Sunday, November 28, 2010

Women’s Maximum Security Prison

Perhaps women’s prison is no walk in the park, but compared to the conditions of the men’s prison it’s like being in a playground. In fact, the maximum security prison does have a giant playground—authorities allow children up to age four to accompany their mothers for the majority of their sentence. In the past month I’ve visited both the minimum and maximum security prisons, visiting different sex workers from the street. Several Sundays ago, I was awakened by the shrill ringing of my cell phone in the early morning. It took me a moment to place the caller’s name and face together but then I recognized R., one of my favorite women from the street. She sounded worried and spoke in a voice so soft I could barely hear her. She said, “Anita can you please come to Inca (the maximum security prison), I need to see you immediately.” It occurred to me that that’s why I hadn’t seen R. for so long. I went to buy some food to bring and jumped in a cab northward.

When I tried to enter the prison, a massive concrete structure, walls laced with barbed wire, they searched me as usual and told me I couldn’t bring my cell phone inside. That surprised me since R. had definitely called me from a cell phone inside. I was stupid enough to try once again to enter with my cell phone, now hidden down my pants (as I’ve witnessed many of my friends do when we visit people). I quickly learned that I’m not quite a smooth as my friends and they confiscated it from me. I laughed it off, while they just sighed and ushered me in. R. was waiting for me near the front door. Once again, like the male prison, I was surprised by the lack of supervision inside. I couldn’t see any guards at all and the women roamed around as they wished. It was a massive structure and it was divided into many different sections, each filled with cells, but the first floor was basically entirely open. It almost seemed like a bus depot. There were stores with people selling things like toilet paper, toothpaste and other toiletries. Food stalls also existed, the rich smell of roasting pork and popcorn filled the air. Some women sold soft drinks and water. I came in with a group of nuns and when we entered the courtyard which had the playground I noticed all sorts of religious groups meeting with women in corners, whispering with bibles in hand.

Ironically, R. herself said she finally found my number because she had jotted it down in her Bible—that’s one of the only things they allow people to bring into prison with them. I was flattered that I had “made it” into her Bible, I thought it was reserved for information about family members. R., quickly shared her story, how she landed in the maximum security prison. She had been there over a month and her length of stay was still unknown. She explained to me that one night she went dancing at a club with her husband and son. Unknown to her, her husband had hid his gun in her purse after they entered when she went to the bathroom. When they left later that night, full of booze and drugs, her husband spotted someone on the street to rob. Suddenly, the police appeared out of nowhere and realized what was happening. Although R. thought she would be excused from the crime (because it was her husband who did it), when the police searched her and found the gun, she was hauled off to the police station with the rest of her family. R. was shaking with anger when she told me this. First, she was furious that her husband had dared to hide his gun in her purse and secondly, he hadn’t even bothered to tell her. Obviously, she was now charged as an accomplice and with possession of an illegal weapon. She was hauled off to the maximum security prison while her husband and son went to the men’s equivalent prison.

R. needed my help to get a lawyer. She also wanted me to contact the head of the sex worker organization to see if she had any contacts. But R’.s biggest fear concerned her son who is HIV positive and who no longer had access to his medication in prison. She wanted me to find an NGO that specialized in the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. It was well beyond my expertise but over the next few weeks I hustled to get R. as much information as I could. I brought her letters from different organizations, from a lawyer and the president of the sex worker organization. R. called me constantly to ask for more help. Unfortunately, most of her needs were impossible for me to fulfill. It made me wonder how HIV+ people in prison in the United States manage their medication. R.’s situation was incredibly complicated, especially since she was the target of a stupid act by her husband. Despite her resentment towards him, R. said she was glad she had possession of the gun because he would be locked away for much longer, given his prison record.

