Tuesday, August 31, 2010


That’s how much Ecuador’s Vice-President, Lenin Moreno, has offered families with special needs’ children in assistance each month. It’s the equivalent to a month’s salary at minimum wage, which is no small fee. My bodyguard Juan has a special needs’ son, D. (age 3), who still does not walk or talk at all. Over the past few weeks I’ve been filming Juan as he attempts to apply for this assistance. Through the process I’ve learned just how difficult it is to be a poor Ecuadorian, dependent on the public health care system for all services. But not only have we been traveling from one public hospital and clinic to another, we’ve also visited several government offices to figure out how one even applies for this special assistance. Clear, accurate, and direct information seems hard to come by here. Juan had seen the new assistance being advertised on the nightly news, but once we arrived at the supposedly correct government office, the employees knew very little about the actual details of the program.

For Juan and his partner K., who works as a prostitute while he looks after their three children, $240 would make a tremendous difference in their standard of living. They barely scrape by each day, sometimes forced to go to bed and wake-up hungry. The days that Juan works as my bodyguard, I pay for his lunch and for the lunches of his children, which comes to $5.00 daily. The assistance Vice-President Moreno offers is made exactly for families like K. and Javier because Javier cannot seek employment since his primary job is to care for their disabled son (who needs to be watched 24 hours a day). With one partner out of the work force, they must depend on K.’s meager salary to support a family of five. It is extremely difficult considering K. usually only scores an average of 2 puntos (encounters) daily, earning $5.00 for each one.

The catch to receiving the assistance is that the family has to prove that their child is a certain “percentage” disabled. I’m not sure how they quantify it, but the child must be at least “75%” disabled. To me such quantifications seem ridiculous because they are based on random (fairly subjective) evaluations from doctors. What if the child is “merely” blind, and receives a lower disability percentage but the family doesn’t have the resources to send him/her to a special school and therefore must stay home with him/her? What if a doctor misdiagnoses the percentage of an autistic child who is highly adept in some cognitive areas while severely impaired in others? What if a family has an emotionally disturbed child who needs special psychiatric care but has long periods of stability, in which he/she may not need to be watched at all times? (i.e. perhaps both parents might be able to work during these periods of stability, but might not be able to maintain jobs if their child has frequent moments of crises). There are a million more scenarios that make me skeptical of the quantification of these children’s disabilities. An attempt to standardize all the hundreds of possible disabilities a child could have in order to make a vast national comparison is an archaic gesture, reminiscent of French philosopher Foucault’s theories of state power, normalization and vigilance.

I’m terrified that somehow D. won’t “make the cut.” What if a doctor sees him as decides that he is “normal enough” for Juan and K. to not receive financial aid. What if an ignorant doctor decides that D.’s severe cognitive delays are just that, something that he’ll “grow out of?” Just trying to get an evaluation has been a nightmare process. Juan and I have attempted to have D. evaluated at three different hospitals or public clinics and each of them has sent him away, requesting more paperwork from some obscure government office. It has been a Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy with no end in sight. To even get an appointment at one of the public hospitals most people spend the night sleeping at its doors, to line up in order to gain entrance in the morning. At 6:00am the hospital administrators start handing out appointments for the day. Since there are a finite number, only the first part of the line gains entrance. The rest will arrive later that evening to spend the night again, hoping to get an earlier spot for the next day. Once inside the hospital, people wait in lines sitting on the floor, in giant spirals. I’ve never seen anything like it. The lines go around and around the wards in huge circles. People literally spend the entire day waiting; when they finally see the doctor (if they’re lucky) he/she ushers them in and out of his office within five minutes because he/she has so many people to attend.

For someone like Juan with a special needs child, it is not possible to wait in such long lines. For any child it is torture, but for D. it feels especially tortuous because he gets overwhelmed very easily. He hates being in tight spaces with lots of crowds and quickly starts to tantrum, to the point that we’ve had to leave the hospital and lose our turn for the day. We finally decided to go to a local clinic that charges $5 a visit instead of going to the public hospital, because there would be less people. Unfortunately, even in this private clinic D. was exposed to long lines and cramped spaces. Even here people are not given a set appointment and they must wait in long lines. D. ended up having a fit, much to everyone else’s chagrin and to make matters worse, the doctor arrived 2 hours late. When we finally saw the neurologist for an evaluation, he turned us away saying that D. was too out of control to examine—that we would have to come back another day when he was calmer.

