Friday, April 30, 2010

Friends or informants?

I’ve worked hard to develop my relationships on the streets and after seven months of fieldwork, I feel exceptionally close with several of the sex workers. I’ve been working with them daily, and at this point, feel accepted by their group. I feel like a friend or even like an adopted family member to some. I spend weekends at their homes, play with their children, accompany them on errands on their days off, spend holidays with them and know their extended families. I am the godmother of V.’s daughter (a cynical reading of this is that V. hopes that a gringa godparent will secure some “special” benefits, financial or otherwise). Regardless, I feel very close to the women with whom I work.

What does this mean in terms of my role as an anthropologist? After all, these are my “subjects,” they aren’t my friends. At least, they aren’t supposed to be my friends, even though in some ways, they’re the people I feel closest to in this country. It’s tricky because I also recognize that I gain the most anthropologically, the more intimate we become. Isn’t that when we get our best information, when people spill their inner-most secrets? I recognize the ethical dilemmas I will soon face during my process of “writing up.” Despite the fact that I always have my tape recorder and all the women have given me their approval to record everything, they’ve long since forgotten the blinking red light. As our relationships have developed, I’m now in the position of judging what should be made public information after all.

What’s an anthropologist to do? Am I fooling myself by thinking that we can be friends despite our dramatically different social positions? Am I being disrespectful of the imbalance of power that exists between us? Even though I’m inclined to call these women my friends, how do they see me? Someone who occupies a position of privilege and power, someone they might be able to take advantage of? It is deeply comforting to me that none of my closest friends have ever asked me for money. A couple women I know peripherally and a few of the more distant “ladrones” (thieves) have asked me for a few bucks. I always say no and offer to buy them food instead. Indeed, my one means of sharing my privilege is to treat the sex workers to lunch once in a while. Lunch in Ecuador is the biggest meal and most restaurants offer three courses: a soup, main dish and dessert. In the basic cafeterias where we work a hearty soup and heaping plate of fish/chicken/beef and rice cost $1.25. (These places don’t have dessert). My invitations to lunch are the only “monetary” hand-outs I give anyone. I usually take to lunch anyone who is around at the moment, about 3 people. (I try to include a rotating cast of characters, although my closest friend V. always seems to be with me). The women are always incredibly appreciative, saying thank-you and “may God bless me” (a blessing taken very seriously here).

Is this lunch routine a way to enforce a professional distance between us? Obviously, if I have the means to spend the $4.50 on lunch for a few women I’m enforcing or perhaps displaying a position of power. I’m acting as a white gringo savoir, helping my poverty stricken sex worker “friends.” Perhaps I shouldn’t offer anyone lunch. However, I decided long ago that I would provide food when my friends were hungry, despite the potential crossing of professional boundaries. Perhaps I am acting like a “white savior” but if it’s within my means to fill the stomachs of three people who are legitimately starving, I’m going to do it. As an anthropologist, I’m supposed to be a neutral observer but I can only be a passive by-stander to a certain extent. Every day I am tempted to give my friends money: medicine for their sick children, for the phone bill, groceries, school pensions, the electricity bill, rent etc. etc. Most of these hand-outs would cost under $15, something that under my present economic circumstances I can’t afford, but in my bigger world of finances is truly next to nothing. Again, no one asks me for help with their bills, but often I want to offer. Probably the most common topic of discussion among the women is their finances, so I know how much they suffer.

Although I feel helpless just standing, observing and listening, I also recognize that my “lack of action” is what makes us closer to actually being “friends.” Despite my lunch invitations, I think (I hope) my most important service to my friends on the streets is the emotional support I’m able to give. When cynics say that anthropologists don’t really do anything to help their subjects, that at the end of the day we abandon them and their problems, returning to our lives of privilege, I’d challenge them: I firmly believe that being a good listener to anyone who is deeply suffering is one of the most important gifts humans can offer one another. Perhaps “just” listening to marginalized women who are invisible to Ecuadorian society is one way I justify not giving money or taking more action, but there are certain boundaries I don’t want to cross, as a friend--not as an anthropologist. But like I just said, I feel that listening and being a supportive friend is probably the best service I can offer. Indeed, I hope my “informants” value my friendship more than any meager amount of money I could give. I certainly feel that about them, as informants or friends alike.

