Saturday, July 31, 2010

Transgender friend and Juan

Juan's son

Juan, my body guard, with his youngest son

Body Guard

Juan (name changed) is now my official body guard on the streets. It became official yesterday when we acknowledged his role openly. I have been actively looking for someone to fill this role as I start filming on the streets. Up until now, I’ve been filming my documentary, “Working Mothers”, based on the lives of the sex workers, in private spaces—in their homes, in the hotel where they work, at church, etc. I have only once dared to film openly in the street and I put myself in a dangerous situation. It lasted for less than half an hour because all the women warned me that the robbers were beginning to swarm around me like sharks coming in for the kill. I was sufficiently scared to put my video camera away and to never bring it back out in public. But unfortunately, as I continue filming, I can no longer avoid gathering critical footage from the street.

Juan has always “gotten my back.” He has always been one of my bodyguards—many people fill this role simultaneously, including the sex workers and random neighbors, store owners, the boyfriends of sex workers who are often themselves robbers and addicts. An example is A., who I went to visit in prison recently (see the purple plastic beads entry). He makes his living as a mugger but when it comes to me, he won’t let anyone come close. The people who know me on my corner know I’m an “untouchable,” the problem comes when robbers from other neighborhoods spot me, a vulnerable gringa standing with a bulky bag, often tape recorder in hand. I'm prime target for them, until one my bodyguards alerts them to my social position on the corner. Or, one of my bodyguards approaches me to tell me that such-and-such a person is scooping me out and that I should retreat into a lunch cafeteria or the hotel. As such, I always feel safe. In fact, as I’ve mentioned in many previous posts, I feel safer in this very dangerous area of Quito than in my own neighborhood, an elite area, since no one looks after me here.

The topic of Juan becoming my “official” bodyguard came up yesterday when he told me flat out that under no circumstances should I employ this position. I'm still getting used to becoming the object of gossip, as every member of this (and any) community experiences. I guess the word got out that I'm looking for someone. Amused, I asked Juan why. He said that A. smokes base and is therefore unreliable—furthermore, A. is a dangerous man who beats his girlfriend, prone to violent rages and would definitely end up stealing my equipment. I had already come to this conclusion over the past few weeks as I’ve watched A. and his girlfriend, S.’s relationship deteriorate (which is why I was amused at J.’s insistence of A.’s “badness”—because it’s so obvious that A. would never EVER make an appropriate bodyguard!) I’ve become very wary of A. even though he still greets me with the same warmth. I would never want him to know that my feelings for him have changed, that I no longer trust him and now view him as a potential threat. I still believe he wouldn’t ever lay his hands on me, but knowing the details of the beatings he gives S. makes me keep him at a distance. But of course, things have to remain “cool” between us and I must always remain on his good side. Therefore, I never ever talk to him about his violent side, nor about his addiction to base, unless he brings it up, which he often does because he feels such remorse after beating S. or using drugs.

Anyway, I told Juan that I couldn’t agree more—that I had crossed A. off my list weeks ago. I agreed that it would be unbelievably stupid to employ a body guard who is addicted to base and is prone to violence. Juan seemed relieved. He seemed pleased to realize that I’m not THAT naïve as a dumb gringa… We sat in silence for a moment and then I popped the big question, “well Juan, when I start filming would YOU be interested in helping me out.” With a huge grin on his face, Juan replied, “yeah I can do that…I already do that, you know.” I told him that indeed, I did know—he has chased away many potential predators for me over the past 10 months. I fully trust Juan. He is the partner of one of the sex workers and is a house-dad. He takes care of their three children while K. works the streets. He doesn’t smoke base and is an admirable father. We decided that I would buy his children’s lunches as payment for days he guarded me on a shoot. There it goes. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I trust me instincts when it comes to Juan. I’m excited to now have an “official” body guard.

School's out....

School’s out for summer. That means that the sex workers’ kids are being shuffled into various activities and that they must shift their work schedules. For some of the women school vacation works to their economic advantage, while for others, it’s a time of crisis. For example, some of the women can’t work at all because they can’t afford camp or fulltime daycare. Only when they find friends or relatives to babysit can they come out to the corner for a bit. Some of the women work significantly more because they send their children to extended family’s homes on the coast. My friend V. for instance is working “day and night” as much as possible during the two weeks her daughters are away. She can finally work full-time now that she doesn’t have to also be a fulltime mother. Some of the women were able to enroll their children in free municipal day-camps which means their work schedules have remained steady. V. and her friend A. both sent their children to their respective mothers’ homes on the coast and as such, they plan to travel to Cuenca, another city in the midlands, to work the streets there for a few days (rumor has it that business in Cuenca is booming at the moment).

