Sunday, October 17, 2010

Family Drama (Three)

Ever since Juan and Marta broke up the streets have been alive with speculation. Everyone in the neighborhood seems to have an opinion on it: the other sex workers, store keepers, owners of brothels, owners of restaurants, random drunks, the addicts, pimps, robbers, the fruit seller on the corner, the woman who owns the public phone center, the man who sells coco water, another who sells handmade ice-cream he makes, etc. etc. It has turned into a big gossip machine, everyone putting his/her own spin on the story. People have taken sides, either supporting Juan or Marta. Some are neutral observers who see both perspectives. Very few forgive Marta for leaving her children, even her biggest supporters.

The other sex workers tell me they can relate to Marta. They get exhausted of being prostitutes and bearing the burden of supporting their families, those that are the primary breadwinners. They say that Juan was lazy and just lived off the earnings of Marta—that he never manned up to be the true father of the household. That he thought he could get by being the mother, when in fact, due to his gender, he should have taken control of the household—especially because he wasn’t a pimp. Indeed, everyone agrees, regardless of whose side he/she is on, that Juan was not a pimp—Marta has also insisted on that. In fact, many of the women envied her situation because although Marta felt pressure to work to support her family, Juan never forced her to work, never took her money or tried to control her work hours. Plus, he took care of the kids. Some of the women can’t understand why Marta left such a “good” situation—everyone also seems to agree that Juan is an incredible father who takes care of his children better than any “mother could.” But most agree that he shouldn’t have left all the financial responsibility of the family to Marta. Other women told me that Marta left Juan because he beat her, that her and her children were constant victims of abuse. Others told me Juan would never, ever lay a hand on them, but obviously none of us know what happens behind closed doors.

Most of the women empathized with Marta but none of them approved of her decision to leave her children. They said she should have taken her children with her if she wanted to leave Juan. Many of the women seemed horrified by the idea of being separated from their children. They told me that their children were the only thing in life that sustained them, that made their lives worth living. The sex workers who have been forced to separate from them (like the women from Colombia who send money home every week) talk constantly about the suffering this separation provides. We all remain puzzled by Marta’s sudden abandonment of her kids because all of us saw her as a dedicated mother who didn’t like to be separated from them for even an hour at a time. She provided the food, school supplies, and shelter over their heads, every single day. Marta didn’t talk to her closest friends about the pain and suffering she felt. To all of us she seemed like the “perfect” loving and dedicated mother. None of us can comprehend that Marta, of all people, had the capacity to leave her children.

Her closest friends claim that perhaps her addiction got the best of her. Her best friend who still works on the streets, but is now clean, explained that you reach a point in your addiction in which slowly everything around you disappears—you no longer care about anything—your thoughts little by little turn into a tiny circular record, saying only one thing: more. Many of the women were puzzled by this theory because she (seemed) like a controlled addict. But as her best friend, an ex-crack-head explained, addicts are the best liars and manipulators on earth. No one knows in reality how much crack Marta was consuming.

Some of the women and most of the other people who aren’t sex workers are on Juan’s side. It’s very very rare to see single fathers here. Single mothers are the common denominators of family structures, but single fathers are unheard of. Most people pity Juan as the poor abandoned father who is struggling to make ends meet with three children, one of whom is severely mentally handicapped. Store owners and others wonder who is cooking for the children, who is washing and ironing their clothes. I explain that Juan has been in charge of all those domestic things for years and they are extremely surprised. Most people feel sorry for Juan, viewing him as a victim. As I mentioned in my previous post, the greatest sin a mother could commit in Latin America is to abandon her children. The vast majority of people view Marta as some sort of devil incarnate--as if she will truly go to hell for her actions. They dismiss her as a “crack junkie whore” who committed the most irresponsible act on earth. She is now in a separate category from other women. She belongs to the lowest class of “women” and receives comparisons to a couple of the other women on the streets who are junkies, who long ago abandoned their children.

