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LAS AMERICAS A Three-Penny Opera a la Mexicana BY JOHN ROSS s dark fell on September I. La Noche Mexicana, that ushers in Mexico frantic Indepen dence Day fiesta, thirteen young women lounged at their posts along Izazaga Street in the ritty central city market neighborhood known as La Merced. Business was not exactly booming on this holiday eve “Lupe” said she was twenty but looked to be about sixteen and wore one of those comic sombreros that natives affect for La Noche Mexicana. Standing at a corner post that gave her a marketing advantage over the other girls strung along Izazaga, she waved a tiny red, green, and white Mexican flag to entice the more patriotic customers. The cost of her services would be twenty-five for the hotel del paso down Correo Mayor alley, she informed an elderly john. “Prostitution is normal in La Merced; it’s part of the scenery. It’s so ancient and deep-rooted here that it seems natural,” explains Leonor Chon, a member of the capital’s Human Rights Commission. La Merced has traditionally been a neighborhood of street vendors or ambulantes and Lupe is as ambulatory as any vender in the market. Like the other street venders here, she is forced to rent out a small patch of sidewalk from a venders’ association known as a gremio. For a daily fee, Human Beings of the World Against AIDS \(HUMsexoservadoras association affiliated with the long-ruling Institutional Revprotection from over-zealous local officials, and ensures low-cost AIDS checkups from CONASIDA, the government’s national AIDS-prevention campaign. HUMSIDA workers also carry free condoms and encourage their use, although they are not always successful; unprotected sex always sells for more than the standard 75-peso rate. With 300 members, HUMSIDA is the largest of the neighborhood’s sexoservadora groups, but turf battles are frequent and the Collective of Free Women bitterly complains that it is being pushed out of La Merced by Human Beings of the World. Setting aside their fight for market dominance, Merced’s three gremios have signed agreements with local city delegation au “PROSTITUTION IS NORMAL IN LA MERCED; IT’S PART OF THE SCENERY. IT’S SO ANCIENT AND DEEP-ROOTED HERE THAT IT SEEMS NATURAL.” thorities and resident associations, promising to limit sex service hours in the neighborhood from noon to 6 a.m., and to move prostitutes away from the fronts of schools, churches, and hospitals. La Merced’s sexoservadoras also agreed they would no longer wear baby doll nightgowns or sexy underwear outside their clothes while working on the streets at least during daylight hours. The agreement also bars male prostitutes from La Merced, which has brought charges of homophobia from the city’s gay groups. Zonas de tolerancia like the one in La Merced are national institutions in Mexico. Nuevo Laredo’s “Boystown” and the Zona del Norte in Tijuana have even achieved global notoriety. And sexoservadoras across the nation are beginning to organize and make connections with others in the same profession. Like the association members in La Merced, sexoservadoras in many of Mexico’s 32 states have begun to form gremios to fight for such labor rights as free medical check-ups. Last spring the Mary Magdalene Vanguard of Free Women marched on Tijuana City Hall to protest abuses by health authorities. And at a recent sexoservadora conference in La Merced, prostitutes from Leon, Guanajuato \(a city that, like Tijuana, is controlled by complained they were being charged sixty pesos a week to obtain proof from local authorities that they were AIDS-free. For La Merced’s 61,000 low-income residents, the sexoservadoras are just one more class of vendors in the vast and cluttered sea of ambulantaje. There are 4,500 separate stalls crowded under the gargantuan shed of La Merced’s main market, which is one of the largest retail markets in Latin America. And until quite recently, tens of thousands of venders who work outside the market were encamped on the pungent streets surrounding La Merced. Like the prostitutes, most are represented by venders’ associations with strong ties to the PRI. The late Guillermina Rico, whose 10,000-member Merchants Association of the Old Merced made her a player with Mexico City’s PRI mayors, regularly turned out votes in exchange for permission to do business on the neighborhood streets. When La Jefa moved on to the great market in the sky two years ago, her daughter immediately announced that “La Merced belongs to the PRI.” So Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the national leader of the PRD \(Party of the Demoa corner by a previous PRI administration that passed ordinances requiring central city ambulantes to be moved indoors. Although the street vendors ought to be a part of the left PRD’s electoral base, the local associations retain their ties to the dominant PRI, and the Cardenas administration’s enforcement of the new policy has resulted in 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 23, 1998