Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison by Mary Ellen Sanger

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I read Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison by Mary Ellen Sanger last year and was profoundly moved by it. I thought I’d reread it again this year and had the same reaction. The author was able to capture Mexico as I see her, all her hardship, corruption, and exquisite beauty. I would be remiss not to share this story with you.

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Mary Ellen left behind the corporate jungle to read in the shade of the steps of a pyramid in Mexico. She began her new life in tourism but eventually found her way to a sheltered patio in Oaxaca as a caretaker to an elderly widower.

Until, one night she was bustled from her residence to the Ixcotel State Prison, one of the most overcrowded and unhygienic facilities in Oaxaca. There she was held for 33 days on fabricated charges. However, her story is just the prelude to the stories of the women she met inside.

Concha, arrested for armed robbery, who found love at last inside the stone walls. Berta, whose husband had tended sorghum interspersed with marijuana for a wealthy landowner. Susa, heroin addict earning drug money with a shoeshine service for visitors. Natalia, arrested so that the wife of her lover could take her child. Ana, human rights lawyer jailed because of her work on behalf of rural farmers. Citlali, a curandera who spoke only Chinantec and her infant daughter Xochitl. Lucia and her infant son Sebastian, whose 5-year-old daughter was in a group home allowed to visit once a month. Soraya, imprisoned for refusing the advances of the mayor. Flor, dying of a tumor from the bullet in the back of her head.

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Mary Ellen was not the same women upon her release and neither will you be after you read these haunting stories from the women at Ixcotel State Prison.

Read more about Mary Ellen Sanger here.

Mary Ellen Sanger

Meet Mary Ellen Sanger, author of Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixoctel State Penitentiary.

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Mary Ellen

It’s Mary Ellen – not Mary, ever. Mom hated that name. Long story. I am from Schenectady, New York – though I left when I was just 20. Told my mom I was tired of falling on my ass in the snow. Moved to San Diego (8 years) then Mexico (17 years), New York City (9 years) and now Fort Collins, CO – because I fell in love with a chemist.

I think the smell of the ruins brought me to Mexico. Names like Nezahualcoyotl and Huitzilopochtli. Flower songs. Cacao. Jaguars. I had studied Spanish and Anthropology in college, and it seemed like the logical thing. A three-week visit to the Yucatan tickled me enough to know I needed more. A job in tourism (and a spirit of adventure) allowed me to stay for 17 years.

Our lives change with each chapter – my Mexico chapter opened me up to tectonic shifts – all those plates shifting underneath us. It felt oddly comfortable, the uneven sidewalks, the rumbling earth – made more sense to me than the staid and tidy right angles of home.  Because of Mexico, I can’t live without chile and I cry at stories of solidarity.

My experiences in Mexico introduced me to inequalities I had not before met face to face. The gloss of tourism vs the displacement of the indigenous. The fashionista vs the young girl who tapes her shoes together to get to school. There’s a heady gap to contemplate. I don’t know that mine is actually a change of belief system – but rather an opening that allowed me to see beyond the happy colored veneer of commercialized Mexico, to the reality and severity of Mexico “descalzo” (barefoot). I became an activist, observer, explorer. Now, out of Mexico for 13 years, I retain that desire to contemplate what lies beneath… believing that answers are sometimes in the cracks and shadows.

I think it is a challenge to be an obvious Gringa in Mexico – and find a place that is not off-putting. To go beyond the token American, to learn enough about the country/history/food/music/telenovelas/ to meet Mexican friends on a level that demonstrates a real interest in Mexico and Mexicans.

The mom of a Mexican boyfriend from years ago said she would hold me to writing a book and planting a tree. She was present at a tree planting – so the book remained. I finally wrote a book.

I spent 17 years getting to know Mexico – there are many moments that I can easily slip back into. Watching a sea turtle leave her eggs on a beach in Akumal, meeting a wildcat in Cabo San Lucas, listening to a discussion of abuelita’s (grandma’s) best salsa with friends, listening to the songs of displaced families in Chiapas. They are small moments that stay with me, for their ability to pin me to a certain light, sound, smell.

A defining moment – while there is a temptation to say my time in jail that defined the life I live now as an advocate and writer – I think is better defined as the month spent in Chiapas with indigenous families. Observing the “other” side of life in Mexico, the side at once glorified and reviled. Glorified as symbols of the cultural richness of the country that draws tourism, and reviled as obstructions on resource-rich land. The imprint of that time reminds me to look beyond, to observe the tendrils of a vine – what do they hang on to? What throws them off?

Now that I no longer live there, I miss some things about my life in Mexico, but not things I would trade my current life for… I miss the acceptance of imperfection (rutted roads, alright) and the availability of community. I left Mexico under duress, never expected to. A brief stint unjustly incarcerated was enough to drive me back to the States to reconsider my base. I go back to Mexican as often as I can (annually, preferably) though I am happy in a committed relationship with a man who appreciates Mexico.

I, like so many I know, do not have enough free time. In the mid-90s in Cabo San Lucas, I read seed catalogs. Hadn’t seen half the flowers in there, but learned Latin names. Antirrhinum for Snapdragon. Ipomoea for morning glory. I sowed a zillion seeds, and obviously, not all wanted to live in the desert. Gardening provides metaphors for so many things – most of my free time goes to nurturing plants and observing growth. Oh, and petting cats. And the New York Times crossword puzzle with my partner.

I work for an NYC nonprofit – a remote gig, and on the campus of Colorado State University. Jobs that keep me too occupied to write the next book right now.

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I published “Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison” in late 2013 ten years after my release. The book is a love story to Mexico, to women, to solidarity and community. It is a product of living in New York City after the trauma of unjust incarceration and a shift in my life so large I couldn’t find footing. Then I recalled the many women I met who were victims of their own system. And I sat with them for a few years writing the stories I remembered as they shared them with me.

I met the great Elena Poniatowska while working for a Mexican organization in New York. I met her not as writer to writer, but friend to friend. We walked around New York looking for a new watchband for her, buying a suit for her upcoming presentation (Do you like the pink or the red?) and navigating the subway together. She wrote an introduction to the book for which I am forever grateful that ends – “I suppose and believe that I am not wrong in saying that for Mary Ellen, Mexico is a woman who one day, will find herself.”

May we all do the good work to find ourselves.

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Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison is an absolutely amazing read.  The author’s love for Mexico, despite it all, shines through.  She gives voice to the voiceless found in the shadows beneath the walls of the women’s penitentiary and once reading it, you will never see the world in the same light again.