Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cooking Salvation

I’ve been devastated by the medical diagnosis of one of my closest friends on the street, F. She was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her uterus last year and although was able to have four radiation treatments, at $800 a pop, she’s now out of money and therefore, unable to receive more help. She’s praying that it won’t spread, but obviously, cancerous tumors tend to grow not shrink, over time. At the moment F. is buying time, wishing for a miracle. She hopes money for an operation to remove the tumor will somehow (magically) appear. She has three daughters under her care: one is sixteen, while the other two are under 10 years old. F.’s doctors claim that the cancer was caused by her 15 years of working on the streets. They have forbidden her to continue working in the sex industry to avoid further aggravation of the tumor. F. is 32 years old and sex work is the only job she has ever known. She was a street kid who had her first child at age 12 and even though she first worked in the domestic service industry, she quickly changed to sex work in her teens when she realized she could make quadruple the money. With only a basic education and with years on the streets, F.’s choices for other employment are extremely limited. She knows she could work as a domestic servant for pennies, but doesn’t see it as worth her time. Anyway, the thought of working for employers after being a “freelance” prostitute for all these years makes her cringe. (F. has never, ever had a pimp in her life). Despite the excruciating pain, F. still tries to service several clients daily, but knows she’ll have to stop for good very soon.

One of F.’s greatest talents is her ability to cook. I’ve had the opportunity to eat dozens of meals at her home so I can testify to her culinary arts; there’s no question about it, F. is a phenomenal chef. She’s from Guayaquil, the big port city on the coast known for its good food and especially delicious seafood. F. has always told me that if she could change careers she would open a luncheon-cafeteria spot in the historic center. That would be her dream. Despite the tragic turn her life has taken, a silver lining has emerged. F. has slowly started to sell lunches to the other sex workers on the street. Lunch options are limited in the area, so the women welcome the delicious coastal cuisine that F. provides (furthermore, the vast majority of the women are from the coast and crave this food from their province). F. charges $2 for each lunch which although sounds cheap, it the going rate for lunch in the area. F. is establishing herself as the “personal chef” for all of her fellow sex workers. They request lunches for the following day and F. happily obliges. F.’s lunches include a steaming soup or stew (sometimes a delicious seafood stew for example) and a huge second course, which usually includes an ample portion of rice, a salad of avocados/tomatoes and some sort of meat. It could be more seafood, like fried fish, or a chicken stew, grilled beef, pork accompanied by a coconut and lime sauce, etc. Anything goes. F. is creative and has a growing clientele. Despite the success F. is slowly accumulating on the streets, she tells me that she’s still just breaking even. She typically sells 15 lunches daily at $2 each so earns perhaps $30 at the most. Taking into account her huge shopping trips to buy the food and the taxi she must take from her house in South Quito to the historic center with all the lunches, she barely breaks even earning $30 (depending on what she decides to cook for the second course). For that reason, F. still tries to service a couple clients a day. She knows her business will slowly grow, word of mouth, but for now she must supplement her income from her lunches with sex work. F. tells me that she would need to sell at least 30 lunches daily to earn a living from this venture.

F.’s luck keeps getting better, again, despite her tragic medical circumstances. One of the owner’s of the brothels in the “official” red-light district which is about a 10-15 cab ride from the historic center, called La Cantera (Stone Quarry), recently offered F. a restaurant space next to her brothel! The owner is the only woman who is the head of a brothel in La Cantera and she is known to treat her workers well. I would even call her a feminist of sorts, to be discussed in another entry. Of course her focus is on earning money but the safety of her women comes first. Their treatment is her priority. Anyway, this woman heard about F.’s health issues and knew she is an excellent cook; coincidentally her cook had recently left, so she had an empty lunch space to offer F. You can imagine F.’s happiness. I went to visit her the first day she opened and she and her oldest daughter, B. were in the kitchen chopping, stirring, mincing, and frying all sorts of things. They had huge pots—industrial sized cauldrons, like out of a witch’s tale. The place was packed, mostly with the sex workers who work at the brothel. A few clients were also present. People kept streaming in, I was so happy for F. Having been a waitress for five summers during college, I jumped in and started serving people and helping out in the kitchen. I helped them wash the endless stack of dishes (no dishwasher, naturally) and serve the lunches to each customer. They kept sending me on little errands like to buy more ice, coca-cola, limes, or eggs. It was super fun. F. and her daughter were laughing and carefree. F. also packed some lunches to bring to her fellow sex workers where she works in San Marcos, in the historic center. Now she was making some money.

But the sad, sad truth of this situation is that even though F.’s dream did come true, as she now has her luncheonette, she is still just barely earning the money her family needs to get by. Perhaps she successfully made the transition from sex workers to cook, which in itself is truly amazing, after working her entire life in the sex industry, but she is not making the money she needs for her medical treatment. F. knows that. She told me that she isn’t going to think about her cancer and just hope for the best. She hopes that her oldest daughter will be able to take over the lunch place, in the worst case scenario, in order to make a living for her two younger daughters. The tragedy of F.’s situation has not been abetted by her new lunch spot. The money she needs for treatment is way beyond what her new lunch business can provide. If she didn’t have cancer, F. would be in a great situation and truly completing her dreams of finally leaving the sex industry. Sadly, it took a fatal diagnosis to force her out of the sex industry, when it was way too late. And sadly, it was this fatal diagnosis that allowed her to receive the charity of this woman owner of the brothel who is as devastated as everyone about F.’s situation. Although not many people know, those that do are going out of their way to help F. I think many of her fellow sex workers friends on the street buy her lunches to support her, even though they know these meager offerings will not serve for treatment.

