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Jennifer Clement, Prayers for the Stolen

October 1, 2014

Clement, Prayers for the Stolen

When we count the cost of Mexico’s drug wars, we think first of the number of dead and next of the bereaved. But what of those victims whose experience of violence is less bloody and more routine? We seldom hear their voices, even less if they are teenaged girls.

Ladydi lives on a hardscrabble mountain slope outside glitzy Acapulco. Hers is a village without men; coming of age they leave to be gardeners in the United States or hitmen with the cartels, and they rarely come back. She shares a dirt-floor hut with her embittered, hard-drinking mother, who named her after the British princess not out of admiration or aspiration but to assert that all men fail their women. Even Prince Charles did so.

Life would be hard enough amid the scorpions, black widows, snakes and red ants, in a climate so hot that pillows are kept in refrigerators, but this is one of the many corners of Mexico where the rural poor are afflicted by those who have and want more. Their community is rent in two by a tourists’ highway, on which speeding cars now and then collide with their animals and their grandmothers. Nearby poppy fields draw army helicopters carrying herbicide, but since the soldiers are in cahoots with the narcos they drop their poison elsewhere, drenching those who happen to be outside.

The greatest dread is of the narcos themselves, who show up in their black Escapades to kidnap whichever girl catches their eye. And so mothers strive to keep their daughters “ugly,” cutting their hair short, blackening their teeth with marker pens and their faces with charcoal, and at the sound of an approaching car they hide them under palm fronds in backyard holes.

When the prettiest of Ladydi’s friends fails to hide in time, she is snapped up, passed between men like a water bottle, then gifted to a capo as a sex slave. Ladydi herself suffers another kind of humiliation: unwillingly present when a cartel murder takes place, she finds herself jailed as an accomplice in Mexico City’s Santa Marta penitentiary. Yet she never gives in to despair.

U.S. author Jennifer Clement grew up in Mexico and Prayers for the Stolen is a novel of unusual documentary naturalism. It succeeds in saying as much about the awful impact of Mexico’s narco-economy as the very best long-form journalism. It is also astute on the racial marginalization of Mexico’s majority, a trait accentuated for the many Afro-descendant folk of Guerrero state. Again and again the strength of the female spirit is evident, especially in community, but—again realistically—not everyone proves a survivor.

Ladydi’s tale is also a work of great lyricism. Clement employs the voice of a smart adolescent, journeying from innocence to experience, her observations flipping between the whimsically poetic and the sickeningly frank. (The poetry borrows somewhat from magical realism, a bit oddly for the words of a 15-year old, but the images are nonetheless evocative.) The book’s power lies also in its compelling brevity; it can be read in one or two sittings.

At a time when Guerrero dominates the news in all the wrong ways—Acapulco shoot-outs, disappearances of students at towns inland—Clement gives clear-eyed testimony of the hell in which the poor of that state are living. In the social justice tradition of writers since Dickens and Zola, it provides yet another argument for a bilateral rethinking of the failed war on drugs.

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