. She climbed the stairs to the platform where the Pope sat, and she knelt before him.
"Please pray for my prisoners," she asked.
He touched her cheek and handed her a rosary he had blessed.
She thanked him, then climbed down from the stage, elated. Hers had always been an unorthodox mission, and it had been tough to persuade the official church to accept a twice-divorced mother as a Catholic sister. But there she was, being blessed by the Pope himself.
As she made her way through the massive crowd a man ran up to her, calling her name.
"Remember me?" he said. "You paid my fine to get me out of jail and brought me to the bus station. Thank you. Thank you."
She gave him the rosary the Pope had just handed to her.
"He ran through a million people to find me," she says. "It was meant to be his."
It is impossible to give Mother Antonia a gift, because she invariably gives it to someone else. Give her flowers, and they end up brightening a cancer ward. Give her candy, and prisoners end up eating it. She can always think of someone who needs it more than she does.
Mother Antonia is a nonstop coffee drinker who requires only a few hours of sleep a night. Every encounter with people seems to energize her even more, and we see that happen over and over.
On one typical day we spend with her, she wakes at five a.m. and tunes in to the news on the radio to "see who else I need to pray for today." She showers with cold water, then irons her veil on a small fold-up ironing board in her cell. Next she goes to the chapel to pray, and then to the Grito, the morning roll call of new prisoners. After that, she spends the next few hours in the prison, talking to inmates.
At ten o'clock, Joanie, who has been assisting Mother Antonia full-time since her husband died in 1997, drives her the two blocks to Casa Campos de San Miguel, the shelter she runs for poor women, where Mother Antonia keeps a small office. Out back are several dormitory-style rooms for women who have just been released from La Mesa, along with those who have come to visit an inmate and women who are suffering from cancer.
Gabriela García Loeza is waiting for Mother Antonia outside Casa Campos as we arrive, her eyes swollen from crying. She was discharged from prison the night before and has been up all night. She tells Mother Antonia she has no money to go anywhere. Mother Antonia hugs her and tells her she is going to give her a bus ticket to Mexico City, where Gabriela has family. In the meantime, she should stay here. Gabriela calms down and comes into the house, heading to the kitchen, where some of the sisters who have joined Mother Antonia's unusual religious community cook her lunch.
We follow Mother Antonia into her office, and before she can sit down to tackle her stack of phone messages, the wife of a La Mesa guard arrives, frantic: "My husband said you help everybody. Can you help him? He's a good man, but now he is changed. I think he's using drugs. He is very aggressive. He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. Please, please, what are we going do to?"
Mother Antonia listens from behind her desk, where she keeps miniature Mexican, U.S., and Irish flags. She pulls out her dog-eared book of telephone numbers and is soon talking to the state's director of public security. She asks him: If a guard voluntarily acknowledged that he had a drug or alcohol addiction and wanted to take time off to go into rehab, would he promise her that the man wouldn't be fired? Sure, he says.
"You promise me, right?"
They talk about the need to start an Alcoholics Anonymous program for the guards. When the call ends, Mother Antonia turns to the wife and urges her to help her husband rather than criticize him. Then she asks for his cell number and dials it. "Víctor! This is Madre Antonia. I need you to come to my cell Saturday. I need your help with something."
"Thank you! Thank you!" the wife cries out, comforted that Mother Antonia will talk to him. She leaves, walking past the pile of Winnie the Poohs and stuffed animals that a donor from California has dropped off in the living room. By midafternoon, fifty children have come to the door and left with a new toy.
There are also restaurant-size cans of crushed pineapple and bags of used designer clothing; Nine West black sandals sit atop one pile. Everything goes to the prisoners, their families, and the needy of Tijuana. Literally tons of it every month. While we are there, a man drops off sixty liters of donated milk and juice.
A little girl pads around the living room. She had ended up in an orphanage because her mother, who was suffering from schizophrenia, couldn't care for her. One of the sisters in Mother Antonia's community adopted her, and now the little girl lives here, too.
The doorbell rings every few minutes. A man asks for a clean shirt. A boy asks for a pair of shoes. A twenty-year-old man asks for money to see a dentist; he has no upper teeth. The sisters find the shirt and shoes, and Mother Antonia writes a note to a dentist asking him to fix the man's teeth; she'll pay, as always.
Just as we are leaving, a man pulls up in an old beige Mustang. His name is Adam, and he is thirty-three. He tells Mother Antonia that he wants to kill himself, and that some instinct told him to come find her.
She puts her arms around him and hugs him.
"That is what I needed," he says.
The other sisters take him inside to chat for the afternoon and to fill him with warm food.
Mother Antonia then takes us with her across the border in her old blue Mazda, which was a donation, to get some papers notarized in San Ysidro, near San Diego. As she waits in line at the crowded crossing, a Mexican border guard recognizes her and walks up.
"Hi, Mama!" he says. "Can I please ask you a favor? Can you pray for my mother? She's sick."
Mother Antonia asks her name and promises to pray for her.
At the notary's office, a clerk, about fifty years old, comes up to her and whispers. "Madre Antonia," he says. "I'm one of your sons. I was in La Mesa fourteen years ago."
He is fighting back tears. Mother Antonia touches him gently and says she is happy to see him doing so well.
Back at La Mesa, she checks with the guards at the Rooster House. The smell inside had been so overpowering in the morning that she asked that they clean it out, which they have.
A man is waiting for her near her cell. He says his catheter has been emptying urine into the same plastic bag for too long and asks if she can please get him a new one. She makes a note to take care of it before the day is out.
She is feeling a little tired, and she knows that her day -- like all her days -- won't end until late at night. There will be a steady stream of inmates coming to her door with every kind of problem. She lies down for a few minutes, twists the valve on her oxygen tank, puts the mask over her face, and allows herself a few long, deep breaths.
"People say what I'm doing is such a great sacrifice, but it is not," she says, now feeling a little stronger. "I don't think of it as sacrifice. It's only a sacrifice when you do something you don't want to."
Mother Antonia has not come to this point easily. She speaks about her divorces with obvious pain, and she remembers late nights of doubting herself sitting alone after her kids were asleep, and wondering what lay ahead for her and for them. She knows she made lots of mistakes. She married too young the first time, too impulsively the second.
"It hasn't always been easy for her," says her oldest daughter, Kathleen, a family and marriage counselor in San Diego. "She went through so many trials, but they made her who she is. Her empathy and compassion have grown so much through her own suffering. She has struggled to get to this happiness."
From "The Prison Angel" by Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, Copyright May 2005, The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group, USA, used by permission.