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5) Fieldwork Beginnings

It took time to earn the trust of the women I worked with in the field. Many people ask how, on earth, did I approach these sex workers and start "hanging out" with them daily as they went about their business, soliciting clients. It's an excellent question. I was nervous on my first day of fieldwork. Armed with my notebook and voice recorder (which I didn't use for months, for obvious reasons), I channeled my best Margaret Mead vibes, (a badass woman and one of the founders of cultural anthropology), and strode off the bus and onto the cobblestoned streets of the historic district. I approached the office that housed a loosely organized sex worker rights' group, run by a former sex worker. I knocked timidly and plastered a wide smile on my face. As soon as Maria (all names have been changed) opened the door, I started chatting away--my strategy of overcompensation when feeling nervous--introducing myself as, "Hi, I'm Anita from New York...." I did not say that I was an anthropologist conducting research on my dissertation. That seemed pointless, I had doubts that Maria would care about my research interests. In that first meeting, I simply said that I had come as an ally of sex workers and was interested in their rights, and wanted to know more about their working conditions. I mentioned that I was a student at New York University, but left it at that. I also mentioned that I was there for at least a year (which turned into 4), to get to know the sex workers in Quito's historic district. Maria, whose office had a cloud of smoke hanging above her desk from her chain smoking, did not seem particularly impressed or interested in me. That only made me more nervous and enthusiastic, so I chatted away even more, trying to engage and charm her, attempting to get her to like me so that she would personally introduce me to all the sex workers in the district. Luckily, I was saved by Adele, a pretty, bright, sex worker who came into the dark, dank, office to chat with Maria. She saw me, and immediately wanted to know what I was doing there. I turned my beaming smile towards Adele and gave her the same story. Adele took me by the arm, calling farewell to Maria, who simply grunted a goodbye to me and lit another cigarette, and led me out onto the hot and dirty street across from the convent. Unlike Maria, Adele was fascinated by my presence and wanted to know all about me. Why was I, this white woman, from New York City, interested in her and her fellow workers? I said my truth: I wanted to know more about their lives. That satisfied Adele and I ended up hanging out with her, chatting until the late afternoon. Other sex workers came by and Adele introduced me to them as I passed. At some point we went to get lunch--almuerzos (lunches)--are just $2.50 for a set meal with a soup to start and a main dish with rice and some sort of meat. Little did I know that Luisa's lunch spot, hidden underneath the Southern walls of the convent, would become one of my most important research spaces to gather sex workers' stories. I ate lunch there daily with different women and Luisa and her family became dear friends of mine. I would greet them with a hello, and in later years a hug, as I entered to get my delicious almuerzo, at this notorious restaurant, known as a hangout for all the sex workers, pimps, drug dealers, thieves, substance misusers, and other "degenerates" of the historic center. It was my hangout too and I became as comfortable there as I was hanging out in my own living room. (Why I have always felt more comfortable in "dangerous" spaces with other marginalized folks is a question that I will explore in later posts). Adele saved me that day and proved pivotal to my becoming immersed into the sex worker community. I returned the next morning, searching for Adele and the other women I had met, and little by little, simply by spending time on the streets--every single day, rain or shine, from morning to night--I established relationships with the sex workers of San Marcos. How does all this connect to my cocaine use, you may ask? We'll get there....

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