Saturday, September 11, 2010


I have discussed the challenges I face in defining my relationships with my informants many times. As an anthropologist, it is one of the most confusing things about my work—that I study people, not things, and as such develop relationships with them. Of course these relationships don’t need a label, they are what they are, but at times I slip into friendships with them and have the same expectations of them as I would of any other friend.

Last night an incident happened in which I realized that I have a different type of relationship with my informants than with my other friends. K., the wife of Juan my bodyguard had invited me to Guayaquil for the weekend to visit her mother. We would leave Friday night on the 9:00pm bus, travel through the night and arrive early the next morning. We would bring their three children while Juan could stay in Quito and work (rob, or take advantage of carelessness, as he likes to call it). We had been planning this trip all week and with each day, K. got more and more excited about it. We planned everything to the last detail and agreed upon who would take what food for the bus. I had agreed to lend her a backpack to pack her kids’ things for the weekend. All week K. reminded me of more things—don’t forget your bathing suit, bring bug spray, it’s hot as hell on the coast right now—no jeans. Her excitement was infectious. I was excited to meet her family in Guayaquil. I was excited for a new adventure, especially since I haven’t been to the coast in years.

Friday night comes and I had spent the afternoon packing. I thought of everything, I think. I brought everything K. recommended and even bought some toys for the kids for the 8 hour bus ride (even though they would be asleep for most of it). I bought snacks for the bus and canceled my weekend plans with friends in Quito. Being a good gringa, I arrived promptly at the hotel where they live at 8:00pm. When I arrived no one was there. The owner of the hotel told me that both K. and Juan had left with the kids a bit earlier. Furthermore, the owner told me that K. always tells her when she goes to Guayaquil a few days prior and K. hadn’t mentioned a thing. Extremely confused and getting increasingly pissed off, I waited for K. and Juan to show up. Obviously, when K. said to meet at 8:00, that could mean anywhere between 8:30-10:00pm as Ecuadorians are not known for their punctuality. But I had a deeper fear that the trip was not going to happen.

It turns out that my instincts were right. Juan finally arrived at the hotel with their youngest, special needs’ son. He seemed surprised that I was there. I told him, “Remember, K. and I are going to Guayaquil this weekend—it’s her brother’s birthday—remember?” I was super pissed off. He shook his head and looked sad. He said, “Anita, I don’t think you’re going…K. is out working.” That meant that K. hadn’t earned the money she needed for the bus fares. Suddenly, I felt ashamed and guilty. How could I judge K. when I take my bus fare for granted? I can pay $9 so easily, it hadn’t occurred to me that the trip depended on the money K. could make that particular day. This family survives from day-to-day. They have no savings and often go to bed hungry.

Perhaps I felt guilty and privileged, but I still felt pissed off. I told Juan that K. should have at least called me to let me know that the trip was up in the air. Perhaps she felt embarrassed to tell me given her excitement all week. But at the same time, in the moment, I was angry that I had spent the afternoon preparing for a trip that wasn’t going to happen. Above all, I felt disappointed. I was excited to meet K.’s family, to travel to the coast and experience something new. Unfortunately, this incident also made me disappointed in K. as a person. I was disappointed that she couldn’t pull through for me—that she couldn’t even call me to tell me the trip was canceled. I understand that poverty can cause inevitable, abrupt changes in plans, but I wouldn’t accept such behavior from a friend so I couldn’t accept it from K. either.

Or so I thought… that I’ve had time to chill out, I realize that it isn’t K.’s fault that we couldn’t go. Her life circumstances may make her less reliable than my other friends, but obviously she’s still a good person and still a friend to me—we just won’t ever have the same type of relationship as I have with other friends—people who share my social class and who have less struggles in general. But K. IS a good friend in many ways. She is fiercely devoted to me on the streets and with Juan, takes care of me more than any other sex worker. Under her care, I know nothing will ever happen to me. For that, I am eternally grateful. But for now I’ve learned that I can’t count on her for weekend plans, and that’s not the end of the world.

Street Kitten

As any of my friends or family could tell you, at times I’m prone to impulsive acts. Lately this has included bringing home a street kitten. As impulsive actions usually go, I didn’t think much about the consequences or what the long-term future would mean. All I know is that it was pouring with rain and I saw a drenched kitten sitting near the doorway of my apartment building. In a moment of concern, humanity, and of course impulsivity, I grabbed the kitten, tucked her under my arm and brought her home to my apartment. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly cute (pictures to follow)…

Upon reflection of my actions, which is usually what happens after a sudden burst of impulsivity, I made a connection between my work on the streets and rescuing the kitten. The day I rescued her, Rubi (named after one of my sex worker friends), I remember feeling particularly vulnerable and emotionally exhausted. I wrote in an earlier post that at times my work feels emotionally overwhelming and unsustainable. I’m overwhelmed by the poverty and hardships these women face. I’m saddened to no end watching some of my friends fall into drugs—watching people shrink in size, lose their smiles and develop deep lines in their faces. I’m exposed to so much pain and feel completely hopeless. I also recognize that I’m simply an anthropologist. I’m not here to save anyone. Nor do I have the economic means, power or resources to do so. I feel guilty that I can’t do more. I always hope that my ability to listen as people share their stories is a small help—that at least I listen to these women, many of whom have no one to turn to for emotional support.

