Monday, December 14, 2009

The tide is high

This time of year is slow for sex workers in Quito. The weeks right after the huge parties of Quito's Independence Day (for a week leading up to Dec. 6th), until after the Christmas holidays, are s-l-o-w. All the women have been complaining over the past week. They say that the men blew their money during the Fiestas de Quito and are now scrambling to save and buy Christmas gifts. Men are not willing to splurge on paid sex. Not right now.

The women are bored. We joke around and laugh all day. We snack on the mangoes, corn, chifles and pineapple pastries sold in the street. Most of the sex workers arrive by 10:30am and leave by 7:00pm. Actually, if you are a younger woman, you must leave by 6:30pm to give the older women a chance. The older women can stay as late as they want. Competition is fierce among the women during these slow days but women who work in the same area do not fight with each other. In fact, for the most part, they become really good friends-- but if you go even two blocks to the north or east, you will find an entirely different group of women who will not be open or kind to new-comers. Indeed, it is extremely difficult for women to break into a new corner--the intersection where I conduct my fieldwork (Espejo and Montafur) is the workplace of roughly 15 women. At this point I am friends with all of them and feel comfortable entering any of their small groups to chat and hang out. It took about 2 1/2 months for me to feel comfortable--to feel part of their group. I have yet to witness a newcomer break into "our" intersection at Espejo--I know it would be difficult because the women talk about how they can't work in the territory of other women. Even if another part of the historic center is rumored to be busier, with better business, the women stay within their groups, on familiar turf.

Today I clearly saw just how divided all the sex workers of the historic center are. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the biggest divisions are between women who work on the streets and the women who work in brothels. These groups have different concerns and interests, which is why at the meeting I attended today the brothel workers and street workers sat divided, on opposite sides of the room. The sex workers' collective called "The Association in Defense of Women" held a meeting in order to hold new elections for the different positions in the organization. About 50 women showed up. I arrived with the women of my group on Espejo Street.

Unfortunately, the meeting did not last for more than 30 minutes. No elections were held. A worker burst through the door about 15 minutes into the meeting, interrupting everyone, to pass out a petition she had formed on behalf of all the women who work in the streets. The women who work in the brothels, in the sector called "La Cantera" in the San Roque neighborhood above the historic center, had been fighting with the president of the Association about how the goals of the meeting did not fit their needs and that the next time the Association calls for a meeting, they (the women from the Cantera) should have a say in what will be on the meeting's agenda....

As such, things were already tense before R. interrupted the meeting with her petition (afterward the women on the street said that not all of them were informed of or in agreement with the petition). When R. stormed in, more than half the women got up and left. (Most of whom were from La Cantera). The meeting unraveled from there. R. was angry--arguing for her petition while other women tried to shush her to allow other people to speak. My friends whispered to me that the meetings all ended like this--with lots of fighting, no resolutions. More and more women streamed out, saying that they were wasting important working hours..... eventually, we did too.

Money is scarce for all the women at the moment-- it is equally slow for the women on the streets and in the brothels. When people are not earning money, tensions between groups heighten. Hopefully once everyone has made it through the holidays tensions will dissipate...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

North-South Quito

Quito is a long, narrow city, its growth limited to the west by the towering Pichincha Volcano and to the east by the sudden drop to the valley, where wealthy suburbs have sprung up over the past fifteen years. Due to these limitations, Quito has grown along a north-south axis. The historic center, where I do my fieldwork (El Centro) is considered the dividing line between the North and South of Quito. Although there are exceptions, South Quito is populated by the city’s poor while the middle-upper classes live in North Quito. Many of my friends in the North have never been to the South, and likewise, many others (like the sex workers with whom I work) have never been to the North. And indeed, they are completely different worlds.

