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House of the Setting Sun

Tepito is one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of Mexico City. It's been a black market since time immemorial.
June 2, 2008, 12:00am

Translated by Megan McDowell

Tepito is one of the poorest and most dangerous areas of Mexico City. It’s been a black market since time immemorial, and anything you want, original or imitation, can be found here. Sex can be bought starting at five pesos—from people up to 80 years old.

Xochiquetzal is a nursing home for senior-citizen sex workers. The house, which has a minimum age requirement of 60, can accommodate up to 45 women. Right now there are only 23 retired ladies of the night living there. The majority of them continue working, because there are still people who want to pay to have sex with them. According to the home’s director, the demand isn’t explained by gerontophilia, but by the poverty surrounding the nursing home. “If you have five pesos,” he says, “you buy something that costs five pesos.” But the residents believe something else. They think that, like wine, their vaginas have gotten better with age—and they also claim to get much more than five pesos.


Let’s meet some of these old whores! (That isn’t meant as an insult. It’s literally what they are!)


“When I started out, there were no condoms, and not as much information about disease,” says Canela. Her voice is rough and her missing teeth make her a little hard to understand. She continues: “But we knew how to take care of ourselves. A friend explained to me what diseased penises looked like. One day a client came to me, we made an agreement, went to the hotel, and he flipped off the lights. I told him I didn’t like it with the lights out but he insisted. He took his clothes off and I turned on the lights. His dick was full of pus. I told him I didn’t want to get sick, so I wouldn’t take the job. He answered that it was a different kind of semen, and nothing would happen to me. I told him that was bullshit and I left the room.”

After she fled the hotel room, Canela says that the sick man returned with a cop, who questioned her. “He complained that I hadn’t fulfilled the agreement with the man. I told the cop we should go to the room so he could see what I saw. He agreed. We went to the room and the guy pulled down his underwear so we could see his dick. The cop made a disgusted face and detained the client. I stayed healthy.”

Canela has been at the nursing home longer than most: “When I got to the city I was sleeping in the street, in whatever park, on whatever bench I could find. You can’t even imagine the solitude you feel. When I came to Xochiquetzal I found food and a roof.”


Her eyes stray, and she starts crying. She feels good now, she tells us, but the workday is hard. She has to sell 200 sticks of gum a day in order to get what she used to earn in 15 minutes when she was selling her body. The work is different, but her route through Tepito is the same as years before.


“Everyone loved me, just how you see me now,” 86-year-old Reyna tells us. She avoids talking about her life as a sex worker; she would rather say something about her family. She is one of five children her mother had: “Two are already dead: one—my twin—from a heart attack, and the other in an accident from which he almost recovered.” From her father’s “other woman” she has eight more brothers and sisters with whom she gets along well. She doesn’t want to talk about her age either: “I lost count when my twin brother died. They asked me for his records so they could bury him, and my information was with his. They never returned the papers to me.” She is afraid of what might happen when she dies: “I don’t have my documents and I don’t know what I’ll do so they can bury me. I want to be buried, not burned. I want the worms to eat me, so I can go back to where we all came from.”

Reyna claims to have been in the nursing home only three months, but her senile dementia makes her forget she’s been there almost a year. She doesn’t like it in Xochiquetzal. She says she feels “rotten,” and she would rather be with her family: “No matter how bad they are, they should look out for me, I was always good to them.”


Of her adult life she only says: “I was married once—the wedding lasted three days—but my husband died in an accident. He was a fireman. My only son died too.” Then she returns to her childhood: “When I was little my grandparents gave me a lot. They had good hearts. When poor people came to the house they always gave something. They would rather give the corn away than have it fill up with critters or weevils.”

When asked if she would like to say something else, she answers: “No, it’s all over.” Everything is over and she only remembers what she wants to. After the interview she sings a traditional Mexican

son huasteco

; the song narrates the story of a flower that everybody wants to possess.


A resident since December 2007, Lourdes is still turning tricks. She had been living in the street and a friend invited her to come and stay in the home. At first she doesn’t want to talk about her life, but with a little gentle prodding she agrees, especially when it comes to talking about the previous director of Xochiquetzal: “The old director didn’t let us go out to work, she said she didn’t care if we needed money. Every 15 days we had to give 100 pesos for gas and another 100 for the stove, and if we didn’t pay she didn’t let us take baths. She intimidated us. Once, I threatened her. I told her I was going to the authorities to charge her with holding me prisoner.

“With Rosalba, the new director, it’s different. We all work together. We’re happy, even though when the old director left we lost some supplies. Before, we would get supplies from outside, but not anymore. Sometimes there’s no onion or tomato, but Rosalba gets by without asking us for anything. I don’t know how she does it.”


For Lourdes, it’s better to work in the mornings. Although she dresses like anyone else, in Tepito people identify her: “The men know who tricks and who doesn’t. Sometimes I go out to the store on an errand, and suddenly someone surprises me from behind, asking me to go to a hotel. I refuse and they beg, even if it’s just a little while in the park. I say no, because when I go out to the shop I’m not working.” According to Lourdes, it’s not about the time, but about duty: “Clients usually don’t take long, five or ten minutes. They’re ‘in and out,’” but duty (such as shopping for the house) comes first.