I kept my mouth shut, but I was fuming inside. Poor D. couldn’t help but get upset while waiting for a doctor who nonchalantly arrived 2 hours late. Even I was beginning to get tense, bored and irritable. I couldn’t believe this doctor wouldn’t give D. 10 minutes to calm down in his office. Why didn’t he realize that not all of his patients will be easy to deal with—wouldn’t such a realization come with the territory of being a doctor? The worst part about having the doctor turn us away meant that Juan would have to pay another $5 in an attempt to see him again. What will make D. any calmer next week when we have to wait in line for hours? I’m dubious that the doctor will treat him then either. It’s certainly not D.’s fault that he reacted in such a way—if only he could go to the expensive private Metropolitan Hospital, where I receive treatment, where one is given a set appointment, with no waiting in lines—and where the medical care is first-rate, where D. would be guaranteed to receive a fair and accurate evaluation.

I was also shocked by Juan’s reaction. He expressed neither surprise, nor irritation that the doctor turned us away. He accepted it without question. When we left the building I asked him why he didn’t defend himself. He said it hadn’t occurred to him. It made me realize the dramatic difference in our social positions. Juan treats doctors with reverence and views them as an ultimate authority. He would never have the nerve to question a doctor, given his low social standing. As he said, it wouldn’t even occur to him. For me, as the daughter of a doctor, I have a different type of relationship with these authority figures. Naturally I respect doctors, but with my father as one, I feel comfortable asking questions and confronting them when needed. Indeed, I feel empowered enough to question or confront any authority figure, due to the social position I occupy. I couldn’t believe Juan didn’t complain, but it gave me such insight into how it must be to belong to a marginalized, disempowered social group. I’m just worried that due to all the obstacles that accompany being a member of Ecuador’s lower class that somehow we won’t get the evaluation D. requires for Juan and K. to receive the financial assistance they so desperately need.


I know two examples of mothers and daughters who both work on the streets. In one case both work on our corner, independently of one another, not as a team—in both instances, they don’t advertise the fact that they are related. In fact, after working for 11 months on the street, I only just found out that there were mother and daughters on the streets a month ago. No one had told me, especially not the mothers themselves, as I sense that they feel a bit embarrassed or ashamed that their daughters also work.

I found out about A. and her daughter S. one day at lunch. When I entered Don Elio’s (one of our favorite comedores—cafeterias) on the street, I joined A. and another young woman at their table. A. is 35 years old and the woman sitting next to her appeared to be in her early 20s. She was a beautiful young woman whom I hadn’t seen before. As A. and this woman chatted away, I sensed that they were good friends, but since I had never seen her before, I wasn’t sure if she was a sex worker. (By this point, I recognize by face all the sex workers in our area). However, my instincts told me she worked, simply by how she was dressed and by her post-lunch ritual of re-applying her make-up with meticulous care. All the women take at least 10 minutes after lunch while still sitting at the table to re-line their lips, curl and apply more mascara to their eyelashes and to brush out their hair again. Some bring gel in their purses to pull their hair back in tight pony-tails or buns.

A. and S. acted like sisters, laughing and carrying on—I felt like an external participant, observing an intimate relationship. Finally, A. glanced at me, just as my lunch arrived and they were finishing, and to my surprise, said, “Anita, I want to introduce you to my daughter.” The young woman leaned across the table to give me a salutary kiss on the cheek. I swallowed my surprise and smiled at her nonchalantly, as if I always meet the working daughters of sex workers. I couldn’t see a striking resemblance, but told them that obviously they were from the same family because they’re both so beautiful. A. smiled widely and proudly said, “You see how much lighter she is than me, Anita? Her father is almost white!” A. is a black woman from the coast and its true, her daughter is much lighter than her, which is exactly why I didn’t see the resemblance at first. But I hate playing into these race remarks so I simply noted to A., “But she has your beautiful eyes!” which is true.

