Monday, November 9, 2009

Expendable Bodies in Bogotá's streetscape

Walking home from the field tonight, I came across a mannequin in the trash...a thoughtless, end-of-business-day act of placing unwanted or useless objects in the trash in order to clean up the work space (or make room for less-battered or even live models)...

I felt compelled to capture this image in urban space and time (despite the pouring rain and potential risk of taking out my camera)...

Words are unnecessary in this entry. The image itself depicts the story of Santa Fé and the violent socio-spatial context in which gendered bodies are immersed, exploited and disposed of without a second thought.

This scene is located 2 blocks east of 'la Mariposa' (one of my field sites) and roughly 10 blocks from Santa Fé (another field site).

Friday, October 30, 2009

In Memory of Wanda Fox: Líder Trans - Barrio Santa Fé, 1975-2009

{Photo of Wanda provided by la -Fundación Procrear- in el barrio Santa Fé}

Read more about the murder of Wanda Fox and the pain felt by other community members in her absence: -

I received a text message from one of the girls this morning..."Amiga...Wanda is gone...she was shot five times last night [October 29, 2009]...we are so sad...all of us...and at the same time very scared." I almost dropped the phone and then burst into tears...tears for the loss of a friend, tears for the loss of an energetic and empathetic community activist working to inform other trans sex workers about their rights and safe practices, tears of rage just thinking of the person/people [according to various street informants - a combination of corrupt police & paramilitary] who committed such a hateful crime against humanity...

Two of the girls came over today ( I refer to all research actors [aka participants] in terms with which they identify - these particular girls form part of the youth transgender community in Santa Fé). I invited them for lunch so that we could process the murder of Wanda Fox in a private context outside of 'the zone of tolerance.'

After cooking lunch and drinking our tinto (coffee) awkwardly, we started to look at photos of Wanda and talk about the good times we shared...practicing for the -Zona Trans- dance performance, making collages about sexual empowerment and identity, parchando (a form of street outreach developed by la Fundación Procrear) in the trans sector of the prostitution zone...At times we sat in silence because I was paralyzed with rage and could not form words to express my sorrow and empathy...

One of the girls showed me a poem she wrote in memory of Wanda...the other talked about receiving a flyer (tucked neatly under her hotel [pay-per-day apartment] door) threatening the lives of people on the streets....turns out to be the same flyer I posted in my last blog entry....yes, this is social cleansing in Santa Fé...

Wanda's death symbolizes hatred of deviance...of that which is different...of girls selling bodies...of the moral panic surrounding bodily transformation and sexual identities that erase boundaries and challenge the normative structure of Colombian society...

Perhaps those who killed Wanda did so because of their ('sinful'/'fatal') attraction to her (and their inability to control/explain/justify it)?

As Wanda often said, "No nos ponemos tetas para que nos llamen señor" {We don't get tits for them to call us sir} and "Queremos que dejen de reconocernos por LAS P Y P, queremos otras oportunidades que no sean las de Puta o Peluquera" {We want to be seen for more than the P and P, we want other opportunities besides prostitution and hairdressing} (quotes posted by Jhon Jairo Pinzon, Fundación Procrear: -see Jhon's story-).

Wanda Fox was shot five times on Thursday from a moving taxi...she was standing with a group of friends and was the only one targeted. Wanda died in hospital Santa Clara upon arrival...Katherine Noriega (another trans sex worker) was killed on the same street four days earlier...

Instead of public outcry surrounding hate crime, local news reports served only to essentialize the streets of Santa Fé, the deviance of transgender bodies and behavior, and the violence within the community (not against it)....

Wanda...may your social purpose live on through those you have touched and fill the gap of your presence felt by so many...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Discursive Violence - Removing Street Girls from Public Space

SOCIAL CLEANSING in the streets of Bogotá...I obtained a copy of this flyer (threatening to eliminate deviant populations from public spaces in the city) from one of the girls I am working with in la Mariposa (the butterfly), a plaza located in the center of Bogotá formally named la Plaza San Victorino.

I am currently investigating the implications of this violent discursive context on street girls’ everyday lives and ability to move around and merely ‘be present’ in certain spaces throughout the city....

An important part of understanding and representing the lives of street girls hinges on discerning the discourses surrounding them (i.e., how they are named – street children, street girls, prostitutes, victims [of sexual exploitation], sex workers, etc.)....