All of the women are using this time to earn the money needed for their children’s school pensions. School starts again in September and many costs accompany the new year, despite the fact that school itself is supposedly “free.” For example, women must pay a pension, school uniforms, notebooks, and even some text and work books. The schools lack resources so the parents must pitch in for supplies. More than anything else, the sex workers have been fretting about earning the money needed for the upcoming school year. Their children are all enrolled in different schools around the city. Many of the women put their kids in schools far from the historic center so no one will know they work as prostitutes. My friend, H. explains that that is her worst fear—that the teachers and other kids at her sons’ school will find out that she’s a sex worker. She says that she would “die from humiliation” if someone found out what she did for a living. Plus, she said it would be the worst fate for her kids—given that “hijo de puta” (son of a whore) is one of the worst insults in Ecuadorian society, I can understand H.’s wish for anonymity.

One of the sex workers had her son in a Catholic school in the historic center and apparently, when one of the nuns found out that she worked as a prostitute, they proceeded to kick her son out of school. This is such a typical discriminatory act that sex workers face here—in this conservative, Catholic country nuns condemn sex workers, treating them as social lepers. Even their children are “infected” and might bring their mothers’ filth and indecency into the school. The children don’t know that their mothers are prostitutes and as such, it must be confusing for them to be kicked out of school for apparently no reason. The women are good at coming up with excuses and tell “tall tales” to protect their children. Unfortunately, many of the women must tell one lie after another, to everyone—to their families and children, to schools, to government administrators, etc.. They lead double lives and their school age children often experience the brunt of it even though they are often clueless to why they’re treated differently (and unfairly) from their peers.

Many of the women had pensions due this week and had to pay them promptly in order to save their children’s spot in a school. Some of the municipal schools are very good, at least for public schools; the parents enter their children in a lottery at several schools and then wait to see where they’re accepted. But if the women can’t pay the pension on time some of the schools fill up and their kids might miss an entire academic year. When the women can’t place their kids at any school, they try their best to teach them at home. This happens more successfully in some cases than in others. Some of the women themselves don’t have much education and therefore can’t teach their children more than elementary lessons. However, it seems as if for most of the women, their children’s education is their number one priority. As such, they always figure out a way to come up with the school pension, even if it means working late into the night when things get very dangerous on the streets. My friend V. is so obsessed with her children’s education that she gives her kids extra homework on the weekends in addition to their regular school work. She’s determined that they’ll attend university and therefore avoid employment in sex work at all cost.

Not all of the women choose their children’s education as a priority. These women are generally addicts and have long ago abandoned their children to various family members on the coast. Perhaps some of them came to Quito alone with the intention of sending money home each week to support their kids but once they arrived, fell into lives of delinquency and drugs. Or others came to Quito with their children but when family members realized that they had become unfit mothers, they came to collect the children. Some of the children of women who become addicts leave school at a premature age because no one can pay for their pensions. Perhaps these kids also have absent fathers or live with family members in such poverty that they must start working at a very young age. (Human Rights Watch recently intervened in multinational corporations in Ecuador whose huge banana plantations exploited child laborers). All of these plantations are on the coast in small cities where many of the women originate from. Some of the women have such little education themselves, they figure their children can also “get by” in life without much of their own. Or perhaps are so distracted by drama in their personal lives, often due to abusive partners that they can’t think as much about their children’s education.

I must say though, the vast majority of the sex workers fight tooth and nail to earn the money for the kids’ school expenses. I rarely meet women who don’t consider education a priority. As such, summer vacation is a stressful time because it’s when all the money for the upcoming year must be earned since most of the expenses are due in September. There’s an added sense of stress on the streets at the moment, but I know that the women will figure out way to gather the money, as they always do….

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Female Condom

The female condom could drastically change business on Espejo and Montufar Street in Quito’s historic center. A nurse came to give the sex workers a workshop on how the female condom works, how to insert it, etc. She came bouncing in with the lower half of a female’s anatomy. I must admit, I felt as intimidated as the other women by this newish product on the market, mostly because it’s so bulky—it looks like a narrow plastic bag with two circles, one open and the other closed, at each end. It’s about time the female condom arrived to Ecuador. As the sex workers watched the demonstration they took notes and whispered to one another about how it functions. They were eager to learn because as I said, the female condom could shift the entire game of sex work, in the women’s favor.