Everyone is most worried about F.’s children, as one would imagine. F. is petrified and for this reason, most often slips into denial about her condition. She keeps telling me, “Anita, I know a miracle will happen. Either God will remove this tumor or the money will appear.” I nod my head in agreement, although my heart hurts thinking about it. I’m not sure I believe in miracles. F. hasn’t begun thinking about the long-term future; for example, where her youngest children will live, if (when) something happens to her. I think for now, the hardship of just getting through each day, earning enough to feed her children is enough to worry about. Some people don’t have the luxury of thinking beyond today and perhaps that’s for the best.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Same old, same old

Last fall (2010), I wrote three entries dedicated to the drama of a particular family. In short, the mother/wife who worked as a street prostitute in San Marcos to support her family abandoned her husband of 11 years and three children to start a new life with another man. For several days, it was unclear where K., the mother, had disappeared to and her husband, J. and I went on a Quito walk-about of all the places one looks in these occasions—the morgue, hospitals, prisons, etc. We were worried she had been a victim of a violent crime. News travels quickly on the streets and after several days of panic we learned that it was most probable that K., had simply run off with another man. She was last seen leaving a hotel in the center with another man one morning. As she checked out, she told the hotel owner, “I’m going to Ambato (another city in Ecuador’s highlands), I can’t stand it here anymore.” I know this because I went to talk with hotel owner. The owner was adamant that K. was not a victim of a violent crime and that it was simply a case of runaway love. No official word came from K., she never called her husband, nor her own family to disclose her whereabouts, but a client who had been in Ambato confirmed that she was there with her new boyfriend. Of course J. was livid. He ended up moving back to Guayaquil, the coastal city where they are both from, to be with his family, where he continues to remain today.

K. eventually returned to Quito, perhaps in January or February of this year (2011). When I saw her, it was a brand new K. She had gained weight (which means she wasn’t smoking as much base), and kept telling me how happy she was in her “new” life. She couldn’t stop smiling and talked about her new boyfriend like a giggling teenager. I was happy for her. Without her allegedly abusive husband J. and the pressure of supporting three children, I could imagine that K. would feel a certain relief. Although I have since learned that she has yet to even call her children, even now, in June 2011, when she left them in Nov. 2010. Perhaps it’s just too painful for her. Perhaps she doesn’t care. Who knows? All I know that the separation has been positive for J. too. He calls me from Guayaquil and says it was the best thing that happened to him. They no longer loved one another and he likes being back with his family. He is completely clean—he is forced to be—because he is now a single dad raising three children alone. Actually, J. was always the kids’ caregiver. They were always much more attached to him than K.

Now that I’ve come back from the States, it seems as if things have begun to change for K. Another woman disclosed to me that her “new” boyfriend now hits her. Furthermore, she has lost weight again. Indeed, when I saw K. the other day I sensed things were different. She remained upbeat as usual, but she no longer radiated that glow of early love. It was true—she had lost a bit of weight. I asked how she was doing and she answered (too) quickly, “Everything is great, just great.” “I’m happy,” I replied. She asked me if I had talked to J. or the kids, to which I responded no, which obviously indicated to me that she hadn’t either. I asked how her new boyfriend was and she looked down for a moment and said, “Times are tough, I’m working more.” Her new boyfriend makes a living selling candy, which was one of the reasons she ran off with him, so she wouldn’t have to work as much (although I can’t imagine how much a candy-seller makes…) It seems like a sex worker would make quadruple that income in a day.

It seems like her boyfriend realized just that. Rumor has it, that the boyfriend has stopped selling his candy altogether and K. supports them both. He has a worse base habit than J. ever did, so K. is back into her addiction. The women tell me that men usually wait a while before they start hitting their partners, just to make sure that their girlfriends are sufficiently in love with them to put up with it. Apparently, K.’s boyfriend waited for just the right moment, because he hits her and she hasn’t left him yet. Perhaps she will, but she hasn’t for now. So much for K.’s “brand new life.” It’s exactly the same, just with a different man, and minus her children. One would think that she would miss her children, but she hasn’t seen them in all this time. The women on the streets hiss behind her back about her being a negligent mother. Why do some women continually get caught up in destructive relationships? (I know the answer, to be discussed…) Perhaps having to support 3 children put unbearable pressure on K. to the point that she had to split, as a measure of self-protection. Perhaps J.’s beatings were even worse than her new boyfriend’s. I am certain that having 3 children, especially one who had severe special needs (he was born addicted to base), was too much to bear, but doesn’t her guilt of abandoning them consume her? When I talk to the other women, they say that can’t understand how she could leave her children—it is absolutely implausible. Apparently, she has yet to send them any money. And for what? To suffer more beatings, support another man and to slowly slip back into her dangerous addiction? K.’s luck ran out. When she sees me she smiles but I feel sad, knowing that K.’s “new life” probably isn’t much better than her prior one.

