Saturday Night

She’s one of the few women desperate enough…broken enough, to actually live on La Linea.  Over the past six years she’s worked hard to turn the ugly little room into a home, but there’s not much she can do with bare walls and a tin roof.

Last Christmas, she proudly showed off her sparkling, plastic tree.  It stayed up for months; raspy carols screeching from the cheap flashing lights until they finally died from exhausted overuse.  She was the only one disappointed by the silence.

During the last few months her only focus has been to save enough money to celebrate her youngest daughter’s quincinera (fifteenth birthday) – a truly huge deal in Latin America.  Although separated from all of her children, some are in her home country of El Salvador, and others with their father here in Guatemala, she talks about them constantly – happily rejoicing in their advances and successes.  She saved hundreds of dollars to buy her daughter’s special dress, bouquet, and delicate gold ring.  Every dollar was another man serviced, another day trapped in the life she hates, but her delight in all that she provided was obvious.

Since we opened our drop-in centre, La Puerta, she’s been coming in to chat and snack.  She really likes treats.  Without the chance of formal education, she struggles through life illiterate and reliant on others to explain the world to her.  She has always struck me as having an exceptionally childlike innocence.  She’s the kind of person who melts hearts and makes decent people want to protect her.  She shows up for English classes and my heart rejoices.  She’s heard that English is a way out, and besides, there’s always something to eat.  Last Friday it was L. who ushered the women into La Puerta.  “Come in, come in,” she said. “You can help yourself to anything!  Really, we’re allowed to eat whatever we want.  They said it’s our house.”

In her room she’s usually dressed in nothing more than a bath towel.  While many of the women on La Linea work hard at creating an appealing image, our friend, L, just accepts the inevitable and ignores the illusion of desire.  She says it’s the only way she knows to make a living.  What work is there, she asks, for an older woman who can’t read or write?

Chatting last Friday she was thrilled to discover that she’s the same age as Shawn.  She was absolutely tickled by that.  Her birthday is on June 18th and we promised her we’d celebrate it in style.  Every princess deserves a party.

Yesterday, (Monday), after dropping Shawn and Asher at the airport, I headed to La Linea for a day of loving the ladies.  We’re thrilled to have been joined by an amazing group of team members who love the ladies as much as we do.  While I baked treats for the day, three of our team headed out to invite the ladies to La Puerta.  It all seemed so normal, and I guess that was my first mistake – the illusion that anything on La Linea could ever be normal.

It’s always awful.  It’s always destructive.  It’s always sinister.  Just because the ladies laugh, chat, and greet us with hugs doesn’t mean their world is anything other than appalling.

It wasn’t long until word got back that something terrible had happened.  One of the ladies sent a message via our team.  Tell Natalita that L. was attacked on Saturday.  She was raped, beaten, and shot.  We don’t know if she’ll live.

The fear on La Linea was palpable.  The ladies trickled in slowly – many were just too afraid to leave their rooms.  The first to arrive whispered the story, terrified she’d be overheard by dangerous people.  Turns out, this was a gang attack.  And in Guatemala, gangs do not play games.

Sexually exploited women always live with fear.  There are plenty of clients who are turned on by violence – and violence against the sexually exploited is rarely taken seriously.  In Guatemala, it’s pretty much a free pass for abuse.  They’re prostitutes, after all.  They’re asking for it.  If they don’t want to take the risks, they should choose to leave.  Right?  Sadly, it just isn’t that simple.

The women of La Linea have to pay extortion to a local gang.  If they don’t pay, they die.  It’s a simple system.  L’s customer on Saturday evening, although she didn’t realize it at the time, was a member of a rival gang.  They want a piece of the action.  Perhaps they want all the action.  So her customer came with the express purpose of instilling fear into all of the women.  It worked; they’re terrified.  In choosing L. and violating her with such horrifying brutality, they sent a devastating message.  Every woman on La Linea knows she is just one customer away from the same thing happening to her.  But, next time, perhaps the chosen victim won’t live.

being comforted by another dear friend from La Linea

L. was rushed to the local public hospital.  More of that another day.  It’s a story worth telling, but I’m already teetering on my usual sin of never knowing when to stop writing.

