Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
The island of the Three Marias to which the title refers is Maria Madre, the largest of the four islands ninety miles off the coast of Mazatlán in Mexico, and the home of Islas Marias Federal Prison. The prison is unusual in that convicts live in communities, not behind bars. Those who have earned the privilege have been allowed to bring their families to live with them. Historically, the Catholic church has ministered to the prisoners. The first stanza introduces the “pale nuns of St. Joseph,” workers for the church. The description of Maria Madre as “the island of the just / arrived from having been somewhere else / and will be leaving soon without scars” refers to the missionaries themselves, who have the freedom to come and go as they please, as opposed to the prisoners, who must remain and who will be scarred by their experience on the island. Ríos uses line breaks effectively in this stanza, enjambing the second line to ironically play on the meaning of “just.” This long description of the island also makes humorous use of understatement.
In addition to Maria Madre, the names of the other three islands are San Juanito, Maria Magalena, and Maria Cleophas. They are ignored because the prisoners are confined to the one island. Ríos might also be humorously observing that both Mary Cleophas (the Virgin Mary’s sister-in-law) and Mary Magdalene (former prostitute turned saint) have historically been ignored in favor of Mother Mary. All the characters are represented as accepting their lot “even these white nuns / not in a Christian place.” Ríos alludes to the use of the island as a leper colony before it became a federal prison in 1905. Historically, leper colonies were established and run by Christian missionaries. The word “white,” which appears throughout the poem, in this instance highlights the nuns’ racial difference from the Mexican prisoners, who are brown-skinned.
Ríos presents the first named character, Faustino, as a family man whose family’s “punishment” is similar to any family’s not in prison. Given Ríos’ penchant for convoluted sentence structure, the last two lines are ambiguous. Faustino is either himself “the poor man who kills,” (alluding perhaps to the crime that put him behind bars) or he is the guard of “the poor man who kills,” and that is his burden. In either case he is drawn as a sympathetic character. Faustino is the Spanish name for Faustus, which in Latin means fortunate. Ríos uses the name ironically.
Preceding each longer stanza Ríos uses a shorter stanza, a quatrain, as a kind of refrain. Whereas the longer stanzas each describe the par- ticularity of a given man, the shorter stanzas provide generic comments on the place. Easter lilies are white and symbols of Christ’s resurrection, and Ríos’ comparison of the nuns to the lilies underscores their innocence and virginal status. He also puns on the word “habit,” which refers both to their dress and to a ritualized action or, in the nuns’ case, a ritualized non-action (i.e., remaining celibate). That they “will not be women here” tells readers that the speaker considers romantic or sexual relations with a man to be a marker of “womanness.”
This stanza describes another man, unnamed, on the island who obviously has a history of troubled relationships with women. His “two pains” are that he could never have a relationship with another woman while on the mainland (“north”), and that even though he could have a relationship on Maria Madre, he has not. The speaker suggests that the man is mentally ill, as he is described as confusing the voices of others with his own: “He erased the laughing, his own / laughing that echoed—he said came— / from the mouths of those around him / with the needle in his leg.” The needle suggests that the man is on medication or perhaps addicted to narcotics. Faustino, the man in the second stanza, acts as a pimp of sorts, “loaning” the man to Mrs. Marez, most likely the wife of another inmate. The young man verbally assaults her when she leaves, calling her a “whore.” The stanza ends with the young man “dreaming” of doing what his father had taught him. What this is, is left unsaid. Most likely it has to do with the kind of life the man would have led had he not wound up in prison. Whatever it is, the man longs for it, and it is part of his “truth,” what he lives for.
This stanza, like the previous quatrain, uses the symbol of white. This time, however, instead of innocence, white represents a range of ideas, including memory, sacrifice, and mystery, corresponding to a photograph, the story of child martyrs, and state candies respectively. White is “handed down / from old to new,” in the same way that the young man’s father had handed down to his son what he knew in the previous stanza. All of the objects that are referred to as being white function as evidence of some sort. A photograph preserves memory and is evidence of an event; “the story of the child martyrs” is evidence of sacrifice, of martyrdom; and the “state candies said to be blessed” are evidence of superstition, and symbolize mystery and the unknown.
This stanza introduces another unnamed man, possibly an official of the prison, as he is dressed in a suit. Or he may be a white collar criminal or an eccentric one. The speaker represents him as a man who is on Maria Madre because he has failed at other things in his life. The speaker presents this indirectly, though, by describing the man’s wife’s opinion of him. Readers can infer from the description that the man is arrogant and self-important. The name he chooses for himself, Fresco Peach (fresh peach), and the fact that he “never / told his name to a woman” suggests an ambiguous sexuality. Ríos ends the poem with this man’s thought of self-loathing mixed also with self-acceptance or resignation. The poem can be read as a triptych, that is, as a trio of portraits of men who inhabit Maria Madre, and the effect that the island has had on them.
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