Connections to the underworld

My connections to Quito’s underworld of drugs, stolen goods and delinquency came in handy last week when a Canadian friend of mine, S. had her apartment robbed while she was at work. She came home stunned to find an empty apartment with all her valuables gone, and even her front door ripped off. Of all the things she lost, she was most upset about her jewelry, computer and external hard drive (which included her backed-up Master’s thesis and other irreplaceable work). As soon as I found out about it I called V. my closest informant and friend on the street. She told me about the Centro Comercial Montufar, near where we work in the historic center, a “mall” that sells only stolen goods. More like an indoor market place, it’s filled with tiny store fronts where groups of people gather with electronic goods in hand, from radios, televisions, to hundreds (thousands?) of different types of cell phones, blackberries, are all yelling and heckling with store owners to get the best price possible (and likewise shoppers yelling and bargaining for the best purchasing price). It was an overwhelming scene. Not a lot of shops advertised computers, but I quickly learned how to find them. As soon as I started asking, the store owners would bring me to the back of the store and show me several models. But alas, I didn’t find S.’s computer anywhere.

My other friends on the street, robbers themselves, directed to me to several other hot selling spots. I went to the outdoor market, Plaza Arenas near the Basilica, also in the historic center, where other types of stolen goods are sold, not electronic stuff but household wares, clothes, mechanical tools, kitchen utensils, shoes, fabric, and jewelry. It was a random array of stuff—some stands just had heaps of “junk” on big plastic tables that you could sift through. It was like a giant a flea market, although again, most of the items are “recycled.” Just like the earlier indoor market, Plaza Arenas was swarming with people, all looking to sell or buy things. These are the shopping centers for Quito’s poor (and I guess for gringos looking for their stolen belongings). Again, I searched high and low, but didn’t find any of my friend’s stuff there either.

One of my closest “ladron” (thief) friends on the street, J., offered to accompany me to the most dangerous sector of the historic center in one last attempt to recoup my friend’s goods. I was heading off alone, having taken off my watch, emptied my pockets, left my bag with a sex workers and without even a jacket, I felt confident that no one would bother me. As I marched off to the streets above the central boulevard “24 de Mayo,” where all of Quito’s brothels were once located, J. called out to me and asked where I was going. When I told him he said, “You’re not going over there alone, no way.” Perhaps I’ve been feeling a little too comfortable at my field site. Indeed, J. confirmed, “Anita, on this corner and around here, no one is going to touch you. We all know you, but over there no one knows you.” Fair enough. It wasn’t the first time J. or many of the other sex workers, addicts, muggers, etc. on “my corner” had told me that if someone touches me, they “will kill them.” I always feel comforted by that. Do I actually belong to a “turf” and even have peeps in my turf that have got my back? It's so badass.....

I accepted J. as my bodyguard and off we went. Anyway, as he pointed out, he knows all the ladrones (thieves) of the area. In fact, as a long time resident of the Centro and as a frequent inmate at the nearby Garcia Moreno Penitentiary, he literally knows everyone in Quito’s underworld. J. adopted the mission as his own and acted as if it were my computer that had been stolen. Furious with the ladrones, we traveled in and out of every little nook and cranny of the decrepit streets and dilapidated store/homes around 24 de Mayo. On the way he pointed out different people to watch out for, and explained the difference between the drunks and the robbers (that drunks are harmless and dirty while robbers are always clean and wear the nicest clothes possible and usually aren’t addicts—not the serious thieves anyway). He gave me his personal philosophy on stealing: he can’t deal with the drama or possible violence of mugging so he limits his activities to breaking into cars. He waits for the owner to leave, breaks the window and steals everything of value in the car. He says he doesn’t even like to steal the whole car because it’s too risky, and just not worth it. Unfortunately, J. has been nabbed for several robberies he himself didn’t commit, or so he claims. He told me that once the police associate you with a certain group you become susceptible to random arrests.

J. says that now that his “wife” (K.—his girlfriend of 8 years with whom he has 3 children) is making fairly good money as a prostitute he doesn’t need to steal everyday anymore. Instead, he looks after their kids, as a few of the partners’ of the sex workers do. But J. and K. have a special needs child, D. who requires extra care and attention, which J. seems capable of giving, within his means. In fact, as we made this tour of Quito’s “most dangerous” areas, D. was with us the whole time. He might not be able to talk or walk yet, as a 3 year old, but no one is going to harm or make fun of D., there are already too many people looking out for him. Everyone in the Centro tries to help D. overcome his disabilities (“it takes a village to raise a child”). One of the reasons I’m close to K. and J. is because I’ve become attached to D. and help him walk along the iron rungs of windows on the street near where his mom works. J. and I took turns carrying him since he’s so heavy now. Obviously, my affection for D. has probably made J. willing to help me in my moment of need.