Indeed, Juan has some fierce defenders—his friends who are robbers, pimps, a restaurant owner. Most people view him as a good dad with a big heart, (even many of the prostitutes view him as such). I sat at Carmen’s Lunch place long after closing hours as she and her brother cried over Juan’s hardships. They want to collect money from everyone in the community to send to him and his kids in Guayaquil. What’s interesting to me is that some people take Juan’s side, (women included), even though they believe that Juan used to beat Marta. They say that Juan’s beatings were a poor excuse for Marta abandoning her children. I will never forget one of the brothel owners (a woman) telling me that a woman’s role is to put up with everything—her number one priority is her children. She explained that Marta deserved to be hit because she had been seeing another man for six months. To some, Marta should have been able to endure everything, after all, all the other women on the street do.

Family Drama (Two)

My documentary centers on the family of Juan and Marta because I was intrigued by the gender role reversal of the “wife” (they aren’t actually married) as the breadwinner (i.e. the “man”) and Juan working as the principle caregiver of their children as the “mother.” As one might imagine, when Marta left, the logistics of my documentary became complicated. Juan decided to bring his children to Guayaquil, where they are both from, to be with his family. He had no way to support their family in Quito, where he would need someone to take care of his kids while he would go out to rob. For the sake of my documentary, and additionally, because I’m now so emotionally involved with the family, I decided to look for Marta in Ambato because I wanted to know if she was okay. I wasn’t even sure she was in Ambato, these were simply rumors circulating on the streets. I decided if she was there, it would be easy to find her, since there is only one central red-light district in each city.

As it turns out, it was fairly easy to find Marta. I found the red-light district by asking dozens of people—each one led me a little bit closer—until I finally found it and approached the prostitutes on the streets. I had arrived at 11am to have the entire day to look for her. When I showed them her photo all of them confirmed that she was indeed working there, much to my relief. I had to wait until 8:00, the hour they said she usually comes out to work. I sat waiting patiently on the concrete steps of a small plaza, wondering and hoping. It had turned dark and more prostitutes had come out to work. I knew I would see her at any moment. Finally she turned the corner and saw me. She gave me a look of disbelief and then smiled and ran towards me. We hugged tightly, I started crying…I’m not sure why, I guess because I had been so worried about her. She looked well, even happy. We went to rent one of the rooms in a nearby hotel that the prostitutes use to service clients. I had to pay $5 but it was the only private space available where we could talk in peace.

Marta told me her story. She explained that she left the family because she was tired of maintaining the family for past ten years. It was too much pressure for her to earn money for every meal, for the hotel fees where they lived, for the special things their youngest son needed. She was exhausted from working as a prostitute and felt resentful that Juan didn’t help the family economically. Once in a while, when he could, he robbed things, but his main role was to take care of the children. She resented him for this and felt he wasn’t fulfilling his role as a “man.” (which is interesting because in other discussions she told me she preferred to work, rather than having to depend on Juan).

For Marta, the other piece of the story is that Juan did not appreciate her work or value her as a person. She said he insulted her and called her lazy. She didn’t directly say that Juan abused her physically, but she referred to him as “treating her badly”—I would not be surprised if he hit her and the children, despite the good front he always puts on for me. Apparently, Ecuador has one of the highest percentages of domestic violence in the region. She said she just couldn’t take it anymore. She found a man who treated her well, fell in love in love with him, and decided to leave everything behind. What she didn’t mention is that her new boyfriend is a severe crack addict, another piece of information the prostitutes in Quito told me. The world on the streets is tiny, everyone knows one another and knows exactly who does what, in terms of drugs, prostitution and mugging. I asked Marta if she felt guilty for leaving her children. She said of course, but that she wanted to teach Juan a lesson of how it feels to have to support three children alone—without the help of anyone. She wanted him to appreciate her and all her hard work over the past ten years. She said she wanted him to suffer in the way she had suffered all these years.

Marta kept assuring me that she was happy in her “new” life. She insisted that she hadn’t smoked crack since arriving in Ambato because she no longer had a reason to—she didn’t need to use it to escape from her miserable existence. She grabbed at her stomach and pointed, “Anita, look how fat I’ve gotten!” I couldn’t see a change in her weight but nodded anyway. I knew she was lying because when I had shown her photo to the prostitutes in Ambato, the first thing they asked was, “Oh she’s that woman who smokes crack all the time, right?” I said, “yes, that was probably her.” In a way I was confused that Marta felt like she had found a “new life” because she was still working as a prostitute and still smoking crack. The only thing “new” about her life was that she was with a different man and in a different city and of course didn’t have the same pressures to support her kids financially. And obviously, that she had left Juan, a man who had treated her poorly for years.

