“Feared and unwanted”: a Mexican indigenous woman locked up for 12 years in a psychiatric hospital then stripped of all her benefits

“Feared and unwanted”: a Mexican indigenous woman locked up for 12 years in a psychiatric hospital then stripped of all her benefits
“Feared and unwanted”: a Mexican indigenous woman locked up for 12 years in a psychiatric hospital then stripped of all her benefits

In April 2024, the documentary “The Woman of Stars and Mountains”, directed by filmmaker Santiago Esteinou, was released on the big screens. It traces the little-known journey of Rita Patino Quintero, an indigenous Mexican who spent a long part of her life in captivity.

Born in 1930 in Piedras Verdes, Mexico, the woman of Raramuri origin grew up as a shepherd, midwife, herbalist, artisan and washerwoman within her community, as the filmmaker reports to the BBC. But her life takes a first dramatic turn when her flock of sheep is stolen and suddenly her peers accuse her of having murdered her husband. From a respected woman, she becomes “feared and unwanted” in her community.

This is where a long ordeal begins for Rita who, suffering from a speech impediment, wanders with her son in search of food. According to his neighbors, who testified in the documentary, no one was ready to reach out to him. “Some people didn’t want her; when she arrived, they closed the door in her face. People said she wanted to kill them. But she was hungry and wanted to eat“, says a former neighbor on Santiago Esteinou’s microphone.

But, despite her innocence, custody of her son is taken away by the authorities. Subsequently, his journey becomes a mystery. She disappears from Mexico only to reappear in Texas. “We think she worked“, said the director.

12 years of confinement

Once she arrives in Kansas, events take an even more dramatic turn. On June 8, 1983, Rita, holed up in the basement of a church, was found by the police, who took her to the police station. But the language barrier is such that nothing is interpreted correctly. A policeman tries to wash her, she hits him. A translator tries to help him, but the Raramuri dialect remains a mystery to him. The language barrier wins. The police, distraught, made her appear. “They took her to court and a judge concluded that she was not mentally competent, that she was a danger to herself, and so they took her to a psychiatric hospital.”says the filmmaker.

This stay was initially only supposed to last three months. Once this period had passed, his condition had to be reassessed but fate once again refused to smile on the Raramuri: his court-appointed lawyer never appeared before the judges and was also unable to to speak to the woman in the absence of translators.

Medical staff, unaware of Rita’s origins, were unable to contact her family members. The waiting then began. To last 12 years. “I see many forms of discrimination and violence. In Rita’s case, many elements come together” lamented the director. “She’s an indigenous woman who doesn’t speak English, poor, migrant and probably disabled.”

Saved by an NGO

In 1994, the Kansas Advocacy and Protective Services organization decided to look into the cases of patients at Rita’s psychiatric hospital. Discovering her file, containing only her region of origin, Chihuahua, and her community, the Tarahumara, the lawyer assigned to the case protests. The hospital struggles to respond to his attacks and it does not take long for the complaint to be filed. The organization is suing the institution and more than 30 of its employees and demanding $10 million for damages suffered.

In 1995, the NGO partially won its case and was released and returned to Mexico. The case dragged on until 2001, when the lawsuit against the hospital was settled in mediation. The latter will provide compensation of $90,000 to Rita, who will pay $32,641 to the NGO.

Subsequently, a property administrator is appointed to Rita: Beatriz Zapata, a nun. She will first transfer $300 per month to the hospital victim, then only transfer $6,000 at a time before disappearing with the rest of the money, as the filmmaker recounts in his documentary. After years, a court managed to recover $10,000 from the nun, who had already used the rest. Two new administrators will be assigned. Claiming they can’t find Rita, they will charge her $1,000 a year, which will quickly wipe out the rest of the compensation.

The indigenous Ramamuni died in 2018.



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