J. and I walked around the dark alleys and houses where people sell computers and other freshly stolen stuff. We didn’t go into any stores, per se, you had to ask people on the street where one could find computers (they weren’t sold in these stores, rather, people were hiding these more valuable stolen goods). I was surprised more people didn’t look at me as we crept through these very marginal, dark places, either they were too preoccupied with what they were doing (drugs, other stuff), or because they didn’t give a damn. I was with J. (and D.) so there wasn’t much they could do. Once we returned to “our” streets, our neighborhood, our turf, where I know everyone and everyone knows me I felt very relieved I hadn’t gone off alone after all. I definitely needed J. as my guide. We came back empty handed, but at least J. took me to every spot possible and spoke with every potential robber (i.e. his friends) in the area to see if they had any news. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to agree that my friend’s computer was long gone, sold within hours of the robbery. J. told me that if I hadn’t found it within 12 hours, it was gone. I was now on day 3 so I didn’t have much hope, but at least able to use “my connections” to conduct a search. I know how the “stolen goods” market operates in Quito and where to hit up, immediately. Unfortunately though, my underground connections didn’t prove to be fruitful for my poor Canadian friend this time….

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yes, yes, yes

One cultural quirk of the sierra that I'm still getting used to is the way in which people communicate with one another, especially when making requests. Quite simply, it is considered rude to turn down one’s request to his/her face so instead people insist “yes,” “yes” “yes” that they will be there or that they can do a favor, when in reality they have no intention of following through. It is a bit of a mind game one must play and it took me a while to realize that when people agree to do something it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll do it. I’m from a culture which, by contrast, it’s considered rude not to follow through on your word. We tend to label people who don’t show up for things as “flakey,” or that they “blew off” an event. It’s considered a common courtesy in gringo culture to call ahead of time to notify the host or your waiting friend that you can no longer make it. Here, someone’s attendance is never guaranteed. First of all, it's socially acceptable to arrive (incredibly) late for everything and anything. Ecuador famously instituted a national campaign several years ago to make its citizens more punctual—this was enacted because the president himself was notoriously late for every meeting and event. His lateness was a source of great embarrassment for the country, especially when meeting with world leaders who are not accustomed to tardiness.

The constant “yes” which often means “no” stems from not wanting to offend the person asking the favor. This is especially true if the person making the request occupies a higher social position. As a white gringa, perceiving that the caste system is still very much in place, I’m seldom denied to my face any request, despite the fact that these affirmative answers don’t always lead to action. With my friends, who occupy more or less equal positions as myself, the “yes,” “yes” “yes” derives from other causes. It stems from the fact that people really do want to please me and attend certain events. Perhaps they cannot in reality, but by saying “yes,” they are showing their support and proof of their friendship. Again, in gringo culture if such a friend did not follow through on “yes” answers, the opposite would be true—he/she would not be seen as a supportive friend, but rather, a flakey friend who can’t be counted on. I do not take offense to people’s “yes” “yes” “yes” because I have learned that it’s nothing personal against me. Sometimes I get frustrated but it has forced me to loosen up about concepts of time and how events unfold. In a way it makes things more exciting because you never quite know if something will actually happen.

On a recent weekend I had plans to go camping with a group of Ecuadorian friends. First we were supposed to leave on Friday night and then on Saturday morning. Instead of telling us that he would be delayed, our ringleader kept saying “yes” “yes” “yes” I’ll pick you up within half an hour. This half an hour turned into 5-6 hours and we finally left Saturday night as it was getting dark. Our trip was shortened because we returned the next morning but I’ve learned to go with the flow. It doesn’t really matter how long we went camping, it was still fun even though it felt foreign to me that our friend couldn’t be direct with us. I felt frustrated because I waited the entire day for him when I could have been doing other things. Perhaps part of his avoidance was that he felt guilty for being so tardy. Either way, I wanted direct communication.

