Friday, February 19, 2010

Mourning in silence

I’ve been searching the newspapers over the past month for information about the death of a sex worker in one of Quito’s suburbs. She was shot through the face by a retired police officer who didn’t want sex workers hanging around his neighborhood. S. from Espejo and Montufar Streets had accompanied this woman to work outside of the city; the cop wanted to kill them both but fortunately, S. was able to escape unharmed. When S. recounted the incident to me, she said she felt like the real target and should have died in place of her friend. According to mainstream news outlets in Quito, this event never happened. Chances are good that the retired policeman will never be brought to trial. I cannot see S., who has a police record of her own, being taken seriously in court. A known addict who prostitutes for drugs, S.’s testimony will most likely not hold weight and the retired policeman will be set free (I’m not sure he was even arrested).

S. faces a problem common to marginalized members of any society. Events considered newsworthy do not often happen to people of color, the disenfranchised, the poor, or delinquents. While looking for news about the death of this sex worker, I came across the story presently dominating Quito’s newspapers about the tragic death of Natalia Emme, a young middle-upper class woman who was killed by a hit-and-run driver speeding down an illegal trolley lane. The driver of the car was quickly identified but she maintains her innocence. In protest, Natalia’s parents have organized weekly marches in one of Northern Quito’s main thoroughfares to demand justice. El Comericio, Quito’s most prestigious newspaper, has focused on the Emme case for 2 weeks straight. Distinguished community members have written editorials about the incident and Natalia’s last words-last photos are printed over and over again. Natalia happens to be a beautiful European-looking (white) woman who had modeling and acting pursuits. Without a doubt her story is tragic and her family deserves justice. Most likely, they will receive it. They have the resources and cultural capital to organize marches, rallies, press blitzes involving the most powerful members of QuiteƱo society.

I wish S.’s co-worker received the same amount of media attention when she died. Natalia’s death was an accident; her family is up in arms because it was a hit-and-run, but most people accept that it happened due to reckless driving. In contrast, the sex worker was killed in an act of pre-meditated violence. Chances are it was not an accident. S.’s says the retired police officer insulted them, calling them “putas” (whores) and worthless women. He said he was going to kill them and indeed, he did. The fact that no investigation has happened into the incident, that El Comercio has not dedicated one sentence to it strikes me as unjust. This man knew he could get away with murdering a sex worker, which is why he did it. In the United States as well, sex workers are similarly easy prey. As marginalized members of society, sex workers can disappear without a trace and nothing will be done. Friends and family will mourn quietly while the rest of the world turns their attention to more “important” events.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Carnival has arrived in Ecuador once again. The most elaborate celebrations take place on the coast which is known for its carefree, party atmosphere, probably because Ecuadorians from the Sierra flock to its beaches whenever they have vacation. True to its reputation as a conservative, reserved city, the only Carnival celebrations that take place in Quito are the pranks that involve throwing water balloons and squirting shaving cream on random passers-by. No parade, no parties, just the stinging welt of a water balloon bursting on your arm as you walk down the street. As the balloon pops, one can hear the near-by giggles of hidden teenagers. Walking down the street becomes a risky endeavor as partakers in Carnival “fun” are known to launch water balloons or tip entire pitchers of water on people from the balconies of apartment buildings. In these cases, I don’t have a chance. I know they’ve been tracking my movement from down the street. They will bombard me with water and shaving cream at the perfect moment, just when I’ve walked by and am no longer expecting a thing.

Anyone who can has left Quito for the long weekend (a national holiday) which stretches through Monday and Tuesday of this week. All my Quito friends went to the beach to eat fresh ceviche, drink beer, dance salsa, and bake themselves in the scorching Ecuadorian sun. Many people originally from the coast go home to be with their families. This includes the sex workers. Those who can scramble up the bus fare head down the mountains, either to be with their children for a few days, or to bring their children to visit family. Some send just their children on buses to the coast. V. said she was headed to Ambato for Carnival to work because supposedly business was picking up there. The rest stay in Quito because they don’t have plata to travel or to be economically self-sufficient guests. C. said to me that although she has the bus fare, she won’t go because usually she likes to treat her family to a meal out, perhaps to show that she is living the “migration dream” of making a successful life for herself in Quito.

