Little did Italia Vaca know that my entire project rested on her shoulders as I walked into ASOPRODEMU’s (Asociación Pro Defensa de la Mujer, the local sex worker collective) headquarters this morning, located in Quito’s historic center. I needed Italia, president of ASOPRODEMU, to give me the green light—to tell me that I could work with the members of her organization over the upcoming year. Although I had worked with ASOPRODEMU during two summer visits in 2006 and 2007, I wasn’t able to reach them before I came this time. Perhaps not the best way to go about fieldwork, especially since they are the most prominent players in my research proposal, but I figured that since everything had worked out before, I’d take my chances and just show up at their door.
There I was. 11:15am. I had battled my way into the over-crowded Eco-Via—the “trolley” (actually a bus with its own lane)—until its final stop, La Marin, which dropped us off smack in the middle of the colonial center. Instead of taking in the gorgeous colonial facades and cobble stone streets, I marched along, looking down, determined to blend into the bustling sidewalk scene. I passed a couple electronic stores, an internet café, two modest restaurants that advertized $1.25 lunches, and a store selling the jerseys of Ecuador’s soccer team. The crowds thinned out once I took a left onto Montafur, a steep narrow street, lined with smaller businesses--a flower shop, bakery, another teeny tiny lunch place that could accommodate ten patrons, at the most. As I walked up the street I noticed several women talking together, laughing and tossing their hair—they didn’t notice me as I passed, but I took them in. I knew they were working, despite their modest clothes. As I got closer to the ASOPRODEMU office, I passed more working women, some in pairs, others standing alone. Two women were standing in front of the office and I greeted them warmly—with a huge anthropology smile—and asked politely “si puedo pasar?” (if I could enter). They seemed curious to know who I was, and what I was doing there, so they followed me into the dark, windowless office.
And there she was. Italia Vaca was sitting in her chair behind the desk. I tried to seem casual and breezy as I explained my project. I handed her a description of my project and she promptly read it out loud to the group of women in the room. All eyes were on me. I wasn’t sure where to look so I just put on my anthropology smile again and stared at Italia. A long pause. All eyes on me again. Italia nodded and looked me up and down. I was quietly nibbling on my lip. Oh my god I started thinking—what if she tells me I can’t work here??? What if all my plans fall through-just-like-that! Oh dear. Full on panic. I kept smiling wider and brighter. See how nice and friendly I am. Please—oh please. Oh my god, I am so screwed. There goes my dissertation. My entire academic career. Everything.
“Hmmm…well, okay then.” Italia looked over me as I hung on every word. “Hmm, so that’s okay then?” I repeated. “Um hum” she said, still looking me up and down. In fact, I felt like all the women in the room were staring at me. “So, I can work here then?” I asked timidly—still not sure whether or not she had actually said yes. Italia nodded and brushed me away, saying, “I have work to do.” I was ready to jump up and down and hoot. I want to yell—she said YEEEEEES! YIPPEE. I smile once again at everyone, especially Italia and ask if I can come by again tomorrow. One of the women seated next to me said “of course.” Not looking up, Italia said “We’re here from 10:30am.” As I turn to leave, ready to push through their security gate, Italia calls out, “You know you’ll have to compensate them for their time—sitting down for an interview will cut into their working hours, right?”—I turn around and nod my head. “I know, that’s okay” I call back as I pass through the door. I am practically skipping down Monatfur Street back to the trolley station. Ohmigod. What a relief. My fieldwork is on.