Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Police Profiling

One of my friends, L. is the absolute worst robber ever. She just can’t get it together. L. gets caught every time she tries to rob a cell phone. We’ve discussed this many times. I tell her, “L. perhaps you should try a new technique, can’t any of your friends, or even your boyfriend give you tips.” She always complains to me saying, “Anita, it’s not that—it’s the police—they’re out for me.” At the moment, L. is back in prison for another failed robbery attempt. She’s usually in prison once a month or at least once every three months. For a cell phone robbery she gets up to 30 days and is then released. Usually when she’s in prison I try to visit and bring her the usual coveted items—a fresh lunch, toiletries, junk food, and clothes, like socks and underwear. I do not smuggle in drugs, like many of her friends do. But anyway, L. is onto something. I notice that it’s the same people who get caught, again and again. It’s as if the police have already decided who the “bad” women are and decide to stop and check them for stolen goods. With L., it’s more than likely that they will have success and find something she has robbed to support her drug habit. As such, the police know that L. is a main target. She must be stopped every time they see her because, given her past record, she’s likely to be up to no good.

I’m sure this is the way “cops and robbers” works all over the world. Obviously the police already know which people are criminals, given their past record. It seems logical, albeit unfair and unethical, to profile the same people when they go out to make arrests. They’ll stop to search people with notorious pasts, rather than search complete unknowns. Such profiling in Ecuador is illegal, as it is in my own country. The police cannot stop you without a legitimate reason—and that reason cannot be that you have a past criminal record and that you’re likely to be up to no good. But that’s how the law works on the streets. It’s incredible to realize just how big the discrepancies are between what’s written in the books and how things play out on the ground.

The problem comes when a previous trouble maker wants to change. For example, my other friend, S. who also used to serve a lot of jail time for petty robberies she committed to support her base habit, recently quit smoking and therefore, no longer robs but the police don’t know this and keep harassing her. They don’t realize or accept that she is now “reformed” and although her searches now come up clean, her 10 years as a drug consumer and robber outweigh her present 6 months of sobriety and legal living. She gets frustrated by the constant, continual searches. She says to me, “Anita, I have to be patient, I know….but when are they going to realize that I’ve changed.” I’m not sure they’ll ever leave S. alone due to her particularly rough demeanor with the police. They hate her because she used to scream insults at them at every opportunity. She always aggravated the situation with her bad mouth; the other sex workers used to encourage her because it was hilarious to watch the police’s faces grow redder as she insulted their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters and themselves. But as one might imagine, such a reputation would be hard to shake. According to the police, S. is still on their “black list.” She will never be “reformed” in their eyes, despite her growing time of living a straight life.

Likewise, some women are immune to arrests on the streets. Technically, no one should be arrested for street prostitution because it is not mentioned as being illegal anywhere on the books. But, the police bring sex workers to jail for all sorts of minor refractions like loitering, or at times they say it is illegal, even though technically, it’s not. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most difficult parts of living in a country where the laws change every month is that no one knows the current legal status—not even the police (in fact, they seem to be the last to know!) Anyway, some women’s “profiles” work in their favor. Another one of the women, in her mid-50s is never, ever stopped by the police and as such, gets away with “murder.” I recently found out that she is a reformed drug addict who still smokes base once a week so she often carries drugs with her and participates in small time dealing. But due to her clean record (she was a drug addict in another city, 30 years ago), the police have no reason to even suspect that she might be doing anything illegal. Obviously it helps that she’s in her 50s, reminding everyone of his/her mother or grandmother. She is indeed a grandmother and works in prostitution to help support her grandchildren. She does nothing to dispel such an image and is savvy enough to know that if she remains a “grandmother” in the eyes of the police, they will never touch her. As such, she gets away with anything and everything.

I would say that in general the police split the sex workers into two groups—those who consume drugs and those who don’t. They don’t bother the non-addicts, even though at times, these women also rob their clients. Instead, they stick to the addicts who they view as morally bankrupt. They know addicts are more likely to commit robberies and therefore, will always stop them in the street without reason. It is illegal and at times they give the most absurd reasons for arresting these women. They can claim these women are “disturbing the peace” or “loitering” to justify their cleansing of the streets of people they view as “impure” and “dangerous.” The medical model of addiction has yet to arrive to the Ecuadorian police force, and to most of Ecuadorian society. Addiction is still not viewed as an illness, but simply something that weak, immoral and “bad” people develop. (Despite the astounding rates of alcoholism here).

