Friday, May 25, 2012

The Red Light District's Guardian Angel

Luz Marina and Alejandro, whom she informally
adopted after his mother, a prostitute, disappeared.
With its glass cases of cigarrettes and empanadas, its platos corrientes of watery beans, rice, bits of beaf and french fries, Luz Marina's Deli Express could be in any working class Bogotá neighborhood. The only hint that something's different here is the wall painting of a naked couple embracing - and the busty young women in tight outfits who enter carrying babies and leave without them.

Like many other women, Luz Marina cares for neighborhood children while their mothers work. But with the difference that she's in the middle of the red light district, and these mothers are prostitutes.

The small rooms behind Luz Marina's deli
are crowded with babies' beds.
Luz Marina, a short, easygoing woman, moved to Santa Fe, Bogotá's central red light district, or tolerance zone, where prostitution is permitted, about a decade ago to work in a friend's bakery. She saved her money and opened the deli and then a hairdresser's and a music club alongside.

"They're all profitable," she says. "There's lots of money here."

The mother of a teenage girl, Luz Marina first began caring for others' children about six years ago, when one of the prostitutes asked for her help. Then that prostitute told others, who told others, until Luz Marina was caring for about 20 kids. The infants sleep in the rooms behind the deli while the older ones stay in Luz Marina's apartment or a second apartment she rented just for the children.

Bright lights and troubled women:
the Santa Fe red light district.
And, despite the prostitutes' relatively high income, they often complain to Luz Marina that they're broke and can't pay her the 5,000 pesos she charges for a day's childcare, which can last from the early afternoon to 3 a.m. Some of the women also leave her only a single disposable diaper, so that Luz Marina has to contribute more.

Luz Marina in a room full of baby cribs behind her shop. 
The childcare has become a mission for her, and she says she also often scrambles for food and clothing for the children. Fortunately, several stories in local media about her have helped by bringing donations of clothing and food.

During these six years, she's seen the children grow up under her care. Most are normal, healthy kids, she says - but she worries about them as they near their teens.

"They start asking 'What does my mother do for work? Why are there police around? Who are these men?'"

There are also dangers from traffic and the neighborhood's occasional violence. Recently, a young man was gunned down nearby in mid-afternoon, she said.

She also worries about the young girls in a neighborhood where child prostitution occurs in spite of the heavy police presence and periodic police sweeps. The owner of the brothel across the street, a shiny white tiled building with miniskirted women posed in the doorways, is in prison with an eight-year sentence, Luz Marina said, for employing underage girls.

The Deli Express could be anywhere - except for
the painting of a nude couple embracing.
So, when they reach a certain age, she tries to find the children a place to stay in another neighborhood.

Over the years, several of the mothers have partially or completely disappeared, and Luz Marina, who has a teenage daughter, has informally adopted their children. One of them is Alejandro, a skinny, shy 2 1/2 year-old with almond skin and loose brown curls.

"I'm not here to fight with anybody," Luz Marina says, stroking Alejandro's hair. "Whenever his mother wants to see him, she can see him."

Colombian prostitution has been in the news recently because of the scandal over U.S. Secret Service agents' unapproved escapades before last month's Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. The news coverage often portrayed Cartagena prostitution as glamorous and exciting - as it may sometimes be. One woman, who called herself an 'escort,' said she charged $800 for a night's company, which can include dancing and dinner.

But the women standing on sidewalks and in doorways in the Santa Fe neighborhood, which is Bogotá's low-budget prostitution zone, are just prostitutes. The loud music and garish neon signs of brothels like Las Vegas, El Castillo and La Piscina promise little in the way of romance. And Luz Marina describes the women's lives as miserable, belying common Colombian euphemisms for prostitution, such as 'The easy life' and 'The happy life.' Almost all of the prostitues are addicts, Luz Marina says.

"The say it comes from their work, since they're expected to drink with the clients," she says, "and sometimes the clients want them to take drugs with them."

As a result, the prostitutes earn a lot but are usually broke, Luz Marina says, because of their "vices."

"Some of them try to get out of," prostitution, Luz Marina says, "but a normal job doesn't pay much."

Even so, Luz Marina says that most of the children she cares for were fathered by the prostitutes' partners, only a few by their clients.

"They fall in love," Luz Marina observes - confirming that prostitutes are like other people. But they often do not choose wisely. In a room crowded with beds behind the deli she indicated one infant whose father is in prison. Another seemed to be exceptional because its mother lived with its father. "They fight a lot," Luz Marina said of this couple, "but they've stayed together."

Perhaps because of their substance dependence, the prostitutes don't use contraception effectively, Luz Marina said - even tho the government offers some free birth control methods.

And despite all of the victims she's witnessed, Luz marina believes it's better for the world's oldest profession to be legal.

"They'll never be able to prohibit it," she says, "and if they try, it'll just happen illicitly."

Related post: A Profession Like Any Other?

Selling Sex: Colin's Career in Bogotá's Brothel Trade

Bogotá's Red Light District

Not Such a Glamorous Profession

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

What a great spirit this Lady has. This post really moved me, she is an example for me and many others.


Mauricio Forero.

Elyssa Pachico said...

What a great post!

- EP from Medellin

Miguel said...

Thanks Elyssa.