In my analysis, I rescued Rubi in order to fulfill my need to rescue something, anything, in a tangible way from the street. I can “save” this kitten. Indeed, I did save her. I provide her with food, water, and a warm place to sleep at night. I have brought her to the vet, cleared her of disease and illness. It is satisfying to watch her grow and flourish in my home. It fulfills my maternal (or guilt-driven anthropological need?) impulse, my yearning to rescue someone or something from the pain of the streets. Perhaps I didn’t bring home a street kid, as I’ve often wanted to do, but at least Rubi now has shelter from the rain.

“I clean, I cook, I iron….and so what?”

There is a fascinating social campaign against machismo as seen through dozens of billboards and advertisements on the sides of buses throughout Quito. One poster shows a man with children in the background stating such things as above. I’ve also seen one that says, “My wife makes more money than me, and so what?” Underneath these statements in large red letters it states, “Ecuador, move on from machismo—machismo is violence.” The first time I saw these ad campaigns I was shocked and filled with glee. One of the challenges of living in this country, (and I’m sure other in Latin American countries) is trying to earn the respect I’m accustomed to in the United States. Perhaps I have particularly high standards because I went to a women’s college (Barnard College in New York City) and study gender in Latin America for my doctorate.

Perhaps my investigation on sex work makes me especially sensitive to this topic, in which I’m exposed to some of the most horrific stories about men who beat their wives, clients who treat the women badly, etc. etc. Many feminists who study sex work feel that prostitution itself equals violence against women, a view I’m opposed to. Rather, I try to respect and accept what these women themselves tell me—that they do not feel like victims. They feel as if they have chosen the best employment available to them. Does it mean they like it? Of course not. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys working as a prostitute. But, I have met plenty of women who feel empowered that they can be single mothers and support their household without a man.

Indeed, I believe it’s the sex workers’ stories of pain and suffering that make me prone to identifying machismo at every moment. Just the double standard that exists around prostitution shows the potency of machismo here—no one ever judges the clients who visit prostitutes, despite the fact that most are married men. Instead, the “immortality” of the situation falls on the prostitute, they’re the ones who must carry the burden of their profession. In fact, I’ve seen the same male residents who are most vocal against prostitution in neighborhood meetings enter the hotel with a sex worker. It blows my mind to see such hypocrisy. Sex in any form, context, with whomever, is totally acceptable for men. Quito is still such a traditional city, heavily influenced by the church, that there is much pressure to always be a “good girl” (i.e. be a faithful spouse, never sleep around). It is frowned upon for young unmarried women to be promiscuous (perhaps the same in the United States, to a lesser degree).

Anyway, the machismo I have experienced personally is rather benign. Much of it could be labeled gallantry which at times, is a trait I wish more North American men value. For example, men accompany me to my bus or taxi when I’m out—it would be unheard of for a woman to walk alone anywhere. Part of that is entirely logical given the dangers in Quito. Sometimes I enjoy this backside of machismo, opening doors for me, paying for drinks because it’s expected—I won’t deny it, there are benefits to being a woman here in receiving this “special treatment” that I’m not accustomed to. However, sometimes cultural clashes erupt between myself and men here. They don’t understand why I go off by myself or feel comfortable being alone in general. I was raised by liberal parents who gave me my space and independence. I rarely answered to anyone. Here as a woman, you have less independence—I don’t envy my Ecuadorian women friends who have to answer to their fathers and their boyfriends about their whereabouts several times a day.

Things are changing in the younger generations. I have plenty of male friends who I would never label as macho. Most of them are from the upper class and have traveled or lived outside of Ecuador. They have been exposed to different types of gender interactions and live in a world where their mothers don’t cook their every meal. They even live in their own apartments and cook/clean for themselves, which is a big step in itself. In earlier generations men and women both went from their parents’ house to marriage and living as husband and wife. In my opinion, machismo starts with the mothers here. Ironic, but true. They don’t let their sons lift a finger and baby them to no end. Their sons are their little princes. Perhaps they focus so much on their sons because their husbands don’t provide them with the emotional support they need. These grown sons expect the same treatment when they get married. As such the cycle continues. This is just my own personal theory, I have done no investigative work to support this—simple observations. (That’s the glory of blogs, no footnotes needed).

Anyway, every time I see these anti-machismo ad campaigns I’m filled with hope and joy. Ecuador still has one of the highest domestic violence rates of the region, but at least someone realizes, at an institutional level, that machismo needs to be addressed. These campaigns make it crystal clear that machismo does indeed exist in Ecuador and that it’s no longer socially acceptable. What was once a social norm is now being challenged….change is in the future and it’s exhilarating.

