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 http://fenix.org.uk/), 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.