But, for now, this is what I can tell you.  L. was indeed raped, beaten and shot.  She was shot seven times.  He shot her twice in the head.  Her jaw is splintered mush.  He shot her right arm and it is shattered.  He shot her from top to bottom.  He shot her “intimate parts” (the words of my friends on La Linea).  It is unspeakably awful.  Seeing her today was heartbreaking.  There is no understanding of helplessness until you have faced the helpless poor.

Bea’s Day

Let me tell you a little bit about Bea.

Bea is amazing. Like, for reals.

In a world where understated really isn’t a thing, Bea shines, no, glows, like a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. She’s a woman you can’t fail to notice. She’s loud – fairly bellowing her demands for coffee when a hangover is particularly bad. She’s brazen – “I’m wearing a thong, so I’m dressed for the outdoors!” And she’s pretty much always up to no good. Yep, she’s our very own Latin American Three Mile Island.

We love her.

A while back she told us that her birthday was on September 15 – Guatemalan Independence Day. That’s a big deal around these parts. Duly noted, her special day was entered into Google calendar.

Shawn loves Google calendar. He puts things in it for me. Bless him. He has it linked up and doing sharesies so that we can all know the same stuff. Sigh. I never bother to look. He’ll tell me what I need to know…and I remembered Bea’s birthday, so…

Instead of taking our coffee cart and visiting all of the ladies, on the big day we showed up at her door with nothing.

“Why are you here? Where’s the coffee?”

She’s as subtle as a punch in the head.

Shawn threw open his arms. The men gathered around her room all turned to stare.

“No coffee, Bea. We’re only here for you. Happy birthday!” said the hubby. Then he wrapped her nearly naked self in a big ole hug. He’s good like that. Love lavishly – we mean it.

Bea was all kinds of tickled. “You remembered my birthday! That makes me so happy.” Oh, bless her heart. Seriously, this woman looks and acts like she’d skin you alive if she needed to, but her smile was just stunning. Birthdays matter.

After lots of kisses and hugs and all round happy lovin, Shawn told her we were there to take her out for lunch. Cuz, you know, birthdays.

And Bea was silent. That was a first.

She looked confused, the leering hoards looked confused, even the fella slithering out of the urinal that sits right outside her door looked a little taken aback.

“You’re what?” She was a teeny bit slow on the uptake.

“Lunch,” he said. “We want to take you out for lunch.”

“But why?”

“Because it’s your birthday. We want to celebrate.”

“But…”

“You should probably get dressed though. Do you have any actual clothes?” My husband – he has to say some odd things.

“I have clothes! But are you serious?”

“Yes we’re serious. Get changed. We’re leaving in five minutes.”

“With me?”

Sigh…this was more challenging than we’d expected.

“Yes with you. Bea, we’re taking you to lunch. To eat. For your birthday. Put some clothes on.” He can be very patient.

She disappeared into her tiny room and we waited outside while things banged and thumped.

Bea is one of the few women who actually live on La Linea. Her room is barely more than the width of a single bed, and all her possessions are stored in there. The walls are covered with garish posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe, plastic flowers, candles, and seemingly never-ending rolls of condoms. Bea does a healthy trade with the ladies on the Line. Men are always gathered near to her door – either waiting to visit or waiting for the urinal. Men pee on her doorstep all day, everyday. It’s disgusting.

She burst through the door – a vision transformed.

“Bea,” Shawn yelled, “I didn’t know you owned pants!” She slapped him, laughed, and threw her arms around me as we headed to the car.

I wish I could describe it to you. The look on her face, the sweet, childlike grin, the constant giggling, the many hugs, and the skip in her step, but I really can’t. There are no words for the person she became as we made our way to McDonalds. Yeah, I know, but it was a holiday, and everything was shut. It was as beautiful as it was heartbreaking.

Bea is hard. Friends who’ve visited La Linea with us are often afraid of her. She kinda does that to people. She’s lived an extraordinary life, and seen things that I cannot begin to imagine. Her skin is marked with gang tattoos, and her face and body bear machete scars and all the signs of a life lived in cruel depravation. She has been there, seen it, done it…and definitely has the scars to prove it.

