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).