“La bendición” literally translates into “the blessing,” but usually it’s formally verbalized in the phrase, “Que Dios te bendiga” (May God Bless you). Indeed, one of my daily reminders that I live in a Catholic country are the constant exchanges of “bendiciones” I observe among the sex workers. To bless someone is to bestow them with honor—it is literally to have God give them his praise. The vast majority of the women believe in God, according to the conversations I’ve had with each of them on this topic. Because of their strong beliefs, bendiciones are taken very seriously here. For example, yesterday R. asked all the sex workers to pitch in to buy cases of the Ensure vitamin supplement she needed for her sick son and when each woman delivered it, she gave her a blessing. Sometimes it’s used as a way to say farewell for the day. Whenever I take the women out to lunch they always bless me at the end of the meal. Although I am not religious, it is a formality I appreciate here.
Even though I have complicated feelings towards “God,” I have no problem incorporating it into my social rituals because I view it as a sign of respect more than anything. It seems that this expression is more commonly used among people from the lower class, as I’ve never once heard my wealthy Quiteño friends use it. I’m quite certain they my upper class friends would be bemused and quite shocked if I blessed them. Perhaps that’s because most of my upper class friends are not religious at all and tend not to engage in formal rituals. Perhaps not all of the sex workers who use the expression are religious either, but they still tend to engage in formal verbal rituals.
Yesterday I was caught off guard when one of the women, M. asked me for my bendición. I was taken aback because usually one receives bendiciones spontaneously, without requesting them since in this way they’re viewed as “authentic.” Such a request engages complicated power dynamics because individuals ask for bendiciones from people they highly respect. For whatever reason, they believe that a bendición from this person will be “worth” more than from someone else. In M.’s eyes perhaps I possess a certain amount of gringo power and based on pure speculation, I wonder if she feels particularly “blessed” if it comes from me, a “rich,” white foreigner. Or perhaps she feels that with my blessing she has gained my respect, even though ironically, she must ask for it. In my opinion, this particular woman, M. is one of the saddest sex workers on the street because she suffers from extreme alcoholism and feels such immense shame about it. Although she seems to be a good mother during the day, staying home with her children to help them with their homework, cooking them lunch before school, she leaves the house everyday at 5:00pm when her chores are done to work. While working, she drinks a half-bottle (about a liter) of Tropico, an incredibly strong cane liquor, arriving home each night completely drunk. With tears in her eyes, she tells me that when she arrives home her children beg her not to drink anymore. She tells me she must drink in order to work or otherwise she couldn’t bear to do it.
More than any other woman on the street M., seems the most tortured about her work (and her drinking). In her drunken stupor she kept saying that she was a “disgrace,” that this work is “not dignified,” and “that she hopes God forgives her.” Where many of the women use their belief in God as a way to forgive themselves for their work since they believe God loves everyone regardless of what they do, M. receives no comfort from her religious beliefs. When M. asked me to bless her, I did it without hesitation even though I felt incredibly awkward. I not only had to say, “Que dios te bendiga” but I also had to make the sign of the cross across her chest. I felt like a priest or religious figure. (It’s amazing the things you find yourself doing as an anthropologist.) It made me uncomfortable because I felt like a complete farce since I don’t believe in God. If this is the case, how can my words have any meaning? However, I realized that it didn’t matter how I felt about it, what mattered was its affect on her. And indeed, she seemed pleased and relieved that I had blessed her. Perhaps because she views herself with so much shame, she especially appreciated my signal of acceptance and approval. Despite her alcoholism and her employment in the sex industry, I was still willing to bless her, demonstrating that not only I accepted her, but that God did too.