Sunday, January 30, 2011

Opportunities in Ecuador

It may seem ironic, but in some ways there are a lot more opportunities for me in Ecuador than at home. For instance, many professors at universities here hold masters degrees rather than Ph.D.’s because very few doctorate programs exist in Ecuador. Many people leave the country to pursue their doctorates in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and most of them don’t return —a classic example of brain-drain which happens all over the world in “developing” countries. As a Ph.D. candidate, meaning that I have completed everything within my program except for writing my dissertation, I suddenly find myself at the top of the pecking order in the academic world here. It is totally bizarre, as at NYU I’m just another drone, slogging through my Ph.D. In Quito, I have been welcomed by the most prestigious university, FLACSO, with open arms and have been contracted to teach classes for a year as a full professor, with the gentle reminder of possibilities of a tenure-track position, if I decide to stay.

Academia in the United States is in a sorry state at the moment (for many recent moments/years). It is daunting to look at the puny number of freshly graduated Ph.D.s who actually land tenure track positions. Especially in anthropology, which is not exactly the most respected discipline in the academy. In fact, the number of anthropology departments is shrinking in universities throughout the country. Colleges won’t make cuts in their “hard-science” departments but quickly shoo the annoying politically-correct anthropologists out of academia. I have never been set on a job in academia—I’m too realistic for that. I decided long, long ago when I started my Ph.D. that I was sacrificing all these years of my life because I simply loved the process, not because I expected any one fixed outcome after obtaining my degree (like a tenure track position). The things I loathe about academia are too many to list here, but I’ve stayed in it simply because I love my project. In fact, I’m in love with my project and although the road has been bumpy, doing fieldwork has been one of the best, most fulfilling, enriching, and truly amazing experiences of my life. I’ve learned so much about myself and have gained such a profound understanding of the worlds around me. I will always view getting my Ph.D. to be worth it due to the experiences I’ve shared over the past year with my sex workers. I will forever be grateful to NYU for accepting me into their competitive program and for giving me the opportunity to do something I love.

But what about the future? I come back to weighing my options between staying in Ecuador and returning to New York. I am almost certain I will stay in Ecuador to write my dissertation with frequent visits home to meet with my advisors at NYU every few months. Economically it just makes more sense. I pay $180 rent in a beautiful apartment and I’m working as a full professor at the university, earning $1,000 a month. My standard of living is significantly higher here, as one would expect. Coming home would mean living once again, in abject poverty, sharing housing with strangers, paying $1,000 monthly rent and being a Teacher’s Assistant at NYU. Here I am able to build my resume on a much higher level by being a full time professor at a well-respected university throughout Latin America. I teach my classes in Spanish, obviously, so that augments my language skills. I have been promised an office at the university, all of which have stunning views of the Andes mountains hovering over Quito and which catch the lingering light of the afternoon sun. This will be my space to write. Comparing that with the dark underworld of NYU’s Bobst library where I’m lucky to even find an available table to sit at, the choice becomes obvious.

BUT…having said that, I’m not sure if I’m ready to make a commitment to Ecuador for such an extended period of time. I am very close with my family and friends and sometimes I miss New York so much it hurts. My chest literally aches with the pain of my longing/yearning to be back. If I do go back home, which I’ll probably do after writing, I will not limit my options to applying for academic jobs. After having received a doctorate in anthropology concentrating on gender relations in Latin America, I hope to make the transition into working in development for women’s rights. Ideally, I would work at the United Nations. That would be my dream job. I also wish to continue making documentaries, any way I can. If an academic job in the states doesn’t materialize in the future, I refuse to sit around and cry because that’s the sad reality of the situation. I’ve always known that a job in academia is a pipe-dream and quite simply, I’m no longer willing to sacrifice my entire personal life to make such a dream to come true (i.e. actually getting that tenure position). No thanks. And, luckily, I’ll always have Ecuador.

Matters of the heart

The sex workers are very much interested in my personal life, and above all my love life. I readily share with them because, given all their experience with men, they give me great advice. I have dated several Ecuadorian men and due to profound cultural differences, I’m often left confused and hurt. Gringos also leave me confused and hurt, but for different reasons. Every time I get hurt or feel confused I go running to the sex workers for comfort. They always put things in perspective and lay down the law. Without a doubt, they give me the most cynical interpretation of the situation, which I often need, as I feel like a na├»ve gringa when it comes to Ecuadorian men. They shake their heads and frown when I tell them I found out an ex-boyfriend of mine was discovered with another woman. They reassure me, saying all the things any good friend would say in such a situation, but then firmly tell me, “Anita, that is the way men here are—they are good for nothing pigs. Don’t date any more Ecuadorian men, they will always cheat on you.” On the one hand it seems surprising that they speak so poorly of men here since all of them have Ecuadorian partners. But on the other, they’ve been hurt over and over that they’ve learned not to expect much from any relationship. They have even given me advice to never be monogamous in a relationship here because my potential boyfriend will never be faithful to me either. It’s a lot for me to swallow since I come from a culture where infidelity is stigmatized.

