martes, 30 de marzo de 2010

Would a sex worker go to church?

Woke myself up again sneezing twelve times. In polluted cities, sneezing is the rousing rooster. Then I took my first shower in my apartment…it called for a “would you rather” question: would you rather have a trickle of HOT water or a strong FLOW of cold water? These are showers that choose to save energy when they feel pooped out, turning off every 3 minutes or so…ah well, still emerged with a clean head.

Today I met with Amy, a PHD Fulbright scholar and Fenix volunteer who is researching everyday lives of street girls. She has become close enough to the some of the street girls here and transvestites to go out dancing with them. Her research is based on participatory observation where she gains insight on the girls’ lives by hanging out with them (in addition to interviews and street outreach).  Amy has been here since 2008 and knows so much on street life function. 

On the bus ride to the center, I asked her some of the burning questions I had.  For example, when I went on the street the other day, I didn’t see any pimps.  Apparently, the type or presence of the pimp depends on where the sex worker is prostituting herself and her age.  Most of the minors that hang around la Mariposa (a huge blue, somewhat cubist, statue of a butterfly in one of the center’s squares) don’t have pimps at all. Some of them are there on their own accord and some are there because their mothers sold them into prostitution.  The minors can charge a lot because they are “fresh.” In some cases the prostitutes have husbands that send them out to the streets and tap into their revenue.  The more commonly known “pimp” tends to be associated with more established brothels.  These brothels run off drug money that is also used to bribe the police. 

We got off the bus at la Mariposa to observe the city’s main site of minor prostitution and see if any of Amy’s girls were there. We passed a tree by the road and Amy told me this tree was called “La oficina.” The office? The lesbian sex workers often congregate here.  We met two girls, not looking so young, and one of them greeted me with an extra polite speech.  We chatted and she started to complain that the “Patio” (a Christian foundation/homeless day shelter offering meals, a space to wash clothes etc.) was forcing the girls to go to church for Easter.  Ha! Amy and I both laughed.  Then I wondered: What is the relationship these girls have with religion?

On one hand, the church chastises them, but on the other, church related foundations provide them much needed help. Furthermore, many of these girls were raised Catholic and believe in god.  Amy explained that god is a part of their everyday lives…many of their expressions end with “Si dios quiere” (But how much does one actually think about god when saying “god willing?”…Still, using “god” in language indicates a sort of socialized relationship with religion).  It must be that this girl does not want to be told what to do, particularly if going to church is an attempt to “save” her as she knows it will not. Has the church ever really saved anyone?

And what about transvestites? The Catholic Church condemns them here and associates them with P y P, “Puta o Peluqueria” (see Amy’s blog). After Wanda Fox, a “trans” activist in sexual empowerment for transgender / transvestites with Zona Trans (here they just say “trans” so I’m not sure they differentiate between transgender and transvestites) was murdered, her trans friends had a priest perform the memorial ceremony on the street at the site of the murder.  Amy reports that they were all praying at the site. In this instance, there is an obvious separation made between religion and spirituality and religion and the state. Religion is called upon in a time of struggle as an all-forgiving arc of support…it is an extra source of energy and inspiration. The trans individual’s relationship with religion is direct; it does not pass through the state.  These are purely suggestions to try to make sense of the contradictions that riddle questions of religion and sexuality…






lunes, 29 de marzo de 2010

Cracks and Crack

We trot down 19th street taking turns tripping over tree roots that bust up the sidewalk: “Nature asserting itself,” Rosie remarks. The farther south we go, the larger the cracks become. Looking down, I see the cracks become dog-size, forming homes for parched beasts and empty corn chips bags. Suddenly, we are there.

            Tim turns left and we follow.  And there, on the corner, is the first prostitute I shake hands with while on the job.  At first, I wonder if she feels like this is an annoyance, that we are disturbing her work. Then, Timothy takes her by the hand and tells her how he remembers her when she was “chiquitica.” How has she been? Her shoulders roll down her back and she smiles. She tells us that, ay si, todavia igual, lo mismo. “You know that you can do something else if you want or you can come talk to us if you want, right?” She answers “Si,” greatfully accepting the condom, lubricant and shoulder squeeze. This is Fenix street outreach: intimacy, honesty, and empathy.

            We pass white boots and painted eyebrows, fried pig ears on oiled bread, and make our way towards “El Parche.” El Parche is one of PROCREAR’s efforts to create a space where the city’s “desechables” (prostitutes, transvestites, street kids) can seek medical consultation and attend workshops (in literacy, art, street activism etc). The word “Parche” comes from “Patch,” as in territory, or patch of land. Instead of referring to the place where they live as a “home,” it is a patch, an understood section of the neighborhood. Patch became “Parche.” “Parchando” became the term for going out as a group in the patch, or doing streetwork. 

