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6) My Bodyguard

Santiago (all names changed) was my unofficial bodyguard while I did my fieldwork in Quito's red-light district. When I first started going to the streets, I would see Santiago, his haggard, sunken face, missing teeth, and darting eyes, all signs of his long term drug use. He was always with his son, Francisco, a special needs child who was about 2 years old when I met him, but without any ability to talk or walk. Santiago pushed the oversized Francisco in a cramped stroller, doing errands, but more likely, looking to score drugs. His partner, Carolina, worked in the streets to support their three children (their 2 older children were perfectly healthy and well developed), and their drug habit. I would often see Santiago in the mornings with his three children, as he dropped the two older ones, Maria and Diego, off at a nearby school. He was a "stay-at-home-dad," as Carolina worked. They lived in a shabby, cheap hotel, known to house many of the sex workers and drug users of the neighborhood. I became friendly with Santiago, always greeting them on their way to school. I took a special interest in Francisco and would play little games with him as they walked by. Francisco was a delightful boy who laughed easily and liked my silly antics. One morning, as I was sitting on the steps of the Convent, Santiago stopped and asked where I was from. I introduced myself as Anita, from New York, and gave him a vague explanation of what I was doing there. Santiago knew my son adored me and I adored him. He appreciated that. Santiago asked if I would be around later. I waited patiently all morning. Eventually, Santiago arrived out of breath, after pushing Francisco up the steep hill back up to the Convent. He said come with me. I asked no questions and followed Santiago through the maze of streets of the red-light district. We kept stopping every few minutes so Santiago could introduce me to different individuals. He said the same thing to each of them: "This is Anita, from New York, she's my sister-in-law (Santiago's brother lives in NYC), so keep an eye out." Every person we stopped looked a bit suspicious at first, but then broke into a wide grin and said, "Welcome my sister!" Me, confused, asked Santiago who all these people were--why was it so important to meet them all? He grinned and answered: "Anita, these are all of the most dangerous thieves, addicts, dealers, and pimps of the historic center. Once they know you're with me, they'll leave you alone." Oh. I see. It's true, some of the individuals we met were a bit worse for wear. One man had a leg amputated to the knee and used crutches as he limped along. This guy, Milton, became a good friend over the years. Actually, many of those first introductions turned into important relationships for me in the field. Especially, the pimps, who I became quite close to--but that's a story for another post. After Santiago introduced me to dozens of different fellows and some women, I took him and Francisco to a cheap lunch at Luisa's. I had always seen him eat there with his children. Now we shared a table and ate together, as we would do almost daily for years to come. From that day forward, Santiago would always check in on me throughout the day and always, without fail, would walk me back to the Marin--the bus depot--where I would catch a bus Northward towards my leafy, middle class, artsy neighborhood--La Floresta. If Santiago couldn't accompany to the bus depot, a dangerous spot filled with thieves and pickpockets, one of his friends would. Little did I know that Santiago was the most dangerous of them all. He robbed people brazenly, driven by the need to satiate his next fix for base, a street drug, used by the poorest sectors of Ecuadorian society. Santiago and his family became the protagonists of a documentary film I made while in the field. (While getting my PhD, I also trained as a documentary filmmaker through the Culture and Media program, which was a joint program with Tisch, the film school at NYU). I spent 3 years filming them daily and accompanied them on all their misadventures and hardships along the way. Santiago never laid a finger on me. He treated me like family and indeed, we became very bonded, along with his children and partner, Carolina. The streets create a bond like no other. How did this affect my cocaine use? It's coming, I promise.

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