The women celebrated Carnival on the streets Friday by getting in the spirit of pranks and fun. Armed with special bottles of “carnival” shaving cream and homemade “squirt guns” by putting holes in the tops of their water bottles, the sex workers spent the day dousing water and shaving cream on people who walked by. They are in a particularly good spot for drowning unsuspecting drivers who have their windows open as they travel down Montafur Street. Drivers have to pause and/or stop at the intersection of Espejo, making them perfect targets. On Friday the women screamed with glee every time someone stopped and fell victims to their pranks. I’ve never seen the women laugh so hard. I think part of the enjoyment was feeling like they “owned” the streets, that they could invert power relations for a moment and be perpetrators of pranks rather than the victims of daily abuse. Isn’t the inversion of power what Carnival is all about?

They also spent the day chasing each other, secretly sneaking up on one another: “bam” a spray of water to the face or shaving cream. I also spent the day dodging water or shaving cream, and chasing after them with my own water bottle. The fact that they felt comfortable enough to dump water on my head or squirt shaving cream in my face, made me feel good in a funny sort of way. It made me feel that as an anthropologist, “I’ve made it.” They include me in everyday jokes as well. In fact, sometimes it seems like their favorite pastime is to “make fun of the gringa,” which again, I find flattering because I take it as a marker of acceptance. They’ll start calling out “We’re selling the gringa! $100 for 30 minutes, look at the gringa, we’re selling her!” I find it hilarious. Not to worry though, when men actually approach me, they’ve “got my back.” They’re the first to come to my defense, yelling things like, “keep on walking Mister….she’s not working…..don’t look at her….get lost.” (Obviously, their jokes wouldn’t be so funny if they didn’t also protect me from potential clients.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Office of Public Space

My Kafkaesque search for the municipal office dedicated to Public Space came to an exhausting end. I had finally found the correct man, in the correct office, on the correct floor, in the correct administrative building. After another thwarted attempt due to closures around lunch time, (it is very typical for offices to shut between 12:00-2:00pm here), I landed an interview with Architect Fabian Valencia. Armed with my Ecuadorian constitution and penal code, we started talking about the “appropriate uses” of public space. His office is in charge of granting permits for such gatherings as concerts or rallies in the plazas. What surprised me most about our interview was that Valencia and his co-worker kept insisting that the municipal government is the ultimate owner of Quito’s public space. They repeatedly used the word “owner,” to emphasize that any activities occurring in public had to be approved by the city. I thought it was an interesting choice of word. I would have expected them to say that the city is in charge of “regulating” the public sphere or something along those lines. To say that the city rather than the citizens “own” public space brings up other issues of freedom and the rights of citizenship. When they told me once again, “Anita, the city owns all public space in Quito” I decided to whip out the constitution. Specifically, I turned to Article 23 under Section 4a, in Chapter 2: “Rights to a good life” where it says that “every individual has the right to access and participate in public spaces as places of liberation, cultural exchange, social cohesion and the promotion of equality” (16). It goes on to say that everyone has the right to “broadcast their own cultural expressions in public space (17).”

Valencia and his team nodded and agreed with Article 23, that individuals should “feel free” in public space, etc. We both agreed that the constitution (and not just Ecuador’s), uses broad terms to be as inclusive as possible, but that the on-the-ground reality of rule-making is very different. For example, I have recently collected all of the municipal ordinances that apply to Quito’s public space. There are close to 80 of them, all of which regulate public space in very specific ways. For any lawyers out there: Is that the “strategy” of most constitutions, to use broad and progressive language which will represent or reflect the country’s overall ideals but then the actual nuts and bolts of rule-making happens on the city level (in Ecuador’s case)? I’d love any comments on this…My other goal is to find a piece of legislation that might mention that the municipal government as the official “owner” of public space. Perhaps this was just an off-the-cuff comment from my architect friends at the Office of Public Space…. Even if I can’t find it in the books, it’s still relevant that they said it: I take it as a juicy piece of data.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Barely legal

I still haven’t figured out the answer to my main research question: How is street prostitution regulated in Quito? The answer should be fairly straight forward but it isn’t because the law is vague and the enforcement of the law is completely arbitrary. To make matters worse, the police themselves don’t seem to know whether street prostitution is legal or not. I have asked several officers about it, all of whom have given me different answers. Prostitution falls within a gray area of jurisdiction and unfortunately, sex workers become vulnerable to the whims of patrolling officers on any given day.