Hotel Regulation

I began my project studying this topic: how is street prostitution regulated in the historic center of Quito? With the closure of Hotel Aztec I found my answer. It is unofficially regulated by the hotels that act as undercover brothels. I had always known that street prostitution fit into a gray area of jurisdiction within the Ecuadorian legal system. I knew that by law prostitution in regulated brothels is perfectly legal, as throughout all of Latin America. In contrast, there are no direct legal references about the existence of street prostitution. In the mind of lawmakers it simply does not exist, most likely because they would prefer that it didn’t exist. Indeed, I believe street prostitution does not legally exist because it is an unsavory issue that Ecuadorian society (and most Western societies) would prefer to ignore, with the idea that even though it exists on the fringes, perhaps it will just simply disappear. The law reflects the heavy denial around its existence. Perhaps it is a topic so frightening, so threatening (women’s sexuality presented publicly, for all to see), that lawmakers would prefer not to dirty their hands with all the moral and ethical complications that such work accompanies. On the one hand, the street sex workers use bits of the constitution that state that every citizen has the legal right to work. Since it does not say anywhere that street prostitution is illegal, the women stand by this constitutional act and claim their right to work, on the streets, as prostitutes.

I have found that street prostitution is regulated as a police issue, rather than a legal, big-time government issue. The residents of San Marcos call and complain to the police enough times for them to enact an “Operation” to clear the streets of the neighborhood for several days. These police operations are conducted with the understanding that prostitution brings delinquency so therefore, removing the prostitutes will temporary relieve the neighborhood of its crime problem (which in fact, does not work—they soon realize that removing the prostitutes does NOT stop the crime, but again and again they associate prostitution with delinquency). When I personally ask the police what they are doing, they sigh, roll their eyes, and tell me that the residents have complained again and that they must please them. (i.e. the police don’t seem to care either way about the presence of the prostitutes, but act under the social pressure of the residents). The women are told that they must clear the streets for a few days if the cops are friends of the sex workers, otherwise they are brought to prison for a 4 day stay.

The herding of these women to prison is completely, 100% illegal because like I already said, street prostitution is not officially illegal. The police say the women are loitering, which is illegal or they search the women for their identification papers—every Ecuadorian must carry his/her ID card on his/her person at all times by law. Many of the women have lost their ID cards and don’t have the money to get a new one. Often the women pay off the police to leave them alone and as one would expect, many of the police are regular clients of these women—so quite frankly, I’d say many of the police are on the sex workers’ “side” and would prefer to leave them in peace. Sometimes I hear them gently say, “Move on chicas, move on..” when they are standing outside the home of a particularly surly resident. The police say (and the women use this as well when confronted with unfriendly police), that as long as they are walking, circulating in space, they aren’t breaking any laws at all. They aren’t loitering, because they are walking. And in the constitution an article states that all citizens have the legal right to circulate in public space freely.

These are the small petty ways the police attempt to control street prostitution--generally to appease the complaints of San Marcos’s residents who find the sex workers unsightly, especially due to the large number of schools and churches in the area. And as I have already mentioned many times, they associate prostitution with delinquency. The police themselves don’t truly give a damn about street prostitution, they just get annoyed by the residents’ complaints they receive, as one policeman relayed to me. He said, “these women really don’t do anything offensive, they’re just in the street.” But because the women represent something fearful and threatening, they are viewed as a “dirty”, perhaps even a “corrupting” presence. Perhaps because prostitutes are the “most fallen” a woman could become in Western society (biblical reference), just the sight of them scares other women in the area who want to avoid contamination.

These small time cat-and-mouse games between the prostitutes and the police cannot compare to the Aztec hotel closure. Once the hotel closed, it was game over for the sex workers of San Marcos. It is the hotels, not the police who truly control street prostitution. The residents should have taken that strategy years ago, if they had realized it could be so easy. But perhaps they had no idea the hotel was unregulated, who knows. Indeed, if the municipal government simply closed all the hotels in the historic center, the street workers would be forced to move elsewhere, without a doubt. But at the same time, the historic center is the most important tourist destination in Quito so of course they won’t close down all the hotels. For now, they will have to close down the unregulated brothels—but judging by how long it took for them to close down the Aztec (5 years), it seems like other unofficial hotels have more time to keep paying off the police until the municipal government finally cracks down. But without hotels, the women can’t work. It is their access to the hotels that is by far the most important factor in their ability to work—something so obvious, but yet, I didn’t truly come to recognize their power until the Aztec closed (I took the women’s work spaces for granted). Now I’m thinking to myself, well DUH, Anna….The hotels are way more important than the pesky police who really don’t do much at all, at the end of the day.

Heartbreak Hotel

I was there the day of the actual hotel closure. I was on my bike, riding to a meeting I had with the municipal government when one of my friends, a robber and addict, stopped me on the street. “Anita, Anita, come with me” he said. Although lucid, he seemed extremely worried. I dismounted my bike and we walked together through the historic center to San Marcos. He had just arrived from a morning of robbing in North Quito. I asked him how it went and he answered with his typical, “You know, Anita, you know.” His wry smile made me laugh. As we twisted through the narrow streets crammed with people (at this point, he had taken my bicycle, not wanting anyone to rob it), he explained to me the situation. As he conveyed to me the closure of Hotel Aztec I sighed with relief, “That’s it. That’s all you wanted to tell me?” I knew that the Aztec closed for a couple days at least every 6 weeks. It would open again once the owner paid off the police. He said, “No, Anita, today is different. Members of the municipal government came with the police.” It’s true, that had never, ever happened before. Usually it was the police thugs who have no real power, who come to collect brides for higher generals and in the process, receive their own pay-offs. My friend explained to me, “Anita, not only that, but the upper policemen came too.” Hmm… I thought to myself. Yes, this was a unique situation. Never had a group of upper tiered policemen shut down the hotel. I began to worry. We picked up the pace.