I can understand that Marta would get tired of her life in Quito. I can’t imagine the psychological pressure she must have felt being the breadwinner of a family of five. Three children consume a lot of food daily and for a woman who only makes $5 from each client, I could imagine the mental stress she suffered. It’s a life no one would ever want. I can imagine how she would come to resent Juan, who “simply” looked after the children. Perhaps they could have alternated days to share the responsibility of looking after the kids and working. I know Juan was willing to work, perhaps Marta could have stayed home with the kids certain days. I felt badly for Marta. I felt badly that she had reached her emotional peak without improving her situation earlier. Instead, one day she couldn’t stand another moment and left without a word. Perhaps not the most responsible way to deal with her situation, but who am I to judge? I can’t claim to know her reality or the trauma a woman must feel working as a prostitute every day. But in Ambato she still works as sex worker, but with a more flexible schedule. She doesn’t have to support five mouths, only two, so she can live more freely. Furthermore, her new partner sells candy and works as robber so they have two incomes and no children. Much less pressure.

I’m not sure Marta will continue to be happy in her new life. Who knows if her new boyfriend will continue to treat her well? It sounds like she also has more freedom to smoke crack in her new life, especially since her boyfriend is a known addict. I know Juan also smoked crack but his habit never developed to Marta’s level, perhaps because he had to take care of the children. He told me this himself. I know Marta feels guilty about leaving her children and that she misses them dearly. Won’t this eat her up inside? Or will she successfully repress her guilt and keep running? She hasn’t called them yet, and I know they cry for her and keep asking when she'll come home. The answer might be never. I think she feels too ashamed to go home to Guayaquil and face her family. I know she has talked to her mother, who was furious with her. The family seems to be on Juan’s side, despite the fact that he might have treated her poorly (i.e. hit her). It seems like that’s just one of the things a woman must endure here…But here in Ecuador, there’s no excuse for a mother to leave her children. That is perhaps the worst sin a mother could commit. I hope Marta continues to feel she made the right decision—I also hope that she decides to call her children one day, if only for their sake, so they can know she is alive and well (to be continued...)

Family Drama (One)

On the streets family structures are constantly changing. The women I work with tend to have shifting relationships with different companions rather than stable unions over long periods of time. For that reason, I’ve always been impressed by the ten-year relationship my bodyguard Juan, has maintained with his partner, Marta (all names have been changed). They have three children together, Diego (aged 9), Maria (aged 7) and Darwin (aged 3), who is severely disabled. (see earlier post). Marta supports the family by working on the streets while Juan has adopted the role of “mother” for their children—he cooks, cleans, brings the kids to school, and above all, attends to the needs of Darwin who must be constantly supervised. In fact, their children seem much more attached to Juan than to their mother, even Marta has admitted this, with much sadness. Although Juan says he would much prefer to work in his profession, as a robber, than have Marta work as a prostitute, Marta claims that she earns much more money and plus, has more independence on the streets. Marta particularly appreciates this freedom because she is addicted to crack, who although provides for her children’s food first, must also earn enough to support her habit. Furthermore, they both agree that Juan has a special ability to handle Darwin, a toddler who has never received any therapy or even a diagnosis of his condition.

[Such luxuries for special needs’ children are beyond the means of most poor Ecuadorians who must undergo truly heroic efforts to navigate the bureaucratic public health system. As a witness to Juan’s attempts to find help for Darwin, I could not believe the twelve or more steps involved to get the correct paperwork completed for him from various institutions. The tenacity and determination one must have to receive free healthcare in this country is often out of reach of families living in destitution simply because they do not have the time to dedicate hours and days of their lives to receive the care they desperately need. As such, many families with special needs children simply do the best they can with the few resources they have—although it is not ideal, families like Juan and Marta have learned how to cope with their son’s disability in a way that keeps him safe and well cared for.]

