Hope in Latin America’s largest red-light district

Name:Amanda Keane
Location:Mexico City
Aiming for:&Gold Award
About the Author:My summer volunteering in Mexico City is based on the UN SDG of Gender Equality. I am a feminist, passionate about gender equality and this is my first time being involved in a project focused on women’s rights abroad.

Hope in Latin America’s largest red-light district

As I sit at my table writing this and listening to the sounds of the street vendors selling tamales on the street underneath my window, I’m finding it hard to believe I have only been in Mexico for a week. This has already been an incredibly eye-opening and interesting experience, and I still have another 7 weeks to go. I’m going to start this first post by talking about how I felt before I came here, then go into what happened when I arrived, before talking about the first week in the project and how that’s going so far. My summer in Mexico has been made possible by EIL, and my focus is on the UN Sustainable Development Goal number 5: Gender Equality.
Prior to leaving, I felt no nerves about going abroad. I have spent time abroad before, and I have lived with host families so I knew the story. One of the reasons I chose Mexico was because I speak Spanish meaning the language barrier was not going to be major issue. I was most anxious about whether I knew enough about the situation of trafficking and prostitution in Mexico, and whether not I would be immersed and feel involved in the project. In the weeks leading up to my departure on June 8th my schedule was more hectic than it had been all year – of course! I was trying to finish all my college assignments which had to be submitted two months early because of my leaving for Mexico. As soon as the last one was handed in, I was in work pretty much full time up to the day I left. So, as an over-thinker, I was worried I was forgetting to prepare something. In the evenings, I spent time doing more research into human trafficking and sexual slavery because I wanted to be as prepared as possible before I left Ireland. I also packed multiple times trying to stay beneath the 23kg allowance (my case eventually weighed in at 23.2kg at the airport – result) Suddenly it was time to go, and I felt very ready and very excited for the experience.
Myself, Sinéad and Sorcha from EIL travelled together to Mexico City and spent the first couple of days being shown around by the fabulous Valeria and Andrea, who work for EIL’s partner organisation PEI in Mexico. Our orientation was fantastic and gave us such a good feel for the city. I have never experienced a city as interesting as this, and Valeria and Andrea brought us to some of the main attractions in the city as well as filling us in as much as possible on Mexican life and culture. We visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Latin American Tower and the Revolution Monument on the first day. The tower and the monument have incredible views over the city, which seems to stretch out endlessly. The landscape is also a mixture of skyscrapers and low-rise buildings, the old and the new, the wealthy and the not-wealthy. The following day we visited the extremely pretty neighbourhood of Coyoacán. When we got off the metro we got on a bus: let me tell you I had never been on a bus like this in my life. The doors did not close. There were no designated stops. The driver had a massive can of petrol behind his seat. And despite the fact this was essentially a minibus, it was more packed than Dublin bus on match day in Croke Park. Nonetheless we survived and made it to Casa Azul, the former residence of feminist icon Frida Kahlo, where she lived with her husband Diego Rivera. As some of you may know, I consider myself a bit of feminist… so this was something I was so looking forward to seeing! Frida Kahlo was an incredibly talented artist, who was also a bisexual woman with a disability. Her life and works fascinate me and Casa Azul did not disappoint. Kahlo has been described as a magical realist, and she painted many self-portraits. Her work explores ideas of identity, class, race, gender and postcolonialism in Mexican society at the time. At times overshadowed by her muralist husband, Rivera, she was an exceptionally talented artist whose work is now far more famous than Rivera’s. At the time, I resisted buying Kahlo everything (phone cover, earrings, shoes, pillowcases) but I plan on returning to Casa Azul some quiet afternoon, relaxing in the stunning garden and investing in some tourist merchandise in the nearby market. We also had some amazing food over the course of the couple of days! Everywhere we looked there was food to buy, food I had never tried before. One delicacy I did go for was Chapulínes aka grasshoppers. Grasshoppers. Never in my life did I imagine I would eat grasshoppers, but in fairness I’ll try anything once. The little empty eyes looking at me made it feel like I was doing a Bushtucker Trial, and the legs got stuck in my teeth. I have to admit, however, they really weren’t bad! They had a barbecued flavour to them which was surprising. I doubt I’ll be getting them again, but well done me for going for it anyway.