As A. and s. were leaving the restaurant, A. whispered to me, “Anita, don’t tell anyone she’s my daughter, its top secret!” I reassured her that of course I wouldn’t tell a soul. When A. requested that I maintain her daughter’s anonymity, it confirmed my suspicions that she was a sex worker. And indeed, since that day at lunch, I have seen S. working on the streets by the Marin, the bus depot, a spot where new, younger girls arrive. We always greet one another warmly and sometimes other women ask me who she is. I say she’s new and I met her at Don Elio’s one day. The fact that A. wanted me to keep her daughter’s working status top secret indicates that perhaps she is ashamed that S. also works on the streets. Perhaps she feels like a bad mother, as if she has failed to provide opportunities for her daughter to find other work. Given the tremendous stigma that comes with working as a prostitute, I’m not surprised that A. might feel embarrassed that her daughter fell into the same work. The vast majority of women on the street tell me that above anything else, they would never (ever) want (or allow) their daughters to work as prostitutes.

I don’t know any of the details of A. and S.’s case: perhaps A. forbade S. to work but S. defied her, or perhaps on the other hand, A. ushered S. into the sex industry. Who knows? I don’t judge them either way—that’s the way things work on the streets. I’ve never asked anyone and obviously would never ask A., unless she offered me more information freely.

The other mother-daughter “team” on the street is another woman with a name “A.” and her daughter “I.” Again, only recently did I learn they’re related, even though they don’t seem to keep it a secret. It seems like everyone except me knew. It had never come up and they don’t resemble one another at all, so I had never guessed it. Only when one of the other sex workers was looking for I. and asked A. if she had seen her daughter did I learn the connection. Sensing that it was an open topic, I asked A. to confirm, “I. is your daughter??? I didn’t know that!” A. laughed and said, “Of course she is, you didn’t know that Anita?” I was shocked. I would have never guessed they were related. They seem to be the same ages as A. and her daughter, S. The difference is that I see I. frequently on the street since she works on the same corner as her mother. I am very friendly with A., but I. works intermittently, so I’ve never gotten close to her.

Over lunch the other day, A. told me about her troubled daughter. I had asked her where she had disappeared to, as I hadn’t seen I. in weeks. Sighing deeply, A. said that I. had run off with one of her clients, convinced she was madly in love with him, despite the fact that she has a husband. She dropped her three children off with A. late one night promising that she would be back one day. A. has no idea where her daughter is and obviously feels resentful that she suddenly has to be a mother to her three grandchildren. As she explained the story, A. got more and more pissed off with her daughter, calling her immature and irresponsible. A. says they’ve always had a difficult relationship and that they often go for long periods without speaking. In fact, I’ve never seen them interact on the street before, which is probably another reason why I didn’t know they were related. Unlike A. and her daughter S., A. and her daughter I. don’t seem like friends at all or even casual acquaintances.

I haven’t probed into how I. began working on the streets with her mother. Just like with the other woman named “A,” I figure the details will emerge at a later date, although they don’t really matter much. It’s the marked difference in attitude of the mothers in each case that makes things interesting: the first A. keeps her daughter’s work status a top-secret, while the other A. shares it openly. As such, one might assume that the second A. doesn’t view prostitution as a shameful job. Perhaps she feels her daughter is old enough to choose her employment and that sex work is the best way for her to support her children (even though at this very moment A. is supporting them, not her daughter).

Monday, August 30, 2010

My Birthday Bash

I knew celebrating my birthday (Aug. 27th) with my sex worker friends in the streets would be a good time. Despite all their hardships, (or because of them more likely), these women know how to party, and they’re willing to do so at any hour of the day. I wanted to have a relaxed gathering during the day because I had already planned a birthday party that night. I arrived in the Centro at noon with my birthday cake and more and more women kept appearing. They arrived with big bottles of beer in their hands—my birthday definitely gave them a good excuse to drink. As is the custom here, one person is in charge of pouring beer into one glass which is passed around and around. One is expected to down the glass in its entirety before giving it back to the main server. In this case, Ginger, one of our transgender friends who works on the streets in another part of the city, was playing host. Even though these women sometimes don’t have enough money to eat lunch each day, they certainly found enough money for endless beers at $1.00 a piece.

