Sunday, January 31, 2010


At least once during my work day a man or group of men will mistake me for a sex worker, which I find hilarious because I try to look as nerdy as possible at my field-site (for this very reason!) I wear my most conservative clothes—always long pants, (no shorts obviously), t-shirts or long shirts and my grubby sneakers. No jewelry, no make-up (not that I wear much make-up), and of course, I never wear anything tight or form fitting. My backpack, floppy sun hat and small notebook complete my outfit. I work hard to dress down. With my baggy khakis and sloppy t-shirt, it makes me laugh that people still mistake me for a sex worker. In a way I don’t blame them….after all, I’m out here day after day, hour after hour hanging out with all the sex workers on the corner. I get double takes and glances from everyone, not just ogling men looking for sex. If I saw me on the corner, I’d also be curious. Aside from lost gringo tourists who sometimes stroll over to the San Marcos section of the historic center, I’m the only gringa who has become “part of the scene” on Espejo and Montufar Streets. Since I’m focused on the women and their actions, I often don’t even notice when men stare me down—the women step up and before I know it they say, “She’s not working, leave her alone.” Or else they joke around and call out, “the gringa costs $100.” All of us and the ogling men laugh and continue about our business.
On a recent day a woman whom I recognized from the neighborhood stormed up to me and began questioning me: “Why are you on the streets? What do you think you’re doing here? etc. etc” She was aggressive-rude-insulting and was starting to piss me off. When I explained my investigation she went off in a huff. I didn’t care so much that she mistook me for a sex worker since it happens all the time…..I was more pissed off because I didn’t understand why she expressed so much concern over me, a white, North American on the streets while not even casting a glance at the Ecuadorian women. To her, a gringa prostituting herself is much more offensive than Ecuadorian women doing the same thing, as if they are meant to be sex workers while gringas are not? In an odd way it’s as if she was trying to look out for me. She wanted to “scold” me off the streets, as if to say that I should be doing something better with my life (again because I am a gringa?) Even though it was awkward and uncomfortable, her scolding made me feel some of the shame and humiliation that the sex workers deal with on a daily basis.

I’m often touched by how much the sex workers look out for me on the streets. Some are even over-protective—they shoo me inside the phone center when they see the worst “ladrones” (thieves /robbers) approach from Montufar Street (only after having pointed them out to me). “Remember,” they say, “he always likes to wear his white cap…watch out…that one over there is an expert pick-pocket, etc. etc.” They hustle me indoors until all is clear and then motion for me to come out. It is unbelievably sweet and I feel touched that so many people look out for me. They yell at me when I take out my tape recorder (because someone might steal it) and show me how to hide my cell phone and money in my bra. I know the “ladrones” well enough now that I nod hello and some even stop to chat with me. Perhaps they still plan to rob me in the future: I’m certainly not so naïve to think our small chit chat means that now we’re “BFF” and they’ll never lay a hand on me (but I do believe establishing connections helps).

It is interesting that several of my “buddies” on the street I get the feeling would rob me in any other circumstance. Not only a few of the sex workers, but some of the sex workers’ partners who lurk around, involved in their own “trade” while their women are working. I’ve gotten to know a lot of these men since often they’re the ones bringing their children to and from school or getting lunch for their girlfriend. In the case of J. and K. and their special needs son, D. I started hanging out with them because I adore D. Although he is 3 years old, he has no language, nor can he walk yet except one or two unsteady steps. I always spend a bit of time with J. and D. during the afternoon. J. and I will each take one of D’s hands to practice walking. Or we put him on the floor of the phone center and supervise him crawling around. J. also puts D. in the back of his friend’s truck, treating it like a play-pen. J. and K. hang with a tough crowd. They are both addicted to smoking base. K. prostitutes and J. steals to get by, to support their habit and their 3 children. They love their children more than anything: J. is a devoted dad and cherishes little D. He’s never without D. and often talks to me how much he loves his son.

I do not believe K. or J. would ever lay a hand on me. Perhaps I am hopelessly naïve but I sense that we have developed a relationship (do I dare say “friendship?”) I know little D. is attached to me and I sense that they appreciate my interest in their son. Sometimes they leave me alone with D. while running off to do “errands.” At the same time, I know they smoke base and as such, are prone to making irrational decisions. It is a balancing act hanging out on the streets: at this point I feel like I’ve made enough allies among the sex workers, neighbors near-by, the indigenous woman who sells fruit on the corner, the business owners, etc. that I feel safe on my corner. Although I never “feel” danger anymore (except from the police perhaps), I know it’s best to keep up my guard and not trust anyone 100% (except a few of my closest sex worker allies.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

De donde eres?

