Three prostitutes south of the border

Nights in Tijuana

Most of the women who are working the American-oriented bars of Tijuana have been around for years.
  • Most of the women who are working the American-oriented bars of Tijuana have been around for years.
  • Image by Thom Vollenweider

Tijuana’s reputation as a wide-open town is fast declining, much to the satisfaction of the city fathers, who started phasing out the more blatant aspects of the commercial sex scene in the 1960s. The motivation for that move was actually more economic than moral, inasmuch as the family tourist trade brings much more money into the city than does the dwindling market for legal vice.

Tijuana differs from other Mexican cities in that there is no specific vice zone.

Tijuana differs from other Mexican cities in that there is no specific vice zone.

The seedy image that Tijuana still has in the minds of many people was earned in the Forties and Fifties, when servicemen and defense workers flocked there and then outdid each other in spinning gruesome and hair-raising yams about the place. Nowadays, Johnny Carson may still deliver an occasional Tijuana joke; some sailors and Marines can still be seen on paydays, strutting about downtown and being hustled by loquacious cabbies; and a visiting conventioneer may indulge in a nostalgic fling with a local puta in the spirit of yesteryear’s notoriety. But it’s all a fading image. Gone forever are the bad old days, done in perhaps by relaxed American sexual mores, not to mention the multitudinous massage parlors that dot every urban landscape. With the reduced number of American customers for these particular services, there are, quite naturally, fewer available women than there were in the past. Most of the women who are working the American-oriented bars of Tijuana have been around for years. It is apparently a rarity to see a new face.

As an institution that carries with it a venerable tradition, prostitution is common to every city in Mexico of any size at all. Mexican businessmen (and of course workers as well, when they can afford it) will casually visit a prostitute and then return to their happy homes. And usually the wives know it and accept it. But never, never, never the other way around. No Mexican male is going to stand for being a cabron. a cuckold. The double standard is alive and well south of the border; women’s lib is just some sort of gringo aberration.

The American clients for this ancient trade come in various shapes and sizes. Many are youngsters in for a visit or two, watching their wallets closely (they, too, have heard the apparently timeless stories), almost disappointed if no attempt is made to roll them or overcharge them. There are also the “regulars,” who have been “going south” for years. Of the latter, some come strictly for the girls and others primarily to drink and visit, perhaps engaging a girl only on the rare occasion they happen to spot a new and attractive face. Other regulars are horse or dog players, who, when they win, will stick around to leave some of their profits in Mexico. After all, one of them explains, it would be poor sportsmanship indeed to take out of the country more money than you brought in, what with Mexico needing every Yankee dollar it can get. Those with a lesser sense of noblesse oblige probably come because sex seems more exotic or exciting in another country, or because the possibility of a home-wrecking scandal is lessened, or because the prices will be cheaper than those paid for similar services in San Diego or Los Angeles.

And what of the women, particularly those who tend to specialize in American clients, or “friends,” as the girls call their Johns? It’s an insider’s trade. Many of the women know each other (they all go to the same government clinic for their bimonthly VD checks) but, as in any profession, they differ in many respects from each other in background, problems, and even attitudes. Presented herewith is a sketch of three different women of Mexico who make their living taking care of the libidos of American clients — and, of course, Mexican clients as well. One girl speaks no more than a dozen words of English; another speaks and understands quite a bit more; and the third is fluent. It is best to point out first that Tijuana differs from other Mexican cities in that there is no specific vice zone; that is to say, there is no specially designated area where a prostitute is expected to work. The women work in places all over town, although the bars of Zona Norte, called “The Pit” by Americans, located around the north end of Avenida Revolucion, have the greatest concentration of prostitutes. But there are many girls working the downtown striptease joints, bars of Revolucion,on side streets, and in fact all over the city.