One tradition I didn’t know about is that the birthday girl (or boy) receives the equivalent number of spanks that he/she has in years. I couldn’t believe it when my friend K. took off her leather belt and all the women lined up. They told me to stand still and bend over. I couldn’t believe it! I was laughing hysterically as each of them slapped me hard across my ass. Some of them hit me really hard! Perhaps it was satisfying for them to pound a gringa—perhaps it felt like some sort of leveling of power. Thank God they decided to stop before reaching my age—apparently I’m so old that they got bored before completing.

The other unexpected act was when I blew out the candles for my cake, two women shoved my face into it. Again, I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. No one in my life had ever done that. I’ve seen it at weddings but not at birthdays. Perhaps it is also a custom in the U.S., I’m not sure. Then the party turned into a food fight of sorts. Once all the pieces were passed out to the dozen or so women who showed up (more and more kept trailing through the door—we were in the telephone cabins on the corner), the women flung bits of icing into each others’ faces. Then we took lots of group photos, all of us covered in icing and buzzed with beer. These women have to take each opportunity for fun seriously, because it doesn’t happen frequently. Many of the women only stayed briefly because they couldn’t take more time off from work. Despite my birthday, these women were still in the middle of a work day. I was so touched and flattered when each of them came and gave me a huge hug and kiss on the check. They all asked that “God Bless me” and wished me lots of happiness. It wouldn’t have felt right not celebrating my birthday with the sex workers. They are like family to me here and treat me as such.

Soap Opera Salon

Today I took a break from the sex industry and headed to the nail salon. The young woman working with me launched into her recent heartbreak with an intensity and sadness that made me feel right back on the streets (exactly what I like to avoid on my days off). Accustomed to listening to such dramas, I didn’t mind sitting back and soaking in her story. Once again it left me with the realization that machisimo is alive and well in this country.

The woman, whom I’ll call Carla (I never got to her name), is from a rural province near Ambato, a city three hours south of Quito, partly known for its large surrounding indigenous communities. It would be difficult to be a woman in these areas. Her parents arranged her married when she was 15, which surprised me, because that custom has changed dramatically in the past generation. She told me that her parents arranged her sister’s marriage when she was just 13. Soon after getting married, she had two sons and realized that her husband was a miserable match. He was unemployed and more committed to drinking with his friends than to parenthood. In a way, I can’t blame him, although forced to marry at 15, he was acting perfectly age-appropriate, at least for “most” teenagers in the world. What 15 year old has the maturity to manage marriage and parenthood? But obviously, plenty of other teenage boys in his community are forced into the same situation and can rise to the occasion. Anyway, the machisimo becomes apparent when Carla had to adopt the all the responsibilities of her family, including work to support them, plus perform all domestic tasks while her husband’s behavior was viewed as perfectly acceptable. There’s a saying here that goes: “He might kill me, but he’s my husband.” The first time I heard that, I was utterly shocked, but unfortunately, now I’ve heard it plenty of times.

Unsurprisingly, this marriage didn’t last long. Despite the misery and hardship, Carla would have never left her husband—being from a rural, traditional community, she was expected to endure and endure. She felt relieved when he finally left her for another woman. Although Carla was ashamed when her husband left because being a single mother is frowned upon, she said it was a blessing in disguise because it forced her to leave her small village and move to Quito. Alone and depressed in the capital (she left her children with her parents), she found work as a domestic servant and then in the salon.

Carla found solace from her heartbreak in a new friend in Quito, a seemingly kind man who listened to her problems. “Just friends” for a long time, her new friend was frank about the fact that he had a girlfriend and son. Their platonic relationship turned romantic and before she knew it Carla was living with her new boyfriend, despite the fact that he already had a girlfriend. Looking back on it, Carla says she doesn’t know why she put up with the situation for so long (i.e. docilely accepted the fact that he was already in a relationship). But she put up with it for four years….. She assumed that since he had chosen to live with her than he had “chosen” her over his girlfriend. Who knows what he had told his “real” girlfriend this whole time—i.e. where he was living, etc. etc.