When I first appeared on the streets, “Where are you from?” was one of my common inquiries to each sex worker. It was also one of the first questions they would ask me. We would both ask each other this question because we’re all foreigners to Quito. I’d explain that I’m from the States, and specifically, that I live in New York. Many of them share this connection to New York because they have family members in Queens. Next they’d usually me why I was here (and why on earth was I hanging out with them on the street). I’d go on to explain that I’m an anthropologist conducting research for my thesis on sex work in Quito. As long as they knew I was on their side, they were satisfied with my answers. (Being on the “same side” as your informants is an intrinsic part of any anthropological project, no?) (a discussion for another entry...)

I repeatedly asked the women this question of “¿de donde eres?” in return because they are all from different parts of Ecuador, the majority from the coast. I have yet to meet a sex worker (working in Quito) from Quito. There are many reasons for this: first, these women have migrated from small, rural villages along the coast to the big city as part of a larger wave of migration occurring nationally among all sorts of workers. Migrants flock to Guayaquil, the big port city located on the southern coast or to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, located in the Andes. The women also migrate due to the nature of their work. Usually they set off alone, without a male partner or additional family members. Since they don’t want their families to know that they’re working in the sex industry, they move as far away from home as possible. Perhaps the Colombian women who work in the sex industry here are an extreme case of such movement. Most women tell their families back home that they’re working as domestic servants in private homes or hotels or they’re working as waitresses in restaurants or night clubs. In many cases, these women do in fact work in these sectors when they first arrive. Usually they hear about working in the sex industry through a friend or an acquaintance and lured by the money, they decide to give it a try. To put it in context: the average domestic servant earns about $120/month for 8 hour work days at least 5 days a week. Some live with the families they work for, and in these cases, will put in many more hours but (usually) won’t be fairly compensated. On a good day, a sex worker can bring home $15-20 which is why the sex industry is such an appealing option for these women. Indeed, most of them have little education and given the job prospects open to them, they earn the most as sex workers.

All the female sex workers I’ve met are mothers. I have yet to meet a sex worker who is NOT a mother (I’ve been studying sex work for 9 years both in Madrid, Spain and different parts of Ecuador). In fact, that is the number one reason these women give for why they enter the sex industry. Most of the women leave their children on the coast with family members and send money home every week. After a few years of working in Quito, they may send for their kids. In most cases, these women do not maintain long term romantic relationships with their children’s father, who often remains on the coast. Another common reason why they migrate is to get out of abusive relationships, although unfortunately, some find themselves in similar situations in Quito. Many of the women’s current boyfriends are ex-clients. Their boyfriends don’t say anything about their work (how can they—they knew from the start), and at times these sex workers support them. Since the women are all from the coast, they often start dating men in Quito who have also migrated from the same areas.

Some of the sex workers are always on the go. They travel from city to city to work, depending on the rumors that circulate about business in other places. If they hear that Cuenca is (a city in the southern highlands) booming, for example, they’ll hop on the next bus and spend a couple months working there. They’ll move onto another city after that to catch the next wave of demand somewhere else.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

SPF 80

An Ecuadorian friend of mine pointed out that Ecuadorian society is still a caste society based on skin color. The lighter one’s skin color, the more elite he/she is perceived. Although I’ve made the same observation myself, I wouldn’t share it with my Ecuadorian friends, out of fear of offending them. I know my friends wouldn’t appreciate having a foreigner point out to them the lingering racism and caste structure of their society. I certainly wouldn’t respond well if someone made such a comment about the US, even though I’d know it was true. (Perhaps it’s like making fun of families, of course you can make fun of your own, but if someone else makes the same joke, the humor is lost and you’ll defend them). Race is a delicate topic wherever you are. In Ecuador I find it even more so

I took a recent trip with a group of people to a rural village three hours north of Quito. It wouldn’t have taken so long if the roads had been paved the entire way. Furthermore, the roads twisted and turned up mountains and down them, up and down. Since it’s located on the equator, the sun in Ecuador is incredibly powerful. It shines down at 90 degrees. During our whole trip, we sat in the sun soaked van, burning hot. Once we arrived, Marcos, the driver and I struck up a conversation. He had slathered on sunscreen the entire trip, generously reapplying every 20 minutes or so, like you’re supposed to. In fact, watching him made me feel guilty for not applying enough. I knew when I got back to Quito I’d be red, like a lobster. I couldn’t help but make a wise crack about his excessive sunscreen use. He laughed and joked back. Little did I know our joking would lead to serious business about race in Ecuador….

