As I sit at my table writing this and listening to the sounds of the street vendors selling tamales on the street underneath my window, I can’t believe I have only been in Mexico for a week. This has already been an incredibly eye-opening and interesting experience, and I still have another 7 weeks to go. I’m going to start this first post by talking about how I felt before I came here, then go into what happened when I arrived, before talking about the first week in the project and how that’s going so far.
Prior to leaving…
I wasn’t nervous about going abroad. I have spent time living abroad before, and I have lived with host families so I knew the story. One of the reasons I chose Mexico was because I speak Spanish, meaning the language barrier was not a concern. I was most anxious about whether I knew enough about the situation of trafficking and prostitution in Mexico. In the weeks leading up to my departure on June 8th my schedule was more hectic than it had been all year – Murphy’s Law! I was trying to finish all my college assignments which had to be submitted two months early because of Mexico. As soon as the last one was handed in, I ended up working almost full time up to the day I left. So, as an overthinker, I was worried I was forgetting to prepare something. In the evenings, I spent time doing more research into human trafficking and sexual slavery because I wanted to be as prepared as possible before I left Ireland. I also packed multiple times trying to stay beneath the 23kg allowance (my case eventually weighed in at 23.2kg at the airport!) Suddenly it was time to go, and I felt very ready and very excited for the experience.
First days in Mexico…
Myself, Sinéad and Sorcha travelled together to Mexico City and spent the first couple of days being shown around by the fabulous Valeria and Andrea, who work for EIL’s partner organisation PEI in Mexico. Our orientation was fantastic and gave us such a good feel for the city. I have honestly never experienced a city as interesting as this, and Valeria and Andrea brought us to some of the main attractions in the city as well as filling us in as much as possible on Mexican life and culture. We visited the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the Latin American Tower and the Revolution Monument on the first day. The tower and the monument have incredible views over the city, which seems to stretch out endlessly. The landscape is also a mixture of skyscrapers and low-rise buildings, the old and the new, the wealthy and the not-wealthy.
The following day we visited the lovely neighbourhood of Coyoacán. When we got off the metro we got on a bus: let me tell you I had never been on a bus like this in my life. The doors did not close. There were no designated stops. The driver had a massive can of petrol behind his seat. And despite the fact this was essentially a minibus, it was more packed than Dublin bus on match day in Croke Park. Nonetheless we survived and made it to the Casa Azul, the former residence of feminist icon Frida Kahlo, where she lived with her husband Diego Rivera.
This was something I was so looking forward to seeing – Kahlo is a feminist icon. Frida Kahlo was an incredibly talented artist, who was also a bisexual woman with a disability. Her life and works fascinate me and Casa Azul did not disappoint. From her work she has been described as a magic realist, and she painted many self-portraits. Her work explores ideas of identity, class, race, gender and postcolonialism in Mexican society at the time. At times overshadowed by her muralist husband, Rivera, she was an amazingly talented artist whose work is now far more famous than Rivera’s. At the time, I resisted buying Kahlo everything (phone cover, earrings, shoes, pillowcases) but I plan on returning to Casa Azul some quiet afternoon, relaxing in the stunning garden and investing in some tourist merchandise in the nearby market.
We also had some amazing food over the course of the couple of days! Everywhere we looked there was food to buy, food I had never tried before. One delicacy I did go for was Chapulínes aka grasshoppers. Grasshoppers. Never in my life did I imagine I would eat grasshoppers, but in fairness I’ll try anything once. The little empty eyes looking at me made it feel like I was doing a Bushtucker Trial, and the legs got stuck in my teeth. I have to say, however, they really weren’t bad! They had a barbecued flavour to them which was surprising. I doubt I’ll be getting them again, but I am proud of myself for going for it.
On the third day, Sinéad and Sorcha headed off for the Spanish course in Oaxaca and I stayed on. Valeria and Andrea invited me to a magic show which I gladly accepted, so we went to see Joe y Moy.
Joe y Moy are brothers who perform as magicians, and have appeared on Mexican television. I understood the show, laughed at the jokes and really enjoyed their performance. I also found myself feeling a bit sorry for some of the people they pulled up on stage and involved in the show … I could only imagine how embarrassed I would be if they picked on me. Joke was on me though, because they did just that. Moy ended up coming down and grabbing me by the hand, pulling me behind him to the stage! Just to be clear from the outset, I warned him. It was loud so I shouted that I don’t speak that much Spanish. He said it was fine, and the first part onstage was grand. I answered their questions, followed their instructions and laughed along as Joe pretend flirted with me. They then asked me to choose a card from a pack, and asked me to fold the card. Ha. In my head, I heard “tear the card” not “fold the card”. So, I tore the card in two. The panic on their faces as they realised I had just ruined their trick indicated fairly quickly that I had done something wrong. The embarrassment!! There was no saving the trick, and I said to Moy above the laughter from the audience “I told you!” They were very nice about it, but they started to speak much slower and louder to me after that, interspersing their Spanish with some English words I couldn’t honestly identify. They did another trick with a burning orange and card which I managed not to ruin, and the whole thing ended on a positive note – I was glad to get back to my seat though! They threw a few sly digs at me afterwards, but it was all in good fun. I met them after the show and they were dead sound to be fair.