Until 2001 the red-light district of Quito was officially situated in the historic center, its main drag located on 24 de Mayo Avenue. On this avenue about 16 or so brothels existed, all with different names of foreign cities like Paris, New York, Havana, Moscow, etc. Roughly about 1,000 women were employed in these bar-club-brothel locales. Due to the success of these places, little street prostitution existed at this time. As such, Quito’s sex industry was neatly contained within 24 de Mayo Avenue. The municipality set regulations for these brothels to function legally: the prohibition of minors, bi-monthly health exams of all the workers, their possession of identification cards displaying exam results, operating hours from 11am-11pm Monday-Saturday, sales limited to beer, no liquor, and several stipulations ensuring sanitary-hygienic conditions. At times different brothels were shut down for several days at a time in violation of certain stipulations, but generally things on 24 de Mayo ran smoothly.

Caving to pressure from political and business elites, in 2001 Mayor Paco Moncayo shut down all the brothels of 24 de Mayo to make way for the neighborhood’s gentrification. Quito’s historic center is Latin America’s largest and best-preserved colonial district and was declared UNESCO’s first World Heritage Site in 1978. For that reason, it has always attracted a lot of tourists despite its reputation for being incredibly dangerous. Quito finally got the international funding it needed to clean up the center and its first major project was to remove all the brothels. Moncayo promised to establish a new red-light district in a different part of the city and finally, in 2008, La Cantera, an old quarry in the San Blas neighborhood to the west of the center became the new established strip. However, during the time from the closing of 24 de Mayo’s brothels in 2001 to the establishment of the new district in 2008, street prostitution in the historic center flourished.

Sex workers flocked to the streets and plazas of the old town, exacerbating the “problem” for the municipal government since now they were more visible than ever. Although the elites want the center to gentrify as quickly as possible, it is still the epicenter of Quito’s drug and sex industries. As mentioned in a previous post, many women prefer working on the streets than in brothels. La Cantera is difficult to access, as no public bus goes near it. It is a 15 minute taxi ride from the historic center, costing $1.50 or $2 which is well beyond the budget of either clients or sex workers. Further, one can’t even see it from the street. You must walk down a ramp to arrive at the “strip” consisting of three brothels. It is a pathetic replacement for the bustling business located previously on May 24 Avenue. The women think so too.

I recently interviewed someone in the municipal government working on the “problem” of prostitution in the streets of the historic center. He is part of a team figuring out how to convince the women on the street to move to La Cantera. Their plan will unfold in different stages and I must admit, he seemed genuinely interested in “helping” the women. He explained that the first order of business will be to provide quick, cheap and convenient transportation to La Cantera for both the sex workers and clients. Perhaps a special bus or van with La Cantera as its sole destination? Mr. Administrator also wants to build a childcare center at La Cantera, which is smart since many of the women prefer working on the streets because they have their children in daycare centers nearby. Among his other projects to make La Cantera more appealing are the construction of a cafeteria, better security (it is known to be dangerous), which would include more street lights and guards, a parking lot for individuals with private transport, and general sprucing up: painting the buildings, gardens, etc. etc.

I have my doubts that the municipal government will “convince” the women to work in La Cantera. Mr. Administrator mentioned that Plan B is to close down all the hostels in the center so the women will have nowhere to work. This seems like a draconian measure. It would be unfair to the hostel owners as well as the sex workers. In my opinion, the municipal government f**ked up from the beginning when they closed 24 de Mayo Avenue without consulting the sex workers. I think they believed that once they closed down the brothels prostitution would just magically vanish from the area. It took them years and years to find a new space, chosen by the municipal government, rather than by the workers themselves. The women feel forced to work in La Cantera which is a main reason why they refuse to budge. Unfortunately, it looks like in the near future they will have little choice. Their days on the streets are numbered, especially if all the hostels shut down. Although, even in such dire straits, I’m dubious that the sex workers will adopt La Cantera as their new workplace.