Soon enough, after I hadn’t heard from R. in a while (in fact, I was beginning to get worried), she appeared on the streets one day. It was our secret that she had been in prison for a month, the rest of the women thought she had gone to visit family on the coast. R. said she was ashamed to tell anyone because she hadn’t been to prison in years, and had never been in the maximum security prison. Although she had been released, R. still owed the prison money, for food and for the bed she rented every night. The $1 bed fee had added up given her five week stay.

More Census

I had to write yet another entry about the census because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Yesterday when I wrote my entry, I felt fairly blasé about the whole thing—I certainly didn’t take seriously the “orders” to stay at home. That is, until I tried to leave my building this morning to go for a walk. Always with my best interests in mind, my doorman said, “Where do you think you are going Anita—they’ll take you to jail!” “Ha ha,” I replied. He said, ‘I’m serious, do you see anyone on the street?” It’s true, I peeked my head out the door, looked both ways and was startled by the silence. Not a car on the street and not a human to be seen. It was dead quiet. I still didn’t want to buy it—I told him, “But I’m a foreigner, why do they want my info?” Carlos shook his head at my “silly” question and replied patiently, “Anita, even tourists will be part of the census—they can’t leave their hotels.” Wow. That really surprised me. If even the tourist industry had shut down for the day that meant the country had truly come to a halt. It felt like the calm before a storm—as if we were preparing for another presidential coup. We were definitely in a police state, as the only cars about were the police making their rounds.

I enjoyed my day at home waiting for the censors, it was the perfect day to catch up on laundry, cleaning, cooking, work, etc. I was surprised when I finally heard the knock on my door and stepped aside to allow two teenage girls from the local high school enter. I had imagined two men wearing a government uniform with baseball caps saying, “Census 2010” written in cursive across the top. Although they broke into giggles every five minutes, making me wonder what freaky thing I had said, it was a benign, fairly short process. What surprised me the most was that the vast majority of their questions centered on the condition of my home. Obviously, by asking about whether I had a private bathroom, knowing the materials used to construct my walls and floors, the number of bedrooms I have and what electronics I use in my house are all indicators of my economic status. Indeed there were endless questions the conditions of my apartment, some of them unexpected—like for example if I drink water directly from the tap, drink boiled water or buy it filtered (I boil my water). Another, how many light bulbs do I have in my house and how many are the environmentally friendly type (to my relief, six out of eight were environmental bulbs). Other questions were definitely not directly towards people like me who live in fancy high-rise apartment buildings. For example, how do I get rid of my trash? I just throw it down the trash chute.

Other questions were very predictable and centered on me as an individual: how do I self-identify racially, level of education, occupation, marital status, number of children, with whom do I live, do I receive remittances from family members abroad, age, nationality if not Ecuadorian, how many hours do I work weekly, how long is my work commute, and where do my family members live. Apparently, the entire survey was voluntary, something they informed me after we had finished. I think they started to get annoyed because I started asking them more questions about the survey than they had asked me. I was fascinated that about 80% of the questions focused on housing conditions as an indicator of economic status. I asked why they didn’t just come out and ask about my annual or monthly income. The giggling girls didn’t have an answer, but I assume it’s because such a direct question about income would be considered unbelievably inappropriate here, survey or no survey. It is impolite anywhere, but here in Ecuador where the vast majority of the population makes so little, perhaps they decided the housing questions were just as good an indicator and probably something people are less likely to lie about. The girls told me that above all, the government wants to know the population of each city and in what conditions people live.

At 5:00pm the census was over and people were allowed to leave their homes. I went for a walk, along with many other people in my neighborhood. I’m now listening to the familiar sounds of cars pass by my building once again. Perhaps people were going stir-crazy sitting at home all day, but I enjoyed the peace, in which I could imagine for a moment that I lived far away from the city. Although the girls did not know for sure if the results would be published, I will be very curious to find out what information was collected. The next census will be in 10 years, and just like this one compared to 10 years ago, the demographics of the country will shift radically—mostly due to the recent in pouring of immigrants from almost everywhere.

