Origins of the Street Brigade
The alliance between Zapatistas, sex workers, and transvestites shows the power of social change in a key cultural way—when it’s anchored to daily life. In Mexico, one of the strongest and most overbearing enclaves of patriarchy and machismo, Subcomandante Marcos opened the doors to debate about discrimination in a controversial area.
What purpose is there, in classic revolutionary logic, in covering thousands of kilometers to meet with a handful of ”whores and crossdressers”? What can such alliances offer to strengthen the “accumulation of power,” any professional politicians’ central task? It seems obvious, from a cost-benefit analysis, that this type of effort should be useless. However the Zapatistas committed to this kind of meeting under the auspices of The Other Campaign (La Otra Campaña), with the understanding that it meant looking for new ways of doing politics.
Brigada Callejera de Apoyo a la Mujer (Women’s Supportive Street Brigade) is a Mexican collective that has managed, in the last 20 years, to weave a wide net of social work with prostitutes and transvestites, called the Mexican Sex Work Network. This has meant transcending the “victim” role and becoming people who want to be recognized as workers by their peers, not seen as beings who have “fallen” into the world’s oldest profession through ignorance, poverty, or submission. A quick look at what they have tackled so far reveals a deep work of emancipation.
Education, Clinics, and Condoms
A differentiating characteristic of the Network is that its members don’t want to depend on the State, although they are constantly criticizing it. Street Brigade began its work nearly 20 years ago, its base a group of sociology graduates from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The small initial nucleus—Elvira Madrid, Jaime Montejo, and Rosa Icela—began to weave a net that now reaches 28 of Mexico’s 32 states. Over time they chose to work in a horizontal form. “The government co-opted many state coordinations, a habitual practice in the political culture of this country, so we saw that the best way to work is horizontally, in an assembly style, and trying not to have representatives,” Elvira points out.
The Network encouraged women to form cooperatives to avoid dependence and to make themselves the bosses of their sources of employment. They rented hotels and shared the profits among the members. The first were the transvestites who formed the cooperative Angeles en Busca de Libertad (Angels Searching for Freedom).
A Question of Charm… EL ENCANTO
The sale of condoms is the main source of financing for the diverse projects of the Mexican Sex Work Network. Choosing the type of condom alongside design and name becomes a form of claiming ownership of the instrument of work and protection, and was left up to the ideas of prostitutes and transvestites.
“When we began the AIDS-protection program,” remembers Elvira, “we realized that price was one of the main problems. For older ladies, to spend 25 pesos on a condom was to invest almost everything they had charged the client.” Firstly they looked for donations from the State, which through CENSIDA, the organization dedicated to the fight against AIDS, donated them 60,000 condoms a month. “But when we began to report cases of corruption they reduced that to 3,600 condoms.”
They began to visit various distributors and factories and found that, in exact opposite to what market laws should indicate, buying in bulk raised the prices. They got in contact with a manufacturer who agreed to sell to them at the same price as to pharmacies and other distributors. “We nearly fell over in shock. He sold us condoms at 75 cents (about US$.07) each but in the pharmacies they’re 12 pesos ($1), that is 15 times the price of the cost,” Elvira says.
The Network began to distribute condoms at the price of one peso each, and with that profit they managed to subsidize almost all the projects, but particularly the clinics that consumed the bulk of their resources. “Before putting them on sale we spoke to the compañeras, we did workshops to see what they wanted, because some condoms smelled very bad or irritated because they contained harmful substances. They themselves suggested the name “El Encanto” (The Charm) to the three-month long debate process in which hundreds of sex workers chose between 20 brands.” The brand had to be attractive for both the client and for themselves. Currently, they sell three million a year.
But the transvestites decided not to use the chosen condom because it wasn’t suited to their needs. “They said it’s very thin and they were right, because it was designed for vaginal use and it would break when they used it.” They found a stronger and more lubricated condom and started the same debate as the women had had. In the end they decided to print the rainbow of sexual diversity on it, and a pink triangle. “They chose the name Triángulo (Triangle) because that’s the symbol with which the Nazis stigmatized homosexuals, so in that way they adopted it as a tribute,” says Elvira.
They failed with the female condom. A few years ago they began to import it from England until a multinational company realized that the Mexican market was growing and withdrew the Network’s permission to distribute. In effect, the market is very monopolized. “While in the world there are 67 condom factories, there’s just one for female condoms. We have to wait for there to be more competition,” says Elvira, with irony.
Subcomandante Marcos is El Encanto’s most famous supporter. In Mexico there is a long history of “condom fairs.” In November 2005 the 50th National Condom Festival was celebrated in Mexico City’s central plaza and in various states local annual fairs are held to raise money for organizations linked to sex work. Recently the first “virtual condom store” made its debut on www.elencantodelcondon.com.
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