When we arrived, the corner was eerily quiet. No one was about and I saw the hotel’s doors shut with huge chains. The phone center which was the storefront located on the bottom floor of the hotel was also closed. It paid rent to the Aztec’s owner. One by one the women came out of the woodwork to discuss the situation with me. M. my Colombian friend approached me crying, saying, “Anita, they’ve said that the Aztec is now closed for good. What are we gonna do? Can you do something?” A few more approached around me, making a circle, expressing their litanies. They wanted me to take immediate action to do something, anything. I felt utterly helpless—this was a much bigger battle than the women or I could take on. In fact, it wasn’t a battle we could win, given the fact that the Aztec’s owner had avoided the legalization process for so long (5 years), since it had opened. Obviously the police could only look the other way for so long. Five years had been pushing it, but since the owner had only received minimal fines during this time perhaps he felt there was no reason to start the legalization process now. Perhaps he thought their threats would never amount to anything. Up until now, they didn’t. Perhaps it took him by surprise, as much as the women, the day they actually closed the Aztec for good (May 5, 2011). But I doubt that. I’m fairly certain that the owner had advance warning about the hotel closure because on the day it closed neither him nor his mother nor his other family members arrived that day at the Aztec to work.

While we were all grieving the loss of the hotel and pondering our options another crisis broke out when we realized V., a long term “base-head” (an addict to base—which is Ecuador’s equivalent to crack) was trapped in the hotel with her two small children. She lives in the Aztec and for some reason her presence was overlooked when they chained and bolted the doors. The firemen were called to “rescue her” and her children from their third floor room looking out onto the street. With the doors bolted V. had no way of leaving or entering the hotel, she had no food for her children, nor a way to receive drugs to support her habit. But as it turns out, V. didn’t want to be saved. It turned into a surreal situation, with me in the middle.

I was standing about with the rest of the growing crowd as a fireman put on his helmet and climbed the ladder to V.’s third-floor window to coax her to come down with him. She started screaming at him, to leave her in peace, in her home. Fairly high-up authority figures from the municipal government were there as well, wanting to force V. and her children out, to avoid any number of disastrous situations that could happen (which could damage their reputation). I knew a fair number of the police mulling around and we greeted each other. The municipal government wanted to know who the heck this gringa was (me), who was also standing around as I continually shifted between the V. situation and went back to the rest of the women on the corner (all of whom were adamant that V. and her children should be removed for their welfare). The fireman who had been trying to coax V. to leave backed down his ladder with no success. V. is a stubborn woman, but more adequately, she’s a woman with an advanced addiction, making her decision-making abilities impaired. Enough “officials” and people of “authority” began to realize that I actually knew V. and perhaps could talk to her. I was willing to try, because the situation also seemed dangerous to me. I also wanted V. to exit the hotel.

I called up to her, as the crowd o people outside her window began to grow. “V.” I called, “It’s Anita.” I called up and waved to her. She called down, “Oh Anita, it’s you, help me.” I really wasn’t sure what she meant by that. I think our ideas of help were very different at that moment. For her, did she mean “help her” remain trapped in the hotel, with no way to receive food for her children? I asked her to come down to the front door so we could talk through the gate. V. said she would come down to talk only to the “gringa” and that everyone had to back away to give us our privacy. Oh goodness, I felt. Here I am, definitely getting involved right in the middle of a huge drama unfolding on the streets—not something an anthropologist is “supposed” to do. But there I was and I wanted to help. V. came down, shaking and tearful. She seemed so tiny, I wish I could have put my arms around her to stop her trembling, but we could barely hold hands through the bars. “V.” I said, “look at this mess.” She started to cry. “Anita, I can’t leave, this is my home, all my possessions are here. All my clothes, all my children’s clothes, my stuff to cook food.” I nodded sympathetically, trying to hold back my own tears. “I know V., it’s just that the hotel is now permanently closed. We have to get you out and bring you to a safe place.” V. started swearing and turned into her surly self. I said, “Listen V. we need to come up with a solution. The municipal government wants you out, now. It’s not safe for you to be in here. How will your children get food?” V. turned to me and said, “How the fuck do I know?” and disappeared into the darkness. By this time the press had arrived. Thank God I managed to completely avoid them.

One of the women from the municipal government pulled me aside and said she had a very serious question to ask me. With my heart sinking she asked, “Anita, is V. an adequate mother to her children. Are they in danger living with her?” Oh god. This was exactly what I did NOT want to be asked. I knew V. lived for her children. If they weren’t there, I don’t think she would bother staying alive. At the same time, my honest answer would be no. Her children live trapped in a hotel room where their mother smokes base all day. At the same time though, V. manages to provide food for them and the other women step in to help. With V.’s children is does take a community to raise a child. A community where V. and her children feel safe. I have been worried about V.’s children for ages, but have accepted the attitude that all the women take. It breaks our heart to see children, but it’s none of our business. We do small things to help, like bring them food or new clothes but in this society, no one takes a child away from their mother. I answered meekly, “V. does the best she can do. They get by.” I knew the police knew V.’s issues, (her addiction—because she’s so often detained), so let them declare V. an unfit mother. I was standing at an ethical crossroads and couldn’t bring myself to say what many of my readers probably think I should have said. I couldn’t do it. But I don’t regret it. This woman nodded her head tersely and seemed to understand what I was saying, even though I wasn’t saying much. I think she had already known the answer to the question. She whispered to me in a tight voice, “You get V. down here again and tell her we will take away her children if they don’t come right now.” Shit.

