Souls on ‘The Line’ | Guatemala City sex workers turn to fútbol for a sense of who they are


Media fascination with Las Estrellas’ story is evident in the trailer from Estrellas de la Lí­nea. The ponytailed coach is Kimberly, a fashion designer for sex workers and transvestites.

Of football documentaries that favor the human element there is no shortage of late. One of the most recent is Estrellas de la Línea, screened at English-language film festivals as The Railroad All-Stars, about Guatemala City sex workers who in 2004 organized themselves as a football team.

Estrellas has made appearances at the Palm Springs International Film Festival and most recently the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York following a premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2006.

Filmmakers and Las Estrellas themselves do not hide that their grab for attention began as just that. Frustrated at efforts to gain respect for their plight through the political process, the women seized on a suggestion to organize a team in a Saturday amateur women’s league, the domestic Campeonato Femenino (see 30 Nov 04). Las Estrellas’ first match in Sept ’04 came against the girls’ team from Colegio Americano, the elite American School of Guatemala, and almost immediately publicity flowed. Much of the debate afterward was framed by this one match.

Las Estrellas arrived at the event bearing a 10-point manifesto, “Vindication of the Prostitutes of La Lí­nea.” “The prostitutes of La Línea,” the document begins, referring to the four-block downtown section alongside La Avenida del Ferrocarril (Railroad Avenue), “are women before prostitutes” (see Tim Kantz, “ ‘Prostitution Is a Job Like Any Other,’ ” EntreMundos, Jan–Feb 05). Akin in some way to the prototypical feminist treatise, Mary Wollstonecraft‘s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792), the document tipped off Las Estrellas’ opponents to the women’s identity. They had not made this clear to tournament organizers.

Journalist Andrés Cepeda, who was helping the film crew, states in an Associated Press interview that the women’s presence represented “an intentional, confrontational act to provoke two polar opposites within society, without violence, to experience and observe their reaction.”

With film cameras rolling, the legitimacy of Las Estrellas’ protest became clear. Kantz in his article in EntreMundos picks up the narrative:

The Colegio girls complained to the tournament’s administrators that they feared catching contagious diseases from the team of prostitutes. The administrators, claiming that the Stars and their followers used profanity in their cheers, kicked them out of the tournament and kept the Q1,000 fee [$125] the women had paid to enter the event.

Estrellas lost 5–2 to the Colegio team, but the game propelled Las Estrellas on a cross-country journey for friendly matches against journalists, policewomen and other sex workers. Among the 11 team members that Kantz names, all are mothers, with 39 children among them. Team members come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, an indication of Guatemala City’s long-standing lure, dating back to the 1870s, to the sex trade and to traffickers of women and girls.


Three days before their inaugural match with Colegio Americano, Estrellas players get fitted for kit at an abandoned city lot doubling as their practice field. As always, a cameraman chronicles the moment. (Rodrigo Abd | AP)

Las Estrellas desire to be seen in a new light, as women and mothers first, and to expose the structural inequities that make prostitution almost an inevitability for uneducated, often illiterate women lacking alternatives. At the same time, however, this group of some 160 women along La Línea—merely a fraction of the estimated 17,000 sex workers throughout the country—promotes its work as a legitimate occupation and advocates for a sex-workers’ union to offer labor and human rights protection. “Prostitution is a job like any other,” reads Las Estrellas’ manifesto.

The trade is legal in Guatemala for women 18 and over, although it is against the law to “promote, facilitate or foster” prostitution. The women, therefore, have been limited in their ability to organize, given that a union could be interpreted as an illegal extension of the trade. They rent rooms along La Línea for 40 quetzales, or $5, per day, charging clients perhaps 20 quetzales for 10 minutes. Under-age girls sometimes are hidden in secret stow areas, spread among some 600 Guatemala City bars and brothels (Janine Zeitlin, “Teenage Prostitution a Way of Life in Guatemala,” Naples Daily News [Fla.], 30 Jan 06).

Las Estrellas have called attention to this precarious existence in part by submitting to interviews for the documentary within their cramped, rented rooms. They also publicized the murders since 2001 of more than 2,500 women, many of them sex workers (see Amnesty International), as well as complicity of police in corruption tied to regulation of the sex industry. Two Salvadoran members of Las Estrellas, for example, say police often demand sex in exchange for not having the women jailed or deported.

These facts tie to a prevailing culture of disregard for women in which prostitution is well-established and a shockingly low percentage of women, less than 11 percent, are employed outside the menial wage-labor sector. Even more insidious, within the “honor and shame” dynamic identified by cultural anthropologists, sex workers both threaten the reproductive order of family life yet enable a system in which men must control women’s behavior and self-will. “It’s a patriarchal culture,” says Maria Villarreal, Latin American representative to ECPAT (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism). “[Police] think the girls are sexually exploited because they like to be sexually exploited. They are seen as the bad girls.”

Scholar David McCreery‘s review of police and other government records at the Archivo General de Centro América uncovers a brothel system in full function in Guatemala City by the late 19th century, with indications that the sex worker’s plight has changed little in more than 125 years. The legalization of the sex trade in 1881 and subsequent changes in regulation enabled the forcing of women into houses of prostitution for indebtedness, with a near guarantee that their life situations would remain in extremis. Bordels such as La Bella Alhambra, Mansion de Venus and El Palacio de Cristal operated with state sanction. “By her degradation,” McCreery writes, “the prostitute reinforces the approved social role for women of ‘virgin-mother,’ evident in the Catholic world in the cult of the Virgin.” Restraint is not expected of men, so women’s activities, and certainly those of the prostitute, are regulated to enable them to perform their social function. Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1967), imagines the 19th-century clientele in the novel El señor presidente (1946):

Some inexperienced boys would turn up during the early part of the night. … Afterwards the serious clients began to arrive in relays. A respectable businessman, ardent and pot-bellied, with an astronomical amount of flesh surrounding his thoracic cavity. A shop assistant, who embraced the girls as if measuring cloth by the yard, in contrast to the doctor who looked as if he was ausculating them. A journalist who always left something in pawn, even if only his hat. A lawyer … a countryman with milk white teeth. A round-shouldered civil servant, unattractive to women. A portly tradesman. A workman smelling of sheepskin.