Once Carla told her boyfriend she was pregnant, everything changed. He made up his mind once and for all to return with his original girlfriend. He told her to have an abortion, that he couldn’t support another child. Carla was horrified that he had asked her (and expected her) to commit a sin—abortions are still illegal in Ecuador and most people are morally against them due to the Church. Being from a small village, Carla said it would never have entered her mind to have an abortion. His request seemed coldhearted and cruel, even monstrous. Furthermore, Carla truly believed that he had left his “ex” for good when in fact he had been in constant contact with her over the years.

Carla’s boyfriend left her in the weeks after she told him about her pregnancy. He left without a trace and she seriously considered having an abortion for the first time. Interestingly enough, destiny took over and she ended up miscarrying. Now that she was no longer pregnant, Carla felt free and could move on from this man. Apparently, her boyfriend is a national policeman—they are known to be womanizers because they’re stationed to work in different regions of the country every two years to cut down on corruption in the police force. Carla now realizes that he probably has a girlfriend in “every post,” like a sailor. She said that upon arriving in the big city she was naïve and impressionable, like a little girl. She explained (with tears in her eyes), that she has now learned not to trust men or their “good” intentions.

I feel badly for her, she must have still been in her early 20s, and had already suffered such terrible heartaches. Carla explained that the transition from her rural village to the big city has been filled with shocking discoveries—that you can’t trust people so easily and must keep to yourself. It was interesting to hear Carla grapple with her decision over the abortion. It seems that the “immorality” of the action was the deciding factor, despite the fact that a large stigma accompanies being a single mother as well. Indeed, Carla said herself that again, the miscarriage was a blessing in disguise because she didn’t want to be a single mother once again (and more importantly, was saved from having to commit a sin).

Monday, August 23, 2010


I mentioned in a previous post that at times one of the difficult parts about being deeply entrenched in a community is that one becomes part of its everyday gossip circles. Obviously, I’m not privy to everything people on the streets are saying about me behind my back, but some stuff comes back to me and leaves me quite amused (or bemused—sometimes confused as well.) The immediate women I work with on my corner all know me and don’t have any more questions about why I’m here or what I do. They accepted my presence a long time ago, even though they might not quite understand my “job.” But I don’t either at times. Among this group of women, I feel like an ordinary target of gossip—just like any of them—from what I know of, it’s benign, everyday stuff.

One type of rumor my friends pass along to me is if they hear of people wanting to rob me. In that case, I’m not the object of gossip, per se, they’re just passing along useful information. I was furious when I heard a woman, M. had mentioned during lunch one day that she was going to rob me. The women dismiss M. because she’s a base-head (equivalent to a crack-head, the drug here called base, not crack), and always talks “bullshit.” But one of the women took me aside to tell me this and in my anger, a few days later, I went up to M.’s boyfriend and told him, “You can tell M. she’s never going rob me. Tell her not to even think about it.” Clearly this got back to M., who became furious and began asking all the women, “Which one of you whores told la gringa (the white girl) I’m going to rob her.”

The woman who actually told me, pulled me aside soon after, and said, “Anita, no matter what happens, whatever you do, don’t ever tell anyone that it was me who warned you.” She was shaking as she told me. That’s when I realized the gravity of the situation and realized I had made a big mistake by opening my mouth. Not only did I put myself in more danger by provoking the situation, but I also put my friend who warned me in potential danger too. Obviously I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, on all matters big and small. Under no circumstances do I start gossiping with the women, even though I now know things that a lot of other people don’t. (i.e. I’m a good source of gossip considering all the things people have confided in me over the past year). When I have one-on-one interviews obviously the women talk to me in confidence and I’d never break these trusts.