Quito: History and Prostitution

I study prostitution in the streets of a neighborhood of Quito’s historic center called San Marcos. It is a beautiful neighborhood with some of the few remaining colonial buildings in the historic center. Today there are about 100 buildings left in the historic center, but some people tell me that there have never been more than about 70 original colonial structures in Quito. The vast majority of homes and buildings date from the Republican period. I need to investigate this further to determine how many original buildings from the colonial era existed; many might have been torn down over the years and therefore today we are only left with about 100. Or perhaps that is the original number. That would not be surprising given the fact that during the colonial period there were not many inhabitants of Quito. It was known as a sleepy city without much commerce, dominated by various Spanish religious orders. In fact, it is still known as a stronghold of the Catholic Church which has contributed to its reputation as being an extremely conservative and traditional city (which is slowly changing). Furthermore, due to its topography, Quito was (is) incredibly difficult to get to. Embedded in between huge mountains, there were no direct routes to Quito—one had to travel for days on rough footpaths that spiraled upward endlessly. Despite these difficulties, Quito has always been the seat of government, providing it with the power necessary to continue to slowly grow. Perhaps some people settled in more practical locations like Guayaquil, a port city on the coast with easy access to everything and ships leaving daily for all over the world, but anyone who wanted to conduct administrative affairs had to make the long trip to Quito.

Quito was a city of deep ravines, another factor preventing its expansion for centuries. For many centuries, the city was squished between two of the biggest ravines which marked the edges of the city. Over time massive bridges were built and then finally in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the ravines were filled in, allowing Quito to suddenly explode. Massive numbers of migrants from the coat and other areas began to flock to Quito at the beginning of the 20th century due to the severe decline of the cocoa industry on the coast. Quito had established itself as a center of textiles and therefore migrants came to work in the numerous textile factories springing up everywhere. Also, in the 1920s, Quito became the center of finance in the country, its numbers of banks finally surpassing its coastal rival, Guayaquil. Indeed, the Central Bank established its headquarters in the historic center of Quito in 1927. Within 50 years, Quito more than doubled its population from 50,000 inhabitants in 1906 to 200,000 inhabitants in 1950.

However, despite its continuing boom, Quito and the entire country of Ecuador went into an economic crisis between the First and Second World Wars. Between the 1930 and 1947 there were 19 different governments, an instability typical of Ecuador (and still seen today, although President Correa now serving his second term, has provided Ecuador with its longest undisturbed presidential tenure in generations). During this time between wars, prostitution in Quito greatly expanded. Apparently, many women in particular had migrated to Quito to work in the textile factories that thrived until the late 1920s. According to the 1950 census, Quito’s population was comprised of a disproportionate number of women. Perhaps the large number of women who now found themselves without work, helps to explain the boom in prostitution in Quito between World Wars.

Quito was the first city in Ecuador to officially regulate prostitution through the National Health System. Unlike other Latin American countries, which regulated prostitution through legal brothels, Quito regulated women individually as sex workers by registering them in the Register of Venereal Disease, started in 1921. Women who worked as sex workers had to register with the RVD and be tested weekly for venereal diseases. These women did not have to pay for their weekly exams nor for their treatment, if they were discovered to have an infection. In 1925, Guayaquil and another highland city, Riobamba, followed Quito and implemented similar types of legislature to regulate prostitution. In 1925 444 prostitutes were registered in Quito and in 1939 that number had increased to 1,000 women. Obviously, these statistics do not reflect the actual number of women working because plenty of sex workers did not comply with the rules set by the National Health System. If only 1,000 sex workers registered in 1939, one might guess that perhaps at least 50% more women were actually working, clandestinely.

Obviously, the same thing happens today. Sex workers of today are supposed to get monthly exams to check their venereal disease status and carry a carnet that demonstrates their clean history, but many women (perhaps those who know they don’t have a clean medical status) forego these monthly exams, willing to take the risk that they might be arrested (although apparently, the law recently changed over the past year stating that it was no longer required for sex workers to carry a carnet with their medical record). The strange part about living in a country where laws are constantly changing is that no one can keep up with the current legal status, including the police. Many laws take months or even years to arrive to the streets—the women didn’t believe me when I told them it was no longer a requirement, by law, to carry their health carnets and get monthly check-ups. They simply didn’t believe me. But it’s for the best because obviously it is in their favor to continue to know their medical status.

