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.