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?

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