According to my own experiences, observations, and conversations with sex workers (and other women friends), infidelity is such an integral part of any relationship here that it would never occur to a man (or woman) to confess such an act. I know plenty of men and women in the United States who cheat on their partners, but many of them (at least my friends) grapple with whether they should tell their partners or not. Here, one tries to get away with as much as possible, living by the coda “What she/he doesn’t know won’t hurt him/her.” The problem is that Quito is a tiny city of under 2 million people and the social circles are so small, with the same people going out to the same places, it’s impossible not to get caught. Perhaps it’s true, that what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, especially if one’s partner has a simple fling, but the problem with Quito is that no one can have such a fling without the ENTIRE world knowing.

I often turn to the sex workers to cry on their shoulders when I get hurt yet again by an Ecuadorian man. There must be nice, perhaps even faithful men out there, but the sex workers dissuade me from them again and again, telling me that I need to stick to my own kind. They are wise women who point out, that relationships are already difficult enough, why on earth would I throw in all the cultural differences as well? They explain that no Ecuadorian man will ever, ever treat me with the same respect as a gringo. A curious comment considering many of them had never had gringo boyfriends. They seem to have idealized gringos in their minds, viewing them as extreme counterpoints to the traumatic experiences they have had with Ecuadorian men. Obviously I take their comments with a grain of salt since many of these women have never been exposed to healthy relationships in any part of their lives—many come from abusive homes and find themselves in abusive relationships as adults. But that doesn’t mean they like it or don’t recognize that it is wrong. Although I haven’t had the traumatic experiences with Ecuadorian men that they have accumulated throughout their lives, they always offer perfect pearls of wisdom when I need them most. They always take my side (with fierce loyalty) and always remind me not to expect much from men here.

It is not my intention to offend Ecuadorian men, as I’m sure faithful ones exist. (Interesting, my Ecuadorian male friends are the first ones to support my views and readily admit that they are cheating Latin lovers—after all the more women you have, the more manly you’re viewed). I think the extreme double standards of sexuality that exist between men and women here make it difficult for foreign women and local men to have successful relationships. We’ve been socialized in different cultures and I find machismo very much alive and thriving here, making it difficult for me to conceive of dating another Ecuadorian man. (Not that there aren’t good parts of machisimo….to be explained later…)

Rich Kids Too

A friend recently told me a story of how one of his family members became involved with prostitution. I solely study street prostitution in Quito’s historic center, but obviously dozens of other types exist. Although the kidnapping and trafficking of young teenage girls receives more press in Colombia, it is also a common occurrence in Ecuador—unfortunately, it seems to be a booming industry. I’m not tuned in to all the details because it’s beyond the scope of my investigation and none of the women I work with (who are older and have been working the streets for at least a decade, some of them for 20 years) are victims of trafficking. But I listened with interest as my friend recounted the personal tragedy within his family.

His family is part of Quito’s elite class, and Shelia, I will call her, studied at one of Quito’s expensive, incredibly exclusive private high schools. It was no secret to me that a lot of kids in these private schools become immersed in dark worlds of heavy drugs. Part of the problem in Ecuador is that cocaine is readily available for members of any strata of society because it is so prolific and dirt cheap. Ecuador has never produced or processed cocaine but has always been a place of transit and above all, consumption. Ironically, supposedly Ecuadorians consume more than their neighbors in Colombia, even though Colombia, as we all know, are the world’s greatest producers. I’ve talked with many of my Colombian students who say doing coke is frowned upon because it is interpreted as supporting the internal conflicts of the country—a means of giving more power to corrupt politicians and guerrillas. My students claim that people who do coke are stigmatized and therefore many of them had never even tried it (these are unverified, off-the-cuff comments, I’m sure there are many sectors of Colombian society who consume drugs without the least bit of inner turmoil).

This is not the case in Ecuador. Without the social guilt of supporting an internal civil war, cocaine is an ever present party favor at whatever social gathering here, from the lower to upper classes. I’m often astonished at how often people offer me coke here, as if I were in a party in the States being offered weed. I would say that the upper classes tend to consume more coke than its unrefined form, called “base” here—which produces a similar effect to crack. “Shelia” became heavily involved with cocaine, which as I say, is incredibly prolific in the rich, private high schools of Quito’s elite.

