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...)