Thursday, April 5, 2007

Mexico: Mex City's Refuge for Retired Prostitutes

A QUIET PLACE: Carmen Muñoz, director of Casa Xochiquetzal,
talks with a resident at the Mexico City group home that shelters
former sex workers who are at least over 65.
“There are many very sad life stories,” Muñoz says.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - Carmen Muñoz ticks off the basic facts of her life in a quiet, neutral voice that belies the horrors she has known:

Married at 12 to a man 10 years her senior. First-time mother at 14. Worked as a housecleaner while her husband spent his days idling, confiscating the few pesos she'd earned and burning her with cigarettes to keep her in line.

"What he liked was money and beating me up," she says of her former spouse. "He enjoyed making me bleed."

Then someone told Muñoz about a man who was willing to pay 1,000 pesos if she'd go to a certain hotel and do what she was told. Uncertain but desperate, she took the offer and began her new life as a sex worker.

"It was very difficult, but as soon as I began to see money, as soon as I saw that I had enabled my children to eat, the situation definitely changed for me," Muñoz says of those long-ago days.

Perhaps the only thing tougher than being a prostitute in this churning capital is being a prostitute in what Mexicans poetically call the tercera edad, literally the "third age," or "third stage of life."

Though technically illegal, prostitution is widespread in many parts of Mexico, often poorly regulated and still a taboo subject in this roughly 80% Roman Catholic country. In the past, sex workers who survived to their golden years could expect to be broke and living on the streets.

But for some of them, that may not be the case.

Since November, a number of elderly, retired sex workers here have found refuge in the Casa Xochiquetzal, a group home that is believed to be the first such facility in Latin America. Opened in a renovated historic building that once housed a boxing museum, the Casa was donated by the Mexico City government, which also is paying for the women's food, medicine and utilities. To be admitted to the free facility, an applicant must be at least 65, no longer active in sex work and be receiving no other aid.

For the 20 women who call it home, including two 85-year-olds, the Casa has been a godsend.

"Previously, my preferred saying was, 'In the end, we all end up in jail,' " says Muñoz, the home's director. "Today I say, 'In the end, we all end up in peace,' because for us this house is a place of peace, because it is ours."


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