J. is one of the veteran prostitutes and has been using the female condom for a few years. She had already talked about it with the other women, praising its benefits. The principle advantage of the female condom is that it suddenly solves the conundrum that all sex workers find themselves in—they find themselves having to make a life or death decision in a split second based on their finances or their addictions. Many of the clients prefer to have sex with the sex workers without a condom (don’t ask me why), and are often willing to pay double the price to do so (10 instead of 5 dollars). Most of the women refuse the offer for obvious reasons, they want to stay safe, so they lose a lot of clients to women who are either in dire straits economically or who are unfortunately, drug addicts, desperate for their next hit.

J. explained that she’s been using the female condom for years because now she can accept all these clients who don’t want to use a condom. Once they are in the hotel room, J. excuses herself to the bathroom to insert the female condom, and apparently the client never knows the difference. He pays her double price and thinks he’s just had sex without a condom. It’s the perfect way to trick clients. The other women asked J. to confirm if she was absolutely certain the clients don’t feel the female condom during sex….obviously, if a client found out he was being duped, the prostitute would find herself in a very dangerous situation. Especially because he had just paid double to be with her. But what does it matter? He IS having sex without a male condom, and obviously that’s what makes the difference sensation-wise. The women have been thrilled to learn about this new method to squeeze more money out of their clients, while at the same time, staying safe.

Obviously the problem with male condoms is that during sex a woman has very little control over whether her partner will actually use it or not. Even though the sex workers insist on using condoms (a male condom and piece of toilet paper are included in the $3 bed-fee when the client pays the hotel), there are cases when her client refuses to put it on at the time of intercourse. That can lead to the sex worker losing money or, in the worst case, coercion or rape without a condom. It’s hard to believe that the female condom has only recently come into circulation. For women to have complete freedom over their sexual rights, they have needed a product like this one in order to be pro-active about their health. In the best cases, men will agree to use a condom, but often women (not just the sex workers, obviously), become convinced not to use one in the moment. Given these possibilities, I think it’s a huge step forward in women’s rights that we have our own condom we can use whether our partners agree to them or not. They don’t even have to know about it. So indeed, we’ve waited many years after the anti-contraceptive pill for the next step in women’s sexual freedom.

The only complaint about the female condom is that it’s a bit difficult to use. It’s best to attend a workshop to learn how to insert it correctly, although J. said she figured it out after a few times. (But one should really have it figured it out for the first time of use!) Also, in Ecuador it’s still expensive. I’m not sure even how much it costs in the U.S. but here it costs perhaps $2-3 dollars for one. That is a huge amount of money for sex workers in San Marcos because they only earn $5 per client for full service. At the moment, one of the sex workers is selling them for a dollar each, but that’s still triple what a condom costs. One can usually buy 3 male condoms for a dollar here. (just $.33 for each one). But hopefully, the women wouldn’t have to use the female condom every time, only with those select clients who truly insist on not using the male condom. The women were giddy after the workshop—eager to try out the female condom, a revolutionary product for them that will saves lives and help them earn a bit more money….perhaps until the word gets out.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Neighborhood Divisions

For the past few weeks, I’ve delved into the neighborhood politics and social relations in the area of the historic center where the sex workers work, the barrio of San Marcos. I’ve been surprised by how divided San Marcos is, not just on the issue of prostitution, but on everything under the sun—how garbage should be collected (what time of day people can start placing it on the street for pick up that night), how they envision the future of San Marcos generally, how they should control crime (some want alarms installed on the front of every house), how they should handle increasingly “errant” children and teenagers….parking dilemmas, curfews, conflicts over the planning of the festivities of August 10th, a national holiday in Ecuador in honor of one of the first battles of independence of 1810. One strong group is the old-timers--some of these families have lived in San Marcos for several generations and have lived their entire lives within the confines of the three principle streets. Some of them are now in their 60s or older, but many of their children have also chosen to remain in the neighborhood.

The largest clashes are between these old time residents and newly arrived business owners who are set on gentrifying the neighborhood. For instance, in the past 10-15 years, six new museums and cultural institutions have arrived, 2 in the past 3 years. San Marcos is a quaint, beautiful area of the historic center with colonial and republican architecture, but since most of the (huge) homes have been occupied by just one family over several generations, their original details are still intact despite their poor condition--they’ve never been renovated which means these grand homes are a gold-mine for new investors who want to start “boutique hotels,” fancy restaurants, new art museums, galleries, etc. Similar to other parts of Quito’s historic center, many families started dividing their grand homes into smaller apartments to rent out to new families migrating from rural areas in the 1970s. But for whatever reason, this process happened less in San Marcos than in other areas of the historic center, perhaps because it is a bit further from the Plaza Grande and due to its geography has always been set apart from the rest of the Centro. (It developed as a tiny neighborhood of only 3 streets between two deep ravines—it ends in a dead-end so there are only 2 ways to enter it and you are forced to exit in the same way you entered….)