I recently found out about the most outlandish piece of gossip circling among another group of sex workers about me. These are not the women I work with, rather, they work a few blocks down from the corner I’m on. Even though it’s just a few blocks away from where I work, they occupy a different world. They stand next to the Marin, the central bus station for the historic center, a bustling thoroughfare where it’s tough to identify them as sex workers. Obviously clients know who they are but for the most part these are new, young girls who have chulos (pimps) whom they are working for. This part of the Marin has never been a hot-spot for prostitution, it’s sprung up over the past year, as these girls aren’t allowed to work where my veteran sex workers solicit. Anyway, as I was leaving work one afternoon, making my way to the bus, one of the women from the Marin called over to me. She said, “Anita, Anita, come here.” I had seen her plenty of times but had never spoken with her before—but it’s typical because even though I don’t know everyone’s name, all the sex workers know mine.

She asked, “Don’t you come from Chile?” I said no. She said, “Well, don’t you send children to Chile?” Again, no. Then she explained how her pre-adolescent son is acting up and she just “can’t deal with him anymore.” It dawned on me that she wanted me to send him to Chile ??? I was dumbfounded. I wanted to laugh. I explained that although I’m invested in the children of the sex workers, and yes, I’ve been helping one family with their special needs’ son, I definitely am not in the business of sending children away. It occurred to me during that perhaps she thinks I traffic in children, and in this case to Chile? I did not take this realization lightly—it freaked me out to be honest. I explained once again to the woman, “No, under no circumstances do I take children from their families—perhaps I can help you find other services for your son if you’d like.” The woman launched into a long story about how her son has always been a trouble-maker and how she thought he’d settle down with age, but just the opposite has happened. As usual, I felt myself slip into a therapist role, but trying just to listen rather than interject my own thoughts. I asked the woman if she had thought about taking advantage of some of the free counseling that exists at the public health centers. She looked at me blankly and said, “No, I think it would be better just to send him away.”

Obviously no one wants to be mistaken as a child thief, although in this case, I don’t think the woman saw me as a malevolent force, but perhaps someone who works for an international NGO. Or at least I hope that’s the way she saw me. Indeed, I hope the rumor she heard put me in a good light. I’m horrified to think that people have the perception that I’m somehow involved in the trafficking of children! I’m glad this woman approached me to clarify what I do. I’m still not sure she believed me, but hopefully, she’ll find other women who can confirm my role. But it just goes to show that when one is the object of a rumor, it’s completely beyond one’s control…who knows how such a thing started. Perhaps this woman just made it up herself, just assumed my role because she wanted to send her son away. A projection of some sorts….Who knows… However, I do find peace in the fact that a large group of sex workers in the Centro know that at the very least I’m an ally (regardless of what rumors float about).

Friday, August 20, 2010

History Lesson

Today is August 10th, a national holiday in Ecuador. Like most holidays celebrated here, the commemoration of it, since it falls on a Tuesday, will be celebrated on Friday as part of a long weekend. Wealthy Quiteños head to the beach while the sex workers hope that business will pick up. Rather than analyzing the situation on the streets, I want to review this historical date—I’ve been reading a lot about Quito’s history as background information for my research.

According to historians, Ecuador’s struggle for independence began on August 10, 1809 and finished in 1830 when it separated from Grand Colombia, the large republic created by Simon Bolivar upon the region’s independence from Spain. August 10, 1809 marks the very first uprising and preliminary cries for independence in Ecuador. A new “independent” government, “Una Junta” lasted until October of 1809 but due to lack of public and regional support outside of Quito, it quickly dissolved. Despite only lasting a couple months, this was the first independent government in Latin America and although he is not recognized as such, Ruiz de Castilla, was technically Ecuador’s first President. At this time, Ecuador as a country hadn’t formed as a complete whole. The coastal city Guayaquil, a thriving port, and Cuenca, another large city in the sierra highlands, did not yet consider themselves part of the same region as Quito. Instead, at this time, they expressed more affinity to the cosmopolitan center of Lima, in contemporary Peru.

