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.

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