But this woman, whose glare could stop a speeding bullet, became a sweet, delighted child. Not kidding. Not exaggerating. Over and over she said, “I will never forget this. This is the best birthday ever. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

You guys, it was a burger. I wanted to cry, but she kept making me laugh.

When we got to a packed Micky D’s she told us she’d only been there once before in her life – when her daughter, now twenty-six, was four years old. We were just a couple of blocks from her room, yet she had no idea where she was. She never leaves that horrid little hole. She’s too scared, she said. There are just too many bad things that happen. So she lives her entire life, in a tiny, squalid room, on a disused railway track populated by broken women and greedy, drooling men. I was shocked to hear that anything made her afraid. What kind of life is that?

So we ate, and we laughed, and we poked fun at her. She asked if she should take off her earrings, (Guatemalans are funny about jewelry and makeup), but we told her to wear whatever she wanted. Honestly, the earrings weren’t really the first clue for the onlookers.

We got a few looks from the good people at McD’s. Not disapproving or contemptuous – just confused. But it was okay because Bea was just so stinkin happy, that no looks, and no disapproval could have changed the joy of the moment. We talked about life. She shared some hard things. She asked questions. She laughed a great booming, raucous laugh. And she hugged us long and hard and often.

On the way back to the Line, Shawn stopped to buy her a slice of birthday cake. She carried her little baggie of frosted gooeyness like it was a treasure. More hugs at her door. More kisses. She giggled and skipped behind the door. Time to get into her work clothes.

How lucky am I that this is my life?

Storytime

“Tell me again, how old are your kids?”

She beamed.  She has a delicious smile.

“Seven and five.”

“That’s right.  I remember now.  You showed me pictures before I went away. They’re so cute.”

“You remember, really?”

Oh that smile. It’s a killer!

We carried on talking and laughing while she waved other friends into the conversation.

“…of course those photos are my young children – I didn’t show you the ones that are older.”

“Older?  You’ve never told me about any others.  How old are they?”

She gave a shy giggle as she looked to her friend for encouragement – her face flushed red.

“Oh they are much older.  They oldest is twenty-three, then twenty-one, and twenty.”

“Wait, what?  Are you serious?  You can’t have kids that old.  What were you, twelve?”

She laughed and struggled to blink away tears.  The tears won.  They always do.

“Well, really, they are my sister’s kids.  When I was fourteen she left them with me.  She went to the United States, and she asked me to take care of them.”

Fourteen?  That’s a thing?  To move to a whole other country and leave your babies with a baby?

Wowzers.

“So…they’re still with you, all these years later?  Didn’t she ever come back?”

“No, she didn’t come back.  She was murdered when she got to the border.”

Silence.

It’s a stunning thing to be present at the simple revelation of devastating suffering.  Are these holy moments, do you think?  I don’t know.  But there is something, some breath of the unseen, that make such glimpses of lives scared by loss too important to be shrugged off and drowned out by the clamor of daily monotony.  It was time to say something vital, but, as ever, I had nothing useful to say.

“So…what about your parents?  Are they alive?  Couldn’t they help?”

Horrified, she shook her head.

“No, no, no!  Not my parents – never them.  They liked to beat us…me and my sister.   They beat all of us.  I would never give children to them.  I would never allow a child to have the kind of life we had.  No, too many rules.  Too much beating for every little thing.  My sister asked me to take care of them, so I kept them.  They call me, Mama.  I am their mother, but it’s been so hard to raise five kids alone.”

Hope you’re not waiting for me to offer some profound insight into this story because I’ve got nothing.  Every time we see her she has something to say.  I really like that about her.  A lot of the ladies on La Linea take the coffee, smile, and shuffle to the back of their rooms, but M. always wants to chat, and always has something to say that’s worth hearing.  She laughs a lot.  And she has an actual twinkle in her beautiful eyes.  Or maybe it’s a glint.  I’m not sure I’ve ever really known the difference, but whatever she has follows me long after we head home.