What happened next is typical of how women slip into the sex industry all over the world. This young girl fell into an older crowd, all of whom were addicts. As her consumption increased she spent more and more time with this crowd who frequented some of Quito’s darkest corners (the neighborhood where I work, for example). She “fell in love” with one of the older men in this crowd who provided her with a steady stream of (free) drugs, augmenting her habit. One day he suggested that she might sleep with a friend of a friend for money. He convinced her that they could work as a team to consume more drugs and to form a life together. As she was desperately in love with this man, and the idea didn’t seem like “such a big deal” she agreed and therefore turned her first trick. Soon she was sleeping with, not “friends” of “friends” but with random strangers that her boyfriend handpicked. He convinced her that he would always be by her side and that they were in love. She was so in love with him that she slipped into prostitution without much resistance or care. Obviously this woman had a terrible addict and as such, had lost much of her sound judgment and/or simply didn’t care.

Her family became concerned when she disappeared one day. She lived with her boyfriend in Quito’s drug zone (again, where I work), consuming and turning tricks. Since she is from a wealthy family they immediately hired detectives to search for her. They consciously did NOT turn to the police, who they knew would do nothing, but to the highest generals in the country, with whom they had connections. After several days the detective found her and she was swiftly placed in an exclusive rehab center (just like in the United States, long lasting rehabilitation programs, which are key to one’s future sobriety, are only available to the very rich. Here things are worse because insurance doesn’t cover these costs). Anyway, luckily, this woman was able to enter rehab but her family was just beginning to discover the trauma of her recent decline.

It turns out that she had become entrapped (even though she didn’t see it that way) in one of Quito’s most infamous mafias, known for running prostitution rings. Violent men, heavily armed-- if “Shelia” had tried to escape, she could have been killed, despite her “boyfriend’s” insistence that everything she did was an act of love. I don’t know the details of whether Shelia was aware that she was actually enslaved because she never called her family for help. Perhaps they had threatened her life if she tried to contact them. But on the other hand, perhaps she was perfectly content and had no consciousness that she was “enslaved” because she never wanted to leave. She was in love after all. But the generals ordered an extensive investigation of this case, in which they discovered the extent of this prostitution ring, and much to their horror, found dozens of police involved (no surprise there). Only by going to the very top could this family get to the bottom of what had happened to their daughter. And as a side-effect they were able to help many other families whose daughters had disappeared as well. This mafia is so dangerous that as soon as “Shelia” left rehab she was taken directly to the airport and put on the next flight to Spain where her aunt and uncle live. It is too dangerous for her to live in Quito, apparently existing members of the mafia would hunt her down and try to kill her. Still not back in the country, Shelia wishes to remain in her self-imposed exile for several years. I have no idea whether she is still clean, but I hope she is thriving in her new life.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Minimum Security

I recently visited the women’s minimum security prison and found it to be much more disturbing than the maximum security prison. For one thing, the space is much smaller, it’s just a narrow room with no windows—it is two floors with a very high ceiling allowing the women to divide themselves into different groups by level. Bizarrely, the bathroom is on the second floor at the top of the spiral iron staircase. It’s dark and damp, making me shiver during my entire visit with J. At least in the maximum security prison there is a huge courtyard where the women could roam free and soak in the sunshine.

S. and I went to visit J. who was arrested for stealing a cell phone. Actually, her boyfriend stole it but somehow escaped the police. J. wasn’t so lucky. As an accomplice, she is serving a month sentence. S. and I arrived with shopping bags filled with items her boyfriend had collected: toilet paper, a toothbrush and toothpaste, lots of packaged food like chips, cookies, tuna, etc. He even packed clothes like warm socks and underwear. I was surprised by his thoughtful care package as I’ve never seen his tender side. In fact, I resent him because last spring he broke J.’s leg in three places. I brought J. a lunch to-go so she would have fresh food for the day. Little did I know that when J. dug through her package, her boyfriend had tucked away some marijuana into one of the socks. I was even more surprised when J. rolled a joint and smoked it right there in the open room of the jail cell. Again, I am shocked by the lack of supervision in all the prisons I have visited. It reminded me of my visit to the men’s minimum security prison (housed in the same building as the women’s minimum, in a different section), where they also consumed drugs openly. Guards were stationed outside the men’s cell but didn’t “notice” or care about the drug use. They are often paid to keep quiet and are usually the traffickers who “smuggle” the drugs into the prison in the first place. Perhaps they also use drugs themselves.