Again, I stood in front of V.’s window and waved up to her, “V. it’s me. Come down again.” V. stuck out her head and saw me, “What now Anita?” “Please come V. I have something very important to tell you.” She answered, “Give me a minute.” She came down to the door again and I told her what the municipal government had told me. Now she started crying and got very angry. “Who the fuck do these people think they are? Do they think they will be better mothers to my children? They can’t take my children away. And anyway, where will we go if we leave, sleep in the streets?” I nodded my head, in agreement. “V. I know you don’t want them to take them away, but in that case, you must come now.” V. stormed away, back into the darkness.

Hanging my head in failure, I went back to negotiate with the municipal government. I said, “Listen, there must be an alternative. Part of the reason V. doesn’t want to leave is because they have nowhere to go. Is there a family shelter they can go to?” After a number of phone calls were made, they secured a place for V. and her children at a family shelter that also treats addicts. Perfect. One more time I called out to V. “V. it’s me, Anita.” ‘What now, gringa?” “Come down one more time—PLEASE, PLEASE” I cried. After a few minutes she appeared once more at the door. “Anita, this is the last time, what the fuck do you want?” I knew her patience was waning, as was my “power” to negotiate with her. “Listen, we have secured a spot for you at a family shelter—it is free and it will be a safe place for you to spend the night.” “No way Anita, I know what they’re trying to do. That place is filled with junkies. I’m not going to no place filled with junkies.” Oh lord, I thought. The reason for why she didn’t want to go was so absurd, given her very advanced stage addiction (i.e. everyone refers to V. as “V. the junkie.”) I had to remind myself that people at this stage of the disease are so out of their minds, so beyond rational thinking, that I just had to let it go. It almost made me want to laugh. Or cry. I wasn’t sure which. “But V. at least they will provide food and beds for you,” trying to breakthrough her junkie mind. “No way, no way. This is a trick.” I knew exactly what she meant. This was a trick to get “V.” treatment. She was not gonna go, it was 100% certain. “Okay V.” I said. “Tell me what you need from the store please, I’ll pass food and milk through the bars.” There was no way she was budging.

I stopped to explain to the municipal government that she would not leave, at least not today. I told them that for today V. had won the battle and that perhaps tomorrow they would have more luck. I told them to leave her in peace now, they could return another time. Thank God, one empathic, very kind and understanding man from the municipal government agreed with me. He agreed that clearly V. wouldn’t go anywhere today, and what harm would it cause for her to spend the night in the closed hotel. I explained that I was going to get them the food they would need for the next 24 hours. After that, everyone started to disperse. The police backed away, the municipal officials all got my phone number, still shocked that this random gringa had a seemingly close relationship with V., a sex worker and addict. I brought V. milk, diapers, crackers, yogurt, bread, fruit, cold cuts, and many other things, simply because I was so worried and emotionally distraught about the situation. I handed V. the items through the bars and squeezed her hand. I was shocked when she nodded and mumbled, “Thanks Anita” I had never heard her thank me before.

I left for the States a couple days after this fiasco. I found out that V. did eventually leave the hotel after several days. I haven’t seen her around—I have no idea where she moved to. Perhaps she’s isn’t even in the historic center anymore, who knows, but I’d like to check to make sure all is well—at least by her standards.

Forever Vacancies…

I have just returned from a month long visit to the United States. When I left, conditions on the streets were dire. (FYI, the women seem to have forgiven me for the interview published about me and my work with them). Anyway, when I left for the states, the municipal government and the police shut down the hotel in San Marcos where the women work (Hotel Aztec—not its real name). This provoked a crisis among the women because it was the only hotel in San Marcos that allowed women to service clients. It was shut down because it never obtained legal permission to be a brothel. Regulated brothels are legal in Ecuador, but the process to obtain “brothel status” is very expensive and bureaucratic. Therefore, many brothels in the historic center are not legal and operate undercover for as long as they can without getting caught. This particular hotel, the Aztec, had been fined numerous times before its permanent closing by the police, with help from the municipal government. In the past, only the police were involved and they would shut it down for a few days and fine the owner (or better said, the owner would pay off the police with copious amounts of cash), and then everything was back to normal.

We all hoped that this would be the case last month but upon my return from the States the Aztec was still closed and it’s clear that it won’t open again. Part of the problem is that the owner owns many hotels throughout the historic center and throughout the country. Even though he was making a small fortune off this particular hotel in San Marcos because it functioned as a brothel (for every woman who entered with a client he charged a $3 bed fee. With the 50 women working in the area, if each one only serviced one client, he would still be making $150 daily, which is a lot by Ecuadorian standards. Furthermore, many of the junkies in the area lived in the hotel and had to pay $10 nightly. Although, I know that paying off the police is extremely expensive--unfortunately, I don’t know how much he had to pay, so in reality I’m not sure what his typical income amounted to). For the Aztec’s owner, it was no great loss to lose this hotel since he has dozens of others and doing the paperwork to obtain legal status would be a hugely expensive and lengthy ordeal. Even though the women depend on this particular hotel for their livelihood, the owner has little reason to fight the closure—for him the stakes are too small.