Sometimes, when the mood takes them, and the ladies start talking, I have to fight the urge to ask them to slow down while I whip out a pen and paper in a desperate attempt to catch every word.  I don’t of course.  Silently, I do battle with my obnoxious, intrusive self, and wait for whatever words they want to share with me.

And it’s always, ALWAYS, worth the waiting.

Here’s the thing: stories are sacred.  They are the parts of us that, for whatever complicated or confused reasons, matter enough to be remembered and retold.  They are the wisps of memory we use to recreate the past, to define ourselves, and face the reality of stories we have lived.  And when we take that dangerous, shaky step to share some of our stories with others, we offer part of ourselves for the hope acceptance and understanding, or the ugly risk of rejection.  Stories are the points where we allow people to know us, to move beyond the superficial, and to join our lives with theirs.

It’s a beautiful thing.

Stories really matter and we want to hear all that the ladies would like to share with us.

So we’re looking for our very own story nook, right on La Linea – a place where the ladies can drop by, whenever the notion takes them, have a bit of rest, enjoy some coffee, and, most importantly, talk until words run dry and they have nothing left to say.

Right now we’re knocking on doors and asking anyone we meet if they know of a place we can rent and turn into a drop-in for the ladies.  We’d like a place that we can make comfortable and welcoming for them, a place that is always open, and a place where they know they are loved and accepted, just as they are.

In this delicate, crazy dance, location really matters.  The ladies’ work outfits don’t include a whole heck of a lot of actual fabric.  Most of them go for a minimalist theme when it comes to business attire.  Location for the center matters because we want them to feel that they can drop in and visit without having to change outfits.  Why?  Well, because if they have to change, it just makes everything a much bigger deal.  They’ll do it, but they won’t do it when they just happen to have a free fifteen minutes and fancy a cup of coffee and a cookie.  If they have to walk half a block away from La Linea, they’ll come, for sure, they just won’t come very often.

So we want to be right where they are – so that they can come just as they are -clothes or not, it will be up to them!

Ultimately, our aim is to offer these ladies, and many others suffering the effects of sexual exploitation, a way out.  It’s fine to show up and tell them they matter, but we want to be able to help them towards a way of escape, if that’s what they want.  But this whole issues is as complicated as it is sensitive, and we can’t start an exit program overnight.  The drop-in center is the first step in what, we hope, will be a genuine opportunity for escape to a new life for many of these precious ladies.

For now, we’re still serving coffee, listening to stories, hugging fiercely, holding hands, and looking for a building.

Simple Gifts

“My name is …”

Words to bring tears to my eyes and make me weak with the honour of hearing such a simple, precious truth.

The sex trade is all about illusion.  The illusion that women are free to sell their bodies…that it’s empowering…that Prince Charming will walk through their door…that sex with strangers is fun.

That’s the biggest illusion of all, I think: that it’s fun…that they like it and like the men they service.

They don’t.

Some of them like the money.  None of them like the work.  They blush, they cry, they justify; but they never say how much they like it.

So they lie.  They say they have no choice.  They say that other work is impossible to find.  They say they’ll only be there for a few more days, or weeks, or months.  That they’ll leave as soon as they’ve paid off whatever noose has been tied around their tired necks, but everyone knows it’s just another lie thrown like a dirty blanket to hide the mess of broken lives.

They arrive early, leave late, and in the hours in between they paint on garish faces, remove their mother clothes, and hide behind a working name – the flimsiest of deceptions to keep the truth of who they really are hidden from clients and colleagues.

It’s all just a big, deadly game.

I get it though.  At least, as much as any privileged, protected first-world princess ever can.  I’d lie too if it was me.  I’d paint my face and change my name and pretend that it just wasn’t happening.  I’d escape into the illusion if I believed the lie that there was no way out.  Of course I would.  It would be the only way to survive.

We ask them a lot of questions – hard questions a lot of the time.  The ladies of La Linea are game to talk about pretty much anything.   They’ll tell us about their kids, their clients, their hopes, their heartbreaks, but we never ask them their real names.  It’s the only thing they have left that is really theirs.  The only thing that isn’t exposed, sold, and pawed by drooling strangers.  So we never ask.