J. and her women friends went crazy over the marijuana. They fought over who would get the next hit. J. uses much harder drugs like crack and coke so she was thrilled that we had brought something to dull her cravings, even just a little bit. There are no beds, just blankets spread out in different parts of the room. S. and I flopped ourselves on J’s blanket, which didn’t provide much comfort from the cold, cement floor. I couldn’t imagine sleeping under those conditions—I need two pillows or I can’t sleep at night! J. explained that she slept just fine—that it was comfortable and warm. I guess compared to the other places she has slept the prison floor might be an improvement.

The other visitors, who included boyfriends visiting their partners, all sat in rowdy groups around the floor. Everyone brings care-packages and food for their loved ones and women who don’t receive visitors look on with yearning and envy at other women’s gifts. J. introduced me to all her new “friends” in prison, all of whom had committed petty crimes and would be staying for less than a month. One woman was reading the Bible, another, a crime novel. Another woman seemed to be deeply disturbed, perhaps trembling and nervous as symptoms of withdrawal. S. my friend who I accompanied to visit J. knew many of the women and went around greeting them. The women without visitors kept to themselves, either sleeping on their bare blankets or staring off into space.

The space itself was incredibly dirty and dark. Perhaps they keep it unkempt because the women serve sentences of less than one month. The maximum security prison is much cleaner and comfortable perhaps due to the fact that the women serve much longer sentences (years at a time). It still seems shocking to me that there are no beds—the only bedding one might have is what visitors bring in. But I seemed to be the only person disturbed by the lack of comfort. For J. it was a safe, comfortable place to rest for a month. She didn’t complain about the lack of infrastructure or about the terrible food. She seemed surprisingly content. When in prison her boyfriend treats her well, sending her care-packages almost daily. It’s not a bad deal, considering that when she’s on the outside with him he beats her instead. No wonder J. was satisfied in prison. No beatings, passable food, the occasional joint and a safe space.

Nipple to Nipple

Part of coming back from vacation means subjecting myself to the eyes and hands of the women who all take note of my appearance. After a long absence they always make comments—oh Anita, you look so much whiter now, you’ve lost weight, why did you cut your hair, etc. etc. Their comments are mostly positive and center on my blue eyes (very uncommon here and my tall lanky frame, also atypical here). They not only bombard me with comments, but they actually touch my body. Their hands grab at my stomach, my waist, and they squeeze my thighs. It’s an affectionate act, but sometimes it catches me off guard. They feel free to touch me wherever they please. It’s shocking but I’m used to it. They spend much of their time comparing their bodies with one another so I realize that being part of this community is participating in this touching game. (Although, I never touch them, they just touch me).

I feel like I’m under a magnifying glass and they make me laugh because they're always making suggestions on how I could be more sexy. They brainstorm outfits I should wear to look like a “real” woman. These outfits include miniskirts, high boots and skin tight tank tops. Although they approve of my slender waist, many point out that I need bigger breasts. I would have the perfect body if I had much bigger breasts. I laugh. Many of these women are curvy all over and indeed, have overflowing breasts, their cleavage being their main selling point. Well, also their round behinds. Even though they can be critical, the women always say to each other, “Anita is not ugly, she’s not ugly.” It makes me laugh so hard. I don’t dress in a way that would make them view me as “guapa” (beautiful). I do that on purpose since I get mistaken for a sex worker every day, even though I’m always careful to wear my most “unsexy” clothes.

The other day all the women were comparing nipples, just like that, in the middle of the street. Business can be slow so they start fooling around and as I just mentioned, they constantly compare bodies. Some envy each other’s breasts or behinds, others envy others’ eyes and lips. Today they were actually pulling out their breasts from their shirts to show off their nipples. They were wondering what color they were, their shape, their size, if there was hair growing from them. All of this was done with much laughter. They made fun of a woman who had very large nipples (she explained that this was due to having nursed so many children). Most of them had dark nipples, which is obvious given their darker skin. Of course, I should have known what was coming—suddenly all the women turned to me and said, “Anita, show us your nipples!” They had never seen the nipples of a gringa before. They begged and begged. I kept laughing with much embarrassment but finally I acquiesced. I feel comfortable with my body and we were behind several buses, out of the public eye. I too pulled out my breast, much to their delight. “Ooh, ahh” they said. “Look how pink and small they are!” (Referring to my nipples). They talked on and on about my gringa nipples and I was happy to satisfy their curiosity. They still remained firm that I needed bigger breasts, but they seemed to approve of my nipples!