It is important for me to add a disclaimer to this blog entry. Obviously, this cultural quirk is a huge generalization on my part. I have plenty of Ecuadorian friends who get just as frustrated as I do by the indirect communication here. They also complain as much as I do about flakey friends who don’t follow through on their commitments (and who don’t notify them of their changes in plan). I also have Ecuadorian friends who are indeed punctual. Likewise, in my own culture, plenty of people are consistently tardy and don’t communicate directly. As an anthropologist I recognize the danger of generalizing about what I term a “cultural quirk.” I am making an informal observation that is not based on solid research. Perhaps the best evidence is the national policy implemented several years ago to enforce punctuality. Perhaps punctuality and indirect communication seem only tangentially linked but I do think they often go together. Tardiness is just one common manifestation of the “yes” “yes” “yes” syndrome, which often translates into an indirect “no” or what seems like a passive aggressive “no,” when a person arrives just as an event ends or when his/her assistance is no longer needed.

Cuban transaction

In the past few years Quito has become inundated with Cuban immigrants. It is hard to know the exact number because the vast majority of them are “illegal,” living in the shadows of civil society. It is easy to recognize them though due to their strong accents: they speak incredibly rapidly, loudly, and swallow the last part of their words. They are also distinctive because most of the Cubans I’ve met in Quito are of a mixed African descent. They especially stick out in Quito where the majority of the population is of mixed indigenous ancestry. The Cuban neighborhood is situated in North Quito next to the airport. There are also many Cubans living and working in the central tourist zone, La Mariscal, also in North Quito where much of the city’s nightlife can be found. I have seen many Cuban restaurants and street vendors selling rice and beans to bleary-eyed revelers late at night. Rice and black beans are a novelty here as they are not part of Ecuadorian cuisine. Ecuadorians eat lentils and red beans, but black beans do not exist. Furthermore, in contrast to many other parts of Latin America, beans are simply not a staple of Ecuadorian diet.

The Cubans are the most recent arrivals in a massive wave of immigration to Ecuador. For the first time in its history, Ecuador has become a prime immigrant destination attracting people from all over the world including Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, Senegal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China. Ever since Ecuador’s government adopted the American dollar as its currency in January 2000, it has become an attractive location for potential employment. Even though people are paid very little, they are still paid in dollars. Since entering the United States or parts of Europe is no longer an option for most people, many come to Ecuador, known for its stability. Indeed, it has always been known as the “island of peace” located between Colombia and Peru, both of which have histories of violence (especially Colombia whose refugees have poured into Ecuador over the past few decades). Given Ecuador’s loose border policy in which, until very recently, when too many immigrants have begun to arrive, anyone could enter and stay indefinitely.

I am familiar with Cuban immigration because many of the sex workers I work with have “negocios” (business) with them. Cuban men come to the red-light district looking for Ecuadorian women to marry to obtain their visas. Perhaps it is mostly Cuban men who do this because Colombians can usually obtain refugee status. Most of the Cubans offer to pay about $200 upfront in cash. The “new couple” goes to the civil registry, signs the contract and after two months of marriage the Cuban becomes a legal citizen and then they get divorced. They don’t have to live together or provide any proof of their relationship; they can literally be complete strangers who met the day before, which is often what occurs. It is a simple process compared to many other countries, especially to the United States which involves an infamously complicated, lengthy and arduous process to help deter these types of arrangements. Perhaps the Ecuadorian government will change its laws once they catch on to the thriving marriage business between its citizens and foreigners, but for now it’s an easy way for newly arrived immigrants to get better jobs and receive more civil rights. Although $200 is not a lot of money for such a transaction, many of these women are desperate to pay certain debts and therefore leap at the opportunity. Cuban men probably target sex workers in particular for this reason, because they are a vulnerable population who are more likely to accept whatever meager amount offered. For some reason, I’ve only heard of Cuban men who do this; as of yet, men from other nationalities do not seem recruit sex workers for this reason (perhaps that will change…)

Complications can arise though, as my sex worker friend C., experienced. She met a Cuban last year and he offered $400 to marry her. She went through with the transaction, received her money, and all was well until suddenly, her new Cuban husband disappeared. She heard rumors that he had returned to Cuban which is problematic because they had agreed to a divorce after six months of marriage. Even though it is fairly easy to get a divorce, both of them must be present to sign the legal papers. C. says if he doesn’t reappear in the next year she will be forced to hire a lawyer to have the marriage annulled, something she would like to avoid because of the legal fees involved. C. tells me that some Ecuadorian sex workers continually marry and divorce Cubans, one after the other, to earn money. Without a doubt, the legal authorities will catch on to their business (sooner or later) and make it more difficult for foreigners to get their Ecuadorian citizenship via marriage. In the meantime, it’s a way for sex workers to augment their salaries, despite the legal risks involved. Obviously the legal risks involved are arguably still less than the health and safety risks involved with working in the sex industry.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Black and blue