After Royalist (Spanish) troops from Lima occupied Quito once again, it became a city under siege and all of the early revolutionaries involved in the battle of August 10, 1809 were given death sentences, tortured, and placed in prison indefinitely. Once the Spaniards invaded Quito, the public began to support revolutionary efforts. No longer a theoretical idea limited to elite intellectuals, local Quiteños began to yearn for independence as well as they began to experience oppression from the monarchy. For example, most families in Quito had loved ones in jail, (many times randomly) had property destroyed, or acts of cruel violence committed against them. If they weren’t already against the monarchy, historians note that this occupation after the fail of the August 10 uprising, converted the masses in a fellow sweep, setting the stage for the next battle of independence.
Another event that firmly planted the seeds of independence in Quito’s public, was the massacre of August 2, 1810, when a group of revolutionaries broke into the city’s jails to free the political prisoners from the previous year’s uprising (the original battle of August 10, 1809). Although some prisoners went free, it provoked a bloody massacre in which the monarchy’s army turned against the masses protesting in the streets. The exact number of people killed is not known, but it is thought between 150-300. In the months after this event, the yearning for independence reached new levels—Simon Bolivar proclaimed that, “The massacre of Quito marks the start of this war that we will fight ‘til the death, until we obtain independence.” The “blood of Quito” became a powerful symbol during the struggles of independence throughout the entire region.

Important for my research is the role that San Marcos, the neighborhood where I work with the sex workers, played in Ecuador’s long struggle for independence. San Marcos was founded at the end of the 17th century and has always been characterized as a solidly middle class area where artisans, who still work and live in the neighborhood today, have honed their crafts over the centuries. Due to its isolated geography—it developed between two deep ravines, which were finally filled at the end of the 18th century—San Marcos is one of the historic center’s best preserved neighborhoods. Only one street enters the neighborhood, Junín, which ends in a large cul-de-sac, so there’s no through traffic and no one passes through the neighborhood to get to somewhere else. The sex workers of today work along its peripheral street, Montúfar, which is perpendicular to Junín.

Another characteristic of San Marcos is that it has always been known as an intellectual neighborhood and indeed, some of the most important thinkers of Independence resided within its streets. The clergy member, Miguel Antonio Rodríguez Mañosca, who is considered one of the fundamental visionaries and masterminds behind Ecuador’s independence, lived his entire life in San Marcos. Due to his active involvement in the struggle for independence, he was condemned to death in 1813. He was able to escape his sentence by choosing to be exiled to the Philippines. Francisco Javier Ascásubi was another revolutionary from San Marcos who had signed the “First Cry of Independence” Acts of August 10, 1809. He was killed in the massacres of August 2, 1810 and was buried in the Church of San Francisco, the first church established in Quito during the colonial period. Among others who participated in the August 10th, 1809 uprising or who were considered some of Ecuador’s most important intellectuals who resided in San Marcos were Juan Barreto, Juan Pablo Arenas, Javier Espinoso, Manuel Ascásubi Matheu, and Carlos Andrade Marín.

Despite the fact that the connection between these revolutionaries and today’s demographic of San Marcos, including the sex workers and robbers of the area, is tenuous at best, perhaps there’s something to be said that neighborhood has a history of attracting some of Quito’s most “rebellious” citizens. In any case, it’s good to review the significance of August 10th and to take into account San Marcos’s early prominent residents. At the very least, it's important to note that the neighborhood continues to attract artists and intellectuals as residents. (The sex workers of San Marcos do not also reside in the neighborhood—they live in other parts of the historic center or in South Quito).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dirty Pants

Quite literally, every day when I come home, I realize that my pants are filthy. That should come as no surprise as I spend the day actually sitting on the curb or on the sidewalk with some of the women. Although most of the women stand while working, many of them take a break by either sitting on the curb or on a concrete step outside of a building that as many of us as possible squeeze onto. I like sitting with them on this step. Usually I get pulled into the middle of four women and we all crunch together giggling and laughing. I always feel part of the group when sitting with them there. Some of the down-and-out women (i.e. drug users) find themselves sitting on the concrete sidewalk or sometimes even half-lying across it. I plop down to talk with them, not minding knowing that I’ll get my pants dirty for the day.