Perhaps this is a story I shouldn’t share on a public blog site, because a) it’s inappropriate to bear one’s chest in public b) I should act more “professional” as an anthropologist with my subjects c) my advisors might flip out, but I don’t care. I have nothing to hide. These are my tales from the field. Many anthropologists never share anything that might be conceived as slightly controversial because the academic world might reject them--but as I mentioned in my earlier post, I’m trying to break these silences. I want people to know what fieldwork is about—what “really” happens in the field. Comparing my body with these women felt like a natural act—a spontaneous moment perhaps, but I felt comfortable and safe. I felt like we were part of a sisterhood celebrating our bodies. I like knowing that these women have seen my nipples, just as I have seen theirs. They are usually concentrated on attracting clients, so it felt incredibly empowering that they concentrated on one another for a moment, sharing their bodies among women, as friends, rather than sharing themselves with the dozens of unknown men whom they must service. I’ve never compared bodies explicitly with my other women friends, but doing this made me feel like part of their community more than ever before. And overall it gave me a good laugh—I’m still laughing as I’m writing about it now.

Back to the streets

Even though I have gathered more than enough information from the world of sex work in Quito to write my dissertation and should really turn my attention to conducting formal interviews with police generals, government officials and tourist agencies, I feel drawn to the streets. When I came back to the streets for the first day after my vacation I was elated. After having worked with these women for a year and a half now, I felt like I was revisiting old friends. I was received warmly and it was so satisfying to greet each woman with a big hug. Even though they are my “subjects,” these women have become some of my closest friends in Quito. They wanted to know all the details of my trip home, asking about my family and the cold in New York. As always, they joked about sneaking into my luggage the next time I head back to the states. Many of the women thought I had disappeared, never to return. They thought I had abandoned them forever. Of course such a thought fills me with guilt because although this time was just a quick visit home, one day, I will in fact “abandon” them forever. These friends of mine don’t have computers, they don’t use the internet so it will be hard to stay in touch with them when I go home for good. But at the same time, I know that when I come back to visit they will be on the same corner, with the same faces and the same lives. It makes me sad to recognize that while I was home enjoying friends and family, trotting about to various holiday parties and dinners, that these women’s lives hadn’t changed and even though it was the holidays many of them had worked through Christmas and the New Year. Some had returned to their family’s home on the coast for a couple days but most of them simply didn’t have the funds to travel, even for the holidays.

My first day back I felt excited to be with my adopted community, but again, also sad to recognize that they were still immersed in their daily struggles to survive. A huge part of my identity as an anthropologist is trying to reconcile the guilt that comes from being a privileged gringa who for example, can fly across continents to see my family for the holidays. At the very least, I take solace in the fact that these women don’t seem to resent or judge me due to my privileged position. Perhaps it’s because they can’t possibly know just how privileged I am. Despite my own turmoil, the women greeted me with nothing but warmth and happiness. I am so grateful that they accept me for who I am.

My first day back on the streets was a typical day of chaos and drama. I laughed to myself as I compared my gentle, quiet world back home to my first day back with the women. I got caught up on all the action of the past month: who was in jail, who had moved to work in a different city, who was pregnant, which women were fighting with one another, how the police had been treating them, how business was going, etc. etc. (Business was slow over the holidays they explained because everyone spends their money on their families for Christmas and don’t seek sex). Emilia proudly confessed that she hadn’t smoked crack since she last saw me, over a month ago, and that she was now living in a private room rather than in the hotel. On the other hand, women whispered to me that Kara had lost a lot more weight over the past month due to her growing heroin addiction. And indeed, when I greeted Kara, I was startled by her appearance, she was gaunt and wore dirty jeans.

As usual, Victoria came up to me in her rough way and promptly asked me for money to feed her children—I didn’t even care that she didn’t acknowledge my absence, I was happy to see her. She is a crack addict who lives in the hotel with her three children and over the past year she has said little more than six words to me at a time. I went with her to buy lunch for her kids, not trusting her to hand over money that she might use for drugs.

I found out that Alex was now eight months pregnant! She is a very slender woman and when I left she hadn’t begun to show yet—well, all the pregnant women hide their bellies very well. But she actually came up to me to show off her belly and asked if I could come for the birth in several weeks. She was wearing a baggy sweatshirt and I couldn’t help but wonder how clients would respond once they saw her undressed. Or perhaps she avoids undressing altogether.

I learned that Riki’s husband had been put in jail for five years due to killing a man during a robbery. When I asked if she would remain with him until his release she laughed at my question and said, “Anita, love is love. I will be right here for him when he gets out.” She explained that she visits him every Sunday where they are given privacy to have sex. She invited me to her wedding on Feb. 14th (that will take place in jail.) I accepted with honor—it will be my first prison wedding.

A police car kept rounding the corner and the officers stared me down as usual. The police rotate their positions every few months so new officers are always in the area and obviously, they always try to figure out who I am, what I’m doing. They will learn soon enough.

