Amalia, a resident of Casa Xochiquetzal, puts on makeup before going out to work on the streets of the La Merced neighborhood of Mexico City on October 15, 2010. Amalia, 66, is from Michoacán and came to Casa Xochiquetzal when it first opened its doors. She wears a wig and pads her bra. She is very animated; words and songs come easily to her. She has also suffered from schizophrenia for 22 years, but despite hearing voices, she works hard not to lose touch with reality. As a way of earning a little money, she gathers plastic bottles to recycle and also helps to sell clothes in a stand operated by her boyfriend of 31 years. Casa Xochiquetzal is a shelter for elderly sex workers in Mexico City. It gives the women refuge, food, health services, a space to learn about their human rights and courses to help them rediscover their self-confidence and deal with traumatic aspects of their lives. Casa Xochiquetzal provides a space to age with dignity for a group of vulnerable women who are often invisible to society at large. It is the only such shelter existing in Latin America. Photo by Bénédicte Desrus
In a piece for the Huffington Post, former sex worker turned writer and motivational coach, Bethany St James, discusses life after prostitution — moving from the city to a small town in southern California only to discover that outside the adult industry, she had “no idea who she was”, or how a regular life should be lived. “Although I was financially stable,” admits St James, “emotionally I was certainly not.”
She enrolled in ministry school, and later met her husband, a former major in the army, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. St James attended therapy and too was diagnosed with the condition: “I survived making the transition and although it wasn’t easy I learned a lot about myself, my former line of work and the world around me.”
Other former sex workers struggle to find such support systems, so south of the border, in Mexico City, former prostitute Carmen Munoz opened a retirement home for them. It’s called Casa Xochiquetzal, or ‘the house of the beautiful flowers’. One of the residents, Maria Isabel, was just nine when she ran away from home, and she became a sex worker at 17.
Prostitution has been regulated in Mexico since 1885, but the country has appalling rates of sex trafficking — including children — with one town in particular, Tenancingo, a couple of hours south of Mexico City, considered the sex trafficking capital of the world. According to the US State Department, it’s the single largest source of sex slaves sent to the States, and Newsweek has reported of city-to farm sex pipelines whereby prostitutes from Mexico are ferried to farms to satisfy migrant workers’ sexual needs.
In 2006, Andres Manuel Lopes Obrador, at the time a mayor, donated a dilapidated 18th century house to Carmen Munoz in order that she could shelter the retired ladies (some still occasionally work) of Mexico City in safety. Some of their stories are documented in a new book called Las Amorosas Más Bravas (‘The Toughest Lovers’) with photography by Bènèdicte Desrus, in collaboration with writer Celia Gûmez Ramos.
The resulting imagery of the project, nearly a decade in the making, is strangely absorbing, capturing often intimate shots of the women, all aged at least 55, going about their everyday business such as praying, knitting, and applying makeup. They help to maintain the facility in exchange for food and lodging.
“As they take things day by day, the women remain imaginative, funny and a fount of wry street wisdom,” writes Ramos. Many of the women now afforded the opportunity to reconcile with family members and “reunite with old friends”.
The backdrop of the building itself, a former boxing museum, is almost as fascinating, and has now provided a safe, dignified haven for more than 250 ladies — though that’s not to say the journey has always been smooth.
“They are territorial,” says Desrus in an interview with Slate. “Even if they already knew each other, they were used to competition for clients, and now they have to live together, so it’s not that easy.”
Physical fights have even been known to break out.
Ramos states that the stoic brick surroundings in which they reside stand as a “sober contrast” to the “visual chaos” around, but ultimately “they have escaped a fate that they once feared — dying on the streets, anonymous, only to be buried in an unmarked grave — to age in comfort among other women who were once haunted by the likelihood of such a frightful vision coming to pass”.