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).