Marcos says to me, “well, you don’t have anything to worry about.” I laugh, still in joking mode. “Oh sure Marcos, nothing to worry about—I could sit out here all day and not get burned.” Then I say, “You’re the one who looks dark…you probably don’t have to be as careful in the sun as I do.” He says: “What are you talking about, I have to be extra careful!” I reply: “It’s true, you’re probably just as vulnerable. Anyone can get skin cancer.” Marcos: “Oh skin cancer…I could care less about skin cancer.” Now I’m muddled up. “What’s with all the sunscreen, then?” Marcos clears it up: “I don’t want my skin to get darker.” I couldn’t believe it. This whole time I thought Marcos was vigorously applying and re-applying his sunscreen as a health measure. Marcos is not black, (he is not Afro-Ecuadorian), but he does not have the fair skin of the elite class either. Rather, he is “mixed” or mestizo, along with the vast majority of the population, except for the 20-40% indigenous, 10% “white” European segments, and 10% Afro-Ecuadorian. (Although, technically these other groups are “mixed” as well-- i.e. they are not “pure”). People here would most likely describe Marcos’s skin as canela, or “cinnamon.”

Marcos went on to say, “I don’t want to get black because people get scared.” “Really?” I ask. Really? I’m not sure how “black” Marcos would actually turn. I’m sure he would get a dark tan but was he afraid people would mistake him for an Afro-Ecuadorian? Plus, it’s interesting that he felt people would actually fear him as a “black” man. He continued on: “Yeah, you’d never know these things-you’re completely white.” Okay, can’t argue with him there. Perhaps it’s naïve but I ask, “So you really think you get treated differently when you have darker skin?” “Claro” he says. “Of course I do….otherwise I wouldn’t be soaking myself with SPF 80, would I?” Again, I can’t argue with Marcos. His comments are insightful about how race is perceived in Ecuador.

Marcos’s anxiety over being black due to the fear he will instill others makes sense given the popular discourse of race and delinquency here. Based on my informal/casual observations of media or conversations in social settings, I sense that Afro-Ecuadorians are more commonly viewed as “problematic” than any other racial group. They are the most marginalized group in Ecuadorian society, without a doubt, more so than the indigenous community because they are a much smaller segment of the population. And despite their marginalization, Ecuador’s indigenous community is internationally known for its powerful rebellions in the early 1990s. Positive media coverage of the black Ecuadorian community most often focuses on the star soccer players of the national team. I’ve seen many exposes of the poor rural community of Chota, Northwest of Quito, where all the black soccer players come from. Although Ecuadorians take great pride in their starring forwards, these same players would be treated completely different under other circumstances. Chances are good that if the starting forward were walking down the street at night in Quito the sidewalk would clear around him….

Marcos is not the only person I have heard express worries over being “black.” Even my friends, who mostly belong to the upper class and are largely “white,” comment on skin color. It is all in good fun, but I have witnessed people playing around with a friend who is a bit darker than the rest. They call this person “mono” (monkey—the derogative name for people from the coast, since they tend to have darker skin) and other comments. In no way is it meant to be a racial slur or insult, the person does not get offended—it is meant to be funny, and indeed, these comments are received with humor. But perhaps it’s an indication that race is on people’s minds and that being dark is not celebrated—and in fact, that it’s the stuff of jokes.

brothels vs. the street

Working conditions in both places vary tremendously depending on which brothel or street a woman works. (I study hetero-normative prostitution therefore my discussion is limited to female sex workers. Men and transgendered workers face very different work conditions). The women I study prefer working on the streets to brothels due to the freedom that comes with being their own bosses. These particular women do not have pimps. The women with pimps tend to be women who fall into sex work to support a drug habit and generally, they work at night. In contrast, the women I work with treat sex work as a regular 10-5 job, like any other. At the end of the day, they go home to look after their children. Some of them smoke weed and/or drink beer, but with the exception of one or two, none of the women I work with entered the sex industry to support a habit. Like many working mothers anywhere, women on street value having a flexible job where they can choose their hours, leave intermittently to run errands or pick up their children from school, etc.

In general however, women on the street earn less. Even though they would make double the money at night due to greater demand, many women don't view working after dark as an option because it's way too dangerous. Even during the day it's dangerous, but much less so. The standard rate is $5.00 an encounter, but sometimes a woman can negotiate a higher rate (If the client is a new-comer and not familiar with the rates, for example. There are also a few women who simply demand more, but obviously it’s a risk since most of the other women charge the standard). In addition to the sex worker’s wage, the client most also pay the hotel fee, which is almost as much as the actual services—the hotel charges on average $3-$4 for a bed. The “hotels” are hole-in-the-wall hostels that offer sparsely furnished rooms and shared bathrooms in the hall.

