San Diego It's eight o' clock on a Wednesday night. Outside Tijuana's cathedral, the priests close the giant doors. The street darkens. The beggars pack up.
But in a nearby shadowy parking lot the light shines out from a bright, sky-blue room, along with the burble of 50 women chattering inside. For them the evening is just beginning.
"You are born an eagle, to fly with the fire of love inside. Your destiny is to triumph and when you understand this, nothing and no one will hold you back."
So says the sign on the wall. But it might just as well say, "You've come a long way, baby," because this is the headquarters for Tijuana's remarkable prostitutes union.
In the past eight years, the Vanguardia de Mujeres Libres Maria Magdalena -- named after the "wanton" woman Jesus befriended, Mary Magdalene -- has pulled its members up by their bootstraps, taken on the city police, challenged the municipal authorities, and evolved into one of the more respected trade unions in the city. The tell-tale signal of a new respect: officials, police, and ordinary folks now call them the Magdalenas, not prostitutes.
"Long live the search for love, justice, truth," says the sign, "and the happy day of friendship."
Friendship is alive and well tonight. The sing-song voices of all 50 women fill this meeting room. Nearly all of those present work the streets of the Zona De Tolerancia, in the red-light district, northwest of Revolución, during the day. They have children to care for at night. But each Wednesday evening they come here to share problems, get bulk-price condoms, health care, and perhaps listen to a speaker talk about self-esteem, literacy, or public speaking. They each pay around 30 pesos ($3) a month to their leader, Alejandra H., toward the headquarters' $250 rent.
Next to Alejandra H., in the group facing the crowd, sit Virginia S. and Selena E., two of the founders. And leaning on the table next to them is the only male present tonight, Victor Clark Alfaro. Clark is founder and director of Tijuana's Binational Center for Human Rights.
"Nine years ago, things were really bad for these sex workers," Clark says.
"We were persecuted by the police," says Alejandra H. "They didn't let us work. They would cruise by and demand [up to] 200 to 300 pesos -- $20 to $30 -- or they'd throw us in jail for 36 hours."
"We realized that we would have to organize ourselves," says Lupe, a big, generous-faced woman at the back. "It came to be that we were stopped so frequently by the police, we had no choice."
"That's how I met them." Clark says. "They came to my office and told me all about it. How the cops would go to the red-light district and ask the woman to give them money. They'd charge them $10, $50, or ask them for sexual favors. Or if the women got mad and said, 'I'm not going to give you money!' they would take them to jail and charge them for practicing prostitution -- even though there is no law prohibiting it in Mexico. They would say, 'You are going to pay a fee of $18 because you were practicing prostitution.' The women didn't know the law. They thought it was probably illegal. So they'd pay, be released, and again the police would come. It was a vicious cycle for many, many years. The '60, the '70s, the '80s. Police could get a lot of money. Thousands of dollars. They knew the women were well-paid compared with other workers, and you can [extort] money from them anytime you want, because they are not going to denounce you."
Then Virginia S. came along, and she got mad. She paid a visit to Clark's office in a blue building on Avenida Centenario, in the Rio district near City Hall.
"Virginia S. She is really the founder of the group. She saw me on a TV program," says Clark, "She decided to look for me. She first found [gay rights advocate] Emilio Velázquez, and they came together to my office. This was the summer of 1993."
Word spread through the streetwalker community that someone would stand up for them. Better still, he would show them how to stand up for themselves. "In a matter of two weeks, 75 of these women came to complain," says Clark. "We documented all their complaints, and then we sued the municipal police. We asked for an immediate meeting with Mayor [Héctor] Osuna Jaime and generally fostered the organization of these women."
They didn't get the meeting, so the Magdalenas did something that had never been done before. They took to the streets.
"We had the first rally of prostitutes in the history of Tijuana!" says Clark. "When the municipal police stopped the rallies and started round-ups against the prostitutes, we went in front of the office of the director of the municipal police and protested.
"People were surprised. It was the first time that prostitutes ever walked on the streets of Tijuana downtown to protest for their rights. And the local population supported them. Because many among them were also victims. Poor people, street vendors, women, people the municipal or federal police had beaten or tortured, and here were these women walking through the streets to protest against them. Instead of saying, 'Look at those prostitutes' and denigrating them, the people sympathized with them. They applauded them!"
The result was a stunning back-down from the police.
"When the Magdalenas organized themselves, the business ended," Clark says. "Of course, the police got very mad. They got very angry at me. It had been a big business for them. And suddenly they were getting nothing. But they could not touch the women because it wasn't just them, the prostitutes, anymore, but also our office of human rights. We had exposed names of [corrupt] police, we sued two of them. We told the women to write the name and number of any police officer [from their badge] and to tell us immediately. They encouraged each other to denounce bad cops. From then on the police knew that if they touched a woman, that woman was not alone."