I greeted all my “friends” who are robbers and addicts. They called out to me, “Anita, where have you been—we thought you’d gone forever.” No, I called back, just home for vacation. Some of them looked a little tougher, others looked healthier. One of the men I was once most scared of came and gave me a big hug. One of his friends, a hard looking guy, looked on with astonishment. To my relief, my friend told him, “No, this is Anita—you don’t know her? She’s “ ‘good people.’” I’m fairly certain his friend was wondering why he was hugging me instead of robbing me. It was nice to be back. I love being on the street, shooting the shit with all these dynamic, interesting people—seemingly a world apart from my friends and family from home, but not so different, at the end of the day. They live under very different circumstances, but they are still my friends—good people whom I’m deeply attached to.

What now?

Without a doubt I am in a transition period with my fieldwork. I was gently told by my advisors at NYU over the holidays that I was ready to start writing my dissertation. Daunting news, to say the least, I find myself confused and not sure where to begin. As my blog entries demonstrate, I have immersed myself in the world of sex workers in Quito’s historical center. I am in a privileged position, not really in a place to complain, but am overwhelmed by all the information I have gathered about these women’s lives. The proposal I came to the field with has changed significantly, as it is supposed to, as one becomes more familiar with the on-the-ground dynamics of one’s fieldsite. I came to the field with the idea of studying how street prostitution in Quito is regulated since it falls under a legal grey area of jurisdiction. Prostitution between consenting adults has always been legal in Ecuador, as in most of Latin America, but it should exist behind closed doors. Brothels are strictly regulated and must have a license, which is very expensive to renew (to be done annually). The written laws about brothels are crystal clear and the government prefers that prostitution exist only within these closed locations.

Where does that leave street prostitution? Technically it is not illegal. In reality, there are no written laws referring to street prostitution. In my opinion this is because it’s too difficult to put strict parameters on it and furthermore, it is impossible to enforce. There are dozens or more unregulated “hotels” in Quito’s historic center that serve as brothels but have avoided the expensive bureaucracy of becoming legal. They operate undercover, as “hotels” and although women stream in and out of these places all day with clients, police have a frustrating time trying to prove that they are actually brothels. I recently spoke with the owner of Hotel Aztec, where the women on my corner service their clients and he told me defiantly, “I have no control over what actually happens in my rooms—it’s none of my business and to deny entry to these women would violate their civil rights.” Obviously he knows exactly what happens in his hotel rooms because every time a woman enters with a client, the client’s bed fee of $3 includes a condom and a stack of paper towels.

Although there is no law stating that these women cannot work on the streets they are constantly harassed by police over other types of infringements, like loitering. The women claim they are not loitering because they are working. It becomes a vicious, ridiculous cycle—the police find any reason at all to clear the streets, but usually the women have been tipped off and take cover in near-by stores or in the hotel itself to hide until the police have left the area. The police view street prostitution as a nuisance more than anything else and don’t have the power to either shut down the hotel or herd the women to prison. That’s not exactly true because they often perform “operatives” where they stop each woman on the street and search her for drugs. In a radical new law to avoid placing drug addicts in jail, one is now allowed to carry a small amount of drugs (any type of drug) on one’s person for personal consumption. But these amounts also fall into grey areas and some police claim that the person is carrying more than the defined amount, solely to bring a woman to jail. Often during “operatives” when the police are determined to sweep the streets they illegally bring all the women to jail—at least the ones they can get their hands on. For the most part these women, even though they have the right to be on the streets, long disappear by the time police show up in their vans.

I am still interested in this messy situation of how street prostitution is regulated because it is so arbitrary and clear laws don’t exist to protect these women’s rights to work. The only reason why the police try to get these women off the streets is due to the complaints of the residents in the neighborhood. For instance, their presence is offensive to the schoolchildren in the area who must walk by them on the way to and fro from school. The residents complain, call the police and so then the police must act. It gets complicated because some of the police have developed personal relationships with the sex workers (some of them are loyal clients). I think the police are mostly apathetic towards street prostitution but because these women are viewed as a public menace, whose sexuality must be confined to private spaces, they are forced to take action.

Once in a while, the police do close down the hotel where the prostitutes work. They fine the owner for all sorts of obscure reasons, but it’s nearly impossible to catch the women in the act to prove that prostitution is happening there—even though everyone, the residents, store keepers and the police know that this hotel is a brothel. Yes, women and their clients enter and exit the hotel all day in increments of 15 minutes but as the owner says, who knows what’s happening in his rooms. A bit silly really—but the police must find other reasons to shut down the hotel—things that have to do with obscure red-tape about running a hotel.

