Sunday, November 28, 2010

Women’s Maximum Security Prison

Perhaps women’s prison is no walk in the park, but compared to the conditions of the men’s prison it’s like being in a playground. In fact, the maximum security prison does have a giant playground—authorities allow children up to age four to accompany their mothers for the majority of their sentence. In the past month I’ve visited both the minimum and maximum security prisons, visiting different sex workers from the street. Several Sundays ago, I was awakened by the shrill ringing of my cell phone in the early morning. It took me a moment to place the caller’s name and face together but then I recognized R., one of my favorite women from the street. She sounded worried and spoke in a voice so soft I could barely hear her. She said, “Anita can you please come to Inca (the maximum security prison), I need to see you immediately.” It occurred to me that that’s why I hadn’t seen R. for so long. I went to buy some food to bring and jumped in a cab northward.

When I tried to enter the prison, a massive concrete structure, walls laced with barbed wire, they searched me as usual and told me I couldn’t bring my cell phone inside. That surprised me since R. had definitely called me from a cell phone inside. I was stupid enough to try once again to enter with my cell phone, now hidden down my pants (as I’ve witnessed many of my friends do when we visit people). I quickly learned that I’m not quite a smooth as my friends and they confiscated it from me. I laughed it off, while they just sighed and ushered me in. R. was waiting for me near the front door. Once again, like the male prison, I was surprised by the lack of supervision inside. I couldn’t see any guards at all and the women roamed around as they wished. It was a massive structure and it was divided into many different sections, each filled with cells, but the first floor was basically entirely open. It almost seemed like a bus depot. There were stores with people selling things like toilet paper, toothpaste and other toiletries. Food stalls also existed, the rich smell of roasting pork and popcorn filled the air. Some women sold soft drinks and water. I came in with a group of nuns and when we entered the courtyard which had the playground I noticed all sorts of religious groups meeting with women in corners, whispering with bibles in hand.

Ironically, R. herself said she finally found my number because she had jotted it down in her Bible—that’s one of the only things they allow people to bring into prison with them. I was flattered that I had “made it” into her Bible, I thought it was reserved for information about family members. R., quickly shared her story, how she landed in the maximum security prison. She had been there over a month and her length of stay was still unknown. She explained to me that one night she went dancing at a club with her husband and son. Unknown to her, her husband had hid his gun in her purse after they entered when she went to the bathroom. When they left later that night, full of booze and drugs, her husband spotted someone on the street to rob. Suddenly, the police appeared out of nowhere and realized what was happening. Although R. thought she would be excused from the crime (because it was her husband who did it), when the police searched her and found the gun, she was hauled off to the police station with the rest of her family. R. was shaking with anger when she told me this. First, she was furious that her husband had dared to hide his gun in her purse and secondly, he hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Obviously, she was now charged as an accomplice and with possession of an illegal weapon. She was hauled off to the maximum security prison while her husband and son went to the men’s equivalent prison.

R. needed my help to get a lawyer. She also wanted me to contact the head of the sex worker organization to see if she had any contacts. But R’.s biggest fear concerned her son who is HIV positive and who no longer had access to his medication in prison. She wanted me to find an NGO that specialized in the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. It was well beyond my expertise but over the next few weeks I hustled to get R. as much information as I could. I brought her letters from different organizations, from a lawyer and the president of the sex worker organization. R. called me constantly to ask for more help. Unfortunately, most of her needs were impossible for me to fulfill. It made me wonder how HIV+ people in prison in the United States manage their medication. R.’s situation was incredibly complicated, especially since she was the target of a stupid act by her husband. Despite her resentment towards him, R. said she was glad she had possession of the gun because he would be locked away for much longer, given his prison record.

Soon enough, after I hadn’t heard from R. in a while (in fact, I was beginning to get worried), she appeared on the streets one day. It was our secret that she had been in prison for a month, the rest of the women thought she had gone to visit family on the coast. R. said she was ashamed to tell anyone because she hadn’t been to prison in years, and had never been in the maximum security prison. Although she had been released, R. still owed the prison money, for food and for the bed she rented every night. The $1 bed fee had added up given her five week stay.

More Census

I had to write yet another entry about the census because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Yesterday when I wrote my entry, I felt fairly blasé about the whole thing—I certainly didn’t take seriously the “orders” to stay at home. That is, until I tried to leave my building this morning to go for a walk. Always with my best interests in mind, my doorman said, “Where do you think you are going Anita—they’ll take you to jail!” “Ha ha,” I replied. He said, ‘I’m serious, do you see anyone on the street?” It’s true, I peeked my head out the door, looked both ways and was startled by the silence. Not a car on the street and not a human to be seen. It was dead quiet. I still didn’t want to buy it—I told him, “But I’m a foreigner, why do they want my info?” Carlos shook his head at my “silly” question and replied patiently, “Anita, even tourists will be part of the census—they can’t leave their hotels.” Wow. That really surprised me. If even the tourist industry had shut down for the day that meant the country had truly come to a halt. It felt like the calm before a storm—as if we were preparing for another presidential coup. We were definitely in a police state, as the only cars about were the police making their rounds.

I enjoyed my day at home waiting for the censors, it was the perfect day to catch up on laundry, cleaning, cooking, work, etc. I was surprised when I finally heard the knock on my door and stepped aside to allow two teenage girls from the local high school enter. I had imagined two men wearing a government uniform with baseball caps saying, “Census 2010” written in cursive across the top. Although they broke into giggles every five minutes, making me wonder what freaky thing I had said, it was a benign, fairly short process. What surprised me the most was that the vast majority of their questions centered on the condition of my home. Obviously, by asking about whether I had a private bathroom, knowing the materials used to construct my walls and floors, the number of bedrooms I have and what electronics I use in my house are all indicators of my economic status. Indeed there were endless questions the conditions of my apartment, some of them unexpected—like for example if I drink water directly from the tap, drink boiled water or buy it filtered (I boil my water). Another, how many light bulbs do I have in my house and how many are the environmentally friendly type (to my relief, six out of eight were environmental bulbs). Other questions were definitely not directly towards people like me who live in fancy high-rise apartment buildings. For example, how do I get rid of my trash? I just throw it down the trash chute.

Other questions were very predictable and centered on me as an individual: how do I self-identify racially, level of education, occupation, marital status, number of children, with whom do I live, do I receive remittances from family members abroad, age, nationality if not Ecuadorian, how many hours do I work weekly, how long is my work commute, and where do my family members live. Apparently, the entire survey was voluntary, something they informed me after we had finished. I think they started to get annoyed because I started asking them more questions about the survey than they had asked me. I was fascinated that about 80% of the questions focused on housing conditions as an indicator of economic status. I asked why they didn’t just come out and ask about my annual or monthly income. The giggling girls didn’t have an answer, but I assume it’s because such a direct question about income would be considered unbelievably inappropriate here, survey or no survey. It is impolite anywhere, but here in Ecuador where the vast majority of the population makes so little, perhaps they decided the housing questions were just as good an indicator and probably something people are less likely to lie about. The girls told me that above all, the government wants to know the population of each city and in what conditions people live.

At 5:00pm the census was over and people were allowed to leave their homes. I went for a walk, along with many other people in my neighborhood. I’m now listening to the familiar sounds of cars pass by my building once again. Perhaps people were going stir-crazy sitting at home all day, but I enjoyed the peace, in which I could imagine for a moment that I lived far away from the city. Although the girls did not know for sure if the results would be published, I will be very curious to find out what information was collected. The next census will be in 10 years, and just like this one compared to 10 years ago, the demographics of the country will shift radically—mostly due to the recent in pouring of immigrants from almost everywhere.

Oh yeah, and I'm sure people are thrilled they can drink booze again, although I believe stores will still be closed for the night.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dry Law: Census 2010

Ecuador takes its census very seriously. Officially it takes place tomorrow, Sunday November 28th. For the past month Quito has been bombarded with news about it: billboards, posted signs, leaflets on cars, massive mailings, radio and television announcements, etc. It is a big deal. Such a big deal that they have implemented a dry law for this weekend, which other Latin American countries impose during presidential elections. No establishments, from stores, bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and supermarkets are allowed to sell alcohol which basically means that all clubs and bars are closed for the weekend. No one is out and about. Last night when coming home in a taxi from a friend’s house Quito was a ghost town. The law began at 12:00pm on Friday afternoon and lasts until Monday morning. It seems illogical to me because usually when my friends go out on Saturday night and get wasted, they are forced to stay in bed all Sunday to recover. They can’t leave their homes in order to nurse their hangovers. Won’t people be more animated to catch up on errands (not that any stores will be open) or play football if they aren’t hung over? Oh well. I guess the authorities have their logic. But the entire thing seems incredibly draconian—by law I don’t think people are allowed to leave their homes. Most definitely anyone who sells alcohol will be taken to jail and fined. I wonder if that will be the same for those of us who don’t really care about the census and plan to wander the streets tomorrow. In many ways, I feel “immune” to the census since I’m a foreigner—I’m just passing by so why do they need to record my existence in Ecuador? Although, I’ll probably end up staying at home, simply because all my friends are Ecuadorian and they’re truly scared to leave the house tomorrow.

I’m not sure why Ecuador takes its census so seriously. I can’t even remember knowing when the U.S. had its last census. Again, I wonder what they are hoping to record—do they hope to identify different racial groups, which I have already explained in my last post is next to impossible, or do they just want a number count of how much Quito and other cities have grown per population? I wonder how us transients fit into the picture. All I know is that a nun will be passing by my house at some point to tomorrow to ask questions about who I am. I’m curious to know what she’ll ask and how this information will serve the Ecuadorian government. I will be curious to get the results of the census, if it is made public.