Like I mentioned above, I work in the neighborhood of San Marcos in the historic center. I was pleasantly surprised to recently find evidence that prostitution has existed there for at least over a century and indeed, during this boom in prostitution between World Wars, San Marcos was one of the central neighborhoods where prostitutes lived and worked. This was a happy discovery simply because many people argue that prostitution in San Marcos is a new phenomenon, occurring only in the past 5-10 years, when in reality, it has probably existed there since the establishment of Quito. San Marcos was far enough removed from the Plaza Grande to occupy a peripheral place in the colonial era—a second tier neighborhood, not for the most elite who lived along the Plaza Grande and the blocks closest to it, but for the middle class and apparently, sex workers. Therefore, all these discussions to “restore” San Marcos to what it “was” as a way to remove the present sex workers is ironic given that they have always worked in the neighborhood.

Wanted: Man with Dark Skin

I was on the bus going to the Centro the other day, and I swear, there was a job announcement on a tattered piece of paper glued to the window that said, “Wanted: Man with Dark Skin.” It was an advertisement for a guard position—every private home, apartment complex, office, bank, government building, store, etc. etc. employ guards to watch over their establishments 24-7. It is part of the expansive private security system used here by the elite because they know the police cannot be relied upon and Quito is so dangerous that armed private guards are viewed as a necessity (not that their presence is fool-proof—lots of apartment buildings still get robbed, either because it’s an “inside job” or simply because he is sequestered in the process). As a side note, I’ve never seen a woman security guard here. But anyway, back to the job offer. I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of the message—horrified by the blatant racism that continues to exist here. They want a man with the darkest skin possible, feeding on the racism of the rest of Ecuadorian society.

According to their logic, if they have a black man at the helm they will be less likely to be attacked or disturbed because many Ecuadorians view Afro-Ecuadorians as innately dangerous. According to this ad, a robber planning an attack on a building would be dissuaded because he might be too scared of the black guard to carry out the act. This is truly absurd given the fact that some (many) Ecuadorians view Afro-Ecuadorians as delinquents. So if the attackers are black, why would they be scared of a black guard? According to the racist part of Ecuadorian society, wouldn’t it be more likely that the black robber and guard be working together? Wouldn’t a black guard be more dangerous because due to his “innately dangerous composition,” he might plan an attack with co-conspirators? He would obviously be the “inside man” in an elaborate scheme to sabotage an entire empire. I thought it was pretty ironic that the ad was trying to recruit a black person, who instills the most fear in the people he would be trying to protect (most like the white elite). A dark skinned guard in a “white” building? I’m not sure the ad thought this through very carefully. Perhaps the residents might want a “mestizo” with dark skin, but I highly doubt an Afro-Ecuadorian would make the cut. I’ve never seen an Afro-Ecuadorian guard in a fancy residential building—please post below to correct me! Indeed, perhaps the ad wasn’t referring to the recruitment of an Afro-Ecuadorian guard, but only a mestizo with dark skin.

Many people discuss their racism openly with me. I was at a recent meeting and a woman from a middle-upper class background confessed that she was simply terrified of Afro-Ecuadorian men. She went on to say that she knew she shouldn’t be, but that it was impossible not to be in this country. Another woman piped up and said that in this country they are forced to be racist—they can’t help that all the crimes are committed by Afro-Ecuadorians. Even the women on the streets with whom I work, many of whom are black (or part black), have told me: “Anita, if you see a black man just run!” I remember laughing at this comment but my black Colombian friend scolded me and said, “They aren’t kidding Anita—I hate to say it but black men are bad.” Wow. I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Well, they aren’t all ‘bad” I lamely replied.” “Yes they are.” I was told in return. I pleaded with my white, liberal, privileged bleeding heart, “But they haven’t had the same opportunities as everyone else, there is so much racism here.” The response: “When you see a black man, run.”

