Thursday, March 18, 2010

Community Meeting

One evening last week I had the good fortune of stumbling upon a community meeting for the neighborhood of San Marcos, the area of the historic center where I conduct my fieldwork. I was just heading home for the day when I saw a man plastering a notice on the side of a building stating the time and place of the meeting which was to take place that very night. I rushed over to the elementary school located at a nearby convent. The nuns greeted me warmly and didn’t seem bothered that I was an outsider. The rest of the community members were equally warm when I entered the large hall. I met the president of the neighborhood association, the secretary, the vice-president and treasurer before the meeting began. I was impressed by the turnout; there were over 50 people, many of them families with young children. Each person introduced themselves at the beginning of the meeting and stated how many years or generations their families had been living in the neighborhood. Many people had a long history in the area and it struck me how proud they were of that fact.

Their pride can be attributed to the fact that until the mid-twentieth century, San Marcos was known as an exclusive area of the city. Indeed, since the colonial era much of Quito’s historic center was home to the elite. Clearly, as the city grew and the boundaries of what was considered the historic center shifted, the elite sectors changed as well. But basically, until the mid-twentieth century, many of Quito’s wealthy families still lived in huge colonial homes. Little by little, as Quito expanded over the twentieth century, businesses, government offices and wealthy families moved northward to occupy more modern and spacious spaces. Families built large homes with gardens and later, starting in the 1980s, moved into fancy high-rise apartment buildings. Rather than sell their colonial homes when they moved away, owners began renting them to the rural migrants pouring into the city. Many of these original homes were split into multi-family apartments and cheap hotels to accommodate the massive migration into Quito. Owners have not had much incentive to maintain these buildings because new migrants, who are willing to accept basic living conditions, continually arrive from rural areas. As a result, these buildings have become rundown and decrepit from years of neglect.

Despite their basic housing conditions, the residents of San Marcos remain proud because their home is part of Quito’s cultural center. A large part of the neighborhood meeting was dedicated to sharing the month’s cultural events occurring in the area, including a classical music concert in the San Marcos plaza, a showcase of the local artisans’ handicraft, lectures at the local museum, and walking tours for tourists. In this discussion of the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage, the president of the neighborhood association reprimanded the residents for not attending more events. People made comments that the locals never take advantage of the events, and that it is mostly “people with money” from North Quito that enjoy the neighborhood’s cultural heritage. For me it was an interesting discussion because the residents of San Marcos are mostly working class and as such, perhaps do not have as much free time to take advantage of their neighborhood’s cultural events. But these class issues were not raised in the meeting, perhaps they would not be seen as a good “excuse” anyway.

The meeting moved on to discuss security issues in the neighborhood. Although the entire historic center is in the process of gentrifying, San Marcos is still considered a rough area. Perhaps inevitably, the community members raised the issue of prostitution. It was good for me to hear their side of things because since I work with the sex workers, I’m much more familiar with their opinions. (And quite frankly, I am biased in their favor). The residents were unequivocally opposed to prostitution in their neighborhood. It seemed that one of their biggest concerns was their association of it with delinquency. Many of them talked about how the sex workers’ boyfriends were the troublemakers of the area, that they sell drugs, rob houses, pickpocket and assault innocent bystanders. This is the police’s belief as well, which means that according to them, if they can clear the streets of sex workers, the neighborhood’s delinquency will disappear with it. Unfortunately for them, this is not true. A small percentage of the women’s partners participate in the underground economy, but they do not comprise all the neighborhood’s delinquents. The majority of the women’s boyfriends work in factories, construction and other service positions, far from the historic center.

The other central issue the residents raised about prostitution was their preoccupation with its seedy image. As long as the sex workers are still on the street, their neighborhood will continue to be known as the heart of Quito’s sex industry, which is the antithesis of the reputation they would like to cultivate in order to attract more tourists and investment. They also discussed their embarrassment and shame to be known as a place for illicit sex. It seemed that part of the residents’ concern with prostitution was that they might become associated with the sex industry too. Given prostitution’s profound stigma in this very conservative, Catholic city, I could see why residents would be worried. Unsurprisingly, all of the meeting’s participants agreed that they would prefer to be known for their cultural heritage.