On the third day, Sinéad and Sorcha headed off for the Spanish course in Oaxaca and I stayed on. Valeria and Andrea invited me to a magic show which I gladly accepted, so we went to see Joe y Moy. Joe y Moy are brothers who perform as magicians, and have appeared on Mexican television. I understood the show, laughed at the jokes and really enjoyed their performance. I also found myself feeling a bit sorry for some of the people they pulled up on stage and involved in the show – I could only imagine how embarrassed I would be if they picked on me. Joke was on me though, because they did just that. Moy ended up coming down and grabbing me by the hand, pulling me behind him to the stage! Just to be clear from the outset, I warned him. It was loud so I shouted that I don’t speak that much Spanish. He said it was fine, and the first part onstage was grand. I answered their questions, followed their instructions and laughed along as Joe pretend flirted with me. They then asked me to choose a card from a pack, and asked me to fold the card. Ha. In my head, I heard “tear the card” not “fold the card”. So, I tore the card in two. The panic on their faces as they realised I had just ruined their trick indicated fairly quickly that I had done something wrong. The embarrassment!! There was no saving the trick, and I said to Moy above the laughter from the audience “I told you!” They were very nice about it, but they started to speak much slower and louder to me after that, interspersing their Spanish with some English words I couldn’t honestly identify. They did another trick with a burning orange and card which I managed not to ruin, and the whole thing ended on a positive note – I was glad to get back to my seat though! They threw a few sly digs at me afterwards, but I met them after the show and they were sound to be fair to them.
Talking about how much fun we had over the first few days is not to erase the stark reality of poverty and inequality which is very visible in Mexico City. It is something that struck me immediately on our drive from the airport to the hostel on Thursday night, seeing a girl much younger than myself juggling with one hand and holding a baby in the other as we were stopped at a traffic light. The minimum wage here is around €3/4 per day and social welfare is not common in Mexico, so people do what they have to in order to survive. The word that comes to my mind is hustle. People hustle from morning until night, selling food on the streets. Playing music to get a few pesos. Parents trawl the streets with their children, selling sweets and cigarettes. Homelessness and addiction are visible social problems – and all of this is juxtaposed with very obvious wealth in many parts of the city.
After a whirlwind weekend, I started my volunteer placement on Monday morning.
The organisation I am working with is called El Pozo de Vida, which means the Well of Life. El Pozo de Vida (or Pozo for short) is an organisation which was set up with the intent of combatting the harsh reality of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Mexico. In upcoming blogs, I plan to talk more about sexual slavery and human trafficking both in a global and Mexican context. It’s something that’s far more invisible in Ireland than it is here, which has been something to get used to. Founded by an American pastor, Benny, EL Pozo de Vida now has different centres across Mexico City for people who have been subject to human trafficking. The ways in which El Pozo de Vida works are as follows: intervention, prevention, transition and recuperation for survivors of human trafficking. Pozo has a refuge house where girls who have been sexually exploited have a safe place to live. There is also a transition house, where they are transitioning between escaping sexual exploitation and reintegrating into mainstream society. After completing these steps, Nunayú offers some of the women who have been sexually exploited the chance to earn a living by making and selling jewellery. However, where I am based this summer is mostly linked to the intervention and prevention of human trafficking.
