Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 680
Sexism “Island of the Three Marias” presents the male desire for the opposite sex as an inherently destructive drive which often results in contempt for females. This expression of this contempt is sometimes referred to as misogyny, which means hatred of women. Each of the three men described displays either...
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“Island of the Three Marias” presents the male desire for the opposite sex as an inherently destructive drive which often results in contempt for females. This expression of this contempt is sometimes referred to as misogyny, which means hatred of women. Each of the three men described displays either implicit or overt loathing for females. Faustino pimps for Mrs. Marez, securing the “too young man” for her pleasure; the “too young man,” who tellingly calls his pain “wife,” calls Mrs. Marez a “whore” after she leaves; and the man in the suit, who takes the (to him) macho name Fresco Peach, never tells his name to a woman. Apart from Mrs. Marez, the other women in the poem are “the pale nuns of St. Joseph,” who the speaker says “will not be women” on the island, presumably because they will not have relations with men. Such a conventional notion of what makes a woman a woman, while not misogynistic, per se, nevertheless perpetuates a stereotypical image of female identity, an image based on what women can do for men.
“Island of the Three Marias,” a poem about the desires of men who live in a penal colony, questions the idea that prisons can be places of rehabilitation where criminals can atone for their mistakes and remake themselves. Ríos presents the missionaries as largely ineffectual, saying that “they will be leaving soon without scars,” underscoring the scarring that occurs to those who stay on the island. The fact that no one, not even the nuns, asks why the other islands are ignored suggests that those on the island are resigned to their fates, even the “white nuns / not in a Christian place.”
Echoing the idea of scarring, Ríos draws attention to the history of the islands, writing that they are “inherited from the lepers who decomposed.” Christian missionaries have a tradition of working with lepers whom society has shunned. Leprosy, primarily a tropical disease, is chronic but it is not easily transmitted, as is the popular belief. Nor does the disease cause the skin to fall off. Ríos, however, plays off both of these images to suggest the similarity between lepers and criminals. In the Old Testament of the Bible lepers are the unclean whom God is punishing for their sins. Similarly, the inhabitants of Maria Madre are being punished for their wrongs, but not by God. By focusing on details or events which show how the men have not changed, Ríos explicitly questions the usefulness of religion in the prisoners’ lives.
Alienation and Loneliness
“Island of the Three Marias” uses the setting of a Mexican federal prison to explore the idea of humanity’s alienation, one of the primary features of modern society. Ríos does this by presenting a contradiction at the heart of Western legal systems: although people are imprisoned ostensibly to “pay back” society for their wrongs, they very often become more alienated from society and themselves as a result of their time in prison. Ríos emphasizes the futility of prison as a place for rehabilitation in his description of Faustino, whose “punishment” is his family making a living. The Islas Marias Federal Prison is unique in that prisoners do not live behind bars but in eleven communities throughout the island and work regular jobs. Prisoners on good behavior are allowed to bring their families to live with them during their incarceration.
The young man described in the third stanza is the most manifestly alienated, even from himself, showing signs of mental illness when he cannot distinguish the source of his own laughter. The “man in the suit” simply “does not care” and has given up trying to be a part of society, even on the prison island. Ríos makes plain the symbol of the island as a place of alienation and loneliness by linking it historically to lepers, “who decomposed.” The unremitting bleakness of the men’s lives and the fact that even the nuns cannot offer solace emphasize the failure of the prison to change the men.