North Quito: The rich live, work, and spend their leisure time in the modern, tree lined streets of North Quito, in luxurious apartment buildings and homes protected by private security guards and elaborate alarm systems. The most exclusive live in gated communities which are built as fortresses with maximum security, with the same barbed wire, insurmountable walls, security guards and complicated entrance procedures of a prison. But this prison bars entrances rather than departures. The wealthy of North Quito work in Latin American and other multinational (European or North American) corporate buildings, banks, law firms, advertising agencies, etc. that serve the elite. Many speak English fluently and have lived in the United States for long periods of time. North Quito is home to private elementary and high schools like the American School of Quito, the French Academy or the prestigious Military Academy for boys. Many continue their studies at universities in the United States, Canada, England and other parts of Europe, as well as at the exclusive Universidad de San Francisco located in a wealthy suburb in the valley. Many residents of North Quito vacation in the United States, especially in Miami and New York. Many own beach condos on the coast of Ecuador in the resort towns of either Salinas or Casablanca. When they need surgery or develop life-threatening diseases they often fly to Houston or Miami for treatment. They drive luxury cars and rarely take a city bus. North Quiteño teenagers hang out at shiny malls with European boutiques, Nike stores, Virgin Records, TGI Fridays, McDonalds and grocery stores that sell American and European products. They eat at restaurants that cater to Quito's international community; for instance, in the past few years sushi places have become particularly trendy. Many of these places have prices comparable to restaurants in New York. Nights on the town include bars and clubs with expensive cover charges ($10-$15); DJs from Miami come to play and at times I have felt as if I were at a trendy bar in New York. The wealthy of Quito are often more “white” and “European” looking; plastic surgery is increasingly common and now one can find cases of anorexia among privileged teenage girls. Other segments of society call the upper class “plasticos” because they view them as living in an “artificial” world: they are seen as having superficial values centered on money and self-image. In my experience, many of the elite have limited exposure to people of other social classes, except for their employees who clean and guard their homes and look after their children. Most of their “help” are part of the lower class and commute everyday from South Quito (at least an hour-often 2). I have yet to meet a Northern Quito family who does not have service employees to help run their home.

South Quito: people in this part of the city live under very different conditions. Some live in the beautiful but decrepit Spanish colonial mansions in the historic center that have now been divided into small housing units. Others live in small, at times unfinished, concrete homes to the far South and West. Housing is cramped, with extended families living together in small spaces. Many neighborhoods like San Roque, La Marin, El Lomo, La Ventimilla, among others, are portrayed by the media as being riddled with crime and drugs (local residents claim these are unfair stereotypes). Basic infrastructure like street lights and proper drainage systems are lacking. Children of South Quito attend local public schools which often do not have basic supplies such as pencils, paper and books. Residents of Southern Quito shop at public street markets (which often carry better produce than the fancy supermarkets in the north). Although, it should be noted that there is a very big mall in the South, which although does not have the same luxury stores as the malls in the North, is comparable in many other ways. Teenagers frequent smaller bars and clubs which tend to play salsa. There are more small cafeterias that serve the local cuisine of the sierra: hearty soups, corn, potatoes, fritada/hornada (fried and baked pork) and tripa (tripe). Southern Quiteoñs travel via the belching, guzzling diesel buses that cost $.25 and that often prove to be an efficient means of transportation, although they have the reputation for being dangerous at night. Many Southern Quiteños have limited access to health care. Residents of the South tend to have darker skin and would be identified as looking more "indigenous." They may wear clothes that reflect their indigenous heritage like long woven skirts, shawls, ponchos and wear their hair in tight braids. New migrants who arrive from rural areas surrounding Quito settle in the South. In general, the South has fewer resources for education, security, sanitation, garbage removal, construction, and other public services that ensure a good quality of life. The residents of South Quito live, work, and spend their leisure time in public spaces that anyone can occupy; more often than not, they are the population the North wants to exclude from their private spaces. La Marin located in El Centro is the bustling bus depot at its center which deploys buses southward and northward into these different worlds.

When I first moved to Ecuador in 1999, I was immediately struck by the myriad of private security forces in the spaces designated for Quito's elite society, as the wealthy take security into their own hands. I lived with a family in North Quito and men with big guns were everywhere—they stood at the entrance of malls, multiplex movie theaters, grocery stores, nightclubs and bars, elementary schools, post offices, banks, corporate businesses, restaurants, cafes, book stores, houses, apartments, car dealerships, etc. I had never seen so much security in my life but eventually these ubiquitous security guards (who are mostly from South Quito) became a background presence. Now that I’m back ten years later, I don’t find such security measures alarming or notable—I hardly notice them at all. In fact, I am more likely to notice a “lack” of security these days.