I don’t run when I see black men here. I have formed friendships with many black men and women alike, most of whom are Colombian or come from the province of Esmeraldes, on the Northern Ecuadorian coast. These are people from the streets and yes, some are robbers, pick-pockets, drug-consumers, drug-dealers etc. Obviously they don’t rob me because they consider me their friend. But I have other Afro-Ecuadorian and Afro-Colombian friends on the streets trying to make a decent living, legally—selling ice-cream, coconuts and other coco-products (coco-water, coco-candy, etc.). They are part of the working poor committed to a life within legitimate society even though they make much less money than their counterparts in the underground economy. Despite the fact that they aren’t muggers, they have told me that people cross the street when they approach or won’t even dare buy anything from them, sensing that it would be too dangerous.

The same thing happens to my African-American friends in New York. People cross the street when they approach and it is much more difficult for them to hail down a taxi at night. In fact, I remember once I was with a black friend and he was desperately trying to hail a taxi for us after dark and after many frustrated attempts he finally gave up and said, “You do it Anna, they won’t stop for me.” Sure enough, the next cab that passed stopped for us. My white skin and gender, an assurance that we will be safe passengers. I don’t have any Afro-Ecuadorian friends here who would be in a position to take a cab (simply because it would be too expensive), but I’m fairly certain they would have the same difficulty as my friends in New York. Of course there are plenty of middle-upper class Ecuadorians and foreigners of African descent here, but I don’t have access to these social circles. I would love to hear about how they are treated here. Similarly, from time to time, I see African-American gringo college students studying abroad here and I would love to hear how Ecuadorians treat them. But I already know based on stories from the streets that it is no fun being black man here. In fact, it’s an exhausting existence given that everyone tends to see you as “bad” and “dangerous” until you can prove otherwise. Although I should point out that the Afro-Colombian and Afro-Ecuadorian sex workers tend to do well because plenty of men are in search of the "exotic other" and associate “black” with sexy, especially if these women are well-endowed and curvy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Anthropology Musings

The following is a brief excerpt from my application for the University of California Press book prize, intended for anthropologists who propose to write a book about their research for a general audience(which would be my dream):

I propose to write a book about my experiences conducting research for my doctorate in cultural anthropology from New York University. I am currently wrapping up fieldwork on female street prostitution in Quito’s historic center in Ecuador. My intention in writing a book about my fieldwork experience, including the personal battles I struggled with in the field, is to break the silence surrounding this rite of passage that we must all undergo to become anthropologists. I would like to have the opportunity to publish the rich stories I have collected on the streets. I propose to write an experimental memoir that interweaves the dramatic vignettes I have gathered while working in Quito’s red-light district, with how this experience affected me as a person. I feel confident that a general audience would not only enjoy the narratives of the everyday life of sex workers, but how my participation as a fieldworker fundamentally challenged me as a person. I would like to share the struggles I have faced as an anthropologist, such as the negotiation of my relationship with my “subjects,” whom I truly consider my closest friends in Quito. Such a space, in which I could address the dialogical role anthropologists perform in the field, is denied to me in academia. I want to write about my process of fieldwork rather than skip directly to the execution of my final product in the form of a dissertation and then ideally, an academic book, simply because I have learned more about myself during this experience than any other in my life.

Fieldwork was a particularly intense time for me, not just because I spent my days with sex workers and other marginal figures on the streets in the style of Philippe Bourgois, but because of the personal battles I faced. An unexpected challenge presented itself when I relapsed during my second week of fieldwork with my informants after eight years of sobriety from drugs and alcohol. But I do not want this to be a drug memoir, the narrative of which we could all recite by heart. In fact, to me, my relapse represents one of the least interesting things I experienced because I knew I was an addict before I went to the field. What shocked me more is the other lessons I learned about myself, especially the challenges the sex workers confronted me with about my identity as a woman. I would like to write this account to encourage our discipline to value the human lessons we learn in the field as much as our academic contributions. Furthermore, I believe a wide range of readers would be fascinated by an example of what anthropologists actually do, an account equally denied to them as to fellow academics.