Some of the women disapprove of my overly-liberal “sitting on the sidewalk” behavior. They “tsk, tsk” me and say I’m not being a lady. Indeed, most of the sex workers pride themselves on their clean, shiny, sexy clothes. For them, it’s important to maintain their status as “ladies” because their work as prostitutes often automatically negates their attempts at this more dignified identity. But it’s important to them that they try. For me, it’s another defense mechanism I use to detract men and potential robbers. The more I sit on the sidewalk or curb, the less of a gringa I become. Obviously, I’m already “different” from a typical gringa because I’m not passing through as a tourist. I’ve been spending every day on the streets, slowly becoming immersed in its vibrant and dangerous community. When I sit on the ground, I seem reify my position as an insider, rather than an outsider. They expect gringas to behave differently, perhaps with more elegance or decency—just my subject position as a white North American ensures these characteristics in me, but I tend to rebel against them to let everyone know that I AM different. I will sit on the street with the quasi-junkies or on the concrete step (there’s no stigma to sitting on this particular step). Sometimes, it’s just the most comfortable place to be.

I’ve never been concerned about getting dirty or grimy, a personality quirk that aids my fieldwork considering just how dirty I can get during the day. As a typical day involves playing with or caring for a few of kids I’ve become close to—sex workers’ children—I’m used to having that grubby-kid dirt rub off on me. Sometimes I get splattered with ice-cream or find myself with a can of soda dumped on my lap. Sometimes I laugh on the bus heading homeward as I notice a piece of gum or sticky candy stuck to my pants. Perhaps I’m so carefree about my dirty-pants because it’s such a welcome change of pace from my previous four years of academic life on campus. Now during fieldwork, it’s time to get “down and dirty,” I finally feel free, no longer glued to a chair and desk for 9 hours a day. I don’t care if fieldwork means literal dirt, these past four years have been too sterile for my liking. No dirt in the library, just shiny rows of desks and chairs where students pour over computers, only a small percentage of time dedicated to actual working.

I had a funny incident happen two weeks ago when I went out with my friends at night in the historic center, near where I work. There was a free concert in one of the plazas where our friends’ band was playing. Naturally, out of work I dress very differently. I have mentioned in a previous post that while working on the streets I wear my most conservative, “un-sexy” clothes possible to present men from thinking I’m a sex worker. Despite my totally nerdy appearance, with tape recorder and backpack as my most prominent accessories, men still harass me and ask how much I cost. As such, I have a strict no make-up, no tight clothes, always grubby sneakers dress code. But on this occasion, as I was out on the town with friends, I dressed up in a skirt, make-up, jewelry, and boots. I wasn’t surprised to run into one of the women, still working near the plaza. When I went up to greet her she didn’t recognize me at first. Then it dawned on her that I was “Anita”—her friend “Anita”—and she laughed. The first thing she said was “Wow, Anita—you look so pretty! I’ve never seen you like this before—why don’t you ever look so nice on the street?” I explained to her my theory of detracting men and unwanted attention, which she understood—she just couldn’t believe I had this totally separate life, going out with friends and wearing clean, sexy clothes!

It’s true, this Anita, out on the town would never (well, I can’t ever say never) sit on the pavement with my friends. That Anita only exists during the work day when I feel free and open to do as I please—sometimes outside the norms of traditionally “decent behavior.” But goodness, if my rebellion from my constrained academic life only consists of sitting on the pavement when I know I’m not “supposed to” I’d say I’m still pretty wholesome (especially considering what I could be doing, being exposed to so much decidedly unwholesome activities all day, every day). The most negative side effect of my “scandalous” behavior is having lots of laundry to do at the end of the week. Perhaps getting “down and dirty” doesn’t actually make me more “down” with my community on the street—perhaps it’s something I do for myself—somehow making me feel that I somehow “am” more down—but regardless, I like it. I find it part of the release that fieldwork provides, as a stark contrast to the physical position I must occupy in my straight desk and chair at home, poured over books at the library-- sometimes so unbearably rigid and boring. Through fieldwork I’ve discovered that if anything, sitting on the curb getting dirty, comes more naturally to me than the clean monastic lifestyle of academic life.