This story was inspired by the real life history of México, San Luis Potosí, SLP, Art Center. In an optimistic and not at all realistic view of the facts. In real life the inmates were forced to work in the remodelations and then moved to an even worse penitentiary. I wish for a day in which that new prison and the rest of the world stop working and instead they all become a place in which art and freedom can grow.
TW: Prison, death mention, imprisonment, dying from insolation mentioned, violence, hanged people, implied suicide, school shooting mention, feminicides mention, some of the horrendous treatments inmates go through, transphobia, sexism, getting kicked out because you are queer. I swear this has a happy ending.
The Pink Prison stopped on a Thursday as the last inmate opened her mouth to the taste of freedom outside the gates. I was still inside.
When I came here, the cantera, the material used to build the prison, was the soft pink of a baby’s gown, but as the city left it to rot, the blocks of the building grew a greenish mold at the edges.
I drifted through the place for ten years, caring for the garden where, me and the other imprisoned people that didn’t get a chance to leave the place, died. It was made entirely of cactuses, and though people had learnt to harvest things not native to the land by that time, the Pink Prison could only grow endemic plants.
I scared pests out of stems and lured in pollinators with my wails, I called for sun and for shadows when needed, and I cried to make the sky rain. This was my grave and only I cared to visit. I never held hope that my family would come, not after they threw me out for kissing a girl while wearing a boy’s shirt- not even letting me explain that tomorrow it would be a girl’s blouse. I didn’t expect them to come, but if one of my friends had cared to take out the weeds of the garden I would have appreciated it.
In the end, someone did come. An old lady with some money and no one to share it with decided that it would go to the city, more specifically, the Pink Prison. Through lurking in the prison’s restroom, I found out that she herself had been an inmate at three different penitentiaries for the same crime: making sure the girls on this land live long enough to become as old as her.
The newspapers called her crazy, an activist, an idealist; she had decided that the Pink Prison would be the perfect place for art to grow from. Journalists went delirious, the headline “OLD PRISON BECOMES ART CENTER” filled every kiosquito across the city. I never learned what the adults buying cigarettes thought about it, nor the kids asking for one.
As for myself, I hated it at first. I hated the idea of the old lady touching the moldy cantera with her fingertips, of her scrubbing out the blood in my prison cell to have someone playing lullabies there, of her making parties and recitals in the garden I care for every day- the land I died in.
But no one asked me what I thought.
While the workers were demolishing 18 cells to create a dance studio, I switched the radio from the regional music station to the news, where they talked about mothers dying of insolation in search of their children. When they had to go through the perimeter corridor instead, I made sure they knew why it was called the Alley of Death.
I switched tactics when a particularly skittish person passed out from fright and was forced to come back the next day. It wasn’t their fault, I understood through the rage, it was the old woman, the government, all those men with deep pockets.
Scaring women out of determination is an old practice, made harder as through the ages we built a resistance that allows us to dance in the same streets in which they murdered our sisters.
It was a full moon night when I tried to force the old woman out, she had stayed later than anyone to relieve herself. Through the restroom mirror I drew her face as it would look once her soul left its body, with the water running she took herself in.
“Mhm,” she said, “I thought I’ll look worse.”
I pulled from my memories, and as if sketching, I showed her the faces that used to decorate the pantheon of the hanged. Their teasing faces daring you to do the same.
She closed the water tap, and took a deep breath.
“I am sorry. It won’t be the same, not anymore.”
“You won’t erase me!” I shouted, “Nor the pain.”
“I won’t erase you,” she said, “Nor the other people that bleed in here.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“That 's okay.” she said, and came back the next day.
She told her team of me, she said there was nothing to fear but to not take me lightly, they needed to respect me, she said.
A haunted building is as normal in this country as the bodies buried underneath them.
Against my will the Art Center opened. The Alley of the Death became the perimeter corridor, the Pantheon of the Hanged became the Pepper Tree Garden, My Tomb the Cactus Garden- the only part they didn’t touch, not even for a fresh layer of paint.