For the women who work in the neighborhood of San Marcos, it’s an entirely different matter. They are in crisis for several reasons. The main issue is that they can’t simply move to a different neighborhood in the historic center due to territorial issues. The women in other neighborhoods have already established their territory there, making it impossible for the San Marcos sex workers to move into a new sector. Established territorial lines are always respected among the sex workers of the historic center to avoid violent fights that would inevitably erupt. More and more “hotels” in the historic center no long allow prostitution because likewise, they aren’t legal and want to avoid problems with the police. The closest hotel/undercover brothel for the women of San Marcos is a 15 minute walk away, which is a big deterrent to clients. The clients simply go to the neighborhood where the other hotel exists and find women there. Of course many of the women of San Marcos have faithful clients who are willing to walk further to receive services, but now with the Aztec’s closure, these women’s business has dropped dramatically.

The other problem is that the women of San Marcos have now dispersed more widely within the sector—they must still solicit clients in San Marcos due to the aforementioned territorial issues but they’ve been pushed to the outskirts of the neighborhood and no longer have a central location where all of them can gather. I’m sure many of the residents of San Marcos are thrilled that they no longer solicit on the main thoroughfare of the neighborhood but for the women, again, it provides problems because without being able to group together they are exposed to more danger; for example, when they stand alone, they are more likely to experience abuse from police. Also, it is obviously more difficult for their faithful clients to find them, now that they stand randomly throughout San Marcos. Most stand on the very outskirts of the neighborhood, the closest they can be to the other hotel that allows them entry, without stepping into anyone else’s territory.

The women are desperate. They are not making the money they need to support their families. They want the Aztec to reopen in San Marcos. They had established their territory in that neighborhood and without another place willing them to service clients in the area they are basically “screwed” as they tell me. What can they do? For them, it is a great injustice because many of them have been working in San Marcos for 20 years and even though they are “invisible members” of the community, they feel like their work should have some recognition when the municipal government stepped in to close the Aztec. They keep telling me that the closure of the Aztec is cruel and unjust to them because they depend on this singular place to work in San Marcos. It is hard enough to establish a solid territory--how on earth will they just move to a different sector of the historic center when all the other sectors that have undercover hotels are already established by the sex workers in that area (some of whom have armed pimps)?

The women are livid and feel like the municipal government has abandoned them without giving them any options. But it’s true, the municipal government couldn’t care less about the street prostitutes of San Marcos, in fact, just like many of the residents, they are elated to see them pushed out of the main thoroughfare of the barrio. The women have been planning a march to protest the closure and claim that they will set up tents and service clients there as another act of protest. I hope they find ways to fight for their rights as working mothers, as prostitution is not illegal in Ecuador. Unfortunately, their biggest obstacle is their own fragmentation as a group; the sex workers of San Marcos are not a unified front, despite the fact that the closure of the Aztec affects them all equally. Only when they unite as one and become their own collective, with one voice, will they have the chance to stake their claim in San Marcos. If not, I think it will be an impossible venture.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fieldwork Nightmare

What happened to me last week is a nightmare to all anthropologists in the field. Nothing like this had happened to me before, and I never suspected that it would. I found myself in a situation where things beyond my control managed to (almost) destroy my relationships with my informants. You better believe I’ve been crying and having one panic attack the other. Things are being resolved, slowly, but I’ve never had such a scare.

This is what happened: I was interviewed by a journalist about my work with the women for a newspaper called, “Las Ultimas Noticias.” (The Latest News)—Not quite the equivalent of the New York Times, let’s say it’s more along the lines of the New York Post. Certainly not a tabloid paper, it is respected but its audience is more working class than that of another paper, El Comercio, whose target audience is the elite intellectuals of Quito. Anyway, a journalist wanted to talk to me for a story he was doing about domestic violence, so I agreed to an interview. We talked for hours about my work and all the different dangers the women confront on the streets. I discussed how one of the biggest “dangers” was the stigma and discrimination they face as sex workers and how general society doesn’t understand that they are simply mothers trying to provide for their children. That was my big plug. The journalist’s focus, however, was on the violence these women may face. In response to his questions, I conceded that yes, many of the women are vulnerable to falling into relationships with abusive partners. When the journalist asked me why they don’t report these abuses, I answered that quite frankly, that they don’t see them as crimes—it is a typical occurrence within the relationship and therefore, are used to such treatment. (And furthermore, unfortunately, some of these women have long histories of abuse, stemming from childhood). We also discussed the use of drugs among some of the women and that those women are particularly vulnerable to having sex without condoms. I also stately plainly how much they earn with each client, for full sexual services ($5).