I thought it was fascinating because heated discussions took place over sex work. The president of the neighborhood association spoke up on the behalf of the sex workers and pointed out that they have the legal right to occupy public spaces in San Marcos. He also pointed out that it is not the women’s “fault” that they are working in this industry. Another woman spoke to challenge the president, pointing out that they are “monsters” on the street who use foul language. Yet another man stood up and said that many of the business owners and residents are friends with the sex workers and support their cause. For instance, every time the police try to remove sex workers from the streets, the neighborhood’s residents offer them shelter and places to hide inside their store and homes. I have witnessed this myself--I know that many of the neighborhood’s residents are friendly with the sex workers and help them in times of need. And why not? ? The sex workers are some of their best customers. Everyday these women eat in the local cafeterias, buy cigarettes from the local stores, make calls at the phone center, eat the fruit sold by indigenous women on the streets, buy DVDs for their children at the movie store, etc. etc. How pleased would the business owners actually be if these women did in fact disappear one day?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

La Bruja

One of the sex workers, M. an Afro-Colombian woman, is a “bruja” or witch. She immigrated to Ecuador four years ago to escape the guerilla wars ravaging her small, poor province on the Atlantic coast. Everyone knows M. is a specialist in witchcraft and people come to her with all sorts of requests and favors. M. supplements her income from the sex industry with her bruja services, charging $10 to read fortunes from the leaves of a cigar and $5 for run-of-the-mill curses and blessings. Yesterday I had the opportunity to witness M. in action. It was 5:00pm and T. came running up the hill of Montufar Street to our corner. I greeted her and asked where she had been, as I hadn’t seen her for a few days. She had gone home to Portoviejo, a small city on the coast, to visit her sick mother. Although sad to be back in Quito, she asked me excitedly if I had seen M, la bruja. In fact, I had. T. disappeared into the hotel lobby where I had last seen M. Moments later, T. stuck her head out and called to me, “Hey, Anita, do you have a pen with red ink?” I did. As I handed T. my pen, I snuck through the door to sit on the lobby coach. M. hesitated but then nodded and said, “Okay, it’s okay gringa.” With her approval, I got a front row seat for the rest of the ceremony.

M. had requested T. to bring a specific weed from the coast in order to perform her magic. I think it’s called “Dragon’s Weed,” although I’m not completely sure. Anyway, M. was performing a spell to make T.’s boyfriend on the coast forgive her. At present, he won’t speak to T., for some unknown reason. I’m not sure if he knows she is a sex worker in Quito—perhaps not? I didn’t ask any questions because it was already an honor to be able to sit and watch the ceremony. First M. asked T. to write her boyfriend’s name on both sides of six leaves of the weed in red pen. One by one, as T. finished M. took them from her and blew on each one while stomping her foot and saying his name. Next, T. had to braid the leaves, splitting them into two groups of three. M. held them at one end so T. could braid them tightly—M. kept yelling at T. to braid them even more tightly. T. sighed and had to re-do it again and again until she finally produced the braids to M.’s satisfaction. At this time a few other sex workers came straggling in, taking a respite from the streets. M. stopped the ceremony while they hung out for a while, keeping everything top secret. When they finally left, M. handed the two slim braids back to T. and instructed her to tie three knots in each one. Once T. tied the knots she had to blow on the braids and say her boyfriend’s name three times. Then it was M.’s turn. She took the knotted braids and stomped around the room whispering lots of things I did not understand. She spoke with such ferocity and power that it gave me chills. M.’s presence is already so intense that she dominates the energy of a space, but during this ceremony she seemed larger than life. As I watched her chant and stomp her feet, I got the impression that she really was communicating with the spirits above. T. seemed equally convinced as she sat on the coach next to me. In fact, perhaps part of the ceremony was to put a spell on us as we watched.

We sat transfixed until M.’s finally handed T. the braids and asked her to stomp on them as well. As T. stomped and chanted her boyfriend’s name, she grinned at me, as if she knew that the spell was already taking affect. Finally, M. instructed T. to take off her shoes and slip the braids into them to continue stomping on them. She suggested that T. keep the knotted weeds in her shoes for the following days to ensure the spell’s success. T. thanked M., hugging her and then ran outside to tell all her friends that her boyfriend would now call and forgive her. M. nodded over at me and asked if I liked the ceremony. As I adjusted back to the drab scenery of the hotel lobby, I smiled at M. and assured her that I did. It was very cool, without a doubt. M. smiled back. I think she was proud to share this part of her cultural heritage with me, an unknowing gringa, oblivious to such important matters as witchcraft. As if she knew I was in some deep need of her witchcraft, M. offered me a discount on all of her services. Perhaps she’s right, who knows?