I’m still not entirely sure of the logic between the three days of dry law and the census tomorrow, but I guess supposed sobriety leading up to it will ensure that people stay in their homes tomorrow? Or is it some sort of punishment? Obviously house parties are in full effect this weekend—plenty of people have stored up on alcohol for their weekend and many homes will be filled with liquor, music and merry-making. But without a doubt, it is strange to see all Quito’s night life shut down. In my memory at least, the United States has never implemented a dry law for any occasion—to me it seems like a draconian, authoritative decision, bordering on an abuse of civil rights. Although, I believe in Massachusetts one cannot buy alcohol on Sundays. For me, I’m content to spend a weekend at home, catching up on work. But I don’t think the census will prevent me from going down to the Centro tomorrow, I am very curious to see if the women will be working on the streets. Although knowing the police’s relationship with some of the sex workers, they will haul them off to jail for leaving their homes, even if it’s illegal for them to do so. Which is exactly why I want to go and check things out. I can always say I’m just a tourist passing through…

No Indians Allowed

Recently I spoke with an historian of Quito’s historic district (El Centro) and he gave me some shocking news. Indigenous people are still forbidden to enter La Compañía de Jesús, Quito’s grandest, most opulent church, famous for its ornate golden interior, dating from the early seventeenth century. Built by the Jesuits, one of the earliest orders to arrive in Quito, more than seven tons of gold were used to gild the walls, ceiling and altar. The first time I entered La Compañía it took my breath away. I walked around mesmerized by the gilded gold, elaborately dressed virgins, crying saints, candle-lit corridors and the smell of incense in the air. I sat in one of the pews and imagined wealthy Quiteños doused in rich perfume sitting around me. They have been attending its high mass every Sunday for centuries and indeed, it is the preferred church for weddings among Quito’s elite. When the Spaniards arrived in Quito in 1535, one of the first things they did was to establish “Indian” churches to convert (i.e. conquer) the indigenous population. It was a clearly demarcated system in which the “indios” had their churches while the Spaniards attended their own. In each indigenous parish the Spaniards, (the Jesuits) constructed a church. It’s incredible just how many churches exist in Quito’s historic center. There’s at least one church, if not two, in every neighborhood of El Centro. Not surprisingly, the Spaniards and their descents attended the fancy, more ornate ones, while the very simple structures, bare and marked with just a wooden cross, were reserved for the indigenous. While strolling around the Centro it’s fairly easy to guess which church belongs to which community.

I’m not sure if the segregation of churches has ever existed as a written law in Ecuador. Today it continues to exist as an unspoken social contract. It shouldn’t shock me that indigenous are not allowed into La Compañia, since rampant segregation still exists in every other realm of society. Despite the majority indigenous group, CONAIE’s powerful uprising of the early 1990s, which served as a model for other indigenous groups around Latin America (especially for Bolivia’s uprising a decade later), they still remain on the outskirts of society in many ways. Although powerful political leaders exist in Congress, the majority of indigenous persons still live in abject poverty, especially those who remain in rural villages. In these communities the rates of domestic violence and alcoholism are higher than the national average, as well as the level of basic education.

Obviously this unspoken contract that “indigenous” people are not allowed into La Compañia becomes extremely complicated when no one really knows who is “indigenous” in the first place. When surveys are taken, apparently anywhere between 25%-45% of the population identify as indigenous. These surveys mark individuals who self-identify as indigenous, but in reality, the vast majority of Ecuadorians are a diverse racial mix—most of whom have carried some indigenous blood for centuries. That makes this rule of forbidden entry into the church very complicated. Ecuadorians have a vast range of physical features; some of my friends here, all of the upper class, are completely white, European, while many of the prostitutes with whom I work are Afro-Ecuadorian. The majority of the population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous features and countless other things. Some of my friends “look” very “indigenous” even though their families have lived in Quito for generations. I wonder if they ever get questioned while entering certain churches. It seems like it’s the individuals who continue to wear traditional clothing representative of various indigenous communities who would be targeted for exclusion from La Compañia. Without a doubt, these individuals are indigenous, even though I have friends who if they also wore traditional clothing, would be “mistaken” for being part of an indigenous community. And quite frankly, my friends would be appalled to be mistaken for an “indigenous” person. Without a doubt, race is incredibly complicated to identify/define here.

I had the most fascinating experience last spring when I attended a fancy wedding at La Compañia. It was an exciting opportunity to attend a very Catholic wedding, (high mass), in an extremely traditional church that has existed for centuries. I felt as if I had fallen back in time and enjoyed observing all the Quiteños around me, and listened with astonishment all that the priest said (I’m not Catholic, and it was the first time I had attended a high mass of this type). But I was absolutely floored when during one section of the wedding a series of indigenous persons came down the aisle as part of the ceremony, offering different gifts to the bride and groom as good luck. They offered tokens from “their” culture, like a chicken, special candles, other animals and symbolic objects. Then several communities did traditional “Indian” dances down the aisle. It struck me as so bizarre to suddenly praise and to include the customs of these rejected indigenous communities into a wedding of Quito’s most elite.

As far as I know, my friends in no way include traditional customs or even express any affinity to indigenous customs or their rights in any other part of their life. It was simply a show and now that I know that indigenous are only allowed in the church as performers, I’m left deeply disturbed. They are not allowed to participate as members of the church community as fellow worshipers, but only as objects of entertainment for the rich. And surely the wealthy must feel good about themselves, paying homage to the traditional “Indian” part of their culture. It disturbed me greatly, although no one can help where they are from. I don’t judge my friends who got married, it just shocked my anthropological system like a zap of electricity. I feel even more disturbed knowing that these performers at the wedding are prohibited from entering the church during any other time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Family Drama (Three)

Ever since Juan and Marta broke up the streets have been alive with speculation. Everyone in the neighborhood seems to have an opinion on it: the other sex workers, store keepers, owners of brothels, owners of restaurants, random drunks, the addicts, pimps, robbers, the fruit seller on the corner, the woman who owns the public phone center, the man who sells coco water, another who sells handmade ice-cream he makes, etc. etc. It has turned into a big gossip machine, everyone putting his/her own spin on the story. People have taken sides, either supporting Juan or Marta. Some are neutral observers who see both perspectives. Very few forgive Marta for leaving her children, even her biggest supporters.

The other sex workers tell me they can relate to Marta. They get exhausted of being prostitutes and bearing the burden of supporting their families, those that are the primary breadwinners. They say that Juan was lazy and just lived off the earnings of Marta—that he never manned up to be the true father of the household. That he thought he could get by being the mother, when in fact, due to his gender, he should have taken control of the household—especially because he wasn’t a pimp. Indeed, everyone agrees, regardless of whose side he/she is on, that Juan was not a pimp—Marta has also insisted on that. In fact, many of the women envied her situation because although Marta felt pressure to work to support her family, Juan never forced her to work, never took her money or tried to control her work hours. Plus, he took care of the kids. Some of the women can’t understand why Marta left such a “good” situation—everyone also seems to agree that Juan is an incredible father who takes care of his children better than any “mother could.” But most agree that he shouldn’t have left all the financial responsibility of the family to Marta. Other women told me that Marta left Juan because he beat her, that her and her children were constant victims of abuse. Others told me Juan would never, ever lay a hand on them, but obviously none of us know what happens behind closed doors.

Most of the women empathized with Marta but none of them approved of her decision to leave her children. They said she should have taken her children with her if she wanted to leave Juan. Many of the women seemed horrified by the idea of being separated from their children. They told me that their children were the only thing in life that sustained them, that made their lives worth living. The sex workers who have been forced to separate from them (like the women from Colombia who send money home every week) talk constantly about the suffering this separation provides. We all remain puzzled by Marta’s sudden abandonment of her kids because all of us saw her as a dedicated mother who didn’t like to be separated from them for even an hour at a time. She provided the food, school supplies, and shelter over their heads, every single day. Marta didn’t talk to her closest friends about the pain and suffering she felt. To all of us she seemed like the “perfect” loving and dedicated mother. None of us can comprehend that Marta, of all people, had the capacity to leave her children.

Her closest friends claim that perhaps her addiction got the best of her. Her best friend who still works on the streets, but is now clean, explained that you reach a point in your addiction in which slowly everything around you disappears—you no longer care about anything—your thoughts little by little turn into a tiny circular record, saying only one thing: more. Many of the women were puzzled by this theory because she (seemed) like a controlled addict. But as her best friend, an ex-crack-head explained, addicts are the best liars and manipulators on earth. No one knows in reality how much crack Marta was consuming.

Some of the women and most of the other people who aren’t sex workers are on Juan’s side. It’s very very rare to see single fathers here. Single mothers are the common denominators of family structures, but single fathers are unheard of. Most people pity Juan as the poor abandoned father who is struggling to make ends meet with three children, one of whom is severely mentally handicapped. Store owners and others wonder who is cooking for the children, who is washing and ironing their clothes. I explain that Juan has been in charge of all those domestic things for years and they are extremely surprised. Most people feel sorry for Juan, viewing him as a victim. As I mentioned in my previous post, the greatest sin a mother could commit in Latin America is to abandon her children. The vast majority of people view Marta as some sort of devil incarnate--as if she will truly go to hell for her actions. They dismiss her as a “crack junkie whore” who committed the most irresponsible act on earth. She is now in a separate category from other women. She belongs to the lowest class of “women” and receives comparisons to a couple of the other women on the streets who are junkies, who long ago abandoned their children.