Anyway, recently Juan called me one morning sobbing on the phone. He asked me to come to the Centro immediately. I was extremely concerned since I’ve always known Juan to be a tough guy who never expresses much emotion or shows any signs of vulnerability. When I arrived at the hotel where they live, Juan sat down crying and explained that Marta had been missing for two days. She left for work on Tuesday evening and never returned. This was a true crisis since sex workers often disappear without a trace. Their disappearances rarely make the news nor do police bother with investigations. They’re sex workers after all—who cares? Obviously the families of these women care. They must suffer anonymously and do their best to conduct their own investigations. Juan and I set off with much trepidation and fear to look for Marta. We went to all the hospitals, prisons, crack dens, and brothels in the area. We even went to the morgue. I held Diego’s (their son) hand and stayed outside with Darwin in his stroller choking back tears as Juan entered the building. The stench of dead bodies filled the air and I played a silly child’s game of slapping hands with the kids to distract them from the smell—and from the overwhelming intensity of their present circumstance. I couldn’t imagine what Diego, who is only nine years old, must have been thinking. When Juan exited the morgue with a smile on this face I exhaled in relief, but it still didn’t solve the mystery of Marta’s disappearance.

We both still felt distraught and started brainstorming the other places she could be, or what could have happened. My fear was that her body didn’t make it to the morgue—perhaps landing at the morgue is a luxury many Ecuadorians don’t have. In my worst case scenario, Marta was dead somewhere, her body left to rot. When we returned to the Centro all the women on the streets were deeply disturbed by Marta’s disappearance. She hadn’t called any of her closest friends and as no one had seen her in two days. Everyone believed that she had been a victim of a violent crime. When we all ate lunch together, the women wiped away tears and said little prayers for Marta. She wouldn’t be the first to disappear on the streets—last year another beloved friend had been killed by a client.

Known for her dedication to her family and children, despite her crack addiction, it hadn’t occurred to any of us that Marta had simply run away with another man. But within the next 24 hours we learned that that is what had happened. The owner of the hotel where she had serviced her last client told us that in the morning Marta had left with another man—not her client, but a man she had apparently been seeing for several months who lived in that hotel. She told the owner of the hotel that they were going to Ambato, a city three hours south of Quito. Apparently, Marta didn’t need our prayers after all. At first I was furious with her for leaving us in the dark about her whereabouts. Furthermore, it simply didn’t make sense—the Marta I knew was incredibly devoted to her children—I could never see her abandoning her family without a word. But I’ve come to realize that I never truly knew Marta’s darker side. No one really knows why Marta left. The women on the street claim that she simply fell in love with another man and went to start a new life with him. Juan agrees that she left him for another man but believes that her addiction also played an important factor since he tried to control her habit. Perhaps this new man is also a crack addict and now they can consume as much as they please. Everything I know about Marta doesn’t fit this profile since she maintained a controlled habit for 10 years, but without a doubt, addiction often makes people act unpredictably. (To be continued…..)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Coup Attempt or Police Strike

In the aftermath of last week’s events Ecuadorians remain in the dark over what exactly happened, whether it was simply a police strike or in fact a more serious measure—a coup attempt, as President Correa is calls it. Rumors are swirling on the streets of this tiny Andean nation, a country that has experienced more political stability under the rule of Correa than with other president in decades. Correa harbors an interesting mix of conservative and socialist political views. Similar to Hugo Chavez, the controversial leader of Venezuela (and one of Correa’s closest political allies), Correa grew up in poverty, which the popular class deeply appreciates. But unlike Chavez, Correa escaped poverty via scholarships to the country’s top schools. His studies led him to Europe and the United States where he finally earned a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois. As such, his intellectual credentials have made him appealing to the upper classes as well. Prior to becoming president in 2007, Correa was Minister of Finance for five years and followed a typical, conservative fiscal policy that did not waver from the neo-conservativism popular through Latin America. It was not until he became President that Correa’s leftist socialist leanings became apparent.

