Introduction to Writing from “Telling Lives: Reading, Writing, and Recording Life Stories”

Before I arrived to teach a creative nonfiction class at La Universidad Latina de América in Morelia, friends on both sides of the border suggested that I’d have trouble using a workshop model – that is, writing together, responding, and revising. Remember, one friend cautioned, Octavio Paz’s famous formulation of the “masks” of Mexicans, a people not given to self-revelation. “The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself,” Paz writes in The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Maybe I just got lucky. In the “Telling Lives” workshop, the nine participants argue, respond, explore, and above all, write with enthusiasm and depth. We’ve written essays, profiles of people we’ve interviewed, and responses to readings. We’ve discussed truth in nonfiction and the similarities and differences between U.S. and Latin American forms.

What does it feel like to freewrite in a second language? Only Maribel, a Mexican American student from Los Angeles, is a native English speaker. It’s challenge enough in one’s first language to bypass the inner critical voice and write without editing or silencing oneself. “It feels like a way to put out all the things, feelings and thoughts that are messing up my head,” said Grecia. “It’s me alone with my thoughts,” wrote Talía. “It’s a way to meditate…a tool to be honest with myself,” added Dinorah. “As if every true feeling inside me gets out through the pen or pencil, without passing through my reason or my brain.” Dinorah finds the process equally liberating in Spanish and in English, though she adds that it may not feel equal to a reader who reads “my grammar mistakes.” I’ve found students’ grammar mistakes to be minor, their lively sense of language, image, and metaphor a retort to those who don’t believe one can write imaginatively in a second language.

For the next few weeks, I’ll post essays and interview profiles written by students this term. Each begins with a short biography of the writer done by another workshop participant. In this case, Lizbeth Eunice Altamirano Torreblanco interviewed Dinorah. The biographies became collaborative as each person reviewed and sometimes added to the portrait written by another.

This first piece by Dinorah reveals her interest in the crónica – a particularly Latin American hybrid form poised between literature and everyday news journalism. Often, cronistas represent lives from the margins, especially in urban areas. Here, Dinorah mixes elements of a profile with the cronista’s stance as observer to tell a story of her encounter with Andrea, a sex worker in La Plaza Carrillo of Morelia.

Dinorah Ambriz Cárcamo by Lizbeth Eunice Altamirano Torreblanco

Photo by Maribel Barcena

Dinorah Ambriz was born in Los Angeles, California in 1990. Her parents, Aida y Manuel, had traveled from Morelia to look for better opportunities and also because Aida was a bit afraid of telling her mom she was pregnant for she was only 21. After two years in LA and with a strong desire to be with their family again, they returned to Morelia, where Dinorah’s sister Clyvia was born.

Nowadays, Dinorah studies communications, and she was just accepted to study philosophy at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). She is in a theatre group and is involved with “Yo soy 132,” a social movement that was created during the last presidential election in México. The group tries to contribute to the “long process of building citizen awareness about subjects of public interest in our fragile democracy.”

In her free time, one of things she enjoys most is working on ‘Do It Yourself’ things with Juan, her life partner. “Making things by ourselves instead of buying them is better for me, therapeutic, economical and fun. I like to buy wood, to sand, paint and make furniture to adorn our house”.

What she plans to do after graduation in communications and philosophy is to travel for a couple of months in Mexico, for she thinks her country is a beautiful one and deserves to be better known. Then, she would like to apply for a scholarship for a masters degree program in Spain, where she lived for almost a year, or maybe Argentina, and travel there with Juan and her baby cat Macario.

“Andrea: A Sex Worker’s View”

What she probably saw was a peculiar girl approaching. She gave me a look full of funny curiosity. My messed up hair along with sweatpants and a red sweater was probably not the usual look of her clients. She must have wondered why I was walking towards her.

Andrea, who identifies herself by an “artistic name,” is a prostitute who works at night in Plaza Carrillo, a small square known as one of the red-light districts of Morelia. Sex workers can be seen from morning until late at night. By day, there are just three or four in the square, but at night they are on every corner near Plaza Carrillo for a several block radius. At night they wear more attractive clothes, or pieces of them, in neon colors and filled with shiny accessories.

As with most of the sex workers, Andrea is used to the sideways looks that people give her, and also to the rude comments people shout while passing in cars. Sex workers are not viewed positively; prostitution is not seen as an honorable job.

Andrea is a 25-year-old transsexual dressed in an electric blue dress, with a pink bra, sparkly earrings, and high heels, carrying a colored purse. Her voice could easily pass for a feminine one in low tones. Most of the time, she refers to him/herself as a man, but acts like a woman. Here Andrea will be referred to as a woman because she was in that role for the interview.