In contrast to the streets, the biggest advantage to working in brothels is the security. It is a much safer working environment. Each brothel has a “guardia” or security guard and there is always an (armed) manager on the premises looking out for the women. Women make more in brothels, usually $7-$8 an encounter. The client must also pay a separate fee to the brothel of about $3, in addition to any beer or alcohol he may buy during the visit. Some women claim that work is steadier in the brothels but that is debatable. When business is slow, it’s slow everywhere—likewise, when it picks up, everyone benefits. Some of the major disadvantages to working in brothels: the women are more strictly regulated meaning that they must have regular health exams and carry an identity card at all times. They answer to a boss who, depending on the brothel, can be abusive and corrupt. They are required to work long shifts, from about 11:00am to 9:00pm. They clearly have much less freedom on the job than street workers. However, if a woman can land a job at one of the very upscale “clubs”/brothels that serve an elite clientele, she can make significantly more money than in a “regular” brothel. Unfortunately, these places tend to have the most exclusive hiring policies as well—only young and “muy guapa” women work there. They hire a lot of Colombian women, who are perceived as more attractive than Ecuadorian women. Brothels tend to attract a slightly more upwardly mobile demographic, in terms of both its workers and clients.

Clearly anyone can work on the streets, while all brothels have a hiring process, even if it’s not very exclusive. On the street, one can find a wider range of sex workers to choose from according to age, body type, skin color, etc. Among the group of women I work with for example, one woman is in her 60s, another is Afro-Ecuadorian from the coast, another is overweight, etc. But not all the women on the streets are simply rejects from brothels--there are also plenty of “conventionally-beautiful” women, who prefer to be on the street, rather than in brothels.

A common issue that women in both environments share is the boredom that comes while waiting for clients. When I’m on the streets, this is one of the most frequent complaints I hear. If the day is dragging many women just go home, the monotony is too much to bear. At times, the street provides some lively entertainment as we are often witnesses to games of chase between cops and robbers. When the streets are quiet, the women spend much of their time joking and playing around with each other. They stand in small groups telling stories and reminiscing about good earning days. They talk about their children and their hopes and dreams for the future. These women support one another through the day just like the members of any other kin network.

jasmine, limon, cedar and San Gabriel

Don Roberto sat me down one afternoon and gave me a tour of his cardboard box. It was packed snug with more than 80 types of incense. He sells packets of 10 sticks for $1.00. As he handed me a stick from each bundle, he instructed me to “inhale deeply.” I nodded obediently and readied myself for the endless stream of odors to tickle my nostrils. First came the different types of flowers (rose, violet, lavender, jasmine), herbs and leaves (mint, patchouli, eucalyptus), fruits (coconut, pineapple, kiwi, strawberry, mango, lemon), wood (pine, sandalwood, cedar), “dessert” scents (cinnamon, vanilla, honey, almonds) and “illicit” scents (cannabis, opium). Then he introduced distinctly Latin American scents named after different saints and religious icons: San Miguel, San Pedro, San Judas, San Gabriel, “Mother Maria,” “Divine Son,” “Baby Jesus” (which smelled of baby powder). I asked Don Roberto how different saints become associated with certain smells-he didn’t have a definite answer, only that “there are people who know these things.” Then I noticed that they were manufactured in India. Don Roberto assured me that there are Ecuadorians and other Latinos in India helping with the process…

Perhaps most interesting are the scents that bring different types of luck. Don Roberto showed me scents that attract good fortune, money, cars, a husband, children, and houses. I couldn’t believe, it but there was even a scent specifically for sex workers to “attract clients!” (a sultry combination of jasmine and amber…) Don Roberto explained that sex workers keep it burning in the brothels or at home at the end of the day (for those women who work on the street). I still wondered who was making these scents and how these Indian manufacturers developed the perfect scent to “attract clients.” (When did they first develop it anyway? Who tipped them off that such a market exists? How on earth did they come up with that particular scent?) I’m sure all the scents they export to Latin America are also distributed locally as well so presumably a market exists for incense for sex workers in India as well. Or perhaps the “Ecuadorians” and “other Latinos” helping with the manufacturing in India came up with the idea. Perhaps it’s a testament to the place sex work holds in Latin America? That it’s viewed as a legitimate job like any other? Don Roberto showed me that hairdressers have their own scent to attract clients, so why shouldn’t sex workers have one too? … Although after talking with a few of sex workers I work with, I’m not sure it’s such a hit, none of them had ever purchased it.