Mexican Prostitute Fights for a Home, and Wins

Mexico City is home to hundreds of older prostitutes. These over-60 women continue to ply their trade, but with smaller returns. One of these streetwalkers is an activist who successfully appealed to Mexico City's mayor for a shelter to house these aging prostitutes.

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Mexico City's government has set up a shelter for aging prostitutes. And while the city's controversial mayor approved the plan, the idea came from a street walker turned activist. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro spent some time with her and sent us this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Located in Mexico City's historic district, but far away from tourists, Plaza Loreto is shaded by trees filled with birds and flanked by two stone churches. Under other circumstances it would be a beautiful Colonial-era square, but instead, on a recent afternoon, its working fountain is surrounded by drunks. A woman lifts her skirt and begins to defecate in public view. Loud music from the nearby market stalls add to its aura of decay. This is where older prostitutes ply their trade. Among them is 51-year-old Carmen Munoz. She has short, black hair, dark, watchful eyes. She talks dispassionately about what brought her to this place.

Ms. CARMEN MUNOZ (Prostitute): (Through Translator) I became a sexual worker when I was 22 years old. I had seven children at that point, seven small children to support. I didn't have food to give them; their father didn't work. He hit me, he kicked me and he didn't even feed me. I worked as a maid in different houses, but they treated me badly and chased me out and didn't pay me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With nowhere to go almost 30 years ago, she ended up here.

Ms. MUNOZ: (Through Translator) So I finally came to this place, the Plaza Loreto, which has so many memories for me. I came here, and they offered me money for my sexual services. At first I was shocked, but hunger and the necessity to feed my children made me start taking customers. And I have to say, thanks to that, I was able to improve the life of my children. I now have 11 children, and I am still a prostitute because I have to live, I have to pay rent and I have to eat.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are no exact figures, but women's groups estimate that in Mexico City's historic district alone, there are at least 3,000 sex workers. That estimate jumps to 300,000 for the whole of Mexico City. Prostitution here is not illegal, but those in the trade can face fines or be put in jail for lewd public conduct. Carmen says as she's gotten older, things have gotten harder. For one assignation, she may receive only 50 pesos, the equivalent of $4 1/2. It may be less; only rarely now is it more.

Ms. MUNOZ: (Through Translator) There are times when you can make enough; other times we don't make anything. Right now, for example, there are many of us who have been here since 9 AM, and it is now 3:30 in the afternoon and we haven't eaten because there's been nothing. And that is the way it is. I think that working as a prostitute if you are over 40 years old is very difficult.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carmen began to notice that things were so difficult, in fact, that older sex workers were sleeping in doorways and under boxes, with nowhere to go to retire with dignity. She's more fortunate living in a cheap apartment, but she's pregnant with her 12th child and is suffering from cancer. Carmen helped organize a group of independent sex workers who've broken free of their pimps in the area of La Merced, where she works. She says she began to try and get someone interested in helping those older women, too.

Ms. MUNOZ: (Through Translator) I am not an activist. The only thing I did was knock on doors to help my fellow prostitutes, because today it is them, but tomorrow it is me. Right? Today, they live on the streets; tomorrow, it might be me. Nothing is sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In an unlikely union of two women from vastly different walks of life, Carmen got in touch with actress Jesusa Martinez, who was already involved with a group of younger sex workers who were looking for a space where they could conduct workshops. Drafting in the support of other prominent feminists and women's groups, a meeting with Mexico City Mayor Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador was set. He ended up donating a large former museum, which will be used for both projects. It will have space to house up to 68 prostitutes who are over 65 years old. Jesusa says that she believes Carmen has done something truly amazing.

Ms. JESUSA MARTINEZ (Actress): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `I think that Carmen is one of the most extraordinary women I've ever met. And beyond that, she was one of the people who was most worried about these older women. She was the one to see that these women needed a shelter. The result came from much of Carmen's vision and her strength, so that this now has come to pass,' she says.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The women are dressed unprovocatively in simple housecoats; they look like the grandmothers they are. The shelter hasn't opened yet. Money is still being raised to remodel it. Once it does, both Laticia(ph) and Anjelina(ph) will be able to live there. But for now, after a brief respite under the shady trees of Plaza Loreto, they reluctantly go back to work. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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