Friday, January 28, 2011

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.

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