We had the most amazing Mother’s Day celebration with the sex workers. We each pitched in $5 and bought lots of snacks, two cakes with “Happy Mother’s Day” written across them in looping cursive, and most importantly, lots of alcohol. The women had been discussing the party for weeks beforehand and we finally settled on a date. It would be on the Friday afternoon before Mother’s Day since many of the women travel back to their families on the coast to be with their children (for those who haven’t brought their kids to Quito yet). The party was a women-only affair, with men strictly banned. They enlisted my help to document the event with my camera.
It was one of the best parties I have ever attended here. They turned the upstairs lobby of the hotel into their party spot. There was a true sense of camaraderie and friendship among the women, despite the petty disputes that sometimes exist on the street. They even ordered a Mexican style mariachi band to play soulful songs about motherhood. Many of the women started to cry and turned to one another with hugs and kisses. I also welled up and couldn’t help but share their sorrow. Many of them, especially the Colombian women, live far from their children and as such, do not see them often. I sensed another (unspoken) source of sadness in the fact that all of them have decided to work in the sex industry because they are mothers. Indeed, I am told this repeatedly, that these women work as prostitutes to support their children. It shows that they will go to any extreme to support them. However, I don’t get the sense that they resent their children for “making” them work as prostitutes. It was more a feeling of wistfulness and an acceptance of their situation. I sensed sadness but also a collective strength as the women drank and danced together. Their ability to have fun together, without men, seemed to speak to a greater independence they feel as strong women who can survive anything, even their work as prostitutes. It was incredibly empowering as each of them made riveting speeches about their roles as mothers and why it doesn’t matter that they are “putas” (whores) in this life. Many spoke about religion and their faith in God, and took comfort in His vigilance over them. They agreed that God forgives them for their work, that He sees them for who they really are: as devoted mothers who sacrifice themselves for their children.
After the mariachi band left, the women presented a banner to F., the oldest sex worker of them all. She is in her 70s and is still working strong on the streets. They placed the red banner around her chest like a beauty pageant queen. In silver glittering letters it stated, “Symbolic Mother.” Not only is she a mother with many of her own children, but she is also the symbolic mother of all the sex workers. It was a complete surprise to her and upon receiving the banner, F. started to cry, as did many of the women. For her to honored by the younger women must have been incredibly powerful since the rest of society looks upon them as diseased, fallen women. Sex workers are stigmatized and viewed as social lepers. The fact that the younger women view F., who has worked in the industry for the longest time and therefore has coped with years upon years of discrimination and abuse, as a hero inverts wider society’s power structure. It turns patriarchal hierarchies on its head, which is why this celebration of motherhood among the sex workers was so moving. They were celebrating each other’s simultaneous roles as mothers and putas, as each lifted her glass to a new toast. The women engaged in the traditional drinking practice in which everyone drinks from one glass. It is passed around and refilled at every turn and you are expected to drain the glass each time it comes around. It reminds me of taking communion in church where we all drink “Christ’s blood” from the same goblet.
Even the owner of the hostel joined in. The women made a toast to her and to her support. She made an equally moving speech about how although they are sex workers, these women should be honored and recognized like any other mother. Again, I believe it is incredibly important for these women to receive such validation from someone outside of the sex industry, although one could argue that she is truly an insider since she runs the hotel/brothel where they work. She earns her money through their work as each client pays her $3 for a bed. Perhaps she is a “Madam” in some respects. Anyway, she didn’t need to make a speech or join in the celebration. She seemed to identify with the women as she shed a few tears as well. After all, she’s a mother too. I’d imagine that all mothers must share a certain bond. The other owner is a man, perhaps a family member of the woman. He showed his support of the women by bringing more and more cases of beer.
Our celebration was not just a drunken reverie. It was a profound expression of both the joy and sorrow these women experience in their daily lives. This party solidified the bond these women, not just as mothers, but as prostitutes who face similar stigmatization and discrimination from wider society. Their feelings of shame, that each one has expressed to me privately, had the chance to evaporate in this collective space where they celebrated each other. They could feel good about being sex workers and about being mothers who are willing to go to extremes to support their children. I’m thankful that we spent a day honoring these women and acknowledging their hard work—work so difficult and emotionally taxing that most of us could never do it. These women are true heroes, despite wider society’s dismissal of them.