And yet, in the midst of all the illusion, surrounded by the lie of the deadly game, every so often there’s a tug on the arm, a shy smile, and a whisper:

“Today I want to tell you my real name.”

I am humbled every single time.

Sometimes they say it as an apology, as though they feel bad that they’ve kept this part of themselves hidden.  Sometimes they say it as a gift – knowing that they are giving us something we don’t expect or deserve.  It’s beautiful, and every time it happens I feel as though my heart will burst.

It’s taken me fifty years to understand the privilege of hearing a person’s name.  When we say our name, we say what is true about ourselves.  Of all the things that are not true, of all the lies we tell or illusions we hide behind, we all know the truth of our own name.  I hope I never take it for granted again.

Walk the Line

They call it “La Linea,” (the line) – a stretch of disused railway track that snakes its way across Guatemala City.  It runs for miles, and thousands of people have scavenged sheet tin and garbage to build simple shacks along its twisting banks.  The community we were looking for is in the heart of Guatemala City’s historic center.  Behind the presidential palace and the national congress, fronted by law courts, police stations, and major hospitals, La Linea winds its way past seats of power and into some of the most dangerous streets in the world.

We’d come to meet the sex-trade workers who made this area infamous.  For years we’d wondered how to reach out to some of the prostitutes who worked the bars and street corners of every city and tiny town in this country.  It turns out, it’s a lot easier than we imagined: just ask directions to the red light district and when you arrive say, “Hello ladies, nice to meet you!”  And that’s pretty much how it happened, except for the part where we turned a corner and stepped out of the familiarity of urban poverty and into a staggering new reality.Tiny, single-roomed dwellings run along each side of the track.  Each room has a bed and a woman.  The women, dressed in cheap lingerie, stood in the doorways and watched in eerie silence.  It was early, and I guess there wasn’t much trade about, so they followed us with their eyes and waited.

Our plan was to make friends, so we went from room to room, handing out small packages.  Conversations were simple:

“Hi, how are you?”

“Um, fine…” she whispered.

“I have a gift for you.  Here.”

“For me?”

“Yep.”

She looked confused.

“It’s okay, really.  We just want to give you a gift.  Pretend it’s Christmas.”

Slowly, she reached out her hand and took the bag.  A slight smile fluttered across her lips as we moved to the next room.

“Hi, sweetie, I have a gift for you.”

She crept forward, and raised a shy hand to take the bag.  Mercy but she was beautiful.  Tiny, delicate, doll-like – it made no sense that something so perfect could be in such a ruined place.  One of our friends asked her age.

“Twelve.”

No words. Every woman was gracious.  Some wanted to chat, others wanted to share the stories of their broken lives.  Some just wanted to watch.  Gringos on La Linea…we were a spectacle.

We smelled the last room before we reached it.  Urine seeped into the walls and pooled around the crumbling front step.  Her door was the toilet for men on the prowl.  Most of the women we spoke to use the rooms by day. La Linea is far too dangerous at night.  But for this woman, it was home.

“We’ve been told it’s very dangerous here at night.  Is that right?”

“Yes,” she nodded.  “I’m always frightened.”

Her room was squalid – dark, rank, and lit by the flickering light of a single candle jammed into the adobe wall. She struggled to hide her near-nakedness with rags.

“I want to get out of this life.  This place is terrible.  I will die here.”  She cried quietly, and we sat.

Sometimes there really is nothing to say.

“How old are you?”

“Fifty-one,” she said.  But she could’ve been my grandmother.  Suffering is bad for the skin.

“How long have you been living this life?”

“The same.”

“The same?”

“Yes.”

“Fifty-one years?”

“Yes.  It’s all I’ve ever known.”

Eventually we ran out of gifts.  Fifty bags disappeared quickly, and we didn’t want to leave.

As we walked away we stopped to chat to one final lady. She was friendly.  Her kids, she said, stayed with her mother. La Linea is no place for children.  “How many women work here?” we asked. She looked up and down the line and glanced at a friend who nodded at her to tell us.  “Two hundred – maybe two-hundred and fifty.” She waved her arms into the distance.  “It goes for such a long way.”

We’re going to need a lot more gift bags.