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A life off the streets of Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Carmen Munoz ticks off the basic facts of her life in a quiet, neutral voice that belies the horrors she has known:

Married at 12 to a man 10 years her senior. First-time mother at 14. Worked as a housecleaner while her husband spent his days idling, confiscating the few pesos she’d earned and burning her with cigarettes to keep her in line.

“What he liked was money and beating me up,” she says of her former spouse. “He enjoyed making me bleed.”

Then someone told Munoz about a man who was willing to pay 1,000 pesos if she’d go to a certain hotel and do what she was told. Uncertain but desperate, she took the offer and began her new life as a sex worker.

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“It was very difficult, but as soon as I began to see money, as soon as I saw that I had enabled my children to eat, the situation definitely changed for me,” Munoz says of those long-ago days.

Perhaps the only thing tougher than being a prostitute in this churning capital is being a prostitute in what Mexicans poetically call the tercera edad, literally the “third age,” or “third stage of life.”

Though technically illegal, prostitution is widespread in many parts of Mexico, often poorly regulated and still a taboo subject in this roughly 80% Roman Catholic country. In the past, sex workers who survived to their golden years could expect to be broke and living on the streets.

But for some of them, that may not be the case.

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Since November, a number of elderly, retired sex workers here have found refuge in the Casa Xochiquetzal, a group home that is believed to be the first such facility in Latin America. Opened in a renovated historic building that once housed a boxing museum, the Casa was donated by the Mexico City government, which also is paying for the women’s food, medicine and utilities. To be admitted to the free facility, an applicant must be at least 65, no longer active in sex work and be receiving no other aid.

For the 20 women who call it home, including two 85-year-olds, the Casa has been a godsend.

“Previously, my preferred saying was, ‘In the end, we all end up in jail,’ ” says Munoz, the home’s director. “Today I say, ‘In the end, we all end up in peace,’ because for us this house is a place of peace, because it is ours.”

Spartan accommodations

On a recent weekday, Casa Xochiquetzal went about its low-key routine. Residents sat chatting in groups of two or three. Some bustled around in the kitchen, preparing lunch. One woman sang along to an old musical that was playing on a black-and-white television.

Accommodations are comfortable, if spartan. All rooms are shared. The women help raise some money for themselves by making costume jewelry, and there are plans to have them make and sell baked goods as well. A few items are constantly in short supply -- bedsheets, kitchen equipment, shoes in size 4 and 5. But these women are used to making do with little.

Named for an Indian word for a type of flower, Casa Xochiquetzal (so-she-KET-sahl) is the fruit of an unusual collaboration involving sex workers, feminists, a prominent theater director and the city government.

Munoz says the idea for the residence first took shape when she began noticing numbers of poor, elderly prostitutes in the area around the city’s historic center.

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“I felt this in my own flesh, and I said, ‘Today it’s them, tomorrow it could be me who could be in this situation in the street.”

Eventually, a friend put her in touch with Jesusa Rodriguez, a theater artist whose El Habito space is known for its feminist-inspired cabaret-style performances.

In Mexico, Rodriguez says, many sex workers enter the trade at a young age and are easily exploited by the organized pimps and madams who run prostitution networks. They also may be prey for police officers, some of whom threaten the women, demanding money or sexual favors, prostitutes say.

“There are many very sad life stories,” Munoz says, “and they all are of hunger and necessity, of threat, of kidnapping, of being told that someone was going to kill their children, of fathers, of brothers who brought them to doing sex work and obligated them to do it.”

Poor and indigenous women are especially vulnerable to falling into the hands of predators, Rodriguez says. Yet “in many ways,” she believes, “these are very creative women. Even with all the difficulties of their lives they still have a very strong sense of life.”

In the summer of 2003, Rodriguez met with a group of about 70 prostitutes. The younger women were interested in forming a large, national movement to advocate for sex workers’ rights, but the senior women had a more modest goal.

“The older ones, above everything, wanted a place where they could live their life with dignity,” Rodriguez recalls.

Two other influential figures joined in at that time: Marta Lamas, one of Mexico’s leading feminists and women’s rights advocates; and Elena Poniatowska, a prominent journalist and novelist. They helped to arrange a meeting with then-Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who expressed shock that there were grandmothers working as prostitutes a stone’s throw from his office.

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The mayor offered to help both the older women and their younger, more radicalized colleagues, who eventually split off to pursue their own agenda. Fundraisers were held for both groups, including two benefit concerts by singer Eugenia Leon.

Shift in attitude

The mayor’s office also put out fliers around the city reiterating that sex workers have the same rights as other citizens -- a sign of how attitudes toward prostitution are changing, albeit slowly.

“It’s very important to stop this moralistic approach,” says Lamas, who estimates that there are “hundreds of thousands” of prostitutes in the metropolitan area (population 22 million).

Before long, the city had found a building to donate to the women of the tercera edad: a former boxing hall of fame, a block-long, abandoned structure on a small plaza at the edge of the historic center.

At the time, the building was in “horrible” condition, Munoz says, but its thick stone walls and high, wooden cross-beamed ceilings remained solid. Though some neighbors were wary at first, they became friendly once they saw that the house had been greatly improved and that the women kept to themselves.

Many more women are hoping to find a home at the Casa in coming months. Its sponsors hope that this pilot project can inspire other such refuges across Mexico.

“If the people want to give us help, it’s magnificent,” Munoz says. “Above all, to know that ... we sex workers matter to anyone, this is fabulous.”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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