Thursday, March 11, 2010


There is a new ordinance in Quito. A group of sex worker activists, government officials and the head of the police have reached a compromise about the sex workers’ presence on the streets of El Centro. As of two weeks ago, the women must retreat from public between 12:30pm to 2:00pm, which is when elementary schools are let out for the day and the streets become flooded with children. This seems like an arbitrary tactic to place the women under more strict control of the neoliberal state. It is bizarre because many of the women are mothers and indeed, go to collect their children at school during this time. Should they be allowed to show their presence at their children’s school? What is the exact behavior the state is trying to protect school children from? On any given day, the sex workers stand alone or in groups on the streets, but because they stand in public, they are careful not to dress in revealing outfits. Perhaps their heavy make-up gives them away, but how is viewing women with heavy make-up offensive to children? Is it offensive to children to see groups of women standing together or by themselves? It is not clear if the children even notice the sex workers; more often, they know the sex workers and run up to greet them. These women are friends and family members of many of the kids in the neighborhood, not social pariahs that need to “hide” the moment school lets out.

The women are angry because now they lose two precious hours of their work day. They tell me they are baffled by the new rules, especially because they also have to pick up their children from school. Further, they explain, it’s not like they have sex on the street; everything they do in public is decent and discreet, nothing that would negatively impact a child. Despite the grumbling and complaints about the new rule, the women wholeheartedly obey it. They are very respectful of the school children and agree that they would feel terrible if a child did feel “traumatized” by seeing them. Anyway, today during the mandatory lunch break we hung out in the small lobby of Hotel Arizona, “the perfect place to rest” where the women work. Eight women piled onto the big faux-leather couch, while others crouched on the floor and stairs near-by.

This hour and a half of free time turned into a beauty parlor session for the women. M., an Afro-Colombian woman with a head of braids asked the women to help fix a few of her straggly loose bunches in the back. Immediately, four women went to work, braiding, twisting and knotting her hair at the ends. Another woman called she’d be right back. When L. returned, with hair dye, S. squealed, and shouted, “You’re the best!” L. pulled S.’s hair back and after returning from the bathroom with water to mix the dye, she picked up the plastic brush that came with the kit, and began applying the blond dye to S.’s hair. Another woman, N. helped L. apply the dye, and tied a plastic bag around S.’s neck to protect her skin and clothes from loose drops of blond. The other women gossiped and laughed. Someone took out blue nail polish with sparkles in it and started passing it around. One by one, the women took turns painting their nails until all the women on the coach shared the glittering, blue tint. They insisted on doing my nails too. K. took out the latest cosmetics she had received from the company and showed the women a series of lip glosses. They looked at the colors and smoothed a few of them onto the top of their hands to see how the color would look next to their skin. No one bought anything, but it was fun to see how each color looked.

Added entertainment came from D. an older man in his 60s, a client who is drunk most of the time. He sat wobbling on the floor next to the women and made inappropriate comments every so often, keeping everyone laughing hysterically. He kept asking M., the Afro-Colombian woman with dreads to marry him, or to at least share a whiskey, (but only if she went to buy it). All the women treated him affectionately, pulling on his hat and hair—pulling him down to sit on their laps on the coach and slapping him on the ass. D. is a petite man: many of the women tower over him and are twice as thick. He does not work or do much of anything except drink and hang out with the sex workers. Once in a while he can actually pay to bring one of them upstairs, but mostly he just jokes and begs for a free session. We were laughing hard on this particular day because D. wouldn’t stop dancing. Everyone kept singing different popular salsa songs and he moved around the lobby, grabbing different women as partners, as if he were the Ecuadorian Fred Astaire. Finally, S. and L. sat D. down and dyed his hair too. They kept insisting that it was black, not blond. D. squirmed to get away but too late....they managed to wrestle him down and saturate his hair with the blond dye (I haven't seen him yet, but I know I'll laugh when I do!) The time passed quickly with all the entertainment. Before we knew it, it was 2:00 and the women moved back out onto the corner.

