The women pose seductively, hands on hips, mouths stretched into toothy smiles. Their sequined bustiers and miniskirts glisten as the two-foot-tall feathers on their headdresses shift lightly in the breeze. They would be at home on the Las Vegas Strip. Instead, they are inmates in Buen Pastor Prison in Bogotá, Colombia. And for a brief few days in late September, rather than languishing in their cells, they are competing in a prison-wide beauty pageant replete with dance numbers, interview questions and evening gowns.
Playwright José Rivera gives voice to these women in his new play, Another Word for Beauty. Rivera, known to Goodman audiences for Boleros for the Disenchanted (2008/2009 Season) and to the wider public as the first Puerto Rican American writer to be nominated for an Academy Award (for the screenplay for the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries), worked closely with director Steve Cosson and the New York-based theater company The Civilians to bring this real-life and wholly unique event to the stage. In 2012, during the weeks leading up to the annual pageant, Cosson traveled to Bogotá, where he brought together a group of Colombian theater artists to conduct in-depth interviews with inmates and officials inside the prison. They were then joined by Rivera and composer Héctor Buitrago, who also visited the prison and attended the pageant festivities, which take place over several days. The result is a play with music—fictionalized, but based on true events—that chronicles both the pageant itself and the circumstances that led to the women’s incarceration.
Buen Pastor is a bleak, imposing prison that houses female perpetrators of many different crimes. Many of the women have also been involved in Colombia’s civil war, which preoccupied the country through much of the late 20th century and continues in the present day. This complicated conflict—between the government, several revolutionary guerrilla groups who aim to overthrow it and paramilitary groups who oppose the guerrillas—stem partly from the fact that Colombia’s rugged terrain is divided by three Andean ranges. Large swaths of the country, particularly jungle and mountainous regions, are mostly out of the federal government’s control, and a “wild west” mentality has taken hold. Among the largest guerrilla groups is the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Active since 1964, this group ostensibly fights for Marxist-Leninist ideals, touting agrarianism and anti-imperialism as keys to a more stable and just society. They have frequent small-scale clashes with the Colombian government’s forces, operate in about 50% of the country, mostly in rural areas, and consist of roughly 18,000 members. They are opposed by right-wing paramilitaries who have become known for their violent tactics and are responsible for 70-80% of the political murders in Colombia each year. While these groups are male-dominated, women are also recruited to fight; those who grow up in the countryside with little education might see few alternatives to joining the conflict.
[vimeoyoutubepopup_video displaytype=”text” text=”Watch a video about the Buen Pastor Beauty Pageant >>” videoplayer=”youtube” videoid=”IDmMXHxCOIc” width=”900″ height=”510″ autoplay=”true”]
Both the left- and right-wing groups also vie for control of Colombia’s robust drug trade, which the government attempts to squelch with little success. Narco-trafficking provides a swift ticket to prison for many women, whether or not they are affiliated with particular political groups. Mired in poverty, and often victims of abuse and neglect, these women turn to drug trafficking to make quick money, often at the behest of a boyfriend or husband. Packing cocaine into their bras, wearing fake pregnant bellies or swallowing cocaine-packed capsules, the majority successfully transport drugs—but many also get caught by authorities.
Many female offenders are sent to Buen Pastor, the largest women’s prison in Colombia. Designed to accommodate 1,250 inmates, it often holds more than two thousand. At any given time, nearly a third of Buen Pastor’s residents are awaiting trial and therefore have not been convicted of a crime. They live in overcrowded cells, struggling to maintain health and sanitation despite the conditions. Some cells lack access to water, and the women must haul water in buckets. They have little access to exercise or educational opportunities, and often go without basic healthcare. A single psychotherapist serves the entire prison, leaving the troubled women to their own devices, with many mental illnesses going untreated. Despite the cramped conditions, mothers are permitted to keep their children with them in prison until the child’s third birthday. The children benefit from maintaining contact with their mothers, but spend the first few years of their lives exposed to the harsh prison environment.
Designed to accommodate 1,250 inmates, Buen Pastor often holds more than two thousand. At any given time, nearly a third of the residents are awaiting trial and therefore have not been convicted of a crime.
Buen Pastor, then, might seem an unlikely location for a beauty pageant. But the broader culture of Colombia places a high value on these glitzy events, and many young girls dream of winning such a contest. Carl Bower, a photographer whose series Chica Barbie examines the world of Colombian beauty pageants, said in a 2010 interview, “When I began photographing, I felt that the pageants were essentially meat markets. It wasn’t just that thousands of people were scrutinizing the contestants’ bodies; what struck me was the categorical, exhaustive and unforgiving nature of it. Are her ankles thick? Who has breast implants? Who doesn’t but should? Whose ass is too small, too large or shaped like melons when it should be like oranges?” But Bower also noted that the pageants and their viewers have another, less demeaning dimension too. “There was almost always a genuine enthusiasm in the crowds, which included old, young, male, female, rich and poor. And despite the crude assessments, the favorites of the crowd were not always the most beautiful–they often seemed the most intelligent or exuded a stronger sense of character.” This multifaceted view of Colombian pageants—as events that simultaneously objectify and uplift women—comes to bear in Another Word for Beauty, which sheds light on the ambivalence many of the inmates feel about their role in the pageant.
Women have a long history of being considered socially inferior in Colombia. They only received political equality in 1974; before that point, the state treated them as minors unless they were under the protection of a husband, father or other male relative. Until 1980, a rapist could be exonerated of his crime if he married his victim. A husband was also legally allowed to kill his wife if he found her preparing for, or in the midst of, a sexual interaction with another man. Divorce has only been legally allowed since 1991, and abortion is still illegal, except under extreme circumstances. Thirteen percent of females do not complete primary school, and only 33% attend university. Women, still, are often seen as objects of sensuality and physical beauty, and often are not deemed fit to compete in the same realms as men. Perhaps as a result, girls and women aim to compete in the nation’s many beauty pageants, a socially sanctioned arena.
While the prisoners would doubtless prefer to compete in pageants outside of prison walls, most were born into circumstances—poverty and abuse—that would not likely lead to the stage of the Miss Colombia pageant. The Buen Pastor pageant provides inmates with the chance to fulfill their girlhood dreams—albeit on a makeshift stage in a prison, competing against other inmates. The women work together to fashion floats and murals out of scrounged materials; they also rehearse dance numbers and put on a grand parade. Past winners coach current contestants and all the women gather to cheer each other on. Each contestant rallies the support of her patio, or cell block, hoping their cheers will help her sail to victory. At the end of the pageant, one woman wins, gaining admiration and copious applause from her fellow inmates. When the event concludes, however, the winner must soon remove her makeup and her glory ends. She must return to her drab cell to fight over soap and fall asleep on a dirty mattress. Those moments in the limelight, then, may mean more to her than they would to Miss Colombia, whose glamorous reign lasts an entire year.
Rivera, Buitrago and Cosson aim to bring these women to life, complete with their flaws and failures, but also their humanity and potential.
Goodman Theatre thanks the following Donors for their generous support of Another Word for Beauty: