Claudia, who like most of the sex workers interviewed asked to be identified only by her first name, had stopped working the streets a decade ago after she married one of her former clients. But when her husband lost his job early in the pandemic, the couple fell four months behind on rent for their apartment.
The only solution Claudia saw was to go back to working the streets.
“It was an income in order to eat, to pay the rent we owe,” said Claudia, who now owes only one month back rent. “It is hard to come back and see so many of my fellow workers from the old days, my era, going back to do the same thing … to see all the problems out there.”
Laura, a 62-year-old woman who began working Mexico City’s streets 40 years ago, wages a daily battle to stay housed. If she gets a client that day, she can perhaps afford a cheap hotel room for the night. If she doesn’t, she sleeps on the street.
Laura said many of her clients have lost their jobs and can no longer pay her. At one point she had to pawn her telephone, her only contact with some of her regulars.
“Some days you don’t have anything to eat. … You might eat one day and not the next,” said Laura. As for avoiding coronavirus, “I put my trust in God” and hand sanitizer.”
Things are even harder for older sex workers like Laura, because thousands of new sex workers have pushed onto the streets as the pandemic forced closure of restaurants and shops.
Elvira Madrid, who leads the activist group Street Brigade in Support of Women said her group found 15,200 sex workers on Mexico City’s streets in August, about twice the number before the pandemic.
“The surprise was that there were more. On every street corner — it was surprising,” she said.
Madrid estimates 40% of those on the streets now are women who had left the trade but were forced to return by the pandemic, another 40% are new to the profession and 20% are part-time or occasional sex workers.
“A lot of the other ones — the other 40% — had been waitresses who had never worked in the sex trade before,” she said. “You know, when they closed the restaurants, people have to eat and have to give their kids what they need. And then the single mothers — most of them worked in stores, clothing shops, bars, cosmetics.”
“They cried because they said, ‘I don’t want to do this, but I have to feed my kids,’” Madrid said. “But there was another 20% that surprised us more. They were housewives, women with grocery bags who did it for 50 pesos, or whatever they needed to buy food. They didn’t protect themselves (use condoms) because they didn’t consider themselves sex workers.”
Madrid said she knows of 50 sex workers in Mexico City who died of COVID-19. She and her longtime companion, fellow organizer Jaime Montejo, caught it themselves, and he died of it last May. The sex workers who congregate outside one subway station believe Montejo caught the coronavirus while helping them, and Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday last fall they erected an altar to him in the plaza where many of them work.
Madrid estimates sex workers have lost 95% of their income due to the pandemic.
Conditions that have always been tough for the women who ply the trade in Mexico City — violence by clients and gangs who prey on prostitutes and shakedowns by corrupt police — got even worse during the pandemic.
Rules of the partial lockdown forced many hotels to close, and others raised the prices they charge sex workers. That left some earning the equivalent of only $3 or $4 from each client.
Madrid said that after hotels closed or raised prices, some people started renting rooms or storefronts to sex workers, who found the landlords were taping them with clients and demanding payment in exchange for not posting the videos on the internet.
Now, Madrid said, the women have to take clients wherever they can.
“Everybody finds wherever they can to have sex, in cars, on the sidewalks,” she said. “They have started to look for someplace safer to work, because the hotels closed.”
Most of the hotels have reopened, but many have raised their prices.
In spite of fewer clients, lower earnings and more risks, thousands of women see no option amid the pandemic but to stay out on the streets of the capital, spending hours waiting in the hot sun or on dark corners. And on many days they still go home to hungry families with no income at all.