Taken off guard

When I haven’t hung out on the streets for a few days sometimes my first visit back catches me off guard and I get completely overwhelmed by the pain of these women’s lives. Over these past months of field work, I’ve developed a coping mechanism in which, for the most part, I’m able to leave my day behind as soon as I step on the trolley-bus to take me back to North Quito. But on certain days the emotional baggage of the day accompanies me home. I arrive at my apartment feeling raw. Before I know it, I’m crying. In that moment I make the connection that I’m having a reaction to my field work. It’s funny because whenever people ask me, “Oh how do you work with prostitutes? That must be so hard,” I’m always quick to deny any difficulties and answer with shrug, “Well, I’ve been studying this for almost ten years, it doesn’t really affect me anymore.” My answer doesn’t do their question justice and it isn’t even true: usually I don’t feel like discussing it because I’ve gone through so many different emotional stages of this work. But fair enough, I think it’s worth exploring here.

I first started studying prostitution in 2001 as a Fulbright scholar in Madrid, where I studied newly arrived Ecuadorian women who had transitioned from working in domestic service to the sex industry. At that time, prostitution itself was still shocking to me. I was still on the fence about my attitude toward sex work: Was it oppressive to women? Should it be legalized or remain illegal? All the classic debates swirled in my head: the fault lines drawn between 2nd wave feminists of the 1960s-70s, who along with their anti-pornography stances, felt prostitution was an act of violence against women, versus the next generation of feminists, the majority of whom felt that prostitution is not inherently oppressive to women. I remember feeling overwhelmed in these early days of field work by the very fact that these women *sold* their bodies for money. It seemed so risqué, transgressive and “bad.” I found it thrilling and horrifying at the same time. It was something that as a woman, you were simply not “supposed to do.” But the “why” of that question has continued to haunt me through the years. Why aren’t we supposed to sell our bodies?

Literally hundreds of sex workers have now shared with me their life stories. I have realized that the “why” of the question can be answered very simply: the moral norms of Western society tell us that it is not “appropriate” for women to use their bodies as an object of labor. I’ve spent the past few years in my academic program reading different theoretical perspectives to understand the moral underpinnings of this gender propriety. Regardless of the reasons, based firmly in our Judeo-Christian traditions, what has stood out to me is the disjuncture between society’s position on prostitution and the opinions of hundreds of sex workers. Indeed, it is this inconsistency that has nudged me towards a more radical position on the topic. At this point, I feel strongly that prostitution should be legalized. Women should have the legal right to do whatever they want with their bodies. “Society” should not be able to make decisions for women based on a patriarchal, hetero-normative, Judeo-Christian framework. I feel strongly that prostitution should be recognized as work, like any other, and as such, these women should have the same rights as other workers. I only support sex work in cases where the worker feels like she has chosen the employment herself (perhaps from a very limited number of choices, but nonetheless, exercised free choice in the matter). I do not believe prostitution is inherently oppressive to women. I am opposed to all cases of exploitation, pimps, human trafficking, rape, sexual slavery, and the prostitution of minors.

Despite my progressive position, it doesn’t mean that some days I’m not caught off guard by these women’s stories. I’m tough, but not that tough. Although I have been de-sensitized to many aspects of the sex industry, like the act of prostitution itself, I’m still exposed to some heartbreaking situations. For instance, S. got in a knife fight the day before and therefore, has added a fresh cut to her face. I cried yesterday, thinking of S.’s scarred face: she has many scars, representing the dozens of acts of violence people have committed against her through the years. Yesterday I cried because Don Roberto, my friend who sells incense recounted the recent police abuse he experienced. He was smart enough to get photos taken directly after he was released. He gave me copies of the photos, in hopes that I might be able to help him. His back was covered with welts, one eye was swollen shut and a gash on his chest had blood trickling from it. It made me cry thinking of him, as he looked at me, asking for my help. An image of V. broke my heart as she sat yesterday on the hotel coach, head in her hands, saying to me, “Anita, we are fucked, we are fucked” referring to the new ordinance in place which bans the women working from 12-2 on weekdays, to avoid schoolchildren traveling home. Every day I see or hear something that breaks my heart. Usually I feel emotionally equipped to deal with it, but at times, especially when my own mood is low and I feel vulnerable, I cannot help but weep.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mother and Wife

