Going through my parents' divorce was a weird time—at 16, a part of me felt freed from the shackles of my domineering, sexist father, and the other part of me really wasn't ready for the change. Everything going on was just a huge cluster of subtleties, from the gradual moving of furniture from my family home and Dad's subtle digs at my mother and her family. In true teenager-in-the-middle-of-a-divorce fashion, I was the prized object in my parents' own personal tug of war. He nitpicked at every banal aspect of their lives and tried to spin it in a way that suggested I, too, would become like them if I was around them for too long. But one day, all the trivial shit he liked to condemn exploded into something much, much bigger.
"I don't want you to take sides, Rachel, but your mom's family isn't what you think it is. They've lied to you. Your grandma was a prostitute, and that's how she met your grandpa." And that's how my dad broke the news to me that my grandmother was a sex worker, and that my "childhood was a lie"(his words). My initial reaction was that of a fairly-mature-but-still-naïve 16 year old: "Wow, Grandma was a hooker." I remember a million thoughts went through my head, ranging from, "Is he lying to be spiteful? That's a low blow," to "I can't believe he said this to me. This is fucked up."
I didn't feel disgusted or betrayed; I only felt inquisitive and even a little impressed. I thought it was cool and I wanted to be like her. I tried to probe my dad about the details of the huge family secret he just revealed—very clearly only to spite my mother—but he said that was all he knew.
My dad kept holding his head in his hands, repeatedly saying, "You'd just never expect it; she doesn't look like a prostitute," as if sex workers even wear some kind of easily identifiable uniform. In fact, my grandmother carries herself in a way that rubs your own shortcomings in your face: She's dignified, educated, fearless, and the most poised and well-travelled woman I've ever met.
Seven years on from my parents' divorce, I called my grandmother, Gladys, to talk about her past. Before she answered, I considered hanging up—I wasn't really sure how to feel, and I worried that I would let a knee-jerk reaction slip and offend her. What if I asked a question she deemed too personal? What if she gave me an answer I wasn't prepared to hear?
Her voice sounded more brittle than I remembered; she's 82 now, and I worried that I'd never get the chance to have this conversation with her. But I refused to let my Dad have the final say in her life story and what she's been through. When she picked up the phone, I could tell she was nervous to speak to me about this. She's known me my entire life, and I'm her granddaughter who she watched grow up. "I feel like I've betrayed you by keeping this a secret; you are a grown woman now," she told me, with a hint of regret in her voice.
Gladys was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1933 and lived there until she left for the States in the 1970s, after my mom was born. With two young children from a previous relationship and an absent father, she struggled to afford basic living costs and wasn't able to enroll them into school. As a predominantly Catholic nation, the only schools available were religious schools—ones you couldn't get into if you were a bastard. "My goal was to find a man that would give a surname to my children—at that time, if your biological father did not recognize you as their child, your life would be very difficult."
Caracas was a prostitution hot spot—all the Americans went there to see us.
She got into sex work through a good friend who was also a prostitute—she too had children and was in financial crisis. Every night, my grandma would leave her kids with her mother and tell her that she was going to her job at an overnight factory—a perfectly credible story. In the early 50s, Venezuela went through an industrial revolution that saw it soar to become the world's fourth wealthiest country per capita (a title that has now been traded for the home of the second most dangerous city in the world). It was also the golden age for the poster wife, the movement most debilitating for Venezuelan female sex workers at the time.
"This was the 50s in Venezuela and, even now, it's still a very conservative, overly religious, misogynist society. Men ruled Venezuela now and they continue to rule it today," Grandma told me. Prostitution has always been rife in Venezuela—so much so that it is entirely legal. How could a country that has always recognized prostitution as a serious profession attach such a social stigma to it? "Sex has always existed—everyone did a lot of things behind closed doors. It wasn't an open society. Prostitution has existed since the beginning of time."
To many, then and now, prostitution was seen as a way to have a better life. "Caracas was a prostitution hot spot—all the Americans went there to see us. It was almost like a novelty. We weren't even called hookers; we were called 'appointments' in appointment-only brothels. There were two tiers of prostitution: women like us, and women who were on the street. We were high-end, so the money was very good." She was making between 85 and 95 bolívares fuertes a night, which was the equivalent of about $421 at the time– a small fortune.
A year into sex work, she met my grandfather—Joseph—who was one of her regular clients. "Your grandpa loved prostitutes; he used to come see me every weekend," Grandma said. "He was a very shy, timid man. I could tell he wasn't confident enough to talk to women, but still had all the natural urges of a man." What she said completely took me by surprise. Growing up, my grandfather was a very outspoken, assertive French-Venezuelan man. I guess he made up for the confidence he lacked in his romantic life in everything else. When you're a kid, you look at your seniors as if they're superhuman; not people who can be weak, emotional, and unstable.