Oh yeah, and I'm sure people are thrilled they can drink booze again, although I believe stores will still be closed for the night.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dry Law: Census 2010

Ecuador takes its census very seriously. Officially it takes place tomorrow, Sunday November 28th. For the past month Quito has been bombarded with news about it: billboards, posted signs, leaflets on cars, massive mailings, radio and television announcements, etc. It is a big deal. Such a big deal that they have implemented a dry law for this weekend, which other Latin American countries impose during presidential elections. No establishments, from stores, bars, restaurants, liquor stores, and supermarkets are allowed to sell alcohol which basically means that all clubs and bars are closed for the weekend. No one is out and about. Last night when coming home in a taxi from a friend’s house Quito was a ghost town. The law began at 12:00pm on Friday afternoon and lasts until Monday morning. It seems illogical to me because usually when my friends go out on Saturday night and get wasted, they are forced to stay in bed all Sunday to recover. They can’t leave their homes in order to nurse their hangovers. Won’t people be more animated to catch up on errands (not that any stores will be open) or play football if they aren’t hung over? Oh well. I guess the authorities have their logic. But the entire thing seems incredibly draconian—by law I don’t think people are allowed to leave their homes. Most definitely anyone who sells alcohol will be taken to jail and fined. I wonder if that will be the same for those of us who don’t really care about the census and plan to wander the streets tomorrow. In many ways, I feel “immune” to the census since I’m a foreigner—I’m just passing by so why do they need to record my existence in Ecuador? Although, I’ll probably end up staying at home, simply because all my friends are Ecuadorian and they’re truly scared to leave the house tomorrow.

I’m not sure why Ecuador takes its census so seriously. I can’t even remember knowing when the U.S. had its last census. Again, I wonder what they are hoping to record—do they hope to identify different racial groups, which I have already explained in my last post is next to impossible, or do they just want a number count of how much Quito and other cities have grown per population? I wonder how us transients fit into the picture. All I know is that a nun will be passing by my house at some point to tomorrow to ask questions about who I am. I’m curious to know what she’ll ask and how this information will serve the Ecuadorian government. I will be curious to get the results of the census, if it is made public.

I’m still not entirely sure of the logic between the three days of dry law and the census tomorrow, but I guess supposed sobriety leading up to it will ensure that people stay in their homes tomorrow? Or is it some sort of punishment? Obviously house parties are in full effect this weekend—plenty of people have stored up on alcohol for their weekend and many homes will be filled with liquor, music and merry-making. But without a doubt, it is strange to see all Quito’s night life shut down. In my memory at least, the United States has never implemented a dry law for any occasion—to me it seems like a draconian, authoritative decision, bordering on an abuse of civil rights. Although, I believe in Massachusetts one cannot buy alcohol on Sundays. For me, I’m content to spend a weekend at home, catching up on work. But I don’t think the census will prevent me from going down to the Centro tomorrow, I am very curious to see if the women will be working on the streets. Although knowing the police’s relationship with some of the sex workers, they will haul them off to jail for leaving their homes, even if it’s illegal for them to do so. Which is exactly why I want to go and check things out. I can always say I’m just a tourist passing through…

No Indians Allowed

Recently I spoke with an historian of Quito’s historic district (El Centro) and he gave me some shocking news. Indigenous people are still forbidden to enter La Compañía de Jesús, Quito’s grandest, most opulent church, famous for its ornate golden interior, dating from the early seventeenth century. Built by the Jesuits, one of the earliest orders to arrive in Quito, more than seven tons of gold were used to gild the walls, ceiling and altar. The first time I entered La Compañía it took my breath away. I walked around mesmerized by the gilded gold, elaborately dressed virgins, crying saints, candle-lit corridors and the smell of incense in the air. I sat in one of the pews and imagined wealthy Quiteños doused in rich perfume sitting around me. They have been attending its high mass every Sunday for centuries and indeed, it is the preferred church for weddings among Quito’s elite. When the Spaniards arrived in Quito in 1535, one of the first things they did was to establish “Indian” churches to convert (i.e. conquer) the indigenous population. It was a clearly demarcated system in which the “indios” had their churches while the Spaniards attended their own. In each indigenous parish the Spaniards, (the Jesuits) constructed a church. It’s incredible just how many churches exist in Quito’s historic center. There’s at least one church, if not two, in every neighborhood of El Centro. Not surprisingly, the Spaniards and their descents attended the fancy, more ornate ones, while the very simple structures, bare and marked with just a wooden cross, were reserved for the indigenous. While strolling around the Centro it’s fairly easy to guess which church belongs to which community.