You can imagine my surprise when I arrived on the streets a couple days after this interview was published. First of all, I had no idea that the story was actually on me—that it was the interview with me that would be published. The journalist told me that he wanted to use my citations for a story he was working on. He also took my photo and when I asked why he said it was simply for the newspaper’s “archives.” Okay, I thought. Strange. As it turns out, my photo takes up more than half the page of the “article.” Anyway, I arrive to the streets and no one greets me. I wonder, what the heck is going on here…I call out to N., one of my closest friends on the streets, and she flings a string of profanities at me. I look about from woman to woman and I’m greeted with death stares all around. My eyes start to water and I’m getting really freaked out. I approach another friend C. and ask what this is all about. She says, “Anita, the women don’t want to see or talk to you—what did you say in that article???” I hadn’t even seen the article yet, so now I was truly freaking out. What on earth had he put in the article????

I approached M., one of the unofficial leaders on the streets, and demanded to speak to her. She refused at first. I said, “M., come here, I need to speak with you right now.” RIGHT NOW, I said, with all my force. She approached me and I asked her what all this was all about. She said one of the women had randomly bought the newspaper and all of them saw the interview—they read it as a group and passed it around the streets—and they were not happy. At this point, not having even seen the article, I was desperate. I started to cry. I pleaded with M.—“please, please M., tell me what it said.” She described the interview where I supposedly said the majority of the women are in abusive relationships, use drugs and don’t use condoms. Oh no, I thought. M. said, “Anita, the girls don’t want anything to do with you.” I wiped away tears and pleaded with M. I told her that I kept telling the reporter that I wanted the public to know that the sex workers are just like any other single mother, providing for their children—that they are good women, with good values. Apparently, none of that had made it into the article. M. came around and started to console me. She said, “You really had us scared, Anita—I said, that’s not Anita!” referring to the article. She conceded that perhaps the journalist had pulled my words out of context (which he did) and that he published the most sensational pieces of the interview (which he did).

I asked M. what I should do, as she was the first one I had made amends with—the other women were staring at us and I knew I had a difficult (maybe impossible) task ahead. She said, “Listen, you’re going to have to talk to each of them one by one and explain what happened—that your words were taken out of context, etc.” I suddenly felt exhausted. It would be a long day ahead because I knew that just trying to convince each woman to listen to me would be a challenge in itself. M. said to me, “Anita, wipe away your tears—you start talking and I’ll start spreading the word too, by the end of the day we’ll have this cleaned up.” I hugged M., I held her so hard, she finally pulled away, laughing. “God Anita, calm down, it’s not a tragedy, it was just a mistake.”

This was truly the scariest field work moment of my life. One by one I approached the women, ignoring their cold stares, pulling them aside and saying, “I MUST talk to you, NOW.” I had to use such force in my voice for them to pay attention. Most of them, the ones I was able to talk with on this particular day, were receptive, once I explained that I felt the reporter had tricked me and reported only the most sensational things. I pleaded with them and explained that I shared all the wonderful things about them too--which apparently didn't make it into the interview. I am so thankful because everyone gave me lots of hugs and slowly took my side. They became furious with the reporter, that he didn’t focus on the positive things I wanted to convey about the women, that he was obsessed with knowing all the negative—about domestic violence and drug abuse. I didn’t tell the women that I didn’t say those things. I just kept telling them that my emphasis, and what I asked him to publish, were the things society doesn’t know about sex workers—that most are like any other mother, etc.

Of course I should have known better. Obviously, journalists publish as they please. It was my first interview with the press about my work and I was incredibly na├»ve about the whole thing. Wow, did I learn my lesson. Next time, I’ll keep my mouth shut and remain very guarded about what I say, and I will always assume that the sex workers might be my audience. Anything that I wouldn’t want them to see or hear, I won’t ever say.

I’m lucky that this happened almost two years into my fieldwork and not during my second month. If it had happened then, my relationships on the streets would have been destroyed forever. In this scenario, the women were furious, but they trust me as a friend. As such, they were able to forgive me once I explained that I also felt cheated. They defended me and said that they should call this reporter and give him a piece of their mind! One of my most cherished friends came up to me and said, “Anita, you don’t need to explain yourself to me, I know you better than that.” She gave me a tight hug and whispered, “I love you” into my ear. I said the same back. You can’t imagine the TERROR I felt when I first arrived on the streets and felt such a cold, angry vibe being directed at me. It was as if I was in a dream, in an alternate reality. It was so strange, and so scary.

N. the woman who yelled profanities at me when I first arrived finally came around. She was the hardest to convince. I had talked to most of the other women and N. was still standing afar, scowling at me. I had had enough. I marched up to her and said, “N. you have to listen to what I have to say. At least give me that. We’ve been friends for a long time. Give me 5 minutes.” While she shook her head, I dragged her to the step where we all hang out. I said, “N. you listen to me. Don’t insult me.” Then we talked for a long time and in the end it was fine. We went to lunch and laughed over how stupid reporters can be.

Interestingly, one of the women pulled me aside and said, “Anita, you know, nothing in that article was untrue. Not one word was false.” I responded, “But it’s not the message I wanted to send.” She said, “Well, the women don’t like the fact that you told the truth—that many of them are in abusive relationships…” I said, “Well, according to them, I make it sound like all of them are.” This woman replied, “It’s not about that. It’s just that they don’t want other people to know.” Another woman said to me, “Anita, I don’t care what you said. My husband hits me and I still love him, nothing will change that.” It was a lot to process. On the one hand the women were angry at me because I portrayed them as drug consumers who are all trapped in abusive relationships. On the other, it’s not that what I said that was wrong, it’s that I exposed their truths to the world. I wounded their pride and honor. What woman in the world would want their supposed anthropologist friend to tell the world about their intimate lives, in all its dark glory?

