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VICE News

Sex Workers to Mexican Government: Stop Screwing with Us

Inflation has caused Mexico’s minimum wage to decrease over the years, and many of the country’s citizens have turned to the sex trade.

by Andalusia Knoll
May 3 2014, 7:10pm

Photo by Andalusia Knoll

"Who does the corner belong to?" Rebecca Alejandra Lopez yelled to a crowd of a few hundred women marching down a busy commercial street in Mexico City during a May Day demonstration.

"Those who work it!" they replied in unison. Many of them wore cabaret masks over their eyes and surgical masks over their mouths.

The call-and-response — adapted from an old campesino phrase about land reclamation popularized by the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata — was meant to highlight the rights of sex workers who make a living on the corners of some of Mexico's grittiest neighborhoods.

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Lopez was born in Tampa, Florida, to a Mexican mother and a Honduran father. She moved to Mexico City as a child, and started her career in sex work when she was 11 years old. She eventually found her way to La Merced, home of the city's largest public market as well as its largest red light district.

One day, members of la Brigada Callejera ("the Streetwalkers Brigade") approached her to offer STD exams and gynecological and dental services for free. When she learned that la Brigada Callejera didn't just offer medical services but also fought for the rights of sex workers, she joined.

VICE News asked Lopez why she and the others were marching.

"I just want them to stop fucking with us," she replied bluntly.

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She was referring to Mexico's government, which has an abysmal record combating human trafficking. The country's National Human Rights Commission recently created a special program to address the problem, which affects unspecified thousands of victims every year.

Lopez emphasized that, contrary to popular belief, she and the other marchers were in the sex trade of their own free will.

Inflation has caused Mexico's minimum wage to decrease over the years, and many of the country's citizens have turned to the streetwalking sector to make ends meet.

Lopez was among the various sex workers participating in the march who were accompanied by their young children.

"With other jobs you just can't make it," she said. "You earn 55 pesos (around $4) a day, and that's just enough to buy two pounds of eggs, not enough to support a family."

When the procession reached the city's main square and joined other groups that were celebrating May Day, a woman named Elvira Madrid addressed the sex workers.

Madrid has helped produce educational booklets to combat human trafficking. She told VICE News that she's been pushing for the workers to form cooperatives and own the hotels that they work out of.

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"That way the abusive hotel owners won't be exploiting and profiting off of us," she said.

Mexico City's government is currently attempting to redevelop La Merced and close down various hotels that it believes are involved in trafficking.

Jaime Montejo, who works with a news agency run by sex workers called Noti-Calle, told VICE News that the government's initiative would just push sex workers out of the area and do nothing to actually address the problem.

But the workers have pushed for recognition. Advocates recently convinced the government to issue identification cards to sex workers after a long legal battle.

"With this ID, we'll try to provide minimum protection for those who for various reasons find themselves subject to daily abuse and discrimination while they're carrying out their work," Secretary of Labor Patricia Mercado remarked during a meeting with sex workers, according to Noti-Calle.

These ID cards will also allow sex workers to access 20,000 pesos ($1,500) to form work cooperatives unrelated to prostitution.

"I'm actually really happy today," Lopez said in the square. "We're going to get IDs for sex workers that allow us to study and train for other careers."

Once the sex-workers have their self-employed ID card they can participate in a variety of career training workshops and an online high school program with the opportunity to access higher education if they complete their studies.

When asked what her career of choice would be, Lopez grinned and said, "I'm going to be a nurse."

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter: @andalalucha