The old-time residents get annoyed because they don’t feel included in the plans of the new business owners. For instance, at the last Neighborhood Association, the neighbors complained that the new art gallery and museums were over-looking local artists in favor of exhibiting artists from other parts of the country or at times from other parts of the world. The business owners of cultural institutions do not tend to promote local artists or even invite the residents of San Marcos to their events. Some of the museums have said they’ve tried to invite the residents in the past but none of them ever come so they’ve given up. The tensions boil down to class issues. The old-time residents of the neighborhood belong to the middle or lower classes. Indeed, there are very few wealthy families left in San Marcos. The new arrivals are very wealthy Quitenos who have decided to invest in a beautiful neighborhood that they view as having serious business potential. Most of the new business owners do not actually live in San Marcos, they still live in North Quito, although that is changing—one of the gallery owners just bought a house in the neighborhood and is in the process of restoring it. Several wealthy individuals from North Quito have bought and restored some of the grand homes of the neighborhood in recent years, so there is a definite movement of the upper classes reclaiming San Marcos as “their territory.”

The old timers who have been there for 25 years or more feel threatened by the new wealth in their neighborhood. They are definitely wary of the new arrivals, even though some of these businesses might be economically beneficial to them too, especially if there is more foot traffic in the area. The two groups are at odds in their visions for the future of San Marcos and have very different concerns for the present. For instance, the new business owners consider prostitution and security issues as their absolute top priority because they feel these are the biggest obstacles to the barrio’s gentrification. As long as sex workers are standing on the corners of the neighborhood’s entrance, tourists will not feel comfortable visiting the area. The new arrivals seem to think the neighborhood is incredibly dangerous, which is debatable. Some parts are, especially where the sex workers work, but others are very safe, at least during the day.

The old time residents A) don’t feel the neighborhood is dangerous in the slightest and B) don’t have as strong opinions on prostitution because it has existed in the area for a decade. They seem resigned to the fact that the sex workers have claimed two streets on the periphery as their own. It seems that as long as the sex workers do not actually enter the neighborhood, (which they don’t), the residents don’t seem to care. The residents are more concerned about continuing to be included in the changes of the neighborhood. They have mixed feelings about tourists visiting the barrio because San Marcos has always been a very quiet area. They don’t want more restaurants and definitely no bars at all because that would dramatically change the family atmosphere of the neighborhood. As it stands, not one store in San Marcos sells alcohol. It is not an official law or ordinance, it’s just something the neighbors have agreed upon together. For now no bars have moved in and all the restaurants are only open for lunch, so tensions around night festivities have not yet come to a head, but it’s definitely an issue on people’s minds and a worry for the future. The residents seem to realize that they wouldn’t have any power to stop a bar from moving in.

It surprised me that there are some residents who refused to sign a petition created by one of the new business owners demanding that the prostitutes be removed from the neighborhood. It seems that as long as these stark divisions and antagonisms exist between old and new residents/business owners, the sex workers will be able to work without worry. Only if San Marcos becomes a unified front could they make such a drastic change of kicking the women out.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tricky Business

This anthropology stuff is tricky business. As I shift my fieldwork to focus on the viewpoints of the neighbors where the sex workers work, I’ve had to engage in some very tricky maneuvering. As an anthropologist you want all the different social groups of your study to like you. Only when people like you do they tell pour their hearts out and spill the good stuff. This can get tricky when the social groups involved are at war with one another. Basically, the residents of San Marcos loathe the sex workers in their neighborhood and are fighting to have them permanently removed from the area, while the prostitutes resent the neighbors for obstructing their freedom to work. Again, prostitution in Ecuador is legal and they have the right to be on the street, as long as they keep circulating, in order not to be fined with loitering.

Anyway, I had my nightmare fieldwork scenario happen a couple weeks ago—exactly what anthropologists try to avoid in the field at all costs. It was a terrible realization that as an anthropologist I will not (cannot) be accepted by everyone. A while back I wrote an entry about attending a Neighborhood Association of San Marcos. All the attendees of the meeting, mostly residents of the neighborhood, were all very inviting to me. I introduced myself and explained that I was an anthropologist from New York University conducting a research project on the gentrification of their neighborhood. Some people had more questions and I said that I was interested in the tensions that exist between different groups as San Marcos undergoes this rapid transformation; I explained that I sought the points of view of everyone who has a stake in San Marcos, including the sex workers, business owners, residents, cultural centers, and municipal government. People seemed satisfied and again, I felt everyone was very warm and welcoming. I did notice three policemen at the meeting though, and I was worried that they would tell everyone at the meeting that I was mostly on the “side of the sex workers.”

