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

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.

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