Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City’s retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

At Casa Xochiquetzal, residents find respite after years of exploitation and economic insecurity. PHOTOS SLIDE SHOW

Topics: slideshow, Creative Time Reports, Mexico, sex workers, Prostitution, Mexico City,

Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers
This piece originally appeared on creativetimereports.org.

Casa Xochiquetzal is a quiet presence in a bustling, run-down neighborhood near Mexico City’s historical center. The 18th-century brick structure, which once housed a boxing museum, stands as a sober contrast to the surrounding visual chaos. Inside, a courtyard opens onto plain but spacious chambers that provide shelter for elderly women. But these residents are not the typical retirees that one finds in a senior care facility.

The women who call Casa Xochiquetzal home are former (and on occasion current) sex workers. They have come to live in the permanent shelter after years of working in by-the-hour fleabag motels and then—as youthful allure faded—sleeping on the streets. For many residents, the house offers their first respite from years of violence, exploitation and economic insecurity.

Carmen Muñoz, a former sex worker, was inspired to open Casa Xochiquetzal one morning when she saw several other women who work the streets sleeping under filthy plastic tarps and cluttered market stalls. It took her 20 years of lobbying the government and NGOs before she won the support necessary to open the shelter. In 2006, after Mexico City’s municipal government provided the building and committed to covering the costs of food for its occupants, Casa Xochiquetzal welcomed its first residents. Today a civil association created by prominent female artists, activists and writers who supported Muñoz’s vision receives public donations to provide the remaining necessities.

Since the house opened eight years ago, more than 250 former sex workers have been given shelter. And a roof over their heads is not all they receive: social workers assist residents in recovering long-lost birth certificates and other forms of identification that Mexico’s dizzying bureaucracy requires for everything from accessing state-sponsored health care and psychological counseling to voting. Casa Xochiquetzal provides a space to age with dignity for a group of vulnerable women who are often invisible to society at large. Its creation has made clear how few people—including the residents themselves—have ever stopped to think about what happens when women in the sex industry grow old.



For the 26 women who live at Casa Xochiquetzal today, house rules are few: there are nightly check-ins, weekly meetings, assigned housekeeping tasks and prohibitions on bringing in either men or drugs. Most importantly, the women must foster a climate of respect for every resident’s past experience. This is not as simple as it sounds. Years on the streets have made these women tough, and they hesitate to soften up. Some knew each other before moving in—not as friends but as rivals hustling for johns. And even now, as they share a roof, friendship is not a given. Vicious arguments and fisticuffs occasionally break out. But most residents come to recognize that it is better to talk things out. As long as they keep the peace and follow the other house rules, the women are free to maintain a small business off-site—say, peddling candy and cigarettes or running a used-clothing stall—and can even continue “selling love,” tough or tender, as they choose.

Casa Xochiquetzal residents have few possessions. And whatever they have, they hang on to, whether insignificant objects or everyday habits: Raquel piles up discarded bottles to redeem them for small change; Conchita lets her imagination soar through hours of fanciful embroidery; Sonia reads pulpy cowboy comic books in defiance of the world (she has preferred to be alone ever since a gunshot wound she received when she was raped at age 13 left the entire right side of her body paralyzed). Sonia just started shilling candy on the streets, like her friend Canela, since she’s “not getting any anymore,” but other women at the house carry on with their accustomed trade. Norma, for one, likes to revisit “the office,” a run-down plaza frequented by working girls and their johns, where everyone still remembers her. Meanwhile María Isabel holds on to the poetry she writes, filling dozens of notebooks.

At this late stage of life, the women’s dreams are modest: to reconcile with estranged children and prepare to pass on peacefully. Yet as they take things day by day, the women remain imaginative, funny and a fount of wry street wisdom. And ultimately they have escaped a fate that they once feared—dying on the streets, anonymous, only to be buried in an unmarked grave—to age in comfort among other women who were once haunted by the likelihood of such a frightful vision coming to pass.