So here’s the deal: I do feel more aligned with the sex workers more than with any other group, and without a doubt, the police would be correct—that I attempt to defend sex workers’ rights in the streets. Being an anthropologist is tough. One must always be diplomatic and appear as a neutral observer at all moments. But sometimes that’s impossible. In the case of this meeting, my worries were confirmed, because even though I sat silently through the entire thing (obviously, I wasn’t about to state my case on anything), I had a very angry phone conversation with the president of the Neighborhood Association. Apparently, either the police, or now it’s rumored that it was “Rosie,” one of the business owners on the street where the sex workers work, told the president of the association to “watch out for me, that I’m on the side of the prostitutes.” And indeed, that’s what our conversation boiled down to. I had been following up with many of the residents, trying to get interviews with them so I could get some personal anecdotes and opinions about the changes in San Marcos. I called a few people, all of whom remembered me from the meeting, and luckily, agreed to meet up to talk.

When I called the president to arrange an interview, I was taken off guard. He immediately started yelling at me. He said, “I have nothing to say to you.” I was flabbergasted. I had no idea what I had done wrong. He went on, “We have an association and you aren’t part of it.” This was a very different man from the night of the meeting when he had welcomed me with opened arms and had told me I could interview him whenever I wanted. So taken aback, I was barely able to ask, “Why, what did I do? I just want an interview.” He barked, “We all know whose side you’re on—you’re here for the putas (whores)!” Oh dear. Oh my god, I thought to myself. I tried to explain that I wasn’t on anyone’s “side” in particular, that I was trying to collect every group’s point of view….but it was all in vain. The president slammed the phone down without saying good-bye. His last words were, “we know who you’re here to help. I have nothing to say to you.”

Eek. Worst case scenario. So much for trying to remain a neutral party to all sides. Luckily, I’ve had the amazing fortune that this particular president of the neighborhood association has recently stepped down from his position. A new president will be voted in at the next meeting. In the meantime, I’ve found other residents to be agreeable and welcoming when I conduct interviews. I never lie about my alliances with the sex workers but at the same time, I often downplay my relationship with them. So far, one of the residents I’ve interviewed has seen me on the corner with the women and even approached me with a greeting. I was relieved it was him because he has the most liberal point of view towards the sex workers and didn’t seem to mind that I was with them. But at the same time, even though I’ve had a lot of luck with my interviews of residents, I find myself nervous about how to present myself to them. After that one unpleasant phone call I’ve been paranoid that other people will “slam their doors in my face.” Perhaps they will, but at least some of the neighbors have opened up to me and seem to understand that I have forged alliances with all the different social representatives in the neighborhood.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Turf Wars

The women were mad today. They were pissed off….at lunch we sat in a group as they argued with one another over what to do. This is the situation: apparently, a few new young girls have appeared on the street in the past couple months and have been robbing clients. Just the fact that these women have simply “appeared” on their turf is itself a big problem because one cannot just “arrive” to Montufar and Espejo Streets. Most of the women on that corner have been working there for at least 2-3 years. There are some true veterans who have been there for 10 years. But one cannot just “appear” on the corner--instead, she must have some sort of “in.” Usually, an established veteran will slowly introduce a new girl to the area and to the other women. This is the ideal manner for a new woman to start working on the San Marcos turf, and from what I’ve heard, in the other prostitution hot spots of the historic center. In the worst case scenario, a new girl arrives and the other women can’t do anything about it because she is accompanied by her “chulo” (pimp) who guards her. But in this case, the new woman will remain isolated from the other women and will probably only work in San Marcos for a while before moving onto another area with her pimp. The women in San Marcos feel like no more women should arrive there because it’s already oversaturated. It’s particularly offensive when young girls arrive (18 years old) because it is an area established by older prostitutes, most of whom are in their 30s and above.

The fact that these young girls have been robbing their clients is hugely problematic because these acts put all the women’s jobs in jeopardy. Little by little, the clients will start venturing to other areas of the historic center to find other, more trustworthy sex workers. Apparently these young women have an established work pattern: they work for 2-3 days a week, robbing every client they service and then disappear for a week or so. Then they reappear for another 2-3 days and repeat the cycle. There are about 3-4 of them and most likely, they’re from the coast. They also have chulos according to the other women, and indeed, most likely it’s their chulos who have devised this robbing scheme.