Police taking S. away

Pouring milk onto S.'s eyes after tear-gas

S. vs. the police

No surprise how this story ends. 2:10pm. Sunday, Dec. 6, 2009. Today is Quito’s Independence Day but since it falls on a Sunday, the city celebrated last night. Everyone is walking around El Centro like zombies, wearing their hangovers on their faces, looking unsteady and bleary-eyed. After taking a walk around the plazas to take in the various concerts, I make my way down to Espejo and Montufar Streets, where I conduct my fieldwork. I wasn’t sure if many women would be around since it’s a holiday, but as I walk down Espejo, I see them in huddled groups at the base of the hill. I notice a police truck stopped on the south-east side of the intersection between Espejo and Montufar. I wonder who they are harassing now. Just as I arrive, the police truck pulls away to reveal S. and R. I call to them. When I walk over I realize that both women have been drinking. S. has her hands up to her face and she is crying. When I ask what happened, she explains that the police have just sprayed tear-gas in her eyes. We are standing in front of a bodega where a number of people witnessed the incident. S. told me to find some milk to put in her eyes. We walk around the corner to another bodega where they sell milk. The storekeeper pours the entire liter bag of milk onto S.’s eyes. As S. recounts the incident, the police drove up to her and asked her to move away from the corner, to which she responded “no” and “Viva Quito.” (“Long-live Quito). When she still wouldn’t move, the police sprayed the tear-gas into her eyes. The entire interaction lasted about five minutes.

More trouble: about a half hour later, as S. and I are now wiping the milk out of her eyes, the police return in their truck. S. does not see that the police have returned. Instead, she introduces me to her 8-year old daughter, who is with her ex-husband, hanging out on the same corner. S. then disappears for a bit. I wonder whether she found a client or went to buy more beer. Her friend R. tells me, “I only drink, not S. She does XXX.” I didn’t understand what she said, but obviously, it was some sort of drug. So I figured S. went to go get high. While S. went to get high, I went over to the police to chat for a bit (even though I know I shouldn't because I am so pissed off). I introduce myself as an American researcher, and as someone who documents human rights abuses against sex workers. They get very quiet. They ask why I care about these women. At that moment, S. comes running out of nowhere and starts screaming at the police. She calls them every swear I’ve ever heard in Spanish and one of the policemen starts filming her with his phone. I keep telling S. to forget about it, walk away, don’t provoke them, etc. I hold her back but she keeps yelling louder and louder. That’s when the police (four of them) get out of their truck. S. went walking away, still yelling and grabbed her daughter who was across the street, presumably watching the whole thing. S. took her daughter’s hand and marched off. The police were not about to let her go. Two of them approached S. and her daughter. S.’s daughter starts screaming at the top of her lungs, causing everyone to stop and stare. The police grab S. tightly and she tries, without success to shake them off. They drag her kicking and screaming to the police truck and throw her into the back. A group of sex workers run to help S.’s daughter who is still crying loudly on the street. Someone goes to find S.’s ex-husband. The crowds begin to disperse and I walk away with some other sex workers down Espejo Street. I ask my friend G. for how long S. would be in jail and how she would get out—G. just shook her said and said “I don’t know.” Under the eyes of the police, sex workers have no rights, and so S.’s prison stay will be determined according to how they feel tomorrow. I have heard frequent stories about how these women have to pay off the police, either with money or sexual favors to get out of prison. (They shouldn’t even be in prison since sex work is not illegal in Ecuador—more on that to come….).

This was a minor case of police abuse compared with other stories the women have told me. What confounds me is that El Centro, where these women work, is one of the most dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhoods in Quito, but yet the police spend most of their time harassing sex workers! Sex workers do not hurt anyone. Again, prostitution isn’t even illegal! They are out working as mothers supporting their children. I have yet to meet a sex worker in El Centro who is not a mother. It pisses me off that police feel like they can treat sex workers poorly. Unfortunately, for that reason, violent crimes against sex workers are alarmingly high—people think they can get away with anything since these women exist on the margins of society. People assume that no one cares about them when in fact they have children, partners, mothers, and friends, just like the rest of us. They deserve the same treatment and the same legal rights as any other Ecuadorian woman.