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.