Things came to a head today, causing the impromptu lunch meeting with some of the veteran prostitutes, when one of the new girls (la flaca—the skinny one) punched F. (a veteran) when F. politely asked her and her friends to leave the area. Not one to back down, F. started yelling at the girl and asked “What the fuck she thought she was doing here!” Their screaming match could be heard down the street and other women intervened before more punches could be dealt. F. was livid and trembling when she stormed into Don Elio’s lunch place. One of her faithful clients, an older man in his 60s, bought her lunch so she would calm down. Some of the other veteran women trailed in, one by one, to discuss what had happened. I listened with interest as the women complained ardently.

It puzzled me that three young women could start dominating the block when there are 15-20 veterans out there. When I asked C. about this she said, “Anita, the problem is that us veterans are not united—we can’t come together as group to prevent these things.” The other women chimed in to support C.’s point, “yeah, if we could put our differences aside and come together, it wouldn’t be a problem.” Instead, smaller alliances have formed among 3-5 women. I’ve never seen fights break out among these smaller groups who are already established on the corner. Although not all the women like one another, they respect each other’s work space and keep to themselves. I must say though, I witness more acts of friendship among the women than acts of aggression, despite their smaller groupings. A lot of the women move easily among different groups—the more social and outgoing ones seem to get along with everyone.

It seems like these new young women are in danger of driving out some of the veterans. One of the issues the women discussed at lunch was that they don’t have other places to go—a couple of them tried working at Plaza Santo Domingo, another prostitution hotspot in the historic center, but the women who work there immediately kicked them out. As I described above, the different turfs are very clearly demarcated and one cannot just suddenly appear in a new area. Anyway, it’s never easy to switch turfs because one will lose her clients from her old post. Even though Santo Domingo is just a 5 minute walk from Espejo and Montufar Streets, they seem miles apart. Completely different groups of clients and women work in each area. In Santo Domingo there are more black women, all from the coast, and some of them augment their incomes by selling base on the side. Indeed, the area around Santo Domingo is known for drugs—the selling and consumption of them are done in the streets and crack houses in the area. It’s more dangerous to work around the plaza at Santo Domingo, without a doubt.

When I asked why, for example, C.’s boyfriend (or another one of their men) couldn’t intervene and intimidate the young girls off the streets, C. and the others replied that their men don’t get involved with their work. They aren’t chulos, so therefore, they stay as far away from the street drama as possible. C. notably said to me, “No Anita, nosotras mujeres mismas tienen que luchar para la calle.” (“No, Anna, it’s us women who have to fight for the street”). It seems that although there may not be more overt confrontations, the “vibe” given to these new women might drive them away. (A lot of the veterans say they would never “fall so low” as to start physical fights with anyone, they pride themselves on being respectable, decent women, not street thugs). As many of the veterans continue to shun them, these new women might begin to find the environment too hostile to work comfortably. It also seems likely that these new girls will move onto another area with their robbing scheme as more clients become privy to their activities. In the meantime, the veterans will continue to complain and remain pissed off with these younger women, who not only pose a threat due to their youth, but who are also damaging their reputations by robbing—an activity reserved to the lowest of the low. According to the veterans, only the junkies actually rob clients. No one else would be so stupid. Obviously, one of the main reasons why the veterans have lasted so long on the streets is because they have developed large client bases by treating these men with respect. Without a doubt, many of the veterans take great pride in the good service they provide to their clients.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Purple plastic beads (2)

(continued...) Indeed, I was shocked to see that there was absolutely no supervision of the men in the cell, nor was there a security guard posted directly outside the cell to supervise the visits. Perhaps it’s due to under-staffing or simply apathy—the steel bars themselves provided the only control or order between inside and outside the cell. It truly shocked me that one could blatantly pass drugs through the bars. And judging by the behavior of some of the inmates—men who simply seemed out of their minds, either pacing or running back and forth in the cell or screaming in the corner, were most likely under the influence of copious amounts of whatever…. Obviously being in prison was not a chance to detox for a few days. Without a doubt, addicts would be able to prevent the onset of any withdrawal symptoms with the ridiculously easy process of “smuggling in” drugs from the outside. I can’t even label it “smuggling,” I’d just say the overt handing over of goods, with the same nonchalance of passing steaming plastic containers of rice through the bars. In contrast to the smuggling of drugs into prisons in the U.S., the paying off of guards was clearly completely unnecessary.