Fieldwork is shrouded in mystery. We do not talk about our experiences in depth. Anthropologists are not encouraged to write a “behind-the-scenes” account of their fieldwork because as professionally trained fieldworkers we follow a set of ethical behaviors, the disclosure of which could damage our professional careers (in fact, I am positive that my advisors at NYU would highly discourage the publication of my personal fieldwork account). Naturally, Malinowski decided to omit his “unethical” behavior and human reactions in the field from his manuscript, which when finally published in all its glory after his death, shook our discipline to its core. Even though Malinowski would be horrified to know that his “actual” fieldwork experience was exposed, I believe that this publication was the first step in preserving the integrity of our discipline. As would be expected, we struggle with the same character defects in the field that we battle at home and therefore, at times behave in ways that our discipline would find unacceptable. At times it feels like being a professional fieldworker is to deny one’s own humanity within the experience. I am willing to take the risk to put my professional career on the line because I hope my publication would help change how other anthropologists process and value their fieldwork experience--not just for the important intellectual contributions it provides, but for the pertinent life lessons it teaches us as humans.

As anthropologists we go to the field, gather information pertinent to the theoretical questions prompting our research, come home and distill our fieldwork experiences into brief vignettes used to help illustrate the conclusions we reached about our original ponderings. We ignore that human piece in order to present the academic contribution that provoked our trips to the field in the first place. To write a book solely about one’s experiences in the field and to admit that we learned more about ourselves than about our subjects would be frowned upon as a self-absorbed and irrelevant exercise. Such a confession would fundamentally challenge fieldwork, as we would be admitting to diverting from our primary roles as observers of another culture and instead to becoming conscious students of that culture. Although I’m positive that not one anthropologist could admit that s/he returns from the field as same person as when s/he entered it, the exploration of our human experiences in the field is beyond the purview of our discipline, for now.

The irony of such a view plays out with grand flare within my university. First of all, at NYU we do not have one class that addresses fieldwork—not even on methodology, what to expect, how to negotiate our relationships with our subjects, etc. etc. When I questioned one of my professors as to why one would omit such a basic course, she declared that each field experience is too unique to generalize and it’s something we learn in the process of doing it. Indeed, it might be difficult to generalize about such singular experiences, but surely it’s worth addressing the basic struggles we all face as anthropologists. Perhaps such a conscious exercise of how we transform throughout the process of our investigations would be unsettling to anthropology because it could invert the customary power dynamics we maintain in the field. As anthropologists, we have long ago come to terms with our imperialist history and the birth of our discipline as integral to colonial enterprises. We address the unbalanced social relations that exist in the field as we maintain our privileged outsider status, but silence reverberates on how these incredibly complex relationships actually play out on the ground.

I’m not sure anthropology is ready for such a conscious disturbance in power dynamics that the conscious embodiment of the role of student would provide. We are not meant to reflect upon ourselves and what our subjects teach us, but focus on extracting “data” from the communities we study. The point of fieldwork is to provide an intellectual contribution that addresses a theoretical body of work, rather than to reflect on ourselves as human beings. This is something I would like to change by writing a book that a general audience could appreciate, as well as fellow academics within my discipline.

Monday, March 21, 2011


It’s almost beyond words, trying to describe the physical transformations of a casual drug consumer who turns into a full blown addict. Physical changes are the principal markers of one’s stage of addiction. For example, one of my sex worker friends, K. has recently gained a lot of weight, signaling that she’s getting clean, while C. has become a sunken skeleton over the past six months, indicating that she has fallen deeper into her habit. Indeed, K. uses her weight gain as proof of her new sobriety. She keeps pointing out to me, while pulling at her stomach, “See Anita, look how fat I am…I’m not smoking anymore.” I congratulate her and always mention her weight gain every time I see her. The other women also notice and whisper to one other, “K. is kicking the habit, look at her legs, they aren’t twigs anymore…look, her ass is coming back…that’s the K. from 5 years ago…” Everyone agrees that with each pound gained, K. is becoming more and more beautiful (given that curvy, more voluptuous figures are celebrated here). I just ran into another friend from the streets, someone I hadn’t seen in several months, and the first thing I noticed about him was his weight gain. He looked great—and sure enough, beaming with pride he told me, “Anita, I’ve kicked the habit.” He face looked so different I hardly recognized him. It makes me so happy to see these “success” stories, even if they are temporary.