Indeed, Juan has some fierce defenders—his friends who are robbers, pimps, a restaurant owner. Most people view him as a good dad with a big heart, (even many of the prostitutes view him as such). I sat at Carmen’s Lunch place long after closing hours as she and her brother cried over Juan’s hardships. They want to collect money from everyone in the community to send to him and his kids in Guayaquil. What’s interesting to me is that some people take Juan’s side, (women included), even though they believe that Juan used to beat Marta. They say that Juan’s beatings were a poor excuse for Marta abandoning her children. I will never forget one of the brothel owners (a woman) telling me that a woman’s role is to put up with everything—her number one priority is her children. She explained that Marta deserved to be hit because she had been seeing another man for six months. To some, Marta should have been able to endure everything, after all, all the other women on the street do.

Family Drama (Two)

My documentary centers on the family of Juan and Marta because I was intrigued by the gender role reversal of the “wife” (they aren’t actually married) as the breadwinner (i.e. the “man”) and Juan working as the principle caregiver of their children as the “mother.” As one might imagine, when Marta left, the logistics of my documentary became complicated. Juan decided to bring his children to Guayaquil, where they are both from, to be with his family. He had no way to support their family in Quito, where he would need someone to take care of his kids while he would go out to rob. For the sake of my documentary, and additionally, because I’m now so emotionally involved with the family, I decided to look for Marta in Ambato because I wanted to know if she was okay. I wasn’t even sure she was in Ambato, these were simply rumors circulating on the streets. I decided if she was there, it would be easy to find her, since there is only one central red-light district in each city.

As it turns out, it was fairly easy to find Marta. I found the red-light district by asking dozens of people—each one led me a little bit closer—until I finally found it and approached the prostitutes on the streets. I had arrived at 11am to have the entire day to look for her. When I showed them her photo all of them confirmed that she was indeed working there, much to my relief. I had to wait until 8:00, the hour they said she usually comes out to work. I sat waiting patiently on the concrete steps of a small plaza, wondering and hoping. It had turned dark and more prostitutes had come out to work. I knew I would see her at any moment. Finally she turned the corner and saw me. She gave me a look of disbelief and then smiled and ran towards me. We hugged tightly, I started crying…I’m not sure why, I guess because I had been so worried about her. She looked well, even happy. We went to rent one of the rooms in a nearby hotel that the prostitutes use to service clients. I had to pay $5 but it was the only private space available where we could talk in peace.

Marta told me her story. She explained that she left the family because she was tired of maintaining the family for past ten years. It was too much pressure for her to earn money for every meal, for the hotel fees where they lived, for the special things their youngest son needed. She was exhausted from working as a prostitute and felt resentful that Juan didn’t help the family economically. Once in a while, when he could, he robbed things, but his main role was to take care of the children. She resented him for this and felt he wasn’t fulfilling his role as a “man.” (which is interesting because in other discussions she told me she preferred to work, rather than having to depend on Juan).

For Marta, the other piece of the story is that Juan did not appreciate her work or value her as a person. She said he insulted her and called her lazy. She didn’t directly say that Juan abused her physically, but she referred to him as “treating her badly”—I would not be surprised if he hit her and the children, despite the good front he always puts on for me. Apparently, Ecuador has one of the highest percentages of domestic violence in the region. She said she just couldn’t take it anymore. She found a man who treated her well, fell in love in love with him, and decided to leave everything behind. What she didn’t mention is that her new boyfriend is a severe crack addict, another piece of information the prostitutes in Quito told me. The world on the streets is tiny, everyone knows one another and knows exactly who does what, in terms of drugs, prostitution and mugging. I asked Marta if she felt guilty for leaving her children. She said of course, but that she wanted to teach Juan a lesson of how it feels to have to support three children alone—without the help of anyone. She wanted him to appreciate her and all her hard work over the past ten years. She said she wanted him to suffer in the way she had suffered all these years.

Marta kept assuring me that she was happy in her “new” life. She insisted that she hadn’t smoked crack since arriving in Ambato because she no longer had a reason to—she didn’t need to use it to escape from her miserable existence. She grabbed at her stomach and pointed, “Anita, look how fat I’ve gotten!” I couldn’t see a change in her weight but nodded anyway. I knew she was lying because when I had shown her photo to the prostitutes in Ambato, the first thing they asked was, “Oh she’s that woman who smokes crack all the time, right?” I said, “yes, that was probably her.” In a way I was confused that Marta felt like she had found a “new life” because she was still working as a prostitute and still smoking crack. The only thing “new” about her life was that she was with a different man and in a different city and of course didn’t have the same pressures to support her kids financially. And obviously, that she had left Juan, a man who had treated her poorly for years.

I can understand that Marta would get tired of her life in Quito. I can’t imagine the psychological pressure she must have felt being the breadwinner of a family of five. Three children consume a lot of food daily and for a woman who only makes $5 from each client, I could imagine the mental stress she suffered. It’s a life no one would ever want. I can imagine how she would come to resent Juan, who “simply” looked after the children. Perhaps they could have alternated days to share the responsibility of looking after the kids and working. I know Juan was willing to work, perhaps Marta could have stayed home with the kids certain days. I felt badly for Marta. I felt badly that she had reached her emotional peak without improving her situation earlier. Instead, one day she couldn’t stand another moment and left without a word. Perhaps not the most responsible way to deal with her situation, but who am I to judge? I can’t claim to know her reality or the trauma a woman must feel working as a prostitute every day. But in Ambato she still works as sex worker, but with a more flexible schedule. She doesn’t have to support five mouths, only two, so she can live more freely. Furthermore, her new partner sells candy and works as robber so they have two incomes and no children. Much less pressure.

I’m not sure Marta will continue to be happy in her new life. Who knows if her new boyfriend will continue to treat her well? It sounds like she also has more freedom to smoke crack in her new life, especially since her boyfriend is a known addict. I know Juan also smoked crack but his habit never developed to Marta’s level, perhaps because he had to take care of the children. He told me this himself. I know Marta feels guilty about leaving her children and that she misses them dearly. Won’t this eat her up inside? Or will she successfully repress her guilt and keep running? She hasn’t called them yet, and I know they cry for her and keep asking when she'll come home. The answer might be never. I think she feels too ashamed to go home to Guayaquil and face her family. I know she has talked to her mother, who was furious with her. The family seems to be on Juan’s side, despite the fact that he might have treated her poorly (i.e. hit her). It seems like that’s just one of the things a woman must endure here…But here in Ecuador, there’s no excuse for a mother to leave her children. That is perhaps the worst sin a mother could commit. I hope Marta continues to feel she made the right decision—I also hope that she decides to call her children one day, if only for their sake, so they can know she is alive and well (to be continued...)

Family Drama (One)

On the streets family structures are constantly changing. The women I work with tend to have shifting relationships with different companions rather than stable unions over long periods of time. For that reason, I’ve always been impressed by the ten-year relationship my bodyguard Juan, has maintained with his partner, Marta (all names have been changed). They have three children together, Diego (aged 9), Maria (aged 7) and Darwin (aged 3), who is severely disabled. (see earlier post). Marta supports the family by working on the streets while Juan has adopted the role of “mother” for their children—he cooks, cleans, brings the kids to school, and above all, attends to the needs of Darwin who must be constantly supervised. In fact, their children seem much more attached to Juan than to their mother, even Marta has admitted this, with much sadness. Although Juan says he would much prefer to work in his profession, as a robber, than have Marta work as a prostitute, Marta claims that she earns much more money and plus, has more independence on the streets. Marta particularly appreciates this freedom because she is addicted to crack, who although provides for her children’s food first, must also earn enough to support her habit. Furthermore, they both agree that Juan has a special ability to handle Darwin, a toddler who has never received any therapy or even a diagnosis of his condition.

[Such luxuries for special needs’ children are beyond the means of most poor Ecuadorians who must undergo truly heroic efforts to navigate the bureaucratic public health system. As a witness to Juan’s attempts to find help for Darwin, I could not believe the twelve or more steps involved to get the correct paperwork completed for him from various institutions. The tenacity and determination one must have to receive free healthcare in this country is often out of reach of families living in destitution simply because they do not have the time to dedicate hours and days of their lives to receive the care they desperately need. As such, many families with special needs children simply do the best they can with the few resources they have—although it is not ideal, families like Juan and Marta have learned how to cope with their son’s disability in a way that keeps him safe and well cared for.]

Anyway, recently Juan called me one morning sobbing on the phone. He asked me to come to the Centro immediately. I was extremely concerned since I’ve always known Juan to be a tough guy who never expresses much emotion or shows any signs of vulnerability. When I arrived at the hotel where they live, Juan sat down crying and explained that Marta had been missing for two days. She left for work on Tuesday evening and never returned. This was a true crisis since sex workers often disappear without a trace. Their disappearances rarely make the news nor do police bother with investigations. They’re sex workers after all—who cares? Obviously the families of these women care. They must suffer anonymously and do their best to conduct their own investigations. Juan and I set off with much trepidation and fear to look for Marta. We went to all the hospitals, prisons, crack dens, and brothels in the area. We even went to the morgue. I held Diego’s (their son) hand and stayed outside with Darwin in his stroller choking back tears as Juan entered the building. The stench of dead bodies filled the air and I played a silly child’s game of slapping hands with the kids to distract them from the smell—and from the overwhelming intensity of their present circumstance. I couldn’t imagine what Diego, who is only nine years old, must have been thinking. When Juan exited the morgue with a smile on this face I exhaled in relief, but it still didn’t solve the mystery of Marta’s disappearance.

We both still felt distraught and started brainstorming the other places she could be, or what could have happened. My fear was that her body didn’t make it to the morgue—perhaps landing at the morgue is a luxury many Ecuadorians don’t have. In my worst case scenario, Marta was dead somewhere, her body left to rot. When we returned to the Centro all the women on the streets were deeply disturbed by Marta’s disappearance. She hadn’t called any of her closest friends and as no one had seen her in two days. Everyone believed that she had been a victim of a violent crime. When we all ate lunch together, the women wiped away tears and said little prayers for Marta. She wouldn’t be the first to disappear on the streets—last year another beloved friend had been killed by a client.

