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…..)