My thesis was to prove that women’s sexuality must be confided to closed, private spaces and I think I have enough evidence to prove that. But aside from the regulation of prostitution, I’ve learned much about these women’s personal lives. It’s now the time to focus on one argument I can make about these women. I have been drawn into their lives and now find myself wanting to write about how sex workers’ identities are conceptualized. This is not so different from my “original” topic of how street prostitution is regulation but for example, I’ve learned so much about how different groups of society view these women. And most importantly, how they view themselves. They view themselves as hardworking mothers who have chosen this occupation over other low-paying jobs given their education level. They could work as domestic servants and earn $240 a month or work in the street and earn double that amount. Some groups view these women as social pariahs, especially the new business owners in the neighborhood who want to gentrify the area and attract more tourism. The old-time business owners, who have had stores in the neighborhood for generations view these women favorably—also as hard-working mothers. Most of them have developed friendships with the women since many have known each other for 10 or more years.

For me it’s a fascinating conflict of identity that these women must juggle. In Latin America mothers are venerated as saints—indeed, to be a “complete” woman here, one must be a mother (I have no children and therefore, have been told literally dozens of times that I’m not a woman yet). At the same time, prostitutes represent “fallen” women, partly due to biblical undertones referring to Mary Magdalene. It is inconceivable in this Catholic country that these sex workers could also be good mothers—or that mothers could be sex workers, when in fact, as I’ve said many times, I have yet to meet a sex worker who is not a mother. The reason why they’re on the street is to provide for their children. They are single mothers whose partners have deserted them and have turned to the streets to work. But these women are incredibly conflicted about what they do. They yearn for acceptance from greater society and feel incredibly guilty that they turn tricks for a living.

In my thesis I would like to focus on these struggles of identity and what it means to be a mother in Latin America. One observation that will serve for my thesis is that, in my opinion, many of these women hope to restore their “honor” through their children. Many of them bring their children to church on Sundays, are strict with them about their homework and do everything within their means to ensure their children’s success in life. They are fighting with all their means to prevent their children from ending up on the streets like themselves. Perhaps I will start there, with that premise….

Monday, January 24, 2011

Absent

Some of you have contacted me to see if everything is okay due to my long absence. I’m not sure where to begin but I shall start here….right now. I have recently returned to Quito after being with my friends and family in the States for three weeks over the holidays. I feel refreshed from the visit and plan to resume my fieldwork in the following days. Obviously, I haven’t updated my blog for a long time. There are many reasons, professional and personal as to why I disappeared, all of which make the perfect blog entry to signal my return…

Starting in October, I began teaching at a local university, FLACSO, as a professor in their visual anthropology program. My program at NYU also focuses on visual anthropology which is why I am also incorporating a documentary film as part of my fieldwork. I was lucky to have the opportunity to teach the course, “The History and Theory of Ethnographic Film” (ethnographic films are specifically the documentaries anthropologists make). My class lasted until mid-December and as an intensive course, and as my first time as a full professor, I dedicated all my time to it and no longer had the time to visit the streets (or so I convinced myself). I only went a few times during all of November and December. Just like some of my readers, the sex workers also wondered what had happened to Anita (a discussion worthy of another entry).

Everything happens for a reason, and although my class took me away from my research, I now realize that I desperately needed a break. I was close to emotional burnout, which might seem like an obvious reaction to my work, but it wasn’t obvious to me. In fact, I have always shrugged my shoulders, sighed, and half-rolled my eyes when people ask me, “Isn’t it so hard to work with prostitutes? How do you deal with the emotional burden, etc. etc.” I never took those questions seriously because I didn’t see how it was different from working with any other population—and because quite simply I thought it wasn’t affecting me. Ha. Ha. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m sure if I were to review my blog I would be able to see the emotional turmoil in my entries like flashing lights, but when you’re out there living it day-in, day-out, you become desensitized to your work, until suddenly it creeps up on you like an approaching train. I started having tough days in which I suddenly felt super “lazy.” So lazy that I couldn’t possibly drag myself out of bed to go down to the Centro. With a bit of hindsight I realized that this “laziness” was a symptom of deeply buried fear, anxiety, and an inexplicable “heaviness” weighing on my shoulders.