Today was my first day back on the streets after the accident. Although I bought larger framed sunglasses yesterday to sufficiently hide my purple swollen eyes, when I saw my friends on the streets, I took off my glasses to show them what had happened. As the sun slipped behind the clouds and it started to rain, I put my glasses in my bag and decided I didn’t care about all the stares anyway (I got a lot of them). The initial reaction from most of the sex workers was, “Anita, who hit you?” which tells me a lot about their lives. Perhaps most people associate black eyes with violence, and particularly domestic violence, when it’s an injured woman. After listening to my story many of the women shared with me their own experiences with car accidents and incidents of violence which caused their faces to be similarly bruised.

One woman, L. told me that for six years while she was married to her ex-husband, she had to cover-up a black eye everyday due to the beatings she received. When it wasn’t one eye, it was the other. She became a master at hiding the bruises by arranging her hair so it covered her face, wearing sunglasses all the time, and applying make-up. I felt badly that viewing my face reminded her of past trauma but at the same time, perhaps perceiving my vulnerability made her feel more connected to me. Perhaps by seeing the white, privileged gringa banged and bruised up, she felt more inclined to share with me her experiences of domestic violence. Interestingly, all the women yesterday were particularly intimate with me in terms of their own brushes with death. It struck me how another woman pointed out that although her ex-husband used to beat her as well, he never touched her face. She seemed proud of this fact. She said, “I’ve never been touched on my face like that.” I replied, “I’m glad you’ve never been beaten…” She corrected me, “Anita, of course I’ve been beaten, just never my face! My ex-husband used to beat the shit out of me…I had bruises all over my body.” Oh, I see. I’m sure he didn’t touch her face for his sake, not hers.

Another woman S. shared all her various accidents, describing them in gory detail. All of them involved alcohol, unsurprisingly. The other women joked that obviously God doesn’t even love her because he won’t accept her into heaven despite all her attempts to enter. She described one horrific accident on the coast in which everyone was drunk and stupidly, they decided to drive to the beach, but didn’t make it very far before crashing into another car head-on. She was in the back of a truck and of the 15 people crammed into the vehicle, only three survived. S. then launched into all the fights and beatings she has experienced. Once again, I was left with a mixture of sadness and shock at these women’s lives, but also with a profound admiration for their strength and perseverance. Even though I got into a car accident, the trauma of it has mostly passed and I survived with just a few scrapes. It cannot compare to the systematic trauma that many of these women have experienced (and unfortunately, continue to experience). They speak about their suffering in such blasé terms, making me realize that these were everyday occurrences. If I experienced daily trauma I would probably become accustomed to it as well. Sharing my accident with the sex workers and receiving their responses makes me realize, once again, just how lucky I am to have a loving family and circle of friends. Without a doubt, I won the lottery this time around…

Monday, April 12, 2010


Accidents are always traumatizing, but when it happens in a foreign country, the trauma feels even greater. Late last Wednesday night three friends and I got into a car crash. It was after 1am and we were driving home from a party. While taking a left turn at an intersection a drunk driver, ignoring his red light, slammed into our side. We skidded across the intersection and flipped over. At first complete silence. Slowly I heard people from the street calling to check if we were okay. I heard my friend M. the driver, ask me, “Anita, Anita, are you okay?” I couldn’t answer yet. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure. After we crawled out through the driver’s window and reoriented ourselves, we realized that everyone had escaped more or less unharmed. We were all walking about, dazed, no signs of blood or broken limbs, although my head pounded. At least I knew I had survived, despite the bruises and bumps that had begun to emerge on the surface of my skin.

