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Making Nice on Vice

Tijuana, working to spruce up its image, wanted hookers off the streets. But las paraditas stood their ground, and the city compromised.

January 04, 2005|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — Outside the El Burro Bar, Monica and Juana saw the seedy landscape of this border city's red-light district gradually take on a new look with swaying palm trees, pastel-painted hotels and fancy lampposts.

Then city inspectors ordered Monica and Juana and all the other prostitutes off the streets and inside the smoky bars and hotels. The new sidewalks, the inspectors said, were for tourists, not the dozens of hookers who crowd the doorways and sidewalks of Callejon Coahuila.

The women -- called las paraditas, or "the little ones who stand" -- rebelled, triggering a classic only-in-Tijuana civic battle that pitted community leaders against the city's storied and stubborn tradition of vice.

In September, their faces covered with blue handkerchiefs, about 200 prostitutes gathered in La Coahuila, as the red-light district is known, and twice marched across the city in a show of civil disobedience that culminated with a threat to strip on the steps of City Hall. City officials backed down and offered a compromise.

It was a fittingly raucous standoff for a city trying to impose order in the area that helped give birth to its unruly reputation. Try as it might, Tijuana's efforts to create a new image reflecting its transformation into a thriving arts center and Mexico's land of opportunity inevitably collide with its colorful, often seedy past.

The drama "had all the elements: sex, hookers, police, La Coahuila, johns," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.

Today, the paraditas remain outside the El Burro Bar, the Eduardo Hotel and the Miami Bar, a streetwalking tradition that has drawn American men south of the border for generations.

"I want to stay standing where I've always been," said red-haired, 44-year-old Monica, smoking a cigarette outside the El Burro, "so I can keep providing for my children."

Monica, who favors plunging necklines and spaghetti-strap high heels that lace her calves in red, is well aware of her place in society.

"Yo soy una mujer pecadora," she said. I am a woman who sins.

But her earnings from hundreds of $20 sessions at the Najera Hotel, she said, helped build her home: a shack made of garage doors discarded from suburban American houses.

She keeps her earnings locked in a jewelry box under her bed.

Monica's forceful defense of her way of life helped her emerge as one of the uprising's leaders, and she became a familiar voice on local talk radio.

Prostitution is legal in Tijuana, but it is largely confined to the three-block red-light district that locals also call the "zone of tolerance."

Prostitution is permitted in most of Mexico, though a few states may have passed legislation against it, according to University of San Diego law professor Jorge Vargas. (Tijuana sex workers are required to have monthly medical checkups. If they don't, they can be fined.)

About 1,200 prostitutes from all over Mexico work in La Coahuila, making it a sex tourist destination that ranks in popularity with Amsterdam and Bangkok, said Melissa Farley, a researcher with Prostitution Research and Education, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization.

Masseuses, dance girls and high-priced strippers work inside dozens of clubs. Outside, paraditas lean against the grimy tile walls of bars and restaurants. Callejon Coahuila, or Coahuila Alley, is paradita central, the pulse of this Mexican sin city.

The 150-yard stretch of strip clubs, taco stands and beauty-supply stores is an outdoor bazaar filled with loudmouthed barkers, whistling drug dealers and bell-ringing ice cream vendors. The hookers wear schoolgirl outfits, shimmering mini-dresses, see-through jumpsuits. A wink and a whispered exchange with a prospective customer seals the deal.

Most of the paraditas are single mothers who say they can't support their families with factory jobs that, while plentiful in booming Tijuana, pay only $1.50 per hour.

Outside the El Burro Bar, Juana, a 42-year-old with shiny black hair, said she ended up here eight years ago after unsuccessfully trying to cross into the U.S. with her three children.

Marta, a tall, brown-haired 42-year-old mother of six, starts working at 5 a.m. She said business is good at that hour because drunk men come stumbling out of bars looking for sex.

Susanna, a 26-year-old former mortician's assistant, leads men up a narrow staircase to a tidy room above the El Burro, where she points with pride to a collection of stuffed monkey dolls piled on a chair.

They are gifts from her 5-year-old son. He doesn't know his mother is a prostitute who meets as many as six men a day in this room, where a blue blanket neatly covers the bed.

Susanna also was among those who marched in protest, along with Juana, Marta and hundreds of others.

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