That evening I moved in with my host. All has been great here, and Graciela has been very welcoming. I have a lovely bedroom and bathroom to myself at the top of the house which leads out to the roof terrace where I have a view of the Revolution Monument. I feel very much at home and at ease here, and we speak Spanglish, allowing both Graciela and I to improve our language skills. However, I’m only making baby steps towards building a relationship with her cat. Florencia is cute, but she’s dubious about me. I’ll update in later blogs how I’m getting on with the cat.
Talking about how much fun we had over the first few days is not to erase the stark reality of poverty and inequality which is very visible in Mexico City. It is something that struck me immediately on our drive from the airport to the hostel on Thursday night, seeing a girl much younger than myself juggling with one hand and holding a baby in the other as we were stopped at a traffic light. The minimum wage here is around €3/4 per day and social welfare is not common in Mexico, so people do what they have to in order to survive. The word that comes to my mind is hustle. People hustle from morning until night, selling food on the streets. Playing music to get a few pesos. Parents trawl the streets with their children, selling sweets and cigarettes. Homelessness and addiction are visible social problems – and all of this is juxtaposed with a wealth which is very obvious in many areas of the city.After a whirlwind weekend, I started my volunteer placement on Monday morning.
The organisation I am working with…
… is called El Pozo de Vida, which means the Well of Life. El Pozo de Vida (or Pozo for short) is an organisation which was set up with the intent of combatting the harsh reality of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Mexico. In upcoming blogs, I plan to talk more about sexual slavery and human trafficking both in a global and Mexican context. It’s something that’s far more invisible in Ireland than it is here, which has been something to get used to. Founded by an American pastor, Benny, EL Pozo de Vida now has different centres across Mexico City for people who have been subject to human trafficking. The ways in which El Pozo de Vida works are as follows: intervention, prevention, transition and recuperation for survivors of human trafficking. Pozo has a refuge house where girls who have been sexually exploited have a safe place to live. There is also a transition house, where they are transitioning between escaping sexual exploitation and reintegrating into mainstream society. After completing these steps, Nunayú offers some of the women who have been sexually exploited the chance to earn a living by making and selling jewellery. However, where I am based this summer is mostly linked to the intervention and prevention of human trafficking.
I am volunteering in El Pozo de Vida’s community centre in the heart of La Merced.
La Merced is a large neighbourhood in the southeast of Mexico City’s historic centre. The area is massive, covering around 106 blocks. La Merced is home to one of the oldest and largest markets in Mexico, where literally anything can be bought: unfortunately, this also includes people. La Merced is recognised as the largest red-light district in Latin America. A statistic that floored me completely was that 4000 people are trafficked through La Merced every single day, whether for labour or sexual exploitation. The centre I volunteer in is passionate about freedom for every single person, and ending sexual exploitation. On Monday, Zuri from El Pozo de Vida brought me to the centre along with the American volunteer whose first day was also Monday. We were met there by Lety, Betsy, Jahz and Estefi who do incredible work. The fundamental goal of the centre is to identify victims of human trafficking, and reach out to the women who are working in prostitution to remind them that they are worthy of love, care and affection. To treat them like human beings. Interact with them as fellow women, and offer them a safe space.
Most women working in prostitution in La Merced have been trafficked at some point or another, although many end up working independently at some stage. Many arrive from the regions of Veracruz, Puebla and Tabasco after being tricked or manipulated by a “boyfriend” into entering prostitution. Others are there because their family (whether knowingly or unknowingly) sold them into sexual slavery as a result of poverty. Some were offered the chance of work in the city by “friends”, who bring them to CDMX to exploit them sexually. Every single woman’s story is individual. However, there are common threads running through many of them.
What is obvious is that the women are exploited at all sides.
They are exploited by the Johns (buyers) who see them as vessels to fulfil their sexual desires.
They are exploited by the grimy hotels where they pay to rent a room. They are exploited by the pimps and madams who control them and take their money.
They are exploited by the moneylenders who operate in La Merced.
They are exploited by the people working in shops and stalls who are happy to take their money for goods and services, but do nothing to help them.
They are marginalised by the authorities and society in general.
These women and girls are so used to being exploited, that many are surprised that the centre is offering them something instead of taking something from them.
The centre operates in two principal ways: internally and externally. Right now, the space is being redesigned and is already looking fantastic, thanks to the thought, care and hard work the women working there have put in. The idea is to create a zone of tranquillity, a beautiful space where the women can come and relax or take part in the workshops. It is a place where everyone is equal and welcome, and although everyone’s story is different, it is women working together and empowering each other. It’s a space where the women who work on the streets of La Merced can feel like they belong and deserve to be a part of, even if other people in their lives have told them otherwise…
Continue reading about Amanda’s first week in Mexico in her blog.