I’m not sure if the segregation of churches has ever existed as a written law in Ecuador. Today it continues to exist as an unspoken social contract. It shouldn’t shock me that indigenous are not allowed into La Compañia, since rampant segregation still exists in every other realm of society. Despite the majority indigenous group, CONAIE’s powerful uprising of the early 1990s, which served as a model for other indigenous groups around Latin America (especially for Bolivia’s uprising a decade later), they still remain on the outskirts of society in many ways. Although powerful political leaders exist in Congress, the majority of indigenous persons still live in abject poverty, especially those who remain in rural villages. In these communities the rates of domestic violence and alcoholism are higher than the national average, as well as the level of basic education.

Obviously this unspoken contract that “indigenous” people are not allowed into La Compañia becomes extremely complicated when no one really knows who is “indigenous” in the first place. When surveys are taken, apparently anywhere between 25%-45% of the population identify as indigenous. These surveys mark individuals who self-identify as indigenous, but in reality, the vast majority of Ecuadorians are a diverse racial mix—most of whom have carried some indigenous blood for centuries. That makes this rule of forbidden entry into the church very complicated. Ecuadorians have a vast range of physical features; some of my friends here, all of the upper class, are completely white, European, while many of the prostitutes with whom I work are Afro-Ecuadorian. The majority of the population is mestizo, a mix of indigenous features and countless other things. Some of my friends “look” very “indigenous” even though their families have lived in Quito for generations. I wonder if they ever get questioned while entering certain churches. It seems like it’s the individuals who continue to wear traditional clothing representative of various indigenous communities who would be targeted for exclusion from La Compañia. Without a doubt, these individuals are indigenous, even though I have friends who if they also wore traditional clothing, would be “mistaken” for being part of an indigenous community. And quite frankly, my friends would be appalled to be mistaken for an “indigenous” person. Without a doubt, race is incredibly complicated to identify/define here.

I had the most fascinating experience last spring when I attended a fancy wedding at La Compañia. It was an exciting opportunity to attend a very Catholic wedding, (high mass), in an extremely traditional church that has existed for centuries. I felt as if I had fallen back in time and enjoyed observing all the Quiteños around me, and listened with astonishment all that the priest said (I’m not Catholic, and it was the first time I had attended a high mass of this type). But I was absolutely floored when during one section of the wedding a series of indigenous persons came down the aisle as part of the ceremony, offering different gifts to the bride and groom as good luck. They offered tokens from “their” culture, like a chicken, special candles, other animals and symbolic objects. Then several communities did traditional “Indian” dances down the aisle. It struck me as so bizarre to suddenly praise and to include the customs of these rejected indigenous communities into a wedding of Quito’s most elite.

As far as I know, my friends in no way include traditional customs or even express any affinity to indigenous customs or their rights in any other part of their life. It was simply a show and now that I know that indigenous are only allowed in the church as performers, I’m left deeply disturbed. They are not allowed to participate as members of the church community as fellow worshipers, but only as objects of entertainment for the rich. And surely the wealthy must feel good about themselves, paying homage to the traditional “Indian” part of their culture. It disturbed me greatly, although no one can help where they are from. I don’t judge my friends who got married, it just shocked my anthropological system like a zap of electricity. I feel even more disturbed knowing that these performers at the wedding are prohibited from entering the church during any other time.