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A dignified retirement for faded flowers

July 29, 2016
topic:Women's rights
tags:#human trafficking, #mexico city, #prostitution, #shelter, #Xochiquetzal’s House
by:Pablo Pérez Álvarez
Marbella’s life hasn’t been an easy one. She had to sleep in the streets until she heard about a shelter in the centrical Tepito quarter of Mexico City, devoted to elderly women who have been prostitutes.

This shelter is the Xochiquetzal’s House, named after the Aztec goddess of beauty, love and carnal pleasure (a kind of prehispanic Venus). The project behind it aims to assist elderly women who cannot make a living from their withered bodies anymore. With the passing of the years, these women find it increasingly hard to find clients and, even if they would get them, the rough life on the streets has dented their health and they are not able to work anymore. They find themselves without savings, health coverage and the support of their families, so they can often end up homeless.

“I don’t know what I would have done without this shelter. When I came here I had been sleeping in a bus terminal for two days without any food. Here I have a roof, food, a blanket to cover myself, hot water…”, says Marbella, nicknamed so because her grandfather came from the Spanish city.

The residence was opened in 2006 via a collaboration between the Mexico City municipality and a civil organization, although both gradually withdrew their support and seven years ago the Xochiquetzal Women in Search for Their Dignity Civil Association was created to manage it. Now it’s maintained with donations.

The shelter is in a beautiful colonial two-storey house ceded by the municipality that had been abandoned for several years.

There, the residents have not only a place to sleep, but they get integral care. “This attention consists of food three times a week, clothes (as far as possible), health care, psychological support and legal assistance,” says Jessica Vargas, the house’s director.

The legal assistance is because, in many cases, the women don’t even have any identity documents: “Most of them were brought to Mexico City from other places in the country, some of them victims of human trafficking and others with no chances to get a job, so they ended up as sex workers,” Vargas explains. Some of them lost their documents and others never got any because of their extreme poverty.

Once they get their identity documents, thanks to municipality support they can get access health services and social security.

In Xochiquetzal they also get workshops and lectures by volunteers or NGOs: on handicrafts, reading, human rights, yoga, movies… Finally, Vargas adds, they are provided “a dignified death”. “Many of them are afraid of being buried in a communal grave, like some of their colleagues were. As they have often fallen out with their families, they hope that somebody may take some flowers to their graves”, she points out. “Here we try to give them an appropriate burial, with mariachis, flowers and the backing of all their mates”.

There are three requirements for being admitted to the house, she asserts: “They must be or have been sexual workers, they must have a minimum age and they can not have a family or another social network available to take care of them”.

Concerning the age issue, “when the project began it was established for the 60-65 years range, but with the time we have realised that there are a lot of women in their fifties who are very decayed and looking very much older, so we decided to pull down the limit to 55 or less”, Vargas indicates.

The residents are in charge of the housekeeping. They set shifts for cleaning and the dining room, where they have to serve to the tables and take work as cooks in the weekends.

However, the cohabitation isn’t always so easy, Vargas says, as they are women with strong characters who can use fighting to get by. Besides, in some cases, “they were used to seeing each other as a rivals in the streets”, recalls Vargas.

Even so, the women tend to find the house by word of mouth, as Normota (big Norma) did. She is now one of the veterans in the residence, where she arrived six years ago. One day her body found its breaking point and she ended up in the hospital due to severe fluid retention. “I got stretch marks leaking water, but with blood. I also coughed up blood. I was diagnosed with cardiac insufficiency and with a fluid retention that was reaching the lungs”, she recalls.

Normota credits her health problems to her work as a prostitute. “You must be very tough to withstand that pace of life: sleepless nights, mistreatments… In the canteen, you must drink or you don’t get any money. The same if you don’t dance. And you have to endure humiliation from ill-mannered fellows”.

When she left the hospital, Normota spent her scarce savings on some humble lodgings, but she can hardly walk, let alone keep working. “One day I found a friend who was living here and tipped me off”.

“This house provides us with many benefits. They help us a lot. If we are homeless, we come here and they open the doors to us. I’m very grateful”, she explains.  The same way that she was shown by somebody to the shelter, she has brought several colleagues to it.

Whenever she can, she gets out to run errands for the street vendors in the area or to wash cars. This way, she gets some money to buy a bar of soap, a perfume, or a drink. The residence has an open door policy and some of the residents keep working, to the extent of their possibilities. “If they are still in prostitution,  that is their own choice. We are not here to force them out. If they want to keep working on the outside, they have the right to do it”, argues Vargas.

Some of them try to make money by making and selling handicrafts, like Marbella. When she has the blues, she embroiders linen or makes papier-mâché figures to ease up.

In spite of suffering a cervical arthrosis that may leave her motionless from the hip down, Marbella says that at least she doesn’t feel alone anymore: “To me, this is my family, because my real family doesn’t care if I live or die, if I have something to eat or a bed to sleep in”.

“We are living a new life here, a life where we’re taught that a woman, whatever her profession, despite what she is or has been, is as worthy as any other woman and has the same rights”, she concludes.

Article written by:
pablo perez
Pablo Pérez Álvarez
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