I am volunteering in El Pozo de Vida’s community centre in the heart of La Merced. La Merced is a large neighbourhood in the southeast of Mexico City’s historic centre. The area is massive, covering around 106 blocks. La Merced is home to one of the oldest and largest markets in Mexico, where literally anything can be bought: unfortunately, this also includes people, and the bodies of women in particular. La Merced is recognised as the largest red-light district in Latin America. A statistic that floored me completely was that 4000 people are trafficked through La Merced every single day, whether for labour or sexual exploitation. The centre I volunteer in is passionate about freedom for every single person, and ending sexual exploitation. On Monday, Zuri from El Pozo de Vida brought me to the centre along with the American volunteer whose first day was also Monday. We were met there by Lety, Betsy, Jaz and Steph who do incredible work. The fundamental goal of the centre is to identify victims of human trafficking, and reach out to the women who are working in prostitution to remind them that they are worthy of love, care and affection. To treat them like human beings. Interact with them as fellow women, and offer them a safe space. For the women who are ready or able to leave prostitution, there are classes so that the centre can support them to do just that. Most women working in prostitution in La Merced have been trafficked at some point or another, although many end up working independently at some stage. Many arrive from the regions of Veracruz, Puebla and Tabasco after being tricked or manipulated by a “boyfriend” into entering prostitution. Others are there because their family (whether knowingly or unknowingly) sold them into sexual slavery as a result of poverty. Some were offered the chance of work in the city by “friends”, who bring them to CDMX to exploit them sexually. Every single woman’s story is individual. However, there are common threads running through many of them.
What is obvious is that the women are exploited at all sides. They are exploited by the Johns (buyers) who see them as vessels to fulfil their sexual desires. They are exploited by the grimy hotels where they pay to rent a room. They are exploited by the pimps and madams who control them and take their money. They are exploited by the moneylenders who operate in La Merced. They are exploited by the people working in shops and stalls who are happy to take their money for goods and services, but do nothing to help them. They are marginalised by the authorities and society in general. These women and girls are so used to being exploited, that many are surprised that the centre is offering them something instead of taking something from them.
The centre operates in two principal ways: internally and externally. Right now, the space is being redesigned and is already looking fantastic, thanks to the thought, care and hard work the women working there have put in. The idea is to create a zone of tranquillity, a beautiful space where the women can come and relax or take part in the workshops. It is a place where everyone is equal and welcome, and although everyone’s story is different, it is women working together and empowering each other. It’s a space where the women who work on the streets of La Merced can feel like they belong and deserve to be a part of, even if other people in their lives have told them otherwise. When the centre opens officially (hopefully next week) there will be workshops and other activities: English classes, Zumba classes, cooking workshops, group therapy. There will also be classes given to support the women in passing either secondary level education or the “prepa”. Besides this it is a safe space where they can come and take a break, have a coffee, something to eat and a chat. The days in La Merced are very long, with many working from early in the morning until late at night. Some of the girls are in the shade, some are standing in the blazing sun. The noise from the vendors and the music is incessant, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to put up with it all day. There are five areas in which the girls and women are supported in the centre: emotionally, physically, spiritually, in education and professionally. The centre wants to support the girls and women in fulfilling their dreams and creating a life that they truly want to lead. They want them to know that no matter how long they have been in La Merced, or what their story is, they can make a change if they are willing to get involved and accept the support that is on offer.
The other side of the work in the centre is done externally: the girls and women need to know about the centre and what’s happening and what they can do there. So, a few times a week teams from the centre go out to the streets of La Merced. The idea is to have a chat with the girls and women, ask them how they are, let them know about the centre and the workshops and in general let them know that there are people in the area who care about them, and care about their lives and wellbeing. Sometimes the teams go out with gifts containing nail polish, condoms, lip balm etc to hand out. This part of the work carries its own challenges for the women working at the centre, as there are the added dangers of padrotes (pimps) madams and halcones (falcons: young lads who keep an eye on the girls) to navigate.