Known for her dedication to her family and children, despite her crack addiction, it hadn’t occurred to any of us that Marta had simply run away with another man. But within the next 24 hours we learned that that is what had happened. The owner of the hotel where she had serviced her last client told us that in the morning Marta had left with another man—not her client, but a man she had apparently been seeing for several months who lived in that hotel. She told the owner of the hotel that they were going to Ambato, a city three hours south of Quito. Apparently, Marta didn’t need our prayers after all. At first I was furious with her for leaving us in the dark about her whereabouts. Furthermore, it simply didn’t make sense—the Marta I knew was incredibly devoted to her children—I could never see her abandoning her family without a word. But I’ve come to realize that I never truly knew Marta’s darker side. No one really knows why Marta left. The women on the street claim that she simply fell in love with another man and went to start a new life with him. Juan agrees that she left him for another man but believes that her addiction also played an important factor since he tried to control her habit. Perhaps this new man is also a crack addict and now they can consume as much as they please. Everything I know about Marta doesn’t fit this profile since she maintained a controlled habit for 10 years, but without a doubt, addiction often makes people act unpredictably. (To be continued…..)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coup Attempt or Police Strike

In the aftermath of last week’s events Ecuadorians remain in the dark over what exactly happened, whether it was simply a police strike or in fact a more serious measure—a coup attempt, as President Correa is calls it. Rumors are swirling on the streets of this tiny Andean nation, a country that has experienced more political stability under the rule of Correa than with other president in decades. Correa harbors an interesting mix of conservative and socialist political views. Similar to Hugo Chavez, the controversial leader of Venezuela (and one of Correa’s closest political allies), Correa grew up in poverty, which the popular class deeply appreciates. But unlike Chavez, Correa escaped poverty via scholarships to the country’s top schools. His studies led him to Europe and the United States where he finally earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois. As such, his intellectual credentials have made him appealing to the upper classes as well. Prior to becoming president in 2007, Correa was Minister of Finance for five years and followed a typical, conservative fiscal policy that did not waver from the neo-conservativism popular through Latin America. It was not until he became President that Correa’s leftist socialist leanings became apparent.

As president, Correa has distanced Ecuador from Washington and aligned himself with other leftist leaders in Latin America like Chavez, Morales of Bolivia and Castro of Cuba. For example, he kicked the Americans out of a primary military base they had established in Manta, a coastal port, more than forty years ago. This move was extremely controversial internationally, as it was a key base for Americans in the region. He also defaulted on $3 billion of loans from the World Bank, claiming that such debts were “irrelevant” and only reified the imbalance of power between the “third world” and developing nations. These actions have somewhat alienated Correa in the global political field and his increasingly close ties to Venezuela have made Washington very nervous. Also to the chagrin of Washington, Correa has lowered the penalties for drug possession, trafficking, and consumption, allowing many traffickers to go free. He has instituted some radical policies like raising pensions dramatically for the poor and he rewrote the constitution to protect the rights of individuals who identify as transgender and gay. In fact, his policies on gender are more radical and progressive than any other country in the region, and most definitely than those in the United States.

Even though Correa has been coolly received internationally, his radical policy changes have won him much local support. Things began to change this year when he began alienating the factions most loyal to him: the indigenous parties, environmentalists, teachers, etc. He has reneged on some of his promises against mining for example and overhauled the “Law of Education” to hurt the benefits of longtime teachers and professors. Many people view him as interfering too much, that the state is starting to control too many parts of civil society. For example, recently he also decreed that all radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of national songs during their airtime.

People who call the police uprising a coup attempt recognize that Correa has reached the pinnacle of his unpopularity in recent weeks—that the military was “testing out” the situation to see if a future coup will be successful. Since the popular masses remained firmly in support of the president, the top ranks of the military had no choice but to also back Correa. But the rumors claim that the military and police were testing the waters to see if they could actually overthrow the president. Despite the return to normalcy, there are still many frustrated national policemen in the ranks. Members of the military, supposedly those with less power and control, have formed an unofficial alliance with contentious factions of the police. Obviously, this is a very dangerous situation for Correa and he realizes it.

Reminiscent of terrorist discourse in the United States, Correa talks about “weeding out” members of the “opposition” and indeed, many members of the police force have been thrown in jail over the past week. But can Correa really remove all voices of dissent in the police and armed forces? Would this be a move to ensure democracy, as he calls it? Or will these silent forces continue to brew, preparing themselves for the next uprising, in which they hope to gain more popular support? Only time will tell, but for now, we must cope with a significantly larger military presence in the streets (I’ve been shocked by the huge army tanks, complete with officers carrying machine guns), due to the continued unrest within the national police forces.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Coup Attempt

Last Thursday on October 1st, Ecuador became a lawless state without a governing authority. A state of emergency was declared, leaving the country in chaos. The rebellion was spurred by lower levels of the police and military forces due to austerity measures that would significantly reduce benefits for public servants. President Rafael Correa, known for his confrontational leadership style, instated this new controversial law with a presidential veto on Wednesday evening. The police forces would be affected more than any other group by since it would increase the amount of time necessary for a promotion, eliminating the significant salary increase that comes with such promotions. As such, national police forces went on strike early Thursday morning. They placed road blocks on all the main highways, took over the airports, occupied the national assembly and retreated to their barracks. With his fiery personality intact, President Correa approached the police barracks yelling, “If you want to kill the president, here I am—kill me if you dare.” This fierce declaration provoked an attack on the president. Several shots were fired and the police sprayed tear gas in his face. Although Correa was given a gas mask, a protester tore his mask off in an attempt to suffocate him. Correa was quickly whisked away to the closet hospital in the area, ironically (stupidly), the police hospital, where he was then held hostage for 12 hours.

What happens to a country when the police forces go on strike? Pandemonium and anarchy break loose. All over the country banks were robbed, in Quito and Guayaquil, the largest city on the coast, robbers depleted the funds of at least six banks. On the streets, protesters, both those in support of the president and supporters of the police grouped in angry mobs, setting tires on fire and causing terror in the cities throughout the country. Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador were most affected by the rioting.

I happened to be in Guayaquil last Thursday, shooting footage for my documentary. My film focuses on a sex worker and her family who are from the most dangerous neighborhoods in the south of Guayaquil—so there I was, unfortunately, in the center of action. The neighborhood around us erupted into chaos. We stayed inside the house as things turned more and more dangerous. People took advantage of the lawless situation to rob everyone and everything in sight. I observed the situation around me from the roof of the house. It was incredible to watch the swarms of looters passing by, people riding bikes with large burlap sacks tied to the back, filled with goods. One man was pushing a washing machine strapped to a large cart. The residents of the neighborhood were rushing back and forth between the nearby stores and their homes, shouting out to their friends and neighbors the things still left in the stores. Streams of people kept passing by carrying as much as they could in large plastic bags. They carried simple household goods like laundry detergent and cleaning supplies to much bigger, more substantial items, like the washing machine, TVs, furniture, and other electronic equipment.

For me things got scary when a mob gathered on a nearby street, many of them with guns. I heard gunshots throughout the day and apparently one man was killed in the violence. I’ve never been in such close proximity to people with so many weapons, shooting their guns off as if they were in some old cowboy western. Robbers were stealing all the cars from the streets and assaulting random strangers. Although I felt fairly safe in the house, I was scared by the violence. The most unsettling part was that I had no idea what was going on. I had no access to the news or a radio. All I knew was that this neighborhood had suddenly exploded into violence, but I had no idea why. Finally my friends in Quito called me to tell me the news that the president had been kidnapped and that Ecuador was in a state of emergency—and worse, that no one in the country knew exactly what was happening or how things would be resolved. My friends said that this was a possible coup attempt. I thought perhaps I would have to stay in this Guayaquil neighborhood for days until things calmed down. I found out that the entire country had shut down, all business, offices, schools, etc. No buses or taxis were in operation. Everyone had taken refuge in their homes, presumably glued to the news.

And here I was, most definitely the only gringa in this part of Guayaquil. I have never felt so alone, despite the kindness of my hosts. They kept reassuring me that I was safe and that everything would be resolved quickly. As Ecuadorians they are accustomed to frequent revolts against the government, it’s a country that has had 8 presidents in 10 years, all of them toppled by popular rebellions. This experience was one of the scariest I’ve had in my life. I felt trapped and had no idea how to escape. I had no idea what was happening in the country, nor did anyone. As luck would have it, I just happened to be filming in a neighborhood already infamous as being the most dangerous part of Guayaquil when the police decide to go on strike. Already a lawless land, the police strike gave the green light to all the residents to do as they pleased. However, not everyone in the neighborhood was looting and stealing. There were plenty of people buckled down in their homes, just as scared as we were.

Towards evening, when things seemed to have settled down, we were finally able to flag down a taxi to bring us to another part of Guayaquil where other family members live. The taxi driver was terrified to stop, he told us to get in as quickly as possible, as people were putting guns to drivers’ heads if they stopped at red lights or stopped at all. We were incredibly fortunate to find a taxi as most of the roads were empty by this point. As we traveled through the city, I was amazed by mobs of people and chaos. We continued to see looters—I saw crowds of people stealing from a pharmacy. We had to weave through crowds and take back roads to finally arrive at our destination, still a dangerous neighborhood, but certainly not like the favelas where we had been trapped all day.

