"The only good thing about that place was that Irish nun," she said.
She told us about a nun, an Irishwoman she said, who lived in a cell alongside the inmates, helping to feed and clothe them and protect them from abuse by guards.
"I miss talking to her," she said.
We wrote ourselves a note: Find nun who lives in prison.
A few weeks later, we stood outside the imposing front gate of La Mesa, a fortress of twenty-five-foot walls in the middle of a downtown Tijuana neighborhood.
Mother Antonia came to greet us at the gate, a cheery little woman in a black-and-white habit.
We sat with her, and she told us about her life, about how she was raised as a well-off girl in Beverly Hills with neighbors like Spencer Tracy. (She turned out to be Irish American.) She talked about how she spent three decades as a suburban mom in Los Angeles, raising seven children.
She told us about poor people locked up for years for stealing food, about the famous drug dealers whose bullet-blasted bodies she had washed and dressed for burial. We listened, and we were hooked. Together, we have been interviewing people as journalists for more than forty years. We have interviewed presidents and rock stars, survivors of typhoons in India, and people tortured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. We had never heard a story quite like hers, a story of such powerful goodness. This was a tale that needed telling.
For starters, we wrote a story about her life that appeared on the front page of The Washington Post on April 10, 2002. In the weeks that followed, letters and e-mails came pouring in. People wanted to know how to help her. A gay Catholic man wrote to say his faith had been renewed by the story of how a divorced woman had not let the church's rules diminish her faith. An old boyfriend, who had not seen her since World War II scuttled their plans for a life together, saw the story and wrote to her-in care of the prison-and they talked for the first time in fifty-seven years. Kathleen Todora, a widow from Louisiana, read the story, packed her bags, and drove to Tijuana to join Mother Antonia's mission.
That response confirmed what we already knew: Mother Antonia was rare, and those whose lives are touched by hers are affected forever. She gets under your skin, and she changes you, whether it's seeing a little more humanity in a street beggar, or no longer being able to look at a Starbucks caffe latte without imagining how much better that four dollars could have been used.
This book is a work of journalism, not an "as told to" story. Mother Antonia is the first to say she isn't perfect. She has struggled with real life problems; she has known the highs of marrying for love and lows of divorce when that love dies. Suffering from poor health for a lifetime, she has ignored her ailments, grabbed hold of her gifts, and used them to do extraordinary things. She is the happiest person we have ever met.
For almost three years, we have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Mother Antonia. We gave her a tape recorder and tapes and asked her to tell us the stories of her life. We have sat with her in the prison and in her small house nearby filled with an eclectic mix of women: inmates just leaving the prison; women receiving cancer treatments; and mothers, daughters, and girlfriends who have come long distances to visit men in prison and have no money to stay anywhere else.
We have also talked about Mother Antonia with her friends, family, bishops, inmates, guards, wardens, police chiefs, DEA agents, Army generals, and even Benjamín Arellano Félix, one of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers. In all possible instances, we have checked and double-checked their stories with witnesses, public records, old newspaper clippings from the Library of Congress, and even in an eye-opening interview with an ultrasecret DEA informant we were introduced to only as Comandante X. We have been amazed at the accuracy of Mother Antonia's memories, even those from a half-century ago. She remembered Eddie Cantor's street address from the 1930s. And she remembered it right.
People of all faiths, or of no faith, are drawn to Mother Antonia's message of inclusion. She loves the Catholic Church, but not all its rules. She wears over her heart a cross interlaced with the Star of David, a symbol of her devotion to the Jewish faith and the lesson she learned from the Holocaust as a young girl, that no one should stand by silently in the face of suffering. Some of her most generous financial supporters are Evangelical Christians in California. Mother Antonia thinks God doesn't check IDs at Heaven's gate.
In the end, this is the story of a woman who followed a dream later in life. She was fifty when she traded suburban Los Angeles for La Mesa. Mother Antonia's hope is that she will be joined by more and more women, and someday also men, who are looking for ways to give meaning to their later years. She believes that the world is full of older people with long experience who now want to help others. We think she's right. Especially since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and all that has followed, we think more people are looking for a way to do something to make the world a little warmer.
A couple of mechanical points.
Mother Antonia is occasionally referred to in the book as Sister Antonia. It's a linguistic difference. In English, we are used to calling members of Catholic religious orders Sister. In Spanish, the more common expression is Madre-mother. To all her Mexican friends, she is La Madre Antonia. We have preserved that here, while letting English-speakers call her Sister Antonia.
When we use the authorial "we," it means that one of us, or both, saw or heard whatever is being described. It would be too distracting to write, "she said to Kevin," or, "Mary saw." We could never get away with such imprecise attribution in The Washington Post. But in our marriage, "we" has come to mean either or both of us. And for the sake of kindness to our readers, "we" means that here, too.
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.