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.)