We were finally able to watch the news and by 10 or 11pm, things had been resolved. Correa had been rescued from the hospital by military forces, surprisingly without violence. When Correa arrived at the presidential palace he gave a riveting speech that democracy had been restored and that the oppositional forces would be punished, and removed from their posts. A coup would have been unsuccessful because throughout the day the upper commands of the military forces reassured that they backed the president, the constitution, the law, and democracy. As seen historically in Latin America, successful coups depend on military support and in this case, the military stood firmly behind the president. Furthermore, the police strike did not have the intended effect on the masses—instead of supporting the police, people were furious that they went on strike, leaving the country without security. Again, a coup cannot happen without popular support. Although Correa’s popularity has plummeted in the past year he still has the support of the majority of Ecuadorians.

On Friday everything returned to normal, as if nothing had happened. Correa is in negotiations with the police forces and is willing to rewrite parts of his austere law. I hopped on a bus back to Quito, eager to get return to my comfortable apartment located in a safe neighborhood (well, no neighborhood in Quito is safe, but because I live in a wealthy area, there are private security forces outside every building). Obviously I’m the type of anthropologist who is attracted to excitement and a bit of danger, as my dissertation topic would suggest, but even for me, this experience was unsettling. But fascinating as well. It was exciting to witness everything firsthand, despite my fear.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I have discussed the challenges I face in defining my relationships with my informants many times. As an anthropologist, it is one of the most confusing things about my work—that I study people, not things, and as such develop relationships with them. Of course these relationships don’t need a label, they are what they are, but at times I slip into friendships with them and have the same expectations of them as I would of any other friend.

Last night an incident happened in which I realized that I have a different type of relationship with my informants than with my other friends. K., the wife of Juan my bodyguard had invited me to Guayaquil for the weekend to visit her mother. We would leave Friday night on the 9:00pm bus, travel through the night and arrive early the next morning. We would bring their three children while Juan could stay in Quito and work (rob, or take advantage of carelessness, as he likes to call it). We had been planning this trip all week and with each day, K. got more and more excited about it. We planned everything to the last detail and agreed upon who would take what food for the bus. I had agreed to lend her a backpack to pack her kids’ things for the weekend. All week K. reminded me of more things—don’t forget your bathing suit, bring bug spray, it’s hot as hell on the coast right now—no jeans. Her excitement was infectious. I was excited to meet her family in Guayaquil. I was excited for a new adventure, especially since I haven’t been to the coast in years.

Friday night comes and I had spent the afternoon packing. I thought of everything, I think. I brought everything K. recommended and even bought some toys for the kids for the 8 hour bus ride (even though they would be asleep for most of it). I bought snacks for the bus and canceled my weekend plans with friends in Quito. Being a good gringa, I arrived promptly at the hotel where they live at 8:00pm. When I arrived no one was there. The owner of the hotel told me that both K. and Juan had left with the kids a bit earlier. Furthermore, the owner told me that K. always tells her when she goes to Guayaquil a few days prior and K. hadn’t mentioned a thing. Extremely confused and getting increasingly pissed off, I waited for K. and Juan to show up. Obviously, when K. said to meet at 8:00, that could mean anywhere between 8:30-10:00pm as Ecuadorians are not known for their punctuality. But I had a deeper fear that the trip was not going to happen.

It turns out that my instincts were right. Juan finally arrived at the hotel with their youngest, special needs’ son. He seemed surprised that I was there. I told him, “Remember, K. and I are going to Guayaquil this weekend—it’s her brother’s birthday—remember?” I was super pissed off. He shook his head and looked sad. He said, “Anita, I don’t think you’re going…K. is out working.” That meant that K. hadn’t earned the money she needed for the bus fares. Suddenly, I felt ashamed and guilty. How could I judge K. when I take my bus fare for granted? I can pay $9 so easily, it hadn’t occurred to me that the trip depended on the money K. could make that particular day. This family survives from day-to-day. They have no savings and often go to bed hungry.

Perhaps I felt guilty and privileged, but I still felt pissed off. I told Juan that K. should have at least called me to let me know that the trip was up in the air. Perhaps she felt embarrassed to tell me given her excitement all week. But at the same time, in the moment, I was angry that I had spent the afternoon preparing for a trip that wasn’t going to happen. Above all, I felt disappointed. I was excited to meet K.’s family, to travel to the coast and experience something new. Unfortunately, this incident also made me disappointed in K. as a person. I was disappointed that she couldn’t pull through for me—that she couldn’t even call me to tell me the trip was canceled. I understand that poverty can cause inevitable, abrupt changes in plans, but I wouldn’t accept such behavior from a friend so I couldn’t accept it from K. either.

Or so I thought… that I’ve had time to chill out, I realize that it isn’t K.’s fault that we couldn’t go. Her life circumstances may make her less reliable than my other friends, but obviously she’s still a good person and still a friend to me—we just won’t ever have the same type of relationship as I have with other friends—people who share my social class and who have less struggles in general. But K. IS a good friend in many ways. She is fiercely devoted to me on the streets and with Juan, takes care of me more than any other sex worker. Under her care, I know nothing will ever happen to me. For that, I am eternally grateful. But for now I’ve learned that I can’t count on her for weekend plans, and that’s not the end of the world.

Street Kitten

As any of my friends or family could tell you, at times I’m prone to impulsive acts. Lately this has included bringing home a street kitten. As impulsive actions usually go, I didn’t think much about the consequences or what the long-term future would mean. All I know is that it was pouring with rain and I saw a drenched kitten sitting near the doorway of my apartment building. In a moment of concern, humanity, and of course impulsivity, I grabbed the kitten, tucked her under my arm and brought her home to my apartment. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly cute (pictures to follow)…

Upon reflection of my actions, which is usually what happens after a sudden burst of impulsivity, I made a connection between my work on the streets and rescuing the kitten. The day I rescued her, Rubi (named after one of my sex worker friends), I remember feeling particularly vulnerable and emotionally exhausted. I wrote in an earlier post that at times my work feels emotionally overwhelming and unsustainable. I’m overwhelmed by the poverty and hardships these women face. I’m saddened to no end watching some of my friends fall into drugs—watching people shrink in size, lose their smiles and develop deep lines in their faces. I’m exposed to so much pain and feel completely hopeless. I also recognize that I’m simply an anthropologist. I’m not here to save anyone. Nor do I have the economic means, power or resources to do so. I feel guilty that I can’t do more. I always hope that my ability to listen as people share their stories is a small help—that at least I listen to these women, many of whom have no one to turn to for emotional support.

In my analysis, I rescued Rubi in order to fulfill my need to rescue something, anything, in a tangible way from the street. I can “save” this kitten. Indeed, I did save her. I provide her with food, water, and a warm place to sleep at night. I have brought her to the vet, cleared her of disease and illness. It is satisfying to watch her grow and flourish in my home. It fulfills my maternal (or guilt-driven anthropological need?) impulse, my yearning to rescue someone or something from the pain of the streets. Perhaps I didn’t bring home a street kid, as I’ve often wanted to do, but at least Rubi now has shelter from the rain.

“I clean, I cook, I iron….and so what?”

There is a fascinating social campaign against machismo as seen through dozens of billboards and advertisements on the sides of buses throughout Quito. One poster shows a man with children in the background stating such things as above. I’ve also seen one that says, “My wife makes more money than me, and so what?” Underneath these statements in large red letters it states, “Ecuador, move on from machismo—machismo is violence.” The first time I saw these ad campaigns I was shocked and filled with glee. One of the challenges of living in this country, (and I’m sure other in Latin American countries) is trying to earn the respect I’m accustomed to in the United States. Perhaps I have particularly high standards because I went to a women’s college (Barnard College in New York City) and study gender in Latin America for my doctorate.

Perhaps my investigation on sex work makes me especially sensitive to this topic, in which I’m exposed to some of the most horrific stories about men who beat their wives, clients who treat the women badly, etc. etc. Many feminists who study sex work feel that prostitution itself equals violence against women, a view I’m opposed to. Rather, I try to respect and accept what these women themselves tell me—that they do not feel like victims. They feel as if they have chosen the best employment available to them. Does it mean they like it? Of course not. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys working as a prostitute. But, I have met plenty of women who feel empowered that they can be single mothers and support their household without a man.

Indeed, I believe it’s the sex workers’ stories of pain and suffering that make me prone to identifying machismo at every moment. Just the double standard that exists around prostitution shows the potency of machismo here—no one ever judges the clients who visit prostitutes, despite the fact that most are married men. Instead, the “immortality” of the situation falls on the prostitute, they’re the ones who must carry the burden of their profession. In fact, I’ve seen the same male residents who are most vocal against prostitution in neighborhood meetings enter the hotel with a sex worker. It blows my mind to see such hypocrisy. Sex in any form, context, with whomever, is totally acceptable for men. Quito is still such a traditional city, heavily influenced by the church, that there is much pressure to always be a “good girl” (i.e. be a faithful spouse, never sleep around). It is frowned upon for young unmarried women to be promiscuous (perhaps the same in the United States, to a lesser degree).

Anyway, the machismo I have experienced personally is rather benign. Much of it could be labeled gallantry which at times, is a trait I wish more North American men value. For example, men accompany me to my bus or taxi when I’m out—it would be unheard of for a woman to walk alone anywhere. Part of that is entirely logical given the dangers in Quito. Sometimes I enjoy this backside of machismo, opening doors for me, paying for drinks because it’s expected—I won’t deny it, there are benefits to being a woman here in receiving this “special treatment” that I’m not accustomed to. However, sometimes cultural clashes erupt between myself and men here. They don’t understand why I go off by myself or feel comfortable being alone in general. I was raised by liberal parents who gave me my space and independence. I rarely answered to anyone. Here as a woman, you have less independence—I don’t envy my Ecuadorian women friends who have to answer to their fathers and their boyfriends about their whereabouts several times a day.