When V. opened the door, I didn’t recognize her for a moment. She smiled widely and ushered me inside. “Come in Anita, come in.” I stepped inside her house. Her two youngest daughters aged five and seven came running into the room. They were suddenly shy, their smiles disappearing when they came to greet me. V.’s older daughter, aged 15, brought me a chair, the only one in the house, so I could sit at the kitchen counter while they cooked. V. was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, her hair was tied back and she had some cream under her eyes. This was the first time I had visited V. at home with her children. She looked like any other mother, recently awake, making breakfast for her children. Her daughters had returned the day before from a visit to her aunt’s farm on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, a city two hours south of Quito. They brought fresh cow’s milk and eggs with them. V. gave me a frothy banana milkshake and handed me a plate with a toasted croissant with melted cheese and ham. Even though I had already eaten breakfast, I couldn’t resist eating another. Her oldest daughter swung herself up onto the countertop to eat while V.’s other daughters ran into her bedroom to watch the morning cartoons.

V.’s husband, D. works ten hour days at a factory every day except Sunday. V. and D. split their expenses so that D. pays the $150 monthly rent while V. pays the utility bills including light ($20), the landline phone ($10), water ($30), and their monthly food consumption. D. earns $400 monthly but has three children with his ex-girlfriend so he must send a portion of his salary to them as well. V. must also pay her cell phone expenses which she keeps low by buying pre-paid phone cards rather than subscribing to a monthly plan. V. must also pay expenses for her daughters’ education including a monthly pension and school materials. Her 15 year old attends a beauty academy in a neighborhood close to their house in South Quito. V. tells me that D. helps pay her daughters’ educational costs when he can, even though they are not his biological children. Each month is a struggle for V. and D. to split even. At the end of the month they eat basics like eggs, rice, yucca, and plantains, in all its forms. Luckily, they have a cheap market near their house. I have never asked, but V. must also spend a significant amount of money on condoms because she usually uses two for each encounter.

V. tells me she is a lucky woman because she has a good, kind, and hardworking “husband.” They have been living together for 8 years, although they are not married. (Many women here call their long-term boyfriends “husbands” since only financially stable couples get married, as just the license is prohibitively expensive). Although V. keeps her work hidden from her children (she tells her daughters she sells cell phones in El Centro) her husband knows she works in the sex industry; that is how they originally met, he is an ex-client. I have not asked V. about her husband’s attitude towards her work but in general, when I ask the women, they say their partners have neutral feelings about it. Most of them are ex-clients, so it's usually not a secret they must keep from their partners. In rare cases a “Pretty Woman” scenario happens in which the loyal client whisks his love interest away from the sex industry. In the worst cases, women’s husbands turn into pimps and expect them to support the household.

When I spent the day at V.’s house, I was struck by the conventionality of her home-life. After breakfast she gave her younger daughters “homework” in which she instructed them to copy different words in their school notebooks. The youngest is still learning the alphabet so V. spent a lot of time writing and singing it out with her. V. is dedicated to her children’s education--more than anything, wants them to have more chances in life than she did. V. had her first child at the age of 12 after being raped by an older man. She left home soon after and began working as a domestic servant. Eventually, she entered the sex industry because she was sick of being people’s maids; she tells me, “they treated me so badly, I won’t ever work for anyone again.” For V. being a sex worker is the best job option available to her. She chooses this work because it offers her independence and a chance to make quadruple the amount of money she would earn in any other unskilled position. I am also struck by V.'s stability and confidence. She has never expressed any doubts or distress to me about being a sex worker, perhaps because she has worked in this industry for 15 years or so.

I think I've had a more difficult time reconciling the different aspects of her life, although after studying prostitution for so many years, I've come to understand these women's identities in a much more complex, nuanced way. It is much more complex than people realize. They are not merely victims. I feel committed to supporting V’s views of herself as a sex worker. I won’t dismiss her feelings as a case of “false consciousness” as Marxist theorists would say. If these women do not see themselves as victims, why should I?