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.

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