Notions of naming and framing the street girl population also raise questions as to who counts as a ‘street girl’?...according to whom? what definition? What of youth, transgender sex workers who identify as girls, spend the majority of their days and nights in the streets, and occupy the same spaces as other street girls in the prostitution zone and my study sites?

The attached flyer clearly represents a direct threat to the lives of so-called 'street girls' and other street populations targeted in this recent wave of social cleansing....

What is my ethical responsibility as a researcher and activist in response to this potential risk to the research population?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Women's Bodies and Women's Rights in Santa Fé: Can they co-exist?

...or perhaps the question is really moralistic...should or how can they co-exist?

Walking down 22nd street to one of my study sites in Santa Fé, I pass at least two significant social messages inscribed in the urban landscape surrounding women's rights, equality and empowerment.

The first image is a state-sponsored flyer posted on the back of a candy and cigarette stand. The flyer speaks out to attentive pedestrians: - Mujeres!!! Stand firm in your rights...take off your masks...don't sell yourself short... -

A few blocks down 22nd and it's a totally different story: - Mujeres!!!! Stand firm in your tights...put on your pink, glittery masks...sell yourself for what you can get... -

The second image stands even closer to the 'zone of tolerance' (where sex workers are tolerated as long as they stay in their deviant spaces)...On the corner of Caracas and 22nd, the banner on a wall mural reads - "Equality to plant dignity...woman as the seed of liberty"... - These mural images of empowerment seem to reach out and wave across the main thoroughfare (Avenida Caracas) to all those found on the 'other side'.... the other side of Caracas where the zone of tolerance begins and 'normalcy' ends....where the mujer is no longer dignified in the eyes of mainstream 'Rololandia' (Bogotá) ....where the line between sex work and sexual exploitation shifts by the second depending on who is watching/being watched and touching/being touched.

Can bodies and rights be sold in the same space without contradicting one another?

For whom does this mural of dignity truly stand?

Does the government's yellow stamp of approval (see right corner of mural) signify change or hypocrisy?

Facing the depths of social and spatial exclusion in places such as Santa Fé and 'la Mariposa' takes more than inscribing positive images in urban space vis-a-vis mural art or a program flyer, which with time become merely frozen moments of activism that fade into/become part of the everyday/ordinary urban landscape....(for example, apparently selling minutos [cell phone minutes] for 200 pesos became more important than conserving the integrity of women's rights [see left corner of flyer]).

Acts of reaching out should be generated by organized human efforts towards social inclusion (i.e., the Fenix Model of street outreach)...not fictive images that effect further exclusion and demarcate spaces of deviance and disapproval.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The ethnographic eye/'I' and vulnerable observation

Observation: the ethnographic eye

“Our methodology, defined by the oxymoron ‘participant observation’, is split at the root: act as a participant, but don’t forget to keep your eyes open. Lay down in the mud in Colombia. Put your arms around Omaira Sanchez. But when the grant money runs out, or the summer vacation is over, please stand up, dust yourself off, go to your desk, and write down what you saw and heard. Relate it to something you’ve read by Marx, Weber, Gramsci, or Geertz and you’re on your way to doing anthropology” (Behar 1997: 5).

During my first days working in the streets, all I could see were the external, corporeal aspects of youth sex work...bare skin, exposure...private parts (as typically constructed) made public and commoditized... distant, glazed eyes hiding behind masks of pink, glittery make-up and accessories...empty smiles seeping with shoe glue and quickly fading after the 15-second high subsides and upon re-entrance into their bodies and spatial contexts/street corners....

In providing a so-called 'thick description' of my initial observations of street girls, what have I achieved? In attempting to re-present these young bodies and images, has my ethnographic prose accomplished nothing more than further dehumanization? Is it ethical to leave my words (and representations) subject to re-appropriation and re-subjugation in new and equally exploitative contexts?

One way of addressing these preoccupations surrounding how to re-present Others is, as Behar tells us, through the concept of vulnerability and giving an account of oneSelf.... with the ultimate objective of leveling the social field between self/other; researcher/researched; insider/outsider....

Exposure: the ethnographic 'I'

“Vulnerability doesn’t mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn’t otherwise get to. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake. It has to move us beyond the eclipse into which we find ourselves identifying so intensely with those whom we are observing that all possibility of reporting is arrested, made inconceivable. It has to persuade us of the wisdom of not leaving the writing pad blank…a personal voice, if creatively used, can lead the reader, not into miniature bubbles of navel-gazing, but into the enormous sea of serious social issues” (Behar 1997: 14).

How much is too much?