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.

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