Hidden within the imposing walls of the infamous Black Palace of Lecumberri lie the untold stories of women who defied the societal norm of being “angels of the home.” While the walls of this historic penitentiary bore witness to the trials and tribulations of countless inmates, the experiences of women prisoners, in particular, offer a unique and often overlooked perspective on the country's criminal history.
On September 29, 1900, the Federal District Penitentiary was inaugurated, intended to house both men and women. The original construction plans included a dedicated wing for women inmates, but this section remained unbuilt. Until its expansion in 1910, the prison held around 600 men and only 70 women, showcasing the stark gender divide within the penal system.
For women prisoners, their incarceration represented not just a legal sentence but a moral one as well. Society, driven by idealized notions of femininity, imposed a double sentence on them. These women had not only committed crimes; they had also transgressed the social conventions of their time, shattering the supposed sanctity of their gender roles.
The Ignacio Cubas Library-Hemeroteque of the General Archive of the Nation (AGN) holds a treasure trove of materials that shed light on the “angels of the home” who found themselves trapped within the walls of Lecumberri. In his book, “Los huéspedes de la Gayola,” David García Salinas, a renowned Mexican reporter and chronicler, delves into the lives and conditions of those who called this prison home. His chapter, “Female Sector,” explores the crimes for which women were regularly accused: neighborhood gossip, petty theft, threats, insults, infanticide, prostitution, abuse of trust, and crimes of passion.
Many of these women faced unjust sentences due to flawed investigations by authorities. For instance, in 1945, María del Villar Lledías was wrongly accused of conspiring with thieves to murder her wealthy brothers. Once the real culprits were caught, María was proven innocent, receiving only a formal apology.
Another striking case was that of Marcela Quiñones, accused of stealing a ten-cent broom. After a year in prison, she was sentenced to just three months, with a wry comment from the authorities, “We owe you nine months.”
From Criminals to Victims
While the penitentiary accommodated women from various walks of life, even those with extensive criminal careers were not immune to the harsh realities of prison life. Dolores Estévez Zuleta, known as Lola la Chata, a notorious drug lord, frequently found herself within Lecumberri's walls. However, it wasn't until 1957 that she exposed the sexual and power abuses perpetrated by the authorities.
Perhaps one of the most notorious cases was that of Adela Lara and María Luisa Vázquez del Real, infamously labeled “las robachicos” or child kidnappers. Accused of stealing and trafficking children, they faced hostility from both inmates and authorities. Their shocking confession revealed a horrifying underworld where children were abducted, mutilated, and sold for profit. Though the gang of mutilators was never apprehended, Adela and María received a staggering 23-year prison sentence, enduring social rejection and the haunting cries of the stolen children.
While the crime rates of women were significantly lower than those of men, their invisibility within prison spaces remains a pertinent issue today. The archives preserved by the AGN compel us to reflect on and revive these stories. To this end, the Club de Experimentación Teatral del Archivista (CETA), comprised of AGN staff, has drawn inspiration from David García Salinas's book, “Los huéspedes de la Gayola.” They aim to craft a dramatic narrative that breathes life into the stories of women who defied society's “angels of the home” stereotype and found themselves in Lecumberri. This evocative production by CETA will debut at the AGN Museum Night in March, inviting the audience to explore these forgotten tales from the annals of history.
In conclusion, the history of Lecumberri Penitentiary, and indeed of Mexico itself, is incomplete without the stories of these resilient women. Their struggles, resilience, and the injustices they endured deserve to be remembered, offering a sobering glimpse into the complex interplay of gender, crime, and justice in a bygone era.
Full Citation: Archivo General de la Nación. ‘Lecumberri, ¿una prisión para los ángeles del hogar?’ gob.mx, http://www.gob.mx/agn/articulos/lecumberri-una-prision-para-los-angeles-del-hogar?idiom=es. Accessed 23 Sept. 2023.