Carmen's Lunch Place

Every day we all brave the fierce hill of Montufar Street, go careening down its back side, wait at the traffic light on Flores and take our first right onto Guzman. About ¾ of the way down the block we step into a dark and dingy lunch spot on the right—no windows, dirty wooden floors, long tables and benches where crowds of people eat at the same time. And there is Carmen herself, an affable woman from the coast, from Manabi to be exact, which is why people from all over the historic center seek out her food. Lunch is taken very seriously in Ecuador and Carmen has the best lunch in the area. For $1.50 one gets soup, juice and a second course which always includes salad, rice and some sort of meat (I never ask what it is—often I have no idea what I’m eating, but it’s delicious anyway). Carmen stands behind two huge pots, a big ladle in hand, first doling out the soup, and then serving heaping spoonfuls of rice and meat onto large platters. Standing under the heat all day, always wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, Carmen treats her business seriously. She always has enough food for everyone and never repeats her menus. Furthermore, Carmen is a lovely woman: she’s warm, accommodating, and friendly with her clients. In fact, everyone is friends with Carmen, everyone from all over the historic center.

The first time I went to Carmen’s I felt intimidated. Most definitely not a place to go alone--I went under the care and supervision of my sex worker friends. Carmen’s lunch place accommodates all the robbers, muggers, drug addicts, drug dealers, pimps, mafia members, and sex workers of the historic center. Basically, all of the area’s most “dangerous” individuals (as would be described by conventional society) eat lunch at Carmen’s. As such, my first trip to Carmen’s was filled with anxiety. The women warned me before we entered that I had to sit at the far table with them, on the inside, squeezed next to the wall, while they sat on the outside of the table. They took my bag and stuffed it into their pants. I glanced around at the unfamiliar faces and felt a bit scared. I was also worried that I’d get sick from Carmen’s food—I had eaten at other “hole-in-the wall” types of places before with the women, but this was the dingiest of all.

Many months have passed since my first visit to Carmen’s. Now I enter alone, greet Carmen with a kiss on the cheek, greet her brother, nephew and son who all help her run the place. I go from table to table and greet all the people—they are all still the muggers, addicts, drug dealers, pimps, etc. but now I know them and they greet me with much warmth. Only once I’ve made my rounds to say hello to everyone do I then sit down and eat. I dive into my food without fear. I’ve never gotten sick from Carmen’s food, so despite its outward appearance, I know it’s a safe place to eat. Usually I’m with a sex worker friend or join a few women at a table. I chat with everyone and it has become a very pleasant ritual in my day. I feel no fear at Carmen’s, nor do I need to. I know her brother guards me fiercely, as do many of the pimps I now know—as well as the sex workers and Javier, who is my official bodyguard. In fact, I feel completely at home with Carmen. I enjoy joking with her and the others in the restaurant.

Last week I arrived at Carmen’s with my transgender friend Ginger to find that Carmen’s had been closed. We rapped on the door again and again until we saw Carmen peer through a tiny crack. She whispered, “Come around the back.” As if entering an underground speak-easy, we entered a door a few doors down from her restaurant into a plaza and living area of an old colonial home. There was another gate to the right, surrounded by barking dogs. Carmen’s brother shooed the dogs away and invited us through the gate. We crossed through a yard, entered a cement basement, passed through several rooms and then finally, up some steep steel stairs through a trap-roof door to enter the extra-dark restaurant. Everyone was there, speaking in hushed tones. Teary-eyed, Carmen explained that they shut her down that afternoon for no apparent reason--that she had received a denouncement from someone and the police were investigating. We ate lunch silently, listening to Carmen as she complained that someone must be jealous of her and wanted to close her down. I asked if all her health codes were in order and she said she had just renewed everything.

The next day Carmen told me that the police shut her down because apparently she “sells drugs” from her establishment. When she told me this I almost laughed out loud. Anyone who knows Carmen knows that she’s the last person who would sell drugs. It is ridiculous. My laughter quickly turned to anger. How on earth could they assume such a thing, I asked. Carmen explained that these things are arbitrary, that the police don’t need any proof of anything to shut her down. Carmen explained that the police are angry that all the “scum of the earth” eat at her restaurant—that it’s a cesspool of vice, etc. but Carmen herself cannot be blamed. Carmen, again teary eyed, explained that she had to pay a $400 fine in order to reopen the restaurant. It’s a problem because she can’t control who comes to eat at her restaurant—it’s not her fault that her lunch place is smack in the middle of Quito’s most dangerous neighborhood, in the red-light and drug district. She told me that she can’t help it that she doesn’t attract diplomats or lawyers to her lunch place. Her food is for the locals—for the most humble and poor members of Quito’s historic zone.

What happened to Carmen strikes me as unbelievably unfair. Under no circumstances does Carmen sell drugs from her lunch place. She just provides an incredibly delicious meal that attracts faithful clients, many of whom are taking a break from their work in the underworld economy (furthermore, not ALL her customers are part of the illegal economy—plenty of local storekeepers and municipal workers eat there—I’ve even seen police too). I agree with Carmen—she doesn’t pick her clients, nor can she refuse to serve people, due to economic necessity. The police just fear the sheer number of “bad people” all gathered in one place, under one roof, sharing a communal meal together.