Things are changing in the younger generations. I have plenty of male friends who I would never label as macho. Most of them are from the upper class and have traveled or lived outside of Ecuador. They have been exposed to different types of gender interactions and live in a world where their mothers don’t cook their every meal. They even live in their own apartments and cook/clean for themselves, which is a big step in itself. In earlier generations men and women both went from their parents’ house to marriage and living as husband and wife. In my opinion, machismo starts with the mothers here. Ironic, but true. They don’t let their sons lift a finger and baby them to no end. Their sons are their little princes. Perhaps they focus so much on their sons because their husbands don’t provide them with the emotional support they need. These grown sons expect the same treatment when they get married. As such the cycle continues. This is just my own personal theory, I have done no investigative work to support this—simple observations. (That’s the glory of blogs, no footnotes needed).

Anyway, every time I see these anti-machismo ad campaigns I’m filled with hope and joy. Ecuador still has one of the highest domestic violence rates of the region, but at least someone realizes, at an institutional level, that machismo needs to be addressed. These campaigns make it crystal clear that machismo does indeed exist in Ecuador and that it’s no longer socially acceptable. What was once a social norm is now being challenged….change is in the future and it’s exhilarating.

Carmen's Lunch Place

Every day we all brave the fierce hill of Montufar Street, go careening down its back side, wait at the traffic light on Flores and take our first right onto Guzman. About ¾ of the way down the block we step into a dark and dingy lunch spot on the right—no windows, dirty wooden floors, long tables and benches where crowds of people eat at the same time. And there is Carmen herself, an affable woman from the coast, from Manabi to be exact, which is why people from all over the historic center seek out her food. Lunch is taken very seriously in Ecuador and Carmen has the best lunch in the area. For $1.50 one gets soup, juice and a second course which always includes salad, rice and some sort of meat (I never ask what it is—often I have no idea what I’m eating, but it’s delicious anyway). Carmen stands behind two huge pots, a big ladle in hand, first doling out the soup, and then serving heaping spoonfuls of rice and meat onto large platters. Standing under the heat all day, always wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, Carmen treats her business seriously. She always has enough food for everyone and never repeats her menus. Furthermore, Carmen is a lovely woman: she’s warm, accommodating, and friendly with her clients. In fact, everyone is friends with Carmen, everyone from all over the historic center.

The first time I went to Carmen’s I felt intimidated. Most definitely not a place to go alone--I went under the care and supervision of my sex worker friends. Carmen’s lunch place accommodates all the robbers, muggers, drug addicts, drug dealers, pimps, mafia members, and sex workers of the historic center. Basically, all of the area’s most “dangerous” individuals (as would be described by conventional society) eat lunch at Carmen’s. As such, my first trip to Carmen’s was filled with anxiety. The women warned me before we entered that I had to sit at the far table with them, on the inside, squeezed next to the wall, while they sat on the outside of the table. They took my bag and stuffed it into their pants. I glanced around at the unfamiliar faces and felt a bit scared. I was also worried that I’d get sick from Carmen’s food—I had eaten at other “hole-in-the wall” types of places before with the women, but this was the dingiest of all.

Many months have passed since my first visit to Carmen’s. Now I enter alone, greet Carmen with a kiss on the cheek, greet her brother, nephew and son who all help her run the place. I go from table to table and greet all the people—they are all still the muggers, addicts, drug dealers, pimps, etc. but now I know them and they greet me with much warmth. Only once I’ve made my rounds to say hello to everyone do I then sit down and eat. I dive into my food without fear. I’ve never gotten sick from Carmen’s food, so despite its outward appearance, I know it’s a safe place to eat. Usually I’m with a sex worker friend or join a few women at a table. I chat with everyone and it has become a very pleasant ritual in my day. I feel no fear at Carmen’s, nor do I need to. I know her brother guards me fiercely, as do many of the pimps I now know—as well as the sex workers and Javier, who is my official bodyguard. In fact, I feel completely at home with Carmen. I enjoy joking with her and the others in the restaurant.

Last week I arrived at Carmen’s with my transgender friend Ginger to find that Carmen’s had been closed. We rapped on the door again and again until we saw Carmen peer through a tiny crack. She whispered, “Come around the back.” As if entering an underground speak-easy, we entered a door a few doors down from her restaurant into a plaza and living area of an old colonial home. There was another gate to the right, surrounded by barking dogs. Carmen’s brother shooed the dogs away and invited us through the gate. We crossed through a yard, entered a cement basement, passed through several rooms and then finally, up some steep steel stairs through a trap-roof door to enter the extra-dark restaurant. Everyone was there, speaking in hushed tones. Teary-eyed, Carmen explained that they shut her down that afternoon for no apparent reason--that she had received a denouncement from someone and the police were investigating. We ate lunch silently, listening to Carmen as she complained that someone must be jealous of her and wanted to close her down. I asked if all her health codes were in order and she said she had just renewed everything.

The next day Carmen told me that the police shut her down because apparently she “sells drugs” from her establishment. When she told me this I almost laughed out loud. Anyone who knows Carmen knows that she’s the last person who would sell drugs. It is ridiculous. My laughter quickly turned to anger. How on earth could they assume such a thing, I asked. Carmen explained that these things are arbitrary, that the police don’t need any proof of anything to shut her down. Carmen explained that the police are angry that all the “scum of the earth” eat at her restaurant—that it’s a cesspool of vice, etc. but Carmen herself cannot be blamed. Carmen, again teary eyed, explained that she had to pay a $400 fine in order to reopen the restaurant. It’s a problem because she can’t control who comes to eat at her restaurant—it’s not her fault that her lunch place is smack in the middle of Quito’s most dangerous neighborhood, in the red-light and drug district. She told me that she can’t help it that she doesn’t attract diplomats or lawyers to her lunch place. Her food is for the locals—for the most humble and poor members of Quito’s historic zone.

What happened to Carmen strikes me as unbelievably unfair. Under no circumstances does Carmen sell drugs from her lunch place. She just provides an incredibly delicious meal that attracts faithful clients, many of whom are taking a break from their work in the underworld economy (furthermore, not ALL her customers are part of the illegal economy—plenty of local storekeepers and municipal workers eat there—I’ve even seen police too). I agree with Carmen—she doesn’t pick her clients, nor can she refuse to serve people, due to economic necessity. The police just fear the sheer number of “bad people” all gathered in one place, under one roof, sharing a communal meal together.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


That’s how much Ecuador’s Vice-President, Lenin Moreno, has offered families with special needs’ children in assistance each month. It’s the equivalent to a month’s salary at minimum wage, which is no small fee. My bodyguard Juan has a special needs’ son, D. (age 3), who still does not walk or talk at all. Over the past few weeks I’ve been filming Juan as he attempts to apply for this assistance. Through the process I’ve learned just how difficult it is to be a poor Ecuadorian, dependent on the public health care system for all services. But not only have we been traveling from one public hospital and clinic to another, we’ve also visited several government offices to figure out how one even applies for this special assistance. Clear, accurate, and direct information seems hard to come by here. Juan had seen the new assistance being advertised on the nightly news, but once we arrived at the supposedly correct government office, the employees knew very little about the actual details of the program.

For Juan and his partner K., who works as a prostitute while he looks after their three children, $240 would make a tremendous difference in their standard of living. They barely scrape by each day, sometimes forced to go to bed and wake-up hungry. The days that Juan works as my bodyguard, I pay for his lunch and for the lunches of his children, which comes to $5.00 daily. The assistance Vice-President Moreno offers is made exactly for families like K. and Javier because Javier cannot seek employment since his primary job is to care for their disabled son (who needs to be watched 24 hours a day). With one partner out of the work force, they must depend on K.’s meager salary to support a family of five. It is extremely difficult considering K. usually only scores an average of 2 puntos (encounters) daily, earning $5.00 for each one.

The catch to receiving the assistance is that the family has to prove that their child is a certain “percentage” disabled. I’m not sure how they quantify it, but the child must be at least “75%” disabled. To me such quantifications seem ridiculous because they are based on random (fairly subjective) evaluations from doctors. What if the child is “merely” blind, and receives a lower disability percentage but the family doesn’t have the resources to send him/her to a special school and therefore must stay home with him/her? What if a doctor misdiagnoses the percentage of an autistic child who is highly adept in some cognitive areas while severely impaired in others? What if a family has an emotionally disturbed child who needs special psychiatric care but has long periods of stability, in which he/she may not need to be watched at all times? (i.e. perhaps both parents might be able to work during these periods of stability, but might not be able to maintain jobs if their child has frequent moments of crises). There are a million more scenarios that make me skeptical of the quantification of these children’s disabilities. An attempt to standardize all the hundreds of possible disabilities a child could have in order to make a vast national comparison is an archaic gesture, reminiscent of French philosopher Foucault’s theories of state power, normalization and vigilance.

I’m terrified that somehow D. won’t “make the cut.” What if a doctor sees him as decides that he is “normal enough” for Juan and K. to not receive financial aid. What if an ignorant doctor decides that D.’s severe cognitive delays are just that, something that he’ll “grow out of?” Just trying to get an evaluation has been a nightmare process. Juan and I have attempted to have D. evaluated at three different hospitals or public clinics and each of them has sent him away, requesting more paperwork from some obscure government office. It has been a Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy with no end in sight. To even get an appointment at one of the public hospitals most people spend the night sleeping at its doors, to line up in order to gain entrance in the morning. At 6:00am the hospital administrators start handing out appointments for the day. Since there are a finite number, only the first part of the line gains entrance. The rest will arrive later that evening to spend the night again, hoping to get an earlier spot for the next day. Once inside the hospital, people wait in lines sitting on the floor, in giant spirals. I’ve never seen anything like it. The lines go around and around the wards in huge circles. People literally spend the entire day waiting; when they finally see the doctor (if they’re lucky) he/she ushers them in and out of his office within five minutes because he/she has so many people to attend.