I write about this event, not just to share the trauma I felt by feeling close to death, but to describe the sequence of events that happened in my post-accident shock because it has been one of the most poignant cultural experiences I have had. The way the authorities and my friends handled the accident was entirely foreign to me and provided me with a profound insight into Ecuadorian law and society. For example, now more than ever, I have learned that in this country one is (unofficially) guilty until proven innocent. My friend M., who was driving our car and the driver of the other car were immediately taken into police custody and could not leave until their innocence could be proven. The police were rough with M., even though he had done nothing wrong. We knew he had only drunken one beer at the party because he knew he would be driving home fairly early. Sure enough, we later found out that the man who slammed into us was completely wasted and unlike M., failed his breathalyzer test at the station. For me, the police’s aggression with M. seemed out of place, almost insensitive. It struck me as bizarre that they brought them into the police station first before a visit to the emergency room. Neither men showed signs of external injuries, but still, how could anyone know for sure if they were okay?

Through this incident, I learned why Ecuador has such an exponentially high rate of hit-and-run accidents. There are famous stories about drivers passing people bleeding to death in the streets after an accident. Everyone passes by without a glance because if one stops, the authorities view him/her as partly responsible for the accident. Given the policy of “guilty until proven innocent,” and the tremendous police corruption here, no one is willing to take that chance. Without meaning to, the government encourages citizens to mind their own business rather than participate in civil society as good Samaritans. Due to M.’s sudden detainment, once the ambulance arrived, his mother (a lawyer) called to highly discourage us from going to the hospital. She pleaded with us to wait until the police released him from the station because otherwise, it could make things “more complicated for him.” In my state of post-accident shock, I followed her instructions. Understandably, M.’s mother wanted to protect her son as much as possible, but my own mother (again, understandably…) didn’t appreciate her advice. The battle between our mothers could have gotten nasty…

Regardless of M.’s mother “advice,” I couldn’t have gone to the emergency room anyway because in this country they will only treat patients if they can pay immediately for services rendered. You must have sufficient cash or a credit card with you to receive treatment. (From now on, as much as I dislike the idea, I will have to carry a credit card with me at all times). Last fall a French woman tragically bled to death in the emergency room because no one could scramble up the cash or a credit card to pay for her treatment. Unfortunately for Ecuador, her father is a doctor and she is from a family with economic and cultural capital. They have had the resources to follow up on every detail of the case and in the process have exposed Ecuador’s ugly, unethical health system. Her avoidable death has caused the Ecuadorian government much embarrassment because once again it highlights their “third world” status as “incompetent” caretakers of their inhabitants. (Ecuador’s inferiority complex, especially compared with France’s incredibly competent healthcare system, emerged in the articles, editorials, etc. in the media coverage after the incident).

At close to 4am, my friend M. called to inform me that he was leaving the police station and had been cleared of all wrongdoing in the incident. It was a no-brainer that the other driver was at fault because he was completely drunk. As far as I know, he spent the next few days in jail. He is lucky that all of us survived and suffered only minor bumps and bruises. When I finally arrived at the hospital and had my CAT scan and X-rays, I was relieved to discover that all was well internally. However, it did not prevent two black eyes from emerging days after the accident. These black eyes have become external symbols of the trauma I’ve experienced. Although it was an extremely unpleasant incident, at least I’ve learned some key points about how accidents play out here (not for next time…knock on wood). I’m lucky to be safe and sound, writing this curled up in my bed. My eyes are now an impressive scarlet color...perhaps they will give me some street cred when I head to the Centro tomorrow....

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Angel of Montufar Street

R. is “dura” (tough). She’s the toughest woman working on the streets. In fact, her reputation for confrontation has made me keep my distance from her over the past six months. I’ve seen her in action so I know it’s not all talk. My first impression of her was at a sex workers’ meeting last November. She stormed into the meeting late waving a proclamation of sex workers’ rights, exclusively for women working on the streets. She claimed that the sex worker collective Asprodemu, Association Pro-Defensa de la Mujer, does not sufficiently support street workers and that they focus almost entirely on the rights of brothel workers. Many of the women on the streets feel this way, and indeed, it is the cause of a major rift in the organization. When R. interrupted the meeting some women booed her while others cheered. She ignored them as she stood on a chair to continue rebel rousing. Although she is petite, her voice carries loudly. Even though not everyone likes R., everyone respects her. They have no choice. She’s in her mid-40s and has been working on the streets for more than 25 years. Despite her age she’s one of the biggest earners, pulling in more clients daily than any other woman. She works from early afternoon deep into the night, something other women wouldn’t dare do because it’s too dangerous. I have no doubt that R. can take care of herself on the streets. I’m certain she carries a knife in her purse like many of the women. I’m more than positive that she would use it.