C. is a different story. I have worked with marginalized populations all my adult life and am very familiar with the hardened faces of addicts. I can usually identify one’s stage of addiction based on their physical appearance, but the majority of the time I’m exposed to addicts who already carry the physical markings of their habits. Watching C.’s downfall is the first time I have witnessed the entire process, from start to “finish”, of the physical changes someone goes through over time. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. When I first met C. more than a year ago she was plumb and quick to smile. She had bright eyes and shiny skin and hair. She had beautiful hair that she kept down, resting on her back in a thick sheet. I knew C. had a particularly sad back-story--her son had recently died as a toddler and her husband had abandoned her, leaving her to fend for herself on the streets. I don’t know anything about her past drug use, perhaps she has always been a casual user, or perhaps someone introduced her to drugs for the first time while working on the streets. C. is the only person I have ever met in Quito for whom heroin is her drug of choice. It is very difficult to find here and when the other women talk about her habit, they don’t even use the term heroin. The vast majority don’t even know what drug she uses, only that she gives herself “injections.” Most of the women have never heard of such a thing. I’ve explained to them that it sounds like C. uses heroin and finally one of the women confirmed to me that indeed, she’s a heroin addict.

I first noticed C.’s weight loss, it seemed like every time I saw her she had lost another five pounds. She wears leggings and t-shirts. At this point even her leggings are baggy. It’s not just her plummeting weight that has been disturbing. It’s how her face has changed. Her skin is pale and her eyes no longer shine. Her features are pointy, transforming her oval face into a sharp triangle. She always has her hair pulled back into a tight, lifeless pony tail. Basic hygiene is no longer a priority; her clothes are dirty and it seems like she showers less. Her personality has also changed dramatically. When she greets me she no longer smiles, she just kisses me on the cheek and walks by. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve since her hang out with the other women. She’s always on the move and has a harried look on her face, as if she’s searching for something (which she is, obviously). There’s no time for small talk in her present life, she simply searches for clients and then is off to score heroin.

It is heartbreaking to witness someone’s extreme transformation—if I hadn’t been in daily contact with her over the past year, I would never recognize the C. of today from a year ago. Like I said, I’m accustomed to being around addicts, but with people who are already lost in their addictions. I recognize the hardened lines etched into people’s faces, their constant jaw-clenching, body scars, shaking and twitching, darting eyes, and lack of hygiene. Since the people I work with mostly smoke base, it’s their weight loss, yellow fingertips and jaw clenching that gives them away. The yellow tips of their thumb and forefinger are the big give-away that they smoke base (a yellow powder). Most people smoke out of their hands, rather than using a pipe. I was dumbfounded when I first learned this fact. But how, I asked. Many people don’t have access to pipes and simply start using their fingers. In fact, cops regularly stop people on the street where I work to check their fingers. I still don’t understand how they do it without burning themselves—

Perhaps the most disturbing part about C.’s physical transformation is that there’s no end in sight. I ask myself, will she continue to shrink until she no longer exists? At what point will her body simply collapse? How long can she sustain her deteriorating condition? The worst part is that we can’t do anything to help her. Despite efforts from friends who try to convince her to enter rehab, C. continues on her self-destructive path. Everyone on the streets (including myself) knows enough about addiction to know that an addict can’t be stopped until he/she wants it. We can only hope that C. hits rock bottom soon and decides to seek help. Until then, we can only stand by and watch her slowly disappear.

HIV on the streets

Ever since I attended an HIV/AIDS seminar hosted by the Ministry of Health and learned that Ecuador has one of the lowest HIV rates in Latin America, I hadn’t given the matter much thought, despite the confession of one of the sex workers that her son had recently been diagnosed as HIV positive. Apparently, the HIV rates are higher on the coast, particularly in the province of Guayas, home to Ecuador’s most significant city of commerce, Guayaquil, due to its bustling port. Indeed, the sex worker’s son who is HIV positive lives in Guayaquil. I have no idea how he contracted the disease, but he fits my profile of who might be a vulnerable target, simply because he’s from the coast. Terribly ignorant, I recognize. I simply do not associate Quito with HIV/AIDS despite the fact that I work with a very vulnerable population, in which sex workers often don’t use condoms simply because their clients pay them double. The contraction of HIV/AIDS through dirty needles would be rare given the low rates of heroin consumption here. As a neighbor of Colombia, Ecuadorian drug consumers usually stick with various forms of cocaine (the most common form found on the streets is “base” which has a similar effect as crack, but is actually the unrefined form of cocaine, the leftovers of the chemical component before coke is refined—different from crack, which is the chemical transformation of processed cocaine). Therefore, I would deduce that rates of HIV spread mostly through unprotected sex.