As president, Correa has distanced Ecuador from Washington and aligned himself with other leftist leaders in Latin America like Chavez, Morales of Bolivia and Castro of Cuba. For example, he kicked the Americans out of a primary military base they had established in Manta, a coastal port, more than forty years ago. This move was extremely controversial internationally, as it was a key base for Americans in the region. He also defaulted on $3 billion of loans from the World Bank, claiming that such debts were “irrelevant” and only reified the imbalance of power between the “third world” and developing nations. These actions have somewhat alienated Correa in the global political field and his increasingly close ties to Venezuela have made Washington very nervous. Also to the chagrin of Washington, Correa has lowered the penalties for drug possession, trafficking, and consumption, allowing many traffickers to go free. He has instituted some radical policies like raising pensions dramatically for the poor and he rewrote the constitution to protect the rights of individuals who identify as transgender and gay. In fact, his policies on gender are more radical and progressive than any other country in the region, and most definitely than those in the United States.

Even though Correa has been coolly received internationally, his radical policy changes have won him much local support. Things began to change this year when he began alienating the factions most loyal to him: the indigenous parties, environmentalists, teachers, etc. He has reneged on some of his promises against mining for example and overhauled the “Law of Education” to hurt the benefits of longtime teachers and professors. Many people view him as interfering too much, that the state is starting to control too many parts of civil society. For example, recently he also decreed that all radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of national songs during their airtime.

People who call the police uprising a coup attempt recognize that Correa has reached the pinnacle of his unpopularity in recent weeks—that the military was “testing out” the situation to see if a future coup will be successful. Since the popular masses remained firmly in support of the president, the top ranks of the military had no choice but to also back Correa. But the rumors claim that the military and police were testing the waters to see if they could actually overthrow the president. Despite the return to normalcy, there are still many frustrated national policemen in the ranks. Members of the military, supposedly those with less power and control, have formed an unofficial alliance with contentious factions of the police. Obviously, this is a very dangerous situation for Correa and he realizes it.

Reminiscent of terrorist discourse in the United States, Correa talks about “weeding out” members of the “opposition” and indeed, many members of the police force have been thrown in jail over the past week. But can Correa really remove all voices of dissent in the police and armed forces? Would this be a move to ensure democracy, as he calls it? Or will these silent forces continue to brew, preparing themselves for the next uprising, in which they hope to gain more popular support? Only time will tell, but for now, we must cope with a significantly larger military presence in the streets (I’ve been shocked by the huge army tanks, complete with officers carrying machine guns), due to the continued unrest within the national police forces.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Coup Attempt

Last Thursday on October 1st, Ecuador became a lawless state without a governing authority. A state of emergency was declared, leaving the country in chaos. The rebellion was spurred by lower levels of the police and military forces due to austerity measures that would significantly reduce benefits for public servants. President Rafael Correa, known for his confrontational leadership style, instated this new controversial law with a presidential veto on Wednesday evening. The police forces would be affected more than any other group by since it would increase the amount of time necessary for a promotion, eliminating the significant salary increase that comes with such promotions. As such, national police forces went on strike early Thursday morning. They placed road blocks on all the main highways, took over the airports, occupied the national assembly and retreated to their barracks. With his fiery personality intact, President Correa approached the police barracks yelling, “If you want to kill the president, here I am—kill me if you dare.” This fierce declaration provoked an attack on the president. Several shots were fired and the police sprayed tear gas in his face. Although Correa was given a gas mask, a protester tore his mask off in an attempt to suffocate him. Correa was quickly whisked away to the closet hospital in the area, ironically (stupidly), the police hospital, where he was then held hostage for 12 hours.

What happens to a country when the police forces go on strike? Pandemonium and anarchy break loose. All over the country banks were robbed, in Quito and Guayaquil, the largest city on the coast, robbers depleted the funds of at least six banks. On the streets, protesters, both those in support of the president and supporters of the police grouped in angry mobs, setting tires on fire and causing terror in the cities throughout the country. Quito and Guayaquil, the two largest cities in Ecuador were most affected by the rioting.