The couples reached for each other through the bars, holding hands tightly while whispering to one another. They could even nuzzle noses and just barely kiss. A. and S. were no different, as they caught up on the day’s events. Mostly A. was worried about S.’s drinking and asked me to confirm S.’s insistence that no, she hadn’t been drinking while he was in prison. Truthfully, I could neither confirm nor deny her drinking, but for S.’s sake I obviously “got her back” and also insisted on her sobriety. Afterward S. told me that A. was particularly obsessed with her drinking because she is more likely to cheat on him under the influence of alcohol than any other drug. Interestingly though, A. does not consider S. turning tricks as cheating, although when he is out of prison he is the “breadwinner” as a robber. When he’s out of prison he does not allow S. to prostitute because he feels it is his duty to provide for them (and probably because he doesn’t like her sleeping with other men, as one might expect) and by robbing a cell phone daily, he can easily cover their drug habit and nightly hotel fee. They both smoke base, which although is not crack, closely approximates it. They also smoke “polvo” or “dust” and I’m still not sure of the difference between “base” and “polvo.” A. uses more than S. although they both seem at early stages of addiction because they still go several days without using. A marked difference exists between their usage and some of the other couples who are clearly more strung out. These other couples have developed the gaunt faces and darting eyes of down-and-out junkies—indeed I was very surprised to learn about A.’s habit because he is still so healthy looking.

Our visit with A. only lasted about 15 minutes, because there were too many other women trying to push through to see their boyfriends. S. knew many of the other women. A. slipped a paper with a phone number to S., someone she had to call for him. A. was only serving a four day sentence for not having his papers—again, it was the excuse the police used when they did their routine search of him—apparently, as they searched him, A. started mouthing off to the cops and ended up hitting one of them. The police continually imprison certain people on the streets they have labeled as “bad,” they throw them in prison despite the fact that they may not have committed a crime at that moment. A. and S. are both routinely targeted and imprisoned by the police because of their “poor conduct” and “bad attitudes.” Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. I also have a fiery personality, and I know I would blow up and mouth off to the cops too if they stopped to search me all the time. For better or for worse, I know I would be like S. on the streets, always getting into trouble.

I could tell A. was deeply touched by my visit, although he was concerned that it was too overwhelming for me. He said, “Anita, you shouldn’t have come here, to such an ugly place, you shouldn’t see this place.” I wanted to see what prison in Ecuador is like, but he was right, I felt unexpectedly overwhelmed. In fact, I felt downright scared and was relieved that there were thick bars between me and the inmates. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge them simply because they’re in prison or by the hardness of their faces, marked with scars, but they aren’t the type of guys I’d want to meet in a random alley. I admit that they scared me, even more so because many of them were fascinated that I was a gringa visiting, admittedly a strange sight. Some called out to me and A. had to tell them to shut up.

Perhaps A. is no saint, but he’s a good man in many ways. Indeed, I went to visit him because I consider him a friend on the streets. Perhaps it’s a platitude to point out, but people are complex mixes of “good” and “bad.” Perhaps I’m simply naïve, but I truly believe that no one is completely bad. I’m reminded of this when I experience the fierce loyalty of people like A. on the streets. He often says to me with total sincerity that if anyone ever touches me he will kill them. Unfortunately, I believe him. The last thing I want is my mugging to be the cause of a violent crime, but I take comfort in the fact that A., one of the toughest guys on the street, has truly “got my back.” I’m not sure what I did to “be down” with him, but now that I am, it has its advantages. I feel safer on the streets with him around. More than once he has warned me of “bad” guys in the area who don’t know me—who don’t know that I’m one of the untouchables on the corner and has herded me into a nearby store.

I was equally touched by his present of the purple plastic beads. I barely know him, but he considers me a good friend, which to me means that that are very few people he can trust in life. That realization left me teary-eyed. I left the prison, stepping out into a grey drizzle, still gripping the purple beads around my neck, lost in thought about these complex relationships I’ve formed in the streets. It took me hours for me to process the visit (actually, I’m still processing it) and to shake off the chills I felt by witnessing such chaos and perhaps by feeling such danger so close to me.