A small, smiling lady greets us at the door and ushers us in. This is T. The “wonder woman” doctor who treats anyone and writes amazingly detailed case histories, according to Timothy. The meeting is highly energized. T. is excited about the prospect of conducting research in barriers in access to healthcare amongst the population she sees.  My case histories will be perfect for your work! She says. How many times has she seen patients who say that they will no longer try to go to the state hospitals because of the endless lines, or the unhelpful employees who refuse to treat them because they are missing some particular insurance paper that they have never heard of.  Timothy jumps in: This is the perfect question for your research! This is what you have to ask the people who come to El Parche: “Why are you here and not at the state hospitals?” This question inevitably raises the point of barriers. I need to find out exactly what are the conditions that these vulnerable populations are subjected to when they try to seek medical care. How do these barriers contribute to an increase in HIV transmission?  Timothy showed me a frightening article in EL TIEMPO (the main newspaper here) from February 2010 stating an increase HIV cases from 1 to 50 in minors over the past year. We want to figure out why…

T is in a rush and leads us over to the Procrear base a few blocks away. Some of the Fenix girls (check out Fenix website, it’s the main organization I am working with, are organizing for street outreach.  The flyers they distribute are hilarious. They use word plays on vulgar street language to get sexual/anti-drug messages across. For example: "Pichas por Bichas? Pilas con el bicho!" translation: a fuck for crack? Beware of the bug (HIV)! This translation seems STRONG and crass, but this is exactly what catches the street workers eye; these flyers speak THEIR language. They are also written in soft, attractive and warm colors, such as orange and blue, as opposed to aggressive, fear-inspiring colors like red and black. Condoms, KY, and flyers in hand, we head out to 16 and Santa Fe, some of the major prostitution zones.

We pass a young man H. who nods at Timothy and waves him over. Hmmm…is he trying to deal drugs to Timothy? I wait a couple of moments and suddenly, H exclaims: aqui esta mi bebe! H’s girlfriend strolls over to us with a responsive and healthy looking baby. I can’t believe that we are meeting a baby and parents while prostitutes/drug dealers hang around us! As we wave goodbye to them, Timothy tells me about the mother. S. was a highly active prostitute, “The baby might be the one thing that saves her.” I start to realize some of my own judgments…I couldn’t imagine a sweet-faced, young, mother to be a prostitute.  But this must be exactly what Timothy wants me to see: prostitutes have babies and boyfriends. They are human (this may sound obvious, but I think that when people think of “prostitutes” they don’t imagine a person, but rather an object for sex. This is not to say that I think this, but rather I hadn’t imagined a potential life a prostitute might have outside her profession.)

Meanwhile, across the street, 4 bombshell transvestite prostitutes, more beautiful than the surrounding born female prostitutes, shake their bodies (mostly plasticized) in front of SUVs that roll by. A., a transvestite that does outreach with us watches them and quietly compares her small breasts to theirs…Could you give me some sunblock? she asks, “I just got my laser treatment done.” Does A. envy these transvestite prostitutes who have attained the ultimate contemporary image of “female” beauty (big breasts, tight booty, flat stomach, long legs, voluptuous lips, curly lashes and long, soft hair)? How much is the body part of transvestite identity? If body=identity, then does a price tag on the body make the identity more straightforward, particularly if it is a high price?

Up to here, I feel strangely comfortable (considering the circumstances)…I haven’t seen any clients approach the prostitutes and more and more smile at us. They seem to all know Timothy and appreciate the work Fenix is doing. I turn to my left and there is a girl, probably 18 years old just getting a fresh tattoo in the street. Hepatitis anyone? She walks over to us while Timothy is talking to minor and seeing if she might want a different option than prostituting herself. The freshly tattooed girl’s eyes wander about as she sniffs glue out of an old “DETOX yogurt” cup. This is the moment when the reality of the place, of the lifestyle hits me. I feel something break inside me and start to tear up. This is the misery here. The girls prostitute themselves for drugs, and the vicious cycle continues…

Walking out of the 16th I see a chicken’s head dried up on the sidewalk. I am ready to go to my colleague Rosie’s cozy apartment and have some tea. This has been a lot in one day. 

Here I Am

Perhaps a first blog entry is meant to be introductory; I’ll try. I have only been here for a week and already feel as if a month has gone by. Along with a felt month of time is a felt month of information/experience I've been exposed to since I've arrived. In a nutshell, I am working with Fenix ( Fenix aims to prepare vulnerable young women (victims of sexual abuse and/or neglect, former sex workers etc.) to enter social and health science professions. This organization works side by side with Procrear, another Bogotà based NGO that focuses on health/social intervention through outreach in vulnerable populations (prostitutes, transvestites, street people). My involvement in these NGO's is a developing process.
Here I sit in the studio I just moved into, thinking this is probably the nicest studio I'll ever live in!  I lived the first week here with my supervisor/director Timothy who showed me the ropes (i.e the best antique/junk shops around Bogotà and where to find organic artichokes) and shared some incredible stories about covering the drug war (he was a photojournalist in the 80's, making the cover of Newsweek and Time before becoming a nurse and a million other things).  Mainly, by living with Timothy, I understood Fenix’s central value: care.
I wrote the next entry last week after my first day observing street outreach.