Of course they felt betrayed. I would too. I felt so ashamed of myself, which is why the experience was so terrifying. I can’t believe I had put my relationships with these women in jeopardy, people whom I consider my friends, whose homes I have slept in, whose tables I’ve eaten at, whose birthdays, baptisms, weddings, I’ve attended…it makes me sick to think of the damage I caused. I haven’t recovered from this, and I don’t think they have either. It will take time for all of us to heal, but at least I know they do forgive me--that it seems like the bonds we’ve established over these past almost 2 years are strong enough to carry us through. Without these relationships I would be crushed. I’m not talking about on a professional level, or about my doctorate. I’m talking about losing my closest friends in Quito. Women who have become like family to me. Without them I would be lost. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve learned to honor these relationships and guard them with privacy and respect. (Although what WILL this mean when it comes time to publish my thesis?????) to be continued...

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Police Profiling

One of my friends, L. is the absolute worst robber ever. She just can’t get it together. L. gets caught every time she tries to rob a cell phone. We’ve discussed this many times. I tell her, “L. perhaps you should try a new technique, can’t any of your friends, or even your boyfriend give you tips.” She always complains to me saying, “Anita, it’s not that—it’s the police—they’re out for me.” At the moment, L. is back in prison for another failed robbery attempt. She’s usually in prison once a month or at least once every three months. For a cell phone robbery she gets up to 30 days and is then released. Usually when she’s in prison I try to visit and bring her the usual coveted items—a fresh lunch, toiletries, junk food, and clothes, like socks and underwear. I do not smuggle in drugs, like many of her friends do. But anyway, L. is onto something. I notice that it’s the same people who get caught, again and again. It’s as if the police have already decided who the “bad” women are and decide to stop and check them for stolen goods. With L., it’s more than likely that they will have success and find something she has robbed to support her drug habit. As such, the police know that L. is a main target. She must be stopped every time they see her because, given her past record, she’s likely to be up to no good.

I’m sure this is the way “cops and robbers” works all over the world. Obviously the police already know which people are criminals, given their past record. It seems logical, albeit unfair and unethical, to profile the same people when they go out to make arrests. They’ll stop to search people with notorious pasts, rather than search complete unknowns. Such profiling in Ecuador is illegal, as it is in my own country. The police cannot stop you without a legitimate reason—and that reason cannot be that you have a past criminal record and that you’re likely to be up to no good. But that’s how the law works on the streets. It’s incredible to realize just how big the discrepancies are between what’s written in the books and how things play out on the ground.

The problem comes when a previous trouble maker wants to change. For example, my other friend, S. who also used to serve a lot of jail time for petty robberies she committed to support her base habit, recently quit smoking and therefore, no longer robs but the police don’t know this and keep harassing her. They don’t realize or accept that she is now “reformed” and although her searches now come up clean, her 10 years as a drug consumer and robber outweigh her present 6 months of sobriety and legal living. She gets frustrated by the constant, continual searches. She says to me, “Anita, I have to be patient, I know….but when are they going to realize that I’ve changed.” I’m not sure they’ll ever leave S. alone due to her particularly rough demeanor with the police. They hate her because she used to scream insults at them at every opportunity. She always aggravated the situation with her bad mouth; the other sex workers used to encourage her because it was hilarious to watch the police’s faces grow redder as she insulted their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters and themselves. But as one might imagine, such a reputation would be hard to shake. According to the police, S. is still on their “black list.” She will never be “reformed” in their eyes, despite her growing time of living a straight life.

Likewise, some women are immune to arrests on the streets. Technically, no one should be arrested for street prostitution because it is not mentioned as being illegal anywhere on the books. But, the police bring sex workers to jail for all sorts of minor refractions like loitering, or at times they say it is illegal, even though technically, it’s not. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most difficult parts of living in a country where the laws change every month is that no one knows the current legal status—not even the police (in fact, they seem to be the last to know!) Anyway, some women’s “profiles” work in their favor. Another one of the women, in her mid-50s is never, ever stopped by the police and as such, gets away with “murder.” I recently found out that she is a reformed drug addict who still smokes base once a week so she often carries drugs with her and participates in small time dealing. But due to her clean record (she was a drug addict in another city, 30 years ago), the police have no reason to even suspect that she might be doing anything illegal. Obviously it helps that she’s in her 50s, reminding everyone of his/her mother or grandmother. She is indeed a grandmother and works in prostitution to help support her grandchildren. She does nothing to dispel such an image and is savvy enough to know that if she remains a “grandmother” in the eyes of the police, they will never touch her. As such, she gets away with anything and everything.

I would say that in general the police split the sex workers into two groups—those who consume drugs and those who don’t. They don’t bother the non-addicts, even though at times, these women also rob their clients. Instead, they stick to the addicts who they view as morally bankrupt. They know addicts are more likely to commit robberies and therefore, will always stop them in the street without reason. It is illegal and at times they give the most absurd reasons for arresting these women. They can claim these women are “disturbing the peace” or “loitering” to justify their cleansing of the streets of people they view as “impure” and “dangerous.” The medical model of addiction has yet to arrive to the Ecuadorian police force, and to most of Ecuadorian society. Addiction is still not viewed as an illness, but simply something that weak, immoral and “bad” people develop. (Despite the astounding rates of alcoholism here).