strategies of resistance

C. always carries her bag of cosmetics with her to work. She has a side-business selling lipsticks, eyeliner, mascara, jewelry, and perfume to the other sex workers on Espejo and Montufar Streets. C. is in her mid-40s, which already makes her less vulnerable to the police. Most people (including the police) notice the younger sex workers who show more skin, while the older women slip easily into the background—perhaps an advantage while trying to avoid the police, but obviously a disadvantage when it comes attracting clients. Since they are working on the streets in broad day-light, none of the women, except those who are prostituting for drugs, wear very skimpy clothes. Many wear tight jeans, high-heels, a top with lots of cleavage, and heavy make-up. Some of the younger ones wear mini-skirts and heels. Many wear everyday clothes on the public bus to work and change and put on their make-up at the hotel once they arrive. Older women like C. dress more conservatively, wearing long skirts with tight blouses. The older women get stopped less by the police since no one can be 100% sure that they are working. I think it would be mortifying for the police to falsely accuse as prostitutes women the age of their mothers, especially in a society where mothers are venerated as saints (which is ironic considering all the sex workers I work with are mothers—they seem to be the exception to such mother-worship, except perhaps by their own children).

As such, C. is less vulnerable to police harassment because of her age but also because she uses her side-business as a cover. She never runs from the police like the other women. Instead, she rearranges her big bag and starts to take out the complete catalog of products she carries and display them to the closest female stander-by. In fact, when I first met C. last fall I wasn't sure she was a sex worker. She always had her cosmetics bag and was constantly showing people her products. However, after I repeatedly saw her on the corner, my suspicions were confirmed. Perhaps C. also maintains her side business to present a “decent” front to mainstream society. Within the immediate vicinity of their work neighborhood the sex workers rarely receive insulting or degrading comments, but society-at-large still judges them harshly. Perhaps they are more respected on Espejo and Montufar streets because they know everyone in the area and many of their acquaintances whether they be hustling drug addicts, pick-pockets, robbers, etc. are equally marginalized.
The younger women without “side-businesses” are much more vulnerable to police harassment and abuse. For this reason, they are extremely conscientious about warning each other of “chapas” (“police”) sightings. Usually a couple sex workers hang out at the top of both Espejo and Montufar streets and they call down to the others at the bottom of the hill. With a single yell of “CHAPAS,” the women instantly clear the streets, running into the phone center, the hotel lobby, the hole-in-the-wall cafeterias, or the offices of the near-by sex worker collective, Association of the Defense of Women. The National Police are in charge of patrolling the historic center for sex workers, rather than the municipal police (not sure why, yet). Dressed in their fancy uniforms, they patrol the area on motorcycles, trucks, or SUV jeeps (#207 patrols the San Marcos area). At times they walk through with vicious looking dogs.

The sides seem evenly matched in this game of cat-mouse between the police and women. For example, although the women are long hidden away by the time the cops actually pass by, recently, the police have been standing on the corner for extended periods of time to ensure that none of the women will work. The women have no choice but to wait it out which means missing precious work time. They sit huddled together in the hotel lobby and complain about the police, their boyfriends or husbands and their financial woes. The second the cops leave they flood the streets once again. I have arrived at the corner during one of these police raids and in these moments the streets are empty and lifeless. Many of the local men hide during these raids as well because they are known to the police as thieves or drug addicts.

So although sex work is “not illegal” in Ecuador (much more on this later), the police are pressured to remove sex workers from the public sphere. Their presence in the historic center is considered inappropriate as the area gentrifies to become a top international tourist destination. The municipality is working hard to remove them although due to the advantages of working in the streets over brothel work (see previous post), the women have no plans of leaving. Since what they are doing is not technically illegal, the police resort to threats and arrests for arbitrary offenses like loitering (although the women fire back that they are not loitering since they have a purpose—they are in fact working on the streets, not loitering at all!) Obviously, the police are the ultimate victors of the game of cat and mouse since they are the ones with institutional power. And indeed they use it. They are corrupt and bring certain “problematic” women to jail illegally for a week at a time. They target women like S. (see previous post) who are often rude and confrontational to the police.