I realize that the days in which I couldn’t get to work were actually much needed mental health days. They were days that I needed to be alone, to rest and recover. I was hard on myself about it, wondering “what is wrong with me” when I’ve always loved my work and felt at home on the streets. It was strange to suddenly feel uncertain about going to the Centro. I would envision myself on the streets with dread and feel completely overwhelmed. That had never happened before--I was confused to why it was happening now. I was having trouble sleeping and felt stressed about everything in my life. I didn’t understand what was going on inside of me, but I knew I had to respect this emotional response and take action—the action I took was to distance myself from my fieldwork. I decided to focus on my class and to spend more time reading academic texts, rather than go to El Centro.
I had to be willing to let my project go for a moment so I could get some much needed breathing room. I felt confused as to why I was feeling everything now, after having been in the field for more than a year. Wasn’t I supposed to be a seasoned anthropologist by now? A least a hardened ethnographer who had been exposed to and “survived” countless emotionally charged moments on the streets—moments when I had accompanied a friend to the hospital after her pimp had broken her leg in three places, or when I listened with great sadness to these women’s lives filled with violence and destitution.

I often remember wiping tears away from my eyes at the horror of these women’s hardships. But I always told myself that once I got on that bus heading northward, I would leave the sadness of my day’s work behind. This strategy functioned for a time but as I became more and more immersed in the lives of these women—as they trusted me more and saw me as a kind ally, they began to confide in me their darkest secrets. I had never been exposed to such raw, heartbreaking tales. I’ve suffered plenty in my own life, we all have our own history of pain and suffering, but the things I heard were on a different scale. I am lucky enough to have a loving and supportive family. I come from a privileged background and compared to these women’s lives I’ve led an incredibly sheltered life.

Perhaps I bulldozed my way through thru the first part of my fieldwork, suppressing my emotions because I knew I had to if I wanted to conduct a “successful” ethnographic investigation. I knew I had to listen with an open, sympathetic heart and indeed I love that part of my work. I think my ability to listen to these women is the greatest gift I can give them as an anthropologist in the field. No, I’m not fighting for policy changes to improve these women’s lives on a grand scale. We don’t do that as anthropologists. But I’ve come to terms with that (with much guilt) and realize that sometimes the greatest help comes in the form of being a good listener (especially to members of a marginalized community who are ignored and dismissed by greater society). But as any therapist might recognize, listening to stories of tremendous trauma can affect one’s own emotional state. I finally realized it was affecting mine.

Even writing my blog entries felt like a painful experience because I didn’t want to revisit the things I witnessed/experienced on the streets. I yearned for wholesome worlds--perhaps I should work in a kindergarden with children who had yet to be scarred by life’s relentless pain. Obviously that’s not the answer nor would I be happy in such an environment. But this experience has made me question why I am attracted to such dark underworlds. My theory is that many anthropologists study themselves, in some way (often subconsciously). Without a doubt I struggle with my own demons. These people are my people. Although I am not a sex worker I identify with some of their struggles, especially those concerning addiction. I have not wanted to reveal too much about myself in my blog, but I’m now willing to take the risk to expose myself.

I too have experienced drug and alcohol abuse, like many of the women. We share a common bond. Although I am now clean, I relapsed when I first entered the field (something I’ll discuss in another entry). I’m testing the waters with this confession as discussing one’s own personal battles in the field is still taboo in anthropology. Anthropologists never share their behavior during fieldwork—we are supposed to be neutral observers who “do everything right,” when in fact everyone knows plenty of anthropologists have sex with their informants in the field, for example. But still, no one ever includes such “horrors” in their final academic products--it would be frowned upon in the academy. We are supposed to be “perfect” beings, perhaps a touch “superior” then our informants. .

My plan is to write a book charting my own relapse after 8 years of sobriety, which is directly related to my fieldwork. I have slowly realized that sharing my personal experiences is critical to the integrity of my doctoral thesis. The field did affect me. In my opinion, we become part of the world we study, for better or for worse, and any anthropologist who denies that has not experienced the intensity and intimacy of becoming fully immersed into a community. I know I’m not supposed to discuss my personal battles but again, for the integrity of anthropology as a discipline we must include ourselves as active participants in our work (and in our final products). We have been taught to silence and ignore ourselves when we conduct our investigations. But we can’t do this discipline justice if we refuse to reflect how fieldwork changes us as human beings. Although its taboo to say, I’ve learned more about myself during the past year and then I have about my informants. We must break this barrier of silence because I cannot believe any anthropologist returns from the field the same person as when he/she enters it.

Imagine how liberating this would be, in our discipline of self-righteousness. We claim to no longer work as colonial imperialists but without sharing our own vulnerabilities and seemingly “unethical” behavior in the field we remain infallible beings, apart and above our communities. We need to humanize own experiences to pave the way for future anthropologists’ reflections on their fieldwork. Without analyzing how our fieldwork affects us, we’re missing the point. Anthropologists don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed for whatever they experience in the field. Of course there are limits (and it’s up to every anthropologist to decide what those limits are) but many things happen that are a natural consequence of participating in the communities we study.