Over the past month I’ve gotten to know R. We’ve started to make small talk on the streets. I waited for her to approach me first because she intimidated me. However, I’ve always gone out of my way to smile and wave at her since part of my strategy is to befriend the toughest people on the street, whether they’re sex workers, drug dealers/addicts or small time thefts. I figure it’s a big advantage if they’re on my side. R. calls out to me when I arrive, “Hola Anita!” I always shout back and ask how she’s doing. We usually stand and chat for a few minutes. Through these limited interactions, I’ve come to realize that R. has another side that is in stark contrast to her public street persona. She always treats me with warmth and kindness. However, I didn’t know the extent of this other side. Only when I met the street kid D., did I learn just how different R. is from her tough image.

D. is a kid I’ve seen hanging around Montufar Street. He is Afro-Ecuadorian from the coastal region of Esmeraldes. I assumed he was the son of one of the sex workers or shopkeepers in the neighborhood. One day we sat down and had a lengthy conversation about his life. Even though he’s only 13 years old, D. speaks with the maturity and insight of an old man. D. arrived in Quito two years ago, completely alone when he was just 11. He explained, “If I hadn’t left, those people would have destroyed me.” When I inquired who “these people” were, fearing that he was talking about his family, he confirmed my suspicions and said, “they’re bad, bad people.” D. lives in the hotel where the sex workers work. He pays $7 a night, which is incredibly expensive considering that many of the sex workers live in apartments that cost $100/month. But nonetheless, he likes living in the hotel because he has befriended many of the other residents and sex workers in the area. D. explained to me that life isn’t so bad, that a lot of people look out for him on the streets. I said I should hope so, considering he’s only 13.

D. looks at me and says, “Well, you know R., for instance?” “Of course I know R., everyone knows R.” He tells me, “She’s my mother here.” Curious, I ask him more about his relationship with R. I find out that she ensures he eats lunch every day and brings him home with her when he can’t pay the hotel fee. As D. cuts our conversation short to catch the bus northward to rob for the day, he leaves me with the heartbreaking comment, “if it weren’t for her, I don’t think I could survive.” I finally got the chance to talk to R. about her relationship with D. during the sex workers’ mandatory lunch break from 12:30-2:00pm, when many of the women congregate in the hotel lobby. As usual, I was sitting with V., my closest informant on the streets. We had ordered lunch and R. came in to sit with us. We talk about all sorts of things and I start feeling “special” that tough R. has begun to take an interest in me. I’ve always wanted to develop a close relationship with her because I know she has some of the most interesting life stories.

Finally, I lean closer to her and say, “I met D. the other day.” Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh he’s a darling, isn’t he?” She suddenly looks sad talking about him, “He has had such a terrible life, Anita.” I agreed and was shocked as she told me more. When I ask what compels her to help, she says, “I left home at age 6, I’ve been a street kid ever since so I try to help the others.” I can’t imagine how R. survived on the streets at 6 even though I regularly see small children sleeping in doorways, taking refuge from the frigid mountain air. R. then goes on to explain that she has helped/unofficially fostered more than a dozen street kids. In addition to her two own kids she has a regular shifting cast of characters who take shelter at her home for weeks/months at a time. Recently, she was given a 7-month year old girl. Some people searched her out and pleaded her to take her. She looked at me, and in the kindest, softest voice possible said to me, “I couldn’t say no, Anita.” I nodded back.

During our conversation, a street kid came running up to R. asking for money. He said, “R. R. please, I need money for lunch, please.” R. opened her purse and pulled out her coin purse and gave the boy $1.25 for lunch. His pants were too short, and covered with holes and stains. She said to him, “Come look for me later if you need more.” The kid, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years-old gave her the hugest smile and hugged her good-bye. “Thank-you Señora R.” I was curious how R. could afford to care for all these kids. She explained that, “little by little I try to reach out to each one. At times I can’t afford to give them anything but at least I sit and talk with them. I ask them how they’re doing.” I would have never guessed that R. was the angel of Montufar, but there she is. She’s one of those rare people whose lifetime of suffering and hardship has made her a kinder, warmer, and more compassionate person. It’s a relief to know that the dozens of street kids wandering around the historic center have an ally, and even a surrogate mother, on the streets.