It doubled as a museum so you could come in the mornings and the guide would tell you what it was like everyday in the penitentiary. The tour was surprisingly accurate, even if they forgot the intrusive check-ins, and that there were up to twelve prisoners per cell, not one. They recalled the obsessive surveillance, the ruthlessness of the guards, and the football matches they allowed us to participate in with the ones in the “free world”.
The first artistic event happened on the Reflection of Water. Where there once was the blacksmith workshop there was now a modern type of amphitheater in which the sound traveled through waves of water.
They invited a duet of sisters that played the huapangos I used to dance to until the group grew tired of the fact that I couldn’t decide between dancing the “boy’s part” or “the girl’s part”. Their voices were as sweet as hot chocolate or café de olla, making the guests cry with the love stories forming through their lips and hands. At the end the old lady spoke of the pain that had been masked by the water and the music.
The old lady had been making good on her promise, none that set foot on the penitentiary could ignore the fact and the abuses that came with it. And yet countless of artists came each day, some to showcase their art in the gallery that used to be a basketry workshop, Romeo and Juliet was put on where the dining hall used to be, in the showers a sculpture class was given and the teacher crafted “The Spirit: a person with broken wings” that now lives in the arches wings.
It wasn’t until two years after, when a school came to make the prison their home, that I met them.
They had come from another dance school, now tainted by a shooting, the only boy in the dance track people had whispered wherever they went. They weren’t the best dancer by far, but they were the students that put in the most effort. They asked to be taught not only ballet and folklore, but hip hop, Indian classical dance, bachata, step, hula, jazz, contemporary etc. Eager to fit into their body the entirety of the world.
They didn’t know how to explain the feeling they got when the dance teacher, in an old habit, called all the dancers “girls”, they didn’t know how to explain the more sour feeling when the teacher apologized to them for the supposed mistake.
They were always the last to leave, their father arriving an hour and a half after the interdisciplinary class ended where they would sit with the cute boy in the music track that played the violin and wore a mohawk.
In that moment, when there was no-one around and no place they were needed, they would go back to My Tomb the Cactus Garden and clean up whatever trash the visitors left. I sat next to them offering company until their dad called.
“People don’t respect cacti as much as they do other plants,” they would murmur sometimes, “just because you’re spiky.”
“Thank you,” I said, other times, letting the wind carry my words.
They would nod opposite from where I was, and then leave.
Our first and last conversation did not happen in that hour and a half when no-one looked for them, but rather after they had run away from a year-end party at the Pepper Tree Garden with all their friends and the cute guy that played the violin looking for them. It was a windy day, which made it perfect.
“I’m so stupid,” they said, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know who I am.”
“You are like me in some ways,” I said with the wind. “I also smile when they call me a girl, even if I am not one.”
“And do you like it when they call you a boy?”
“Yes, even if I’m not one.”
“I don’t know how to tell him. This,” they gestured to themself and where they thought I was, “and that I fancy him.”
“I used to dance when I was free and alive,” the wind helped me say.
In the distance I could hear the shouts of their friends calling for them.
“I like dancing. Thank you,” they said, ready to go back, “I am sorry,” they said looking at the garden as though they knew it was my tomb, “It would be better I promise.”
They nodded giving me their back, and then went back to where the party was.
In the ruins of my cell and 17 others, where the dance studio was crafted, with a window so wide that all my garden was reflected in the mirror, I watched my friend take the hand of the boy they loved.
As the notes of Colombian salsa help them express what they could not put in words, I let myself drift into a swift rest I never experienced in life.
Ari Ochoa Petzold (they/xe), is a writer in process that likes dancing to old music and history, one of their goals in mind is to bring to the world stories about the human condition told through the intersectionality of being queer and latine. Find more of xyr work in the Sea Glass Magazine, Graveyard Zine, #Enbylife, Hooligan Mag and at Instagram in @Ari_gibberish.