It was like I was having a really fucked-up epiphany about my family as a whole – I'd never considered my grandparents went through real, gritty life experiences. To me, they were the perfect, pure grown-ups around me who have never been hurt. My grandma could hear the shock and doubt in my voice. "The reason your grandfather could never have more kids is because he picked up a lot of STDs and was left sterile," she said."I had four abortions because men wouldn't follow the rules—I went to very expensive doctors who gave me abortion pills and herbs. A lot of my colleagues died getting under-the-table abortions, which is something I would never do. I'd rather have the kid."
I choked up. My grandmother had a long history of reproductive health issues—hysterectomies, cervical cysts, and fibroids. It all made sense. We spoke about the treatment of prostitutes who had job-related health problems, and how doctors, claiming "they did it to themselves," constantly rejected these female patients from their waiting rooms. Unsurprisingly, most of these doctors were men.
For Grandma, the institutional abuse didn't stop there; it translated into how she was treated by some of her clients. Though prostitution was legal and apparently regulated by the government, this was seldom put into action. Police officers would turn a blind eye to harassment or exploitation because they simply didn't respect female sex workers.
"I became very cold and insensitive to sex," Grandma told me. "I started having less respect for men. A lot of times they didn't treat me right because they didn't see me as a decent, normal woman. At the time, that wasn't accepted—and it is still not accepted fully now."
She told me horror stories about the abuse she endured from drunk customers; she's been spat on, slapped in the face, called a puta (Spanish for whore), and ridiculed just walking down the street. "I remained professional throughout, but these silly men would mistreat me because they thought they were better than me. They didn't realize this was a business transaction. Well, I was smarter than all of them. I made them pay the few coins that they had on my softness of my body."
But despite the moments of darkness that she experienced in her work, she said she would never regret her time as a prostitute. "I'm not embarrassed by my sex work at all. It gave me a good life. Thanks to that, I found a good man and I gave my children a last name. Your grandfather kept his promise and got me out of there. I found my family."
Growing up, I put Grandma on a pedestal. She had always lived with me in my family home; I'd got to know her on an intimate level, not just the way you'd form a relationship with a grandparent who lived in another city. What always particularly struck me about my grandmother was her ability to always remain calm, no matter what the situation. Whenever my parents would argue, she'd simply walk into the room, tell them 'quiet down,' and walk out like nothing was even happening. When someone would cut her off in traffic, she'd roll her eyes in a way that seemed like she pitied them for being inept. The way she tranquilly approached conflict was the opposite of me; I was a crier, I had anxiety attacks, and I would raise my voice. I wanted to be serene like her.
That same stability is what won my grandpa over. As her client, he visited her at least two nights a week, something she told me was rare in sex work. Usually, you'd have regular clients, but 'regular' meant once or twice a month for her. She knew he was falling in love with her because not only did he tip her very well (something else that was rare), but he began to ask her questions about her personal life, interests, ambitions, and family. I asked her if she felt threatened or if he was being intrusive, but all she said was: "We were falling love."
If men have the right to pay for sex without judgment, then women also have the right to make sex their career.
They regularly met outside of the brothel in secret, which was strictly forbidden. They got to know each other more over the course of six months, and then Grandpa proposed to her. My grandma knew he was at least financially stable enough to afford prostitutes, but she admitted that she was worried about money; she still had two young children to feed, and they weren't even his. Unexpectedly, when they got married, he gave her two sons his last name and took care of him like his own. After my mother was born, they left Caracas together and flew to America and settled down in Miami.
I wondered how many people in my family knew of her past — news must have travelled far enough to reach my dad, because my mom's family was never particularly close to him. When I asked her if she told anyone, she simply said, "No". My mom later told me that there were rumors flying around the family, but it was just brushed under the carpet. Understandably, at that time, it was likely that my grandmother's own family would have disowned her if the truth came out.
When I was younger, Grandma always told me I needed to be a lady, but one who was smarter than all the boys around her. Now I know why—she was one of those women. "I felt empowered as a sex worker and a woman. I felt in control," she said. "I could handle the situation and manipulate it in a way that only benefitted me."
Towards the end of our phone call, I thought a lot about my dad's attitude towards her on the night he told me. He approached every word with extreme trepidation, almost to make sure he wasn't over-selling the story, worried that I would find a part of it attractive. He wouldn't even call it prostitution; he would say "what she did." His clear disrespect for my grandmother had the reverse effect — it made me disrespect him.
My grandma is still the best woman I know, and her life choices have made her who she is. She's 82 now and lives a long way from appointment-only brothels of Caracas. Down the phone, she told me her story with the same authority and confidence she had back then. "If men have the right to pay for sex without judgment," Grandma told me, "then women also have the right to make sex their career. I'll stand by that until the day I die."