This week I have felt fully immersed in the life of the centre from the very beginning. After a great orientation from Lety on Monday morning, we got stuck into helping to clean the centre for the opening. We were also preparing for the next day when we had a hen party for Jaz, who is leaving for a couple of months to get married. As an architect Jaz put a lot of work into redesigning the centre and it looks fabulous. The girls working in La Merced were invited, and around five of them showed up. At the beginning, I was afraid that I would be awkward and I would say something wrong. That turned out to be ridiculous. The women went through some of the clothes for sale, bought a few bits and then we all shared food and party games together. I felt so welcome and part of the group, and I found myself exceptionally grateful to speak Spanish (not for the first time). We then split into two teams where the girls were tasked with making a wedding dress for myself and Rebecca out of toilet paper. My team made me (in our opinion) an incredibly beautiful dress and veil – they even designed a lovely toilet paper garter! Unfortunately, our team lost, and our forfeit was to dance. I have absolutely no rhythm so the girls helped me to not make an absolute fool of myself by taking the lead in the dancing. The party was a lot of fun, but it ended. The girls went back out to work. I found myself wondering about what would happen them that afternoon. Would any of the Johns know or care that they had gone to a hen party, enjoyed themselves and eaten corn dogs earlier that day? Would they care? Doubtful.
Day two was my first day going out on the street in the team. Prior to leaving, I found myself slightly nervous as I had no idea what to expect. I knew were going to say hello to the girls, have a chat and tell them that we would be back out in the coming days with a date and time for the official opening of the centre. We walked one section of La Merced in teams of three, and both teams of three spoke to around twenty girls each. The first women we encountered were our friends from the party the day before – I was asked where my wedding dress was! We continued through the streets chatting to the girls. Many were standing out in the sun, others had shade from stores or stalls, and others had umbrellas to protect them from the blazing sun. Some were open straight away to having a chat, others were more reserved. Some of the women were older and many were much younger. We talked to girls who seemed younger than they said. One woman in particular was in the middle of her first ever week in prostitution. She wasn’t as young as many of the girls we encountered, and I wondered how on earth she had ended up in this situation and how she must feel. We heard stories about children, hopes and dreams for the future and desires to finish education. We also had chats about the weather, about things around us, about how bad some of us are at remembering names. There were compliments and complaints, jokes and anecdotes. After the walk, there is a debrief in the centre for the teams to discuss what they had witnessed and how everyone feels, which is such an important part of the whole experience. I felt the anger surge through me when I thought about some of the men I had seen, who felt that they were entitled to buy the bodies of these women – undoubtedly stemming from the sense of entitlement men are generally gifted with from a young age to women’s bodies. I was completely drained that night. I was angry and I was sad, but motivated to continue to be a part of a team whose goal is to support these women and girls in changing their lives.
The next day we walked through a different part of La Merced, where the atmosphere was far tenser and the area more enclosed. The girls we talked to were also more reserved for the most part. The noise was so loud at times I could barely hear them. On top of this, I found myself unnerved on more than one occasion due to some men who had noticed our presence and had a vested interest in hearing what we were doing, as well as in us not being there, so they made it their business to follow us. We were under no illusion that we were being monitored, and everyone felt the tension and stress was far more than the day before. However, the focus of the walks needs to be on the girls and we continued through the market. We met some very interesting women, and some girls who again looked younger than they said. I found myself distracted on many occasions by what was going on around us but I had complete trust in Lety, Betsy and Steph to guide us. The team was strong and Jaime (a Costa Rican woman who joined us on the walk) was keeping an eye also on what was going on around. Key during the walks is to cooperate in the teams and look out for each other.
The sense of teamwork and cooperation amongst everyone is what makes the centre strong. We work together as a team, and keep focused on the goal which is to reach out to the girls and women working in La Merced. It is vital that we look after ourselves and not take the trauma of the situations we encounter upon ourselves. I have found myself incredibly inspired by Lety, Betsy, Steph and the rest of the team who work tirelessly and selflessly in the community centre to inspire hope. Hope and belief in a different future is what the girls and women of La Merced need, and that’s what the centre brings.
Read the full blog on the EIL Ireland website
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