The result of six years of in-depth photojournalism, Bénédicte Désrus and Celia Gómez Ramos’s new book, Las amorosas más bravas (“The Toughest Lovers”), presents intimate portraits of the women residing at Casa Xochiquetzal.

All the photographs in this series were taken by Bénédicte Désrus and depict residents of Mexico City’s Casa Xochiquetzal. The captions are excerpted from Celia Gómez Ramos’s text in Las amorosas más bravas, co-authored with Désrus.

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    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2010.

    Lunchtime at Casa Xochiquetzal.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2013.

    María Isabel in her bedroom. The former sex worker, who grew up in Michoacán, ran away from home at the age of nine after a year in which her father “used her.” When she got to the Mexico City bus station, she met a woman selling tamales who offered her a home and education. María Isabel nearly finished her studies to become a teacher, but when her caretaker died, she became a sex worker to survive (at the young age of 17). She now reads, writes poetry, embroiders and makes earrings and bracelets.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2013.

    Victoria and Gloria watch television at Casa Xochiquetzal.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2010.

    Amalia puts on makeup before going out to work on the streets of the La Merced neighborhood of Mexico City. Amalia, 66, is from Michoacán and came to Casa Xochiquetzal when it first opened its doors. She wears a wig and pads her bra. She is very animated; words and songs come easily to her. She has also suffered from schizophrenia for 22 years, but despite hearing voices, she works hard not to lose touch with reality. As a way of earning a little money, she gathers plastic bottles to recycle and also helps to sell clothes in a stand operated by her boyfriend of 31 years.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2012.

    Amalia in her bedroom.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2009.

    Jimena in her bedroom, where she tends to spend much of her time alone.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2013.

    Victoria visits her daughter in Pachuca, a city located an hour northeast of Mexico City.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2013.

    Amalia in the bathroom.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2012.

    Leticia’s belongings. At the age of eight, Leticia watched as her mother said good-bye from the back of a trailer, never to see her again. Originally from Chihuahua, she began working at nightclubs and eventually married. She didn’t walk out on her husband when he hit her—he made good money—but she did leave when he brought other women into their house. She abandoned everything, including her children, and has tried to take her own life twice, yet she’s still here. At Casa Xochiquetzal, she practices yoga daily and tries to be a peacemaker and a good housemate; however, her sweet expression can quickly turn to anger. She stays active by knitting, embroidering and reading the Bible.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2013.

    Norma rests in her bedroom. Although she remembers her early childhood fondly, she was abused by one of her brother’s friends when she was nine years old and was also assaulted by the priest at El Refugio, Jalisco, where she lived. Soon after, she decided to find work as a waitress in various red-light districts. She always liked watching the dancers close-up—“but not so close she’d get burnt,” as her coworkers used to joke. She’s a cheerful, extroverted woman who has the dirt on absolutely everyone.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2008.

    Paola puts on makeup before going to work. When this photo was taken, she was one of the youngest women at the shelter and still worked the streets. On January 1, 2011, she disappeared and has never come back.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2009.

    Canela takes a visiting dog on a walk. Originally from Oaxaca, she came to Mexico City to work at a very young age. She is now well known and respected in the neighborhoods that surround Casa Xochiquetzal. At 72, she suffers from Down syndrome and a number of other illnesses. Of all the women at Casa Xochiquetzal, Canela is the only one who did not have children. Most women who live at the shelter have relatives, but for a number of them, contact with family is sporadic or nonexistent.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2010.

    A sex worker, who prefers not to share her name, attends the funeral of another sex worker.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2012.

    Carmelita enjoys her daily cigarette. One day her son abandoned her on the subway because his wife didn’t want to take care of her and didn’t want to live under the same roof with a sex worker. Asked to choose between his wife and his mother, Carmelita’s son deserted his mother.

    Tough love: An intimate look at Mexico City's retired (and semi-retired) sex workers

    Photograph by Bénédicte Désrus, 2008.

    At age 81, Victoria is the oldest resident of Casa Xochiquetzal, a shelter for elderly sex workers in Mexico City.

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