For someone like Juan with a special needs child, it is not possible to wait in such long lines. For any child it is torture, but for D. it feels especially tortuous because he gets overwhelmed very easily. He hates being in tight spaces with lots of crowds and quickly starts to tantrum, to the point that we’ve had to leave the hospital and lose our turn for the day. We finally decided to go to a local clinic that charges $5 a visit instead of going to the public hospital, because there would be less people. Unfortunately, even in this private clinic D. was exposed to long lines and cramped spaces. Even here people are not given a set appointment and they must wait in long lines. D. ended up having a fit, much to everyone else’s chagrin and to make matters worse, the doctor arrived 2 hours late. When we finally saw the neurologist for an evaluation, he turned us away saying that D. was too out of control to examine—that we would have to come back another day when he was calmer.

I kept my mouth shut, but I was fuming inside. Poor D. couldn’t help but get upset while waiting for a doctor who nonchalantly arrived 2 hours late. Even I was beginning to get tense, bored and irritable. I couldn’t believe this doctor wouldn’t give D. 10 minutes to calm down in his office. Why didn’t he realize that not all of his patients will be easy to deal with—wouldn’t such a realization come with the territory of being a doctor? The worst part about having the doctor turn us away meant that Juan would have to pay another $5 in an attempt to see him again. What will make D. any calmer next week when we have to wait in line for hours? I’m dubious that the doctor will treat him then either. It’s certainly not D.’s fault that he reacted in such a way—if only he could go to the expensive private Metropolitan Hospital, where I receive treatment, where one is given a set appointment, with no waiting in lines—and where the medical care is first-rate, where D. would be guaranteed to receive a fair and accurate evaluation.

I was also shocked by Juan’s reaction. He expressed neither surprise, nor irritation that the doctor turned us away. He accepted it without question. When we left the building I asked him why he didn’t defend himself. He said it hadn’t occurred to him. It made me realize the dramatic difference in our social positions. Juan treats doctors with reverence and views them as an ultimate authority. He would never have the nerve to question a doctor, given his low social standing. As he said, it wouldn’t even occur to him. For me, as the daughter of a doctor, I have a different type of relationship with these authority figures. Naturally I respect doctors, but with my father as one, I feel comfortable asking questions and confronting them when needed. Indeed, I feel empowered enough to question or confront any authority figure, due to the social position I occupy. I couldn’t believe Juan didn’t complain, but it gave me such insight into how it must be to belong to a marginalized, disempowered social group. I’m just worried that due to all the obstacles that accompany being a member of Ecuador’s lower class that somehow we won’t get the evaluation D. requires for Juan and K. to receive the financial assistance they so desperately need.


I know two examples of mothers and daughters who both work on the streets. In one case both work on our corner, independently of one another, not as a team—in both instances, they don’t advertise the fact that they are related. In fact, after working for 11 months on the street, I only just found out that there were mother and daughters on the streets a month ago. No one had told me, especially not the mothers themselves, as I sense that they feel a bit embarrassed or ashamed that their daughters also work.

I found out about A. and her daughter S. one day at lunch. When I entered Don Elio’s (one of our favorite comedores—cafeterias) on the street, I joined A. and another young woman at their table. A. is 35 years old and the woman sitting next to her appeared to be in her early 20s. She was a beautiful young woman whom I hadn’t seen before. As A. and this woman chatted away, I sensed that they were good friends, but since I had never seen her before, I wasn’t sure if she was a sex worker. (By this point, I recognize by face all the sex workers in our area). However, my instincts told me she worked, simply by how she was dressed and by her post-lunch ritual of re-applying her make-up with meticulous care. All the women take at least 10 minutes after lunch while still sitting at the table to re-line their lips, curl and apply more mascara to their eyelashes and to brush out their hair again. Some bring gel in their purses to pull their hair back in tight pony-tails or buns.

A. and S. acted like sisters, laughing and carrying on—I felt like an external participant, observing an intimate relationship. Finally, A. glanced at me, just as my lunch arrived and they were finishing, and to my surprise, said, “Anita, I want to introduce you to my daughter.” The young woman leaned across the table to give me a salutary kiss on the cheek. I swallowed my surprise and smiled at her nonchalantly, as if I always meet the working daughters of sex workers. I couldn’t see a striking resemblance, but told them that obviously they were from the same family because they’re both so beautiful. A. smiled widely and proudly said, “You see how much lighter she is than me, Anita? Her father is almost white!” A. is a black woman from the coast and its true, her daughter is much lighter than her, which is exactly why I didn’t see the resemblance at first. But I hate playing into these race remarks so I simply noted to A., “But she has your beautiful eyes!” which is true.

As A. and s. were leaving the restaurant, A. whispered to me, “Anita, don’t tell anyone she’s my daughter, its top secret!” I reassured her that of course I wouldn’t tell a soul. When A. requested that I maintain her daughter’s anonymity, it confirmed my suspicions that she was a sex worker. And indeed, since that day at lunch, I have seen S. working on the streets by the Marin, the bus depot, a spot where new, younger girls arrive. We always greet one another warmly and sometimes other women ask me who she is. I say she’s new and I met her at Don Elio’s one day. The fact that A. wanted me to keep her daughter’s working status top secret indicates that perhaps she is ashamed that S. also works on the streets. Perhaps she feels like a bad mother, as if she has failed to provide opportunities for her daughter to find other work. Given the tremendous stigma that comes with working as a prostitute, I’m not surprised that A. might feel embarrassed that her daughter fell into the same work. The vast majority of women on the street tell me that above anything else, they would never (ever) want (or allow) their daughters to work as prostitutes.

I don’t know any of the details of A. and S.’s case: perhaps A. forbade S. to work but S. defied her, or perhaps on the other hand, A. ushered S. into the sex industry. Who knows? I don’t judge them either way—that’s the way things work on the streets. I’ve never asked anyone and obviously would never ask A., unless she offered me more information freely.

The other mother-daughter “team” on the street is another woman with a name “A.” and her daughter “I.” Again, only recently did I learn they’re related, even though they don’t seem to keep it a secret. It seems like everyone except me knew. It had never come up and they don’t resemble one another at all, so I had never guessed it. Only when one of the other sex workers was looking for I. and asked A. if she had seen her daughter did I learn the connection. Sensing that it was an open topic, I asked A. to confirm, “I. is your daughter??? I didn’t know that!” A. laughed and said, “Of course she is, you didn’t know that Anita?” I was shocked. I would have never guessed they were related. They seem to be the same ages as A. and her daughter, S. The difference is that I see I. frequently on the street since she works on the same corner as her mother. I am very friendly with A., but I. works intermittently, so I’ve never gotten close to her.

Over lunch the other day, A. told me about her troubled daughter. I had asked her where she had disappeared to, as I hadn’t seen I. in weeks. Sighing deeply, A. said that I. had run off with one of her clients, convinced she was madly in love with him, despite the fact that she has a husband. She dropped her three children off with A. late one night promising that she would be back one day. A. has no idea where her daughter is and obviously feels resentful that she suddenly has to be a mother to her three grandchildren. As she explained the story, A. got more and more pissed off with her daughter, calling her immature and irresponsible. A. says they’ve always had a difficult relationship and that they often go for long periods without speaking. In fact, I’ve never seen them interact on the street before, which is probably another reason why I didn’t know they were related. Unlike A. and her daughter S., A. and her daughter I. don’t seem like friends at all or even casual acquaintances.

I haven’t probed into how I. began working on the streets with her mother. Just like with the other woman named “A,” I figure the details will emerge at a later date, although they don’t really matter much. It’s the marked difference in attitude of the mothers in each case that makes things interesting: the first A. keeps her daughter’s work status a top-secret, while the other A. shares it openly. As such, one might assume that the second A. doesn’t view prostitution as a shameful job. Perhaps she feels her daughter is old enough to choose her employment and that sex work is the best way for her to support her children (even though at this very moment A. is supporting them, not her daughter).

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Birthday Bash

I knew celebrating my birthday (Aug. 27th) with my sex worker friends in the streets would be a good time. Despite all their hardships, (or because of them more likely), these women know how to party, and they’re willing to do so at any hour of the day. I wanted to have a relaxed gathering during the day because I had already planned a birthday party that night. I arrived in the Centro at noon with my birthday cake and more and more women kept appearing. They arrived with big bottles of beer in their hands—my birthday definitely gave them a good excuse to drink. As is the custom here, one person is in charge of pouring beer into one glass which is passed around and around. One is expected to down the glass in its entirety before giving it back to the main server. In this case, Ginger, one of our transgender friends who works on the streets in another part of the city, was playing host. Even though these women sometimes don’t have enough money to eat lunch each day, they certainly found enough money for endless beers at $1.00 a piece.

One tradition I didn’t know about is that the birthday girl (or boy) receives the equivalent number of spanks that he/she has in years. I couldn’t believe it when my friend K. took off her leather belt and all the women lined up. They told me to stand still and bend over. I couldn’t believe it! I was laughing hysterically as each of them slapped me hard across my ass. Some of them hit me really hard! Perhaps it was satisfying for them to pound a gringa—perhaps it felt like some sort of leveling of power. Thank God they decided to stop before reaching my age—apparently I’m so old that they got bored before completing.