This background of male control and delineation of female space makes Las Estrellas’ choice of fútbol as their agent of self-expression all the more logical—and potentially volatile. Susy Sica—43, illiterate, Mayan, single mother of seven—identifies the game’s potential for self-actualization when she says, “When I’m on the field practicing, even though I’m only a few blocks away from the tracks, I forget I work there. I feel like I’m someone else” (Catherine Elton, “Prostitutes Win Respect with Soccer,” Miami Herald, 31 Oct 04).


A Late Classic Period (600–800 CE) carved limestone plaque, 15 inches tall, from the Usumacinta River region in Guatemala depicts a ball player in full regalia. (Jay I. Kislak Collection, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

Sica’s Mayan background also points directly to the heritage of ur-football among the Maya in the highlands to the west of Guatemala City and throughout Mesoamerica. Sica, whether consciously or not, taps these cosmic sources of identity preserved in the ancient ball courts, artifacts and literary relics of Mayan culture. More than 1,500 ball courts have been unearthed in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras as well as other evidence of ball playing among the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations.

The Mayan ball games, writes Yale art historian Mary Miller, enacted foundational tales of life and death from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation narrative and anthology of etiological tales incorporating the first four human beings and their contests and other interactions with gods of the underworld. The four beings, hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque along with forefathers Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, play ball games with the gods. Through guile and artifice, the twins ultimately prevail and exhume their father’s and uncle’s bodies from the ball court of Xibalba; the corpses are placed in the sky to become sun and moon.

The fanciful tales were enacted on the ball courts of life, with the story of the life cycle of maize and the resurrection of the Maize God, who is identical to Hun Hunahpu, at the center of the ritual. The game as played by the Mayans employed hands only to put the ball in play. Otherwise, players propelled the rubber ball off surrounding walls using upper arms, hips and thighs, attempting to send the ball through elevated stone rings. Hips and knees were padded. Surviving artifacts show players wearing headdresses and long hipcloths. “[T]he balls themselves,” Miller writes, “were dangerous: heavy and sometimes moving at great speed, such a ball could break a bone, if not a neck, or damage internal organs” (81). At one point in the final encounter between the twins and the Xibalban lords, Xbalanque receives the ball, “the ball was stopped by his [waist] yoke, then he hit it hard and it took off, the ball passed straight out of the court, bouncing just once, just twice, and stopping among the ball bags.”

The ball court, now replaced by the fútbol field, was central to the Mesoamerican belief system and perhaps remains so. Presbyterian missionary Ellen Harris Dozier writes in correspondence of 2004 that women with whom she works in San Felipe, Guatemala, when asked to draw maps of their villages, customarily depict the soccer pitch at or near the center. Yet the ball game that “provided the physical and symbolic fulcrum of an entire continental culture” (10), in the words of David Goldblatt, has in its modern form been largely closed to women. Hence we imagine Las Estrellas boldly reclaiming this preserve in order to cast their own tales of death and renewal. Miller writes:

Life is both taken and renewed in the ballcourt. The ballcourt is the place where fortunes are reversed, and then reversed again. It is the ultimate place of transition, and the Maya seem to have found this particular characteristic of the game absorbing. (85–86)

Perhaps the driving metaphor in Estrellas de la Lí­nea is not the game but the railroad track. Cameras linger on the track at the beginning and conclusion of the documentary, writes Alex Thurman at Contrapicado.net, an online cinema magazine (“Estrellas por un día,” Jun 06). The railroad line much of the time sits moribund, a place for wandering children or for stray dogs in repose. Nevertheless, a railroad is also a “symbol of the connection between the barrio and the rest of the world,” and at these two moments in the film a train rumbles through the neighborhood.

Sources

David Goldblatt, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (London: Viking, 2006), 9–13; David McCreery, “ ‘This Life of Misery and Shame’: Female Prostitution in Guatemala City, 1880–1920,” Journal of Latin American Studies 18 (Nov 1986): 333–53; Mary Miller, “The Maya Ballgame: Rebirth in the Court of Life and Death,” in The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame, ed. E. Michael Whittington (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 79–87; Dennis Tedlock, trans., Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, rev. ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Acknowledgment

We thank Rob Wilson, Global Game reader and United Soccer Leagues enthusiast, for calling our attention to the film’s release.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. [...] The full story is at The Global Game. [...]

  2. James says:

    My review from last year’s Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival:

    http://www.torontoscreenshots.com/2006/04/29/the-railroad-allstars/

    Note the link to a Global Game story on the film from 2004!

  3. [...] I’ve written before about the Mayans, about commercial sex workers, class issues, and human rights.  ¡¡¡GOOOOOOOOL!!! –  the Global Game’s combines all three in their learned essay on  the “Railroad All Stars” of Guatemala: [...]

  4. [...] like Americans with, according to one player, “the freedom to play for yourself” (see 30 Jun 07 on the documentary Estrellas de la Línea, produced in Guatemala [...]

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