Purple plastic beads (1)

Who would have thought I’d leave Quito’s Penitentiary for Men with a string of purple plastic beads around my neck. But that’s what happened. I accompanied S. to visit her boyfriend, A. in prison and he quietly slipped the beads to me through the thick jail bars. I wasn’t sure what they were at first. He had bunched them up in his hand and all I saw was a tiny flicker of purple through his fingers. He held my hand for a moment as he squeezed the beads into it. He urged me to put the beads around my neck. Their shiny, gleaming surface, like Mardi Gras beads, were out of place in this grim, dark, setting. I was thankful for the beads, not just because they were a gesture of kindness and friendship, but because they gave me some solace as I found myself twisting them in my fingers for the entirety of the visit.

Nothing could have prepared me for my visit to the Quito’s Penitentiary for Men. Although I wasn’t surprised by its horrific conditions, (Ecuador is a poor country that lacks resources for social rehabilitation), coming face-to-face with the reality of prison life was deeply unsettling. The prison is located on the Avenue May 24th which used to be the main drag of the red-light district. Despite the city’s attempts to clean up the area it’s still a tough neighborhood, known for the ready availability of drugs. As we entered the prison, we had to give our “cedulas” (national identification cards) to the first guard and in return he gave us an ominous black stamp on the inside of our wrists. S. doesn’t have a cedula, which is illegal in Ecuador, and indeed when the police need an excuse to put a suspected robber in prison, or when S. or one of the other sex workers acts up against the cops, they often bring them into prison on charges of having possession of their “papers.” Apparently, S. doesn’t want to retrieve another copy of her cedula because it shows her marital status as married, which she is, even though she hasn’t seen her husband in years. (although I’m certain A. already knows this.) As a foreign resident, I also have a cedula and must also have in my possession. Anyway, the guard knew S. and let her pass without collecting her cedula, with the understanding that she would slip him a dollar on the way out. This wasn’t made clear to me until we entered the prison and since I was the one who would be providing the pay-off money (again, not made clear to me until we entered the prison) , and I only had a $10 bill, S. wasn’t able to comply with her side of the bargain. The guard didn’t seem to mind, even though we made a lame attempt to break the $10 in the neighborhood after exiting, but after several fruitless inquiries, S. said, “Fuck it, I’ll pay him double next time.”

All the visitors, the vast majority of whom were the girlfriends and wives of inmates, just like S., formed a line once we handed over our cedulas to be searched by the next guard. A woman security guard searched us, while the male visitors formed a different line to be searched by a man. The security guard quickly found my voice recorder and camera and swiftly placed them inside a drawer of her desk. I was nervous that I’d never see them again but she assured me that she would give them back (and indeed she did). For some reason she also put aside S.’s lip gloss. After giving us thorough pat downs, we entered the next room where the central cell was located. My first sensory experience as I entered was the sudden exposure to the screaming and yelling of the inmates. Throughout the visit it became a manageable din with the exception of punctures of shouting among the men. A. confirmed my suspicion that a lot of fights break out among the men, although he said if you keep to yourself no one will bother you. It was a large open cell, holding about two hundred men, most of them on their feet interacting with one another. When I asked A. where they slept, he pointed to concrete floor. No blankets, no mattresses, just the cold concrete. In the back of the cell I noticed a large communal bathroom, also open with no stalls. Some groups of men were huddled in the back of the cell, curled up next to one another sleeping. It’s a minimum security prison and they had all been arrested for similar crimes—petty theft, robbery, etc.

One sensed that there were different groups of alliances, like in any prison. These alliances seemed based on what region the inmates were from, which in turn, is based on race as Ecuadorians from the coast are often of African descent. But as it was visiting time, which only happens once a day, at 3:00pm, all the men were pushing their way to the front of the bars to find their girlfriends/wives. There was certainly no order or noticeable alliances between men at the front of the cell as they called to their partners. It’s the duty of the girlfriends to bring their boyfriends proper food from outside, as the prison food is inedible, as A. explained to me. Indeed, S., ever the loyal girlfriend, despite A.’s tendencies towards violence, brought him two bags of carry-out, with steaming soup and rice with meat and seafood. I was relieved to find out that during S.’s frequent lock-ups, A.’s brings her food everyday as well. It would be a grave disservice and tremendous act of disrespect if S. or A. did not bring food to one another—it is one of the main markers of their status as romantic partners. The food is simply passed through the prison bars which are wide enough to even fit a baby, which was passed through to her father with careless ease. (Upon entering the chaotic scene the baby immediately started crying, despite her father’s attempts to comfort her). In fact, I was surprised by how wide the bars were because if bags or food and babies could be slipped through, certainly drugs could also be passed through by the pounds. S. confirmed my suspicions as she opened a folded paper filled with marijuana and handed A. several generous finger-fulls. He collected it in his own open folded paper, ready for this exchange of drugs (to be continued...see next post)