The other unexpected act was when I blew out the candles for my cake, two women shoved my face into it. Again, I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. No one in my life had ever done that. I’ve seen it at weddings but not at birthdays. Perhaps it is also a custom in the U.S., I’m not sure. Then the party turned into a food fight of sorts. Once all the pieces were passed out to the dozen or so women who showed up (more and more kept trailing through the door—we were in the telephone cabins on the corner), the women flung bits of icing into each others’ faces. Then we took lots of group photos, all of us covered in icing and buzzed with beer. These women have to take each opportunity for fun seriously, because it doesn’t happen frequently. Many of the women only stayed briefly because they couldn’t take more time off from work. Despite my birthday, these women were still in the middle of a work day. I was so touched and flattered when each of them came and gave me a huge hug and kiss on the check. They all asked that “God Bless me” and wished me lots of happiness. It wouldn’t have felt right not celebrating my birthday with the sex workers. They are like family to me here and treat me as such.

Soap Opera Salon

Today I took a break from the sex industry and headed to the nail salon. The young woman working with me launched into her recent heartbreak with an intensity and sadness that made me feel right back on the streets (exactly what I like to avoid on my days off). Accustomed to listening to such dramas, I didn’t mind sitting back and soaking in her story. Once again it left me with the realization that machisimo is alive and well in this country.

The woman, whom I’ll call Carla (I never got to her name), is from a rural province near Ambato, a city three hours south of Quito, partly known for its large surrounding indigenous communities. It would be difficult to be a woman in these areas. Her parents arranged her married when she was 15, which surprised me, because that custom has changed dramatically in the past generation. She told me that her parents arranged her sister’s marriage when she was just 13. Soon after getting married, she had two sons and realized that her husband was a miserable match. He was unemployed and more committed to drinking with his friends than to parenthood. In a way, I can’t blame him, although forced to marry at 15, he was acting perfectly age-appropriate, at least for “most” teenagers in the world. What 15 year old has the maturity to manage marriage and parenthood? But obviously, plenty of other teenage boys in his community are forced into the same situation and can rise to the occasion. Anyway, the machisimo becomes apparent when Carla had to adopt the all the responsibilities of her family, including work to support them, plus perform all domestic tasks while her husband’s behavior was viewed as perfectly acceptable. There’s a saying here that goes: “He might kill me, but he’s my husband.” The first time I heard that, I was utterly shocked, but unfortunately, now I’ve heard it plenty of times.

Unsurprisingly, this marriage didn’t last long. Despite the misery and hardship, Carla would have never left her husband—being from a rural, traditional community, she was expected to endure and endure. She felt relieved when he finally left her for another woman. Although Carla was ashamed when her husband left because being a single mother is frowned upon, she said it was a blessing in disguise because it forced her to leave her small village and move to Quito. Alone and depressed in the capital (she left her children with her parents), she found work as a domestic servant and then in the salon.

Carla found solace from her heartbreak in a new friend in Quito, a seemingly kind man who listened to her problems. “Just friends” for a long time, her new friend was frank about the fact that he had a girlfriend and son. Their platonic relationship turned romantic and before she knew it Carla was living with her new boyfriend, despite the fact that he already had a girlfriend. Looking back on it, Carla says she doesn’t know why she put up with the situation for so long (i.e. docilely accepted the fact that he was already in a relationship). But she put up with it for four years….. She assumed that since he had chosen to live with her than he had “chosen” her over his girlfriend. Who knows what he had told his “real” girlfriend this whole time—i.e. where he was living, etc. etc.

Once Carla told her boyfriend she was pregnant, everything changed. He made up his mind once and for all to return with his original girlfriend. He told her to have an abortion, that he couldn’t support another child. Carla was horrified that he had asked her (and expected her) to commit a sin—abortions are still illegal in Ecuador and most people are morally against them due to the Church. Being from a small village, Carla said it would never have entered her mind to have an abortion. His request seemed coldhearted and cruel, even monstrous. Furthermore, Carla truly believed that he had left his “ex” for good when in fact he had been in constant contact with her over the years.

Carla’s boyfriend left her in the weeks after she told him about her pregnancy. He left without a trace and she seriously considered having an abortion for the first time. Interestingly enough, destiny took over and she ended up miscarrying. Now that she was no longer pregnant, Carla felt free and could move on from this man. Apparently, her boyfriend is a national policeman—they are known to be womanizers because they’re stationed to work in different regions of the country every two years to cut down on corruption in the police force. Carla now realizes that he probably has a girlfriend in “every post,” like a sailor. She said that upon arriving in the big city she was naïve and impressionable, like a little girl. She explained (with tears in her eyes), that she has now learned not to trust men or their “good” intentions.

I feel badly for her, she must have still been in her early 20s, and had already suffered such terrible heartaches. Carla explained that the transition from her rural village to the big city has been filled with shocking discoveries—that you can’t trust people so easily and must keep to yourself. It was interesting to hear Carla grapple with her decision over the abortion. It seems that the “immorality” of the action was the deciding factor, despite the fact that a large stigma accompanies being a single mother as well. Indeed, Carla said herself that again, the miscarriage was a blessing in disguise because she didn’t want to be a single mother once again (and more importantly, was saved from having to commit a sin).

Monday, August 23, 2010


I mentioned in a previous post that at times one of the difficult parts about being deeply entrenched in a community is that one becomes part of its everyday gossip circles. Obviously, I’m not privy to everything people on the streets are saying about me behind my back, but some stuff comes back to me and leaves me quite amused (or bemused—sometimes confused as well.) The immediate women I work with on my corner all know me and don’t have any more questions about why I’m here or what I do. They accepted my presence a long time ago, even though they might not quite understand my “job.” But I don’t either at times. Among this group of women, I feel like an ordinary target of gossip—just like any of them—from what I know of, it’s benign, everyday stuff.

One type of rumor my friends pass along to me is if they hear of people wanting to rob me. In that case, I’m not the object of gossip, per se, they’re just passing along useful information. I was furious when I heard a woman, M. had mentioned during lunch one day that she was going to rob me. The women dismiss M. because she’s a base-head (equivalent to a crack-head, the drug here called base, not crack), and always talks “bullshit.” But one of the women took me aside to tell me this and in my anger, a few days later, I went up to M.’s boyfriend and told him, “You can tell M. she’s never going rob me. Tell her not to even think about it.” Clearly this got back to M., who became furious and began asking all the women, “Which one of you whores told la gringa (the white girl) I’m going to rob her.”

The woman who actually told me, pulled me aside soon after, and said, “Anita, no matter what happens, whatever you do, don’t ever tell anyone that it was me who warned you.” She was shaking as she told me. That’s when I realized the gravity of the situation and realized I had made a big mistake by opening my mouth. Not only did I put myself in more danger by provoking the situation, but I also put my friend who warned me in potential danger too. Obviously I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, on all matters big and small. Under no circumstances do I start gossiping with the women, even though I now know things that a lot of other people don’t. (i.e. I’m a good source of gossip considering all the things people have confided in me over the past year). When I have one-on-one interviews obviously the women talk to me in confidence and I’d never break these trusts.

I recently found out about the most outlandish piece of gossip circling among another group of sex workers about me. These are not the women I work with, rather, they work a few blocks down from the corner I’m on. Even though it’s just a few blocks away from where I work, they occupy a different world. They stand next to the Marin, the central bus station for the historic center, a bustling thoroughfare where it’s tough to identify them as sex workers. Obviously clients know who they are but for the most part these are new, young girls who have chulos (pimps) whom they are working for. This part of the Marin has never been a hot-spot for prostitution, it’s sprung up over the past year, as these girls aren’t allowed to work where my veteran sex workers solicit. Anyway, as I was leaving work one afternoon, making my way to the bus, one of the women from the Marin called over to me. She said, “Anita, Anita, come here.” I had seen her plenty of times but had never spoken with her before—but it’s typical because even though I don’t know everyone’s name, all the sex workers know mine.

She asked, “Don’t you come from Chile?” I said no. She said, “Well, don’t you send children to Chile?” Again, no. Then she explained how her pre-adolescent son is acting up and she just “can’t deal with him anymore.” It dawned on me that she wanted me to send him to Chile ??? I was dumbfounded. I wanted to laugh. I explained that although I’m invested in the children of the sex workers, and yes, I’ve been helping one family with their special needs’ son, I definitely am not in the business of sending children away. It occurred to me during that perhaps she thinks I traffic in children, and in this case to Chile? I did not take this realization lightly—it freaked me out to be honest. I explained once again to the woman, “No, under no circumstances do I take children from their families—perhaps I can help you find other services for your son if you’d like.” The woman launched into a long story about how her son has always been a trouble-maker and how she thought he’d settle down with age, but just the opposite has happened. As usual, I felt myself slip into a therapist role, but trying just to listen rather than interject my own thoughts. I asked the woman if she had thought about taking advantage of some of the free counseling that exists at the public health centers. She looked at me blankly and said, “No, I think it would be better just to send him away.”

Obviously no one wants to be mistaken as a child thief, although in this case, I don’t think the woman saw me as a malevolent force, but perhaps someone who works for an international NGO. Or at least I hope that’s the way she saw me. Indeed, I hope the rumor she heard put me in a good light. I’m horrified to think that people have the perception that I’m somehow involved in the trafficking of children! I’m glad this woman approached me to clarify what I do. I’m still not sure she believed me, but hopefully, she’ll find other women who can confirm my role. But it just goes to show that when one is the object of a rumor, it’s completely beyond one’s control…who knows how such a thing started. Perhaps this woman just made it up herself, just assumed my role because she wanted to send her son away. A projection of some sorts….Who knows… However, I do find peace in the fact that a large group of sex workers in the Centro know that at the very least I’m an ally (regardless of what rumors float about).