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."
And now the women also knew their business was not illegal. "It has been amazing," says Alejandra H. "The police give us no trouble at all now."
But last March, when city hall wanted to clean up its tourist image along its Calle Primera ("First Street"), the Magdalenas rebelled again. They had agreed to a police request to stay off First Street between Constitución and Niños Héroes Avenues, after Tijuana's public-safety director, Oscar Euzkariatza, promised to meet with them to reconsider the situation a week later. When he failed to, they took to the streets again.
"The leaders came to my office," says Clark. "The rest, the 70 Magdalenas, were already outside the municipal offices. I had called all the media. I walked up with the leaders to the civic center. Outside, their leaders told them, 'We are going to enter the civic center. We are going to burn our IDs [issued by the medical service], and then we're going to have a press conference.'
"So they marched, with placards. They shouted, 'We have a right to work!' 'Prostitutes have rights!' 'Sex workers are Mexican citizens!' And they burned their cards. We asked for a meeting with the mayor [José Guadalupe Osuna Millán]. But this mayor never would receive them either. So we went to the federal courts and promoted 27 habeas corpus [writs]. And the women returned to First Street, but with that paper in their hands. The police couldn't move them."
The Magdalenas have been back on their traditional patch ever since.
This evening, as the Magdalenas introduce themselves, their stories are much the same.
Gloria, 34: "I have worked here four years. I come from Puebla. We had very little there. I came to Tijuana because economically it's better. I live more quietly here too."
Dulce, 32: "I come from Guadalajara. I have been ten years in Tijuana. I have a daughter of 12 years and a son who's 6, and I need to provide for them."
Angeles, 37: "I come from Tlaxcala. I've been 14 years in Tijuana, because I have four daughters, 15, 12, 10, and 4. Here you can earn more. But not working in the maquiladoras. They pay very little."
Jacqueline, 19: "I have been seven months here. I'm from Cuauhtla, Morelos. I had to work [as a prostitute], because I have a son. In a factory I only earned 150 pesos per week [$15]."
"Some of the women have come to my office and said, 'Victor, I don't want to work on the streets anymore,' " says Clark. "But when we found work for them at assembly plants, at maquiladoras, they'd only earn $35, $50 a week. They told me, 'Victor, I earn that money in half a day on the street.'
"Also it's hard to do other work here because we come from another state," says Mirna, 30, from Cuernavaca, Morelos. "We don't have the papers to qualify in Baja California."
Clark says between 1500 and 2000 prostitutes work in Tijuana's red-light district. So why do only 70 belong to the Magdalenas?
"We Magdalenas work in the day. We have children to look after at night," says Marta, 30. "And we don't like the night because it can be dangerous. They have a lot of drug addicts and drunks out there."
"And some Americans come here to do things they wouldn't back home," cuts in Gloria. "As clients they are more violent than Mexican men."
"We have invited the night workers to join," continues Marta, "but they don't want to come. They have kids too, but they say belonging to the Magdalenas loses them a lot of time they don't have. There's a distinct difference. Day and night. The two don't mix."
Clark says status is a factor too. Bar girls and taxi dancers have not joined the Magdalenas because they see themselves as above women who do business on the street.
The one thing they all share: this profession is a secret. "We send money back to our families," says Gloria. "But our families think we work in maquiladoras or as waitresses in small restaurants, or as maids in rich people's houses."
Clark, a university professor, has had many friends tell him he should not be encouraging women in this profession. "Our purpose is not to defend or foster prostitution," he says. "The point is to defend their human rights, as citizens, as women. And obviously I feel compassion and love for them. Through the years I have become close friends with all these women. I really don't like to see where they are."
So Clark decided to begin a program of education. "It's a process where they become conscious of their own circumstances, of the reality of the role they play as exploited women. Together we have organized workshops on women's issues, public health, first aid, the dangers of AIDS, the use of the condom, on how women perceive themselves in society. I invite members of the [city] council to speak. Three weeks ago I invited the director of the municipal police, Alfredo de la Torre. He is a good man. That's how far we've come. This is a great advance in the feminist movement. Today, they don't see themselves as a sexual object standing on the street anymore, but as a woman with a name, an identity, and rights."
9:30 p.m. The women start making their way out into the darkness. The Magdalenas have agreed to their next panel of speakers and picked up their weekly supply of condoms.
Tomorrow, as every day, they will be back on Avenida Constitución and Coahuila and First Streets, waiting for customers at $10 a trick, plus $3 for the hotel room.