My ignorance about the existence of HIV/AIDS rates in Quito was quickly laid to rest when I found out that a very young sex worker died from AIDS last week in the neighborhood where I work. I didn’t know her personally, but apparently she had been working in the sex industry for many years despite the fact that she was only 23 years old. I found the circumstances of her death heartbreaking as I learned that she died alone, in one of the hotels where she worked. Apparently, when she discovered her positive status she didn’t follow a medical regime to prevent the onset of AIDS, she simply lived her life as before, perhaps in denial of her condition. To a gringa like myself, where in my country HIV is no longer viewed as a death sentence due to the accessibility to the appropriate drugs needed to prevent the onset of AIDS related illness, it came as a shock that she simply surrendered to her fate. Actually, “shock” is not the correct word since I have been working on the streets for long enough to know that many sex workers don’t have the resources or the knowledge of how to work the incredibly bureaucratic medical system to receive effective care. Quite frankly, if I were diagnosed with HIV here I wouldn’t know how to start treatment either (but I would have the privilege to simply jump on the next plane home and receive the very best treatment possible). No, indeed, it wasn’t shocking, just sad.

I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her contraction of HIV, but I would guess that she was a drug consumer simply because sex workers who are supporting a habit are more willing to have unprotected sex. Undoubtedly, their addictions cloud their judgments and the temptation of extra money is an appealing offer when their lives depend on their next fix. Certainly my casual conversations with different women indicate that non-addicts are more likely to refuse clients who seek unprotected sex. I would even say that my friends on the streets who are not addicts religiously use condoms, no matter how perilous their economic conditions. Most of the women know the tricks of the trade and are able to remove themselves from situations where a client might insist on not using a condom. Rape of course is another matter entirely. I haven’t broached this topic with any woman yet, and not one woman has confessed to me that she has been raped in this line of work, even though I realize it must happen frequently (a matter to be discussed in another entry). But since negotiations (price, what acts will be performed) with clients happens on the streets even before entering the hotel, a woman can maintain a firm stance on condom use since the client can simply move from woman to woman on the corner until he finds someone who will acquiesce. And again, the women who acquiesce are usually addicts who aren’t necessarily thinking about their long-term health.

Not only did I learn of the death of a sex worker last week, but I also discovered that another sex worker (whom I’ll call Carmen), someone I’m close with, and her partner are also HIV positive. I wasn’t surprised given the extraordinary self-destructive and reckless life Carmen leads, but it saddened me because I don’t think her fate will be any different than the woman who died last week. Indeed, it’s somewhat of a miracle that Carmen has survived thus far in life, despite her twenty-odd years, given the fact that she was a street kid, fending for herself since she was a young child. Street kids often don’t make it to adulthood, so in some ways Carmen has already been lucky. Similar to the woman who died last week, neither Carmen nor her partner are seeking treatment to manage their positive status. They are both base addicts who seem to live in the moment so perhaps treatment seems irrelevant, as they don’t ponder their long-term fates. Among all the sex worker addicts, Carmen stands out as the most vulnerable, not just because her addiction seems worse than others, but because of how her long term existence on the streets has marked her as a person. She is tougher (more guarded) than the rest and therefore took me more time to break through her shell. Once I did, I realized that that she’s in desperate need of love and nurturance. Now that I know she is HIV positive, its puts her constant illnesses into perspective. Carmen is always sick. Sometimes this is due to drug withdrawal, but sometimes she disappears for days in the hotel, suffering through a “cold” as she tells me. She is constantly shaking, again, perhaps the affects of drugs, but her disturbingly thin frame causes me to worry even more now. I would never intervene in her fate unless explicitly asked, but in some ways I don’t think she really cares if she’s dead or alive—she has always seemed among the walking dead, regardless of how heartbreaking that is to me. I say a little pray for Carmen whenever I see her on the streets—that she may find peace one day, in this world or the next.