I happened to be in Guayaquil last Thursday, shooting footage for my documentary. My film focuses on a sex worker and her family who are from the most dangerous neighborhoods in the south of Guayaquil—so there I was, unfortunately, in the center of action. The neighborhood around us erupted into chaos. We stayed inside the house as things turned more and more dangerous. People took advantage of the lawless situation to rob everyone and everything in sight. I observed the situation around me from the roof of the house. It was incredible to watch the swarms of looters passing by, people riding bikes with large burlap sacks tied to the back, filled with goods. One man was pushing a washing machine strapped to a large cart. The residents of the neighborhood were rushing back and forth between the nearby stores and their homes, shouting out to their friends and neighbors the things still left in the stores. Streams of people kept passing by carrying as much as they could in large plastic bags. They carried simple household goods like laundry detergent and cleaning supplies to much bigger, more substantial items, like the washing machine, TVs, furniture, and other electronic equipment.

For me things got scary when a mob gathered on a nearby street, many of them with guns. I heard gunshots throughout the day and apparently one man was killed in the violence. I’ve never been in such close proximity to people with so many weapons, shooting their guns off as if they were in some old cowboy western. Robbers were stealing all the cars from the streets and assaulting random strangers. Although I felt fairly safe in the house, I was scared by the violence. The most unsettling part was that I had no idea what was going on. I had no access to the news or a radio. All I knew was that this neighborhood had suddenly exploded into violence, but I had no idea why. Finally my friends in Quito called me to tell me the news that the president had been kidnapped and that Ecuador was in a state of emergency—and worse, that no one in the country knew exactly what was happening or how things would be resolved. My friends said that this was a possible coup attempt. I thought perhaps I would have to stay in this Guayaquil neighborhood for days until things calmed down. I found out that the entire country had shut down, all business, offices, schools, etc. No buses or taxis were in operation. Everyone had taken refuge in their homes, presumably glued to the news.

And here I was, most definitely the only gringa in this part of Guayaquil. I have never felt so alone, despite the kindness of my hosts. They kept reassuring me that I was safe and that everything would be resolved quickly. As Ecuadorians they are accustomed to frequent revolts against the government, it’s a country that has had 8 presidents in 10 years, all of them toppled by popular rebellions. This experience was one of the scariest I’ve had in my life. I felt trapped and had no idea how to escape. I had no idea what was happening in the country, nor did anyone. As luck would have it, I just happened to be filming in a neighborhood already infamous as being the most dangerous part of Guayaquil when the police decide to go on strike. Already a lawless land, the police strike gave the green light to all the residents to do as they pleased. However, not everyone in the neighborhood was looting and stealing. There were plenty of people buckled down in their homes, just as scared as we were.

Towards evening, when things seemed to have settled down, we were finally able to flag down a taxi to bring us to another part of Guayaquil where other family members live. The taxi driver was terrified to stop, he told us to get in as quickly as possible, as people were putting guns to drivers’ heads if they stopped at red lights or stopped at all. We were incredibly fortunate to find a taxi as most of the roads were empty by this point. As we traveled through the city, I was amazed by mobs of people and chaos. We continued to see looters—I saw crowds of people stealing from a pharmacy. We had to weave through crowds and take back roads to finally arrive at our destination, still a dangerous neighborhood, but certainly not like the favelas where we had been trapped all day.

We were finally able to watch the news and by 10 or 11pm, things had been resolved. Correa had been rescued from the hospital by military forces, surprisingly without violence. When Correa arrived at the presidential palace he gave a riveting speech that democracy had been restored and that the oppositional forces would be punished, and removed from their posts. A coup would have been unsuccessful because throughout the day the upper commands of the military forces reassured that they backed the president, the constitution, the law, and democracy. As seen historically in Latin America, successful coups depend on military support and in this case, the military stood firmly behind the president. Furthermore, the police strike did not have the intended effect on the masses—instead of supporting the police, people were furious that they went on strike, leaving the country without security. Again, a coup cannot happen without popular support. Although Correa’s popularity has plummeted in the past year he still has the support of the majority of Ecuadorians.

On Friday everything returned to normal, as if nothing had happened. Correa is in negotiations with the police forces and is willing to rewrite parts of his austere law. I hopped on a bus back to Quito, eager to get return to my comfortable apartment located in a safe neighborhood (well, no neighborhood in Quito is safe, but because I live in a wealthy area, there are private security forces outside every building). Obviously I’m the type of anthropologist who is attracted to excitement and a bit of danger, as my dissertation topic would suggest, but even for me, this experience was unsettling. But fascinating as well. It was exciting to witness everything firsthand, despite my fear.