A childless widow, Lourdes saw selling her body as the only means of survival. She complains that people think prostitution is the easy way out, but that they don’t understand its problems—especially those that come with age: “You have to just take everything, like disrespectful clients who ask for things rudely. I’m old, but come on, it’s not such a big deal.”

When she started out in the trade, ten years ago, Lourdes got three or four clients in a working day. Now, when she’s lucky, she gets one: “I don’t think I’ll keep doing this much longer. I’ll do something else, even if it’s just washing dishes. I also don’t think I’ll stay in the nursing home much longer. I feel a need to be alone.”


Paola has been a resident of the house since August 2007. Although advanced in years, she didn’t think it was time to go to a nursing home. She says she’s seen 80-year-old women in the sex trade, so, at 61, she doesn’t feel old. She also doesn’t like the idea of obeying orders. She’s always lived how she wanted. She is irreverent and good-humored. “I started out in a cabaret when I was 13. I had to wear fake titties and a lot of makeup. No doubt, if you start out bad, you end up bad. I didn’t like to drink in those days, but I still became an alcoholic. My bosses gave me commissions when I drank with clients. To me, that was life: the sex trade, drugs, and alcohol. I didn’t see any other options or expect anything else from life.”


In Paola’s case, it was the clients who finally disenchanted her: “I didn’t mind living like that, but the years take their toll and the clients change. Before, they were begging for it, and now I have to chase after them.

“There are some clients who come and seem nice, but in the hotel they turn mean: They tell you they want to beat you up, or they insult you, put you down. Some say, ‘All right, now, you little bitch, you’re gonna suck my dick,’ or things like that. I’ll do anything, but the way you ask is the way it’s given. I think those people are crazy. They’re angry at some woman and they come to kill the anger in the hotel, to do their bad things there, to use us as their toilet.”

But she also says she enjoys her work. When she gets bored in the nursing home she goes out looking for adventure: “Young men still seek me out, 25 or 30 years old, really sweet young things. They’re the ones that’ll give you good money. Sometimes I think I’m going to teach them something, but it’s not true, they’re the ones who give me lessons. They know how to do it better than the older guys. The other day this kid came and asked me how much I charged. I said 200, and he proposed 150 for something ‘light.’ Once we were in the room the asshole wanted to hit me, but I wasn’t going to allow it. In the end, I went all out for him. He was thin, size 28, and well endowed. Very decent guy. I think I’m what they call a masochist.”


Although she says she’s lived an uninhibited life, Paola is old school, maybe even conservative: “Once, I was under this guy and he said to me, ‘Come on, don’t be mean, stick your finger in my ass.’ It surprised me, and I didn’t want to. It would feel nasty. Even if I put a condom on it would get dirty. I don’t like that stuff.”

Then she adds, laughing, “But to each his own. There are things I don’t like about my job but it has its upside. You can’t leave this job from one day to the next.” According to Paola, drunks tend to be the most responsible clients. “Sometimes the potheads, the drunks, or the guys who do cocaine take half an hour, but they pay me double to wait for them a little while longer. They’re more considerate.” For 200 pesos Paola does it all: “French kiss, doggy style, whatever they want. A blowjob’ll cost you 20 pesos. My prices haven’t changed since I came to Mexico City 20 years ago, but before, no one haggled. Now the goddamn fags make more.” Paola indicates two folds of flesh on her abdomen, the result of her obesity, and says: “But before I didn’t have this.”

She sports a tattoo of the

Santa Muerte

(Saint Death, a kind of female Mexican grim reaper) and affirms that it protects her. “In the street there are all kinds of problems, but my angel takes care of me.” To Paola, the worst clients are the ones who want to screw without a condom. “They offer up to 1,000 pesos, but I won’t do it. That money’s not worth anything if you have AIDS. There’s a lot of hepatitis, AIDS, and gonorrhea in the streets. Some of the other women do it without a condom. They say they’ll do it with clients who look clean.” After 40 years in the trade, Paola visits the gynecologist regularly. Her angel keeps her healthy.

Although Paola’s children are adults, they don’t know what she does for a living. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day and Paola isn’t expecting a call. She thinks it’s better that way. She is ashamed of what she does and the things she’s done, like the homosexual stage she went through with Rosalía. “She was my girlfriend a long time ago, I don’t even remember that well. It’s an ugly story. I thought that girl was the love of my life, but it didn’t go anywhere. She went her way and I went mine. At first I got together with her because I was high, sniffing chemicals. But I loved her. She seemed defenseless, like me, like she needed affection. That relationship was really bad.” Paola has a tattoo of Rosalía’s name, close to a heart that says “Love” in English.

Twenty-four hours after chatting with the women of Xochiquetzal, they are dancing, eating, celebrating, and being celebrated—and also crying. It’s Mother’s Day. The social workers put on a tango show for the sex workers. It’s a strange environment. Not one child is present. Almost all of them are or were mothers, and their children know nothing about them. Not long ago a television reporter came to Xochiquetzal House and interviewed some women; the reporter promised their faces would be blurred out, but they weren’t. That afternoon when the program aired, one of the women interviewed was with her son. He beat her; so did her niece and daughter. They cut off her hair. Happy Mother’s Day!