She is really nice and has respectful manners. When I approached her, a deaf-mute man was trying to get services for free, as some kind of social service for his disability. When I asked Andrea for the interview, the deaf-mute started to ask how much I charged. He tried to touch me and then offered his hand. Andrea told him, with a protective attitude and with a just-created sign language, that I wasn’t offering my services and that he must go away and stop bothering me.  After the man left, the first thing Andrea said was “What beautiful handwriting you have,” looking at the notepad.

During the day, Andrea goes to pick up her little girl at kindergarten and help her with homework. Besides that, she passes her day in bed sleeping and watching television. The only time she leaves the house is to buy groceries or things that she and her daughter need. At night, she dresses up and takes a cab to Plaza Carrillo. She lives quite far from the plaza in the chaotic suburbs of the city; she doesn’t like to take the bus because people murmur, “bajita la mano” – an expression that connotes how people secretly criticize her.

When I asked why she chose the job, she says, “My daughter is the reason why I work here. As long as I live, I want to give her the best I can, so she can never say that her father didn’t give her what she wanted. I want her to have everything I didn’t. For me, the most important thing in life is her.”

But she also chose it because she felt discriminated against for being viewed as gay. “Look, I have studied. I got a degree so I can work in a company. I studied pedatologia, but when people see you are gay they turn the back on you, close the doors and deny you the job.” In response to my question of what pedatologia is, for the word doesn’t actually exist in Spanish, she answers that she can’t explain it, but that she studied and learned to take care of kids with problems. Readdressing the issue of why she chose the job, she says, “Who is going to trust their kids to a homosexual? They think that because we are homosexuals we are going to touch them [the children] or violate them. It’s illogical.”

In Plaza Carrillo, all the sex workers know each other and they have rules for the new ones. They can’t steal, do unlawful things or throw condoms in the street. But they can drink a little bit, for the cold at night, they say, is hard to bear.

Andrea starts work at nine at night and finishes at three in the morning. She says these are not long hours, for others have been in the plaza since the afternoon. On a good day, Andrea attends six clients; on a bad one, she has no clients. The price during the day is 250 Mexican pesos, and at night it’s 300 (about 25.00 USD). The minimum salary in the city for a job like waitressing is eight pesos an hour. Sex workers carry condoms and lubricants, while the clients have to pay for the room and extra services are charged separately.

Sex workers don’t have someone who looks after them. Each is alone, “a defenderse como puedan,” although they also take care of each other. Most of them have children and a husband or romantic partner. Because their income is not regular, they need to make a colchoncito – a metaphor for saving money under the mattress – to buy diapers and milk. Many of them also have to give money to their partners.

About working at night, Andrea says it is dangerous and tiring. They have to deal with drunks and people who want to abuse them and hit them. “Most men think that because we are sex workers, they have the right to abuse us and use hurtful language. We tell them that we don’t like those things, but they say that they have the right because they are paying. That’s not fair.” Andrea says that in her experience the best-dressed people are the ones who abuse them. She also talks about how a regular client raped her two years ago. She repeats that is not fair the way clients treat them, neither the way people look at them as “garbage” or how policemen harass them.

When I asked about what she desires most, Andrea answers that she badly wants to buy a house or a piece of land for her daughter. Sex workers were trying to form an association, as they have in other red light districts such as Nocupétaro. They were struggling to get medical help, food baskets, and Infonavit, a government credit system. Andrea says that Infonavit is what she wants. “With the rent I’m paying, I could easily buy my house, but we don’t get credit or they ask for 8,000 pesos in advance. Although they think we earn so much, the truth is that we are not rich. We have to pay Coppel [department store], light, water, gas.”

The sex workers association they were trying to create was for transsexuals, transvestites and women. They couldn’t form it because they didn’t have the professional help that the sex workers in Nocupétaro had. “For every mistake, they returned the papers to us, and we had to pay for that. It was a lot of money. The girls in Nocupétaro helped us, and a man was supposed to help us, but he did things wrong and everything fell apart.”

Life at night appears to be difficult for them. But Andrea sparkles when she says that working at night has also some pleasant things. “I like being on the street because I’m enclosed at home all day. But what I like most is when a client treats me nice as a person and not a sexual object, when a man treats me de lo más lindo.

It seems that being treated as human beings should be a right granted to all. But for Andrea, a worker from a vulnerable sector of the city’s service industry, being treated as a human being is something felt only on special occasions.