If the casual tourist found himself walking along Revolucion (or Main Street, as Mexican businessmen refer to it to avoid scaring off Rotary Clubbers from Kansas), he might make a turn down Sixth Street and saunter past the neon-lit bank on the comer, past several disco places, past the Tropics Bar, which has girls, and find himself walking into Chips, a bar popular with veteran American visitors, both as a place to drink and to seek a paid companion. Victor, the manager here, speaks English and is friendly without being unnecessarily inquisitive. Chips opens its doors around seven at night and closes when the last customer leaves, usually after the morning sun has been shining for a while. About four nights a week, and in the early morning hours, a slim, pretty Yaqui Indian girl can be found here. Her name is Francisca, or Frankie, as her American friends call her. She is twenty-one and has the copper skin and full upper lip typical of her native tribe. She peers out at her world in ingenuous little-girl fashion through attractive almond-shaped eyes. Quite naturally, she is the most popular girl in the place, and will proudly tell you that she has “many friends.”

Frankie speaks but a few words of English: “A brandy for me? . . . “Take it easy!” . . . “Bye bye.” In a few more years, to be sure, she will speak the gringo language muy bien, for she is a very clever woman. When otherwise unoccupied, she plays dominoes at the bar, and is, according to Victor, an expert. She often wins eight or ten dollars in a small-change game. If a “friend” comes in, he will no doubt buy her a brandy (two dollars — half for Frankie and half for the house) and take her to a nearby hotel. For “going to the room,” as all the girls refer to their assignations, Frankie will receive anywhere from twenty to fifty dollars or more, depending on the generosity of the customer, as well as the amount of time she stays with him. But, she says candidly, she doesn’t like sex — not at all. She dislikes being touched and handled; she goes through the motions in the room “like a robot.” Frankie became a prostitute at seventeen, in her home town of Obregon. She ran with a wild crowd as a pubescent teen — drugs, vandalism, petty theft, all the rest. She lived with a boy for two years and now refers to him as “my husband,” although they never married legally (perhaps because, among other things, Yaqui Indians are the only tribe in Mexico that still does not recognize the sovereignty of the Mexican government). Frankie left this boy after he insisted that she have sex with a friend of his. She is frigid, she admits, and suggests the likelihood that her husband had apparently reached the point of total exasperation. But he became the father of her two sons, and Frankie's eyes light up when she speaks of “my babies” (she says it in English). Her world outside the bar centers on her children, a not uncommon phenomenon among Mexican prostitutes. For this reason, the pimp (in the American sense) has poor pickings in Mexico. If one mentions pedrote, pimp, to a bar girl, she will likely snap her fingers in contempt and say, “My children are my pimps!” However, the managers of these places usually function in the role of father-figure and confessor to the women who work there, and therefore fill at least the same emotional function as the American pimp.

Frankie states matter-of-factly that she has several lesbian friends — one of them a bar girl like herself — but that she is not herself a lesbian. She is not interested in any form of noncommercial sex, and one has the impression that for her the only memorable intimacies were the two times she was impregnated. Frankie will sometimes say without emotion, "Soy pula,” "I am a whore,” and it is difficult to tell whether this declaration of the obvious is some form of self-punishment or whether it has a significance beyond the comprehension of an American male. Perhaps she simply wishes to remind her client, and herself, that although she is “open for business,” so to speak, it’s only her body she rents out and not her soul. Quien sabe?

Frankie finishes her drink, looks to the door, and moves restlessly in her chair. A “friend” has just come in.

If the curious tourist decides to pass up Frankie and the other girls working this street, he can return to Main Street and accept the blandishments of a cab driver to be taken to a “good place; hot show; a girl for fifteen dollars, senor. ” The cabbie will drive him half a mile to Zona Norte, more than likely to the Coco Club. This bar is located about a hundred yards from the border fence, and the Border Patrol helicopter can often be seen “patrolling the area with searchlights.

The Coco Club has rooms upstairs, and it is there where most of the money is made. The house makes only the room rental fee; the girls keep all that they make. The cabbie, in turn, gets paid a commission by the bar after the transaction is made. If the tourist decides to sit at the bar and have a drink, he will be treated to a somewhat unusual floor show, featuring a young lady dancing nude, and permitting, perhaps encouraging, what might best be called audience participation. Evidently, there are folks who find it titilating to watch a half-gassed sailor lying supine on the stage while a prostitute laughingly squats on his face.

One of the girls who occasionally dances here is Olivia, or Oly, as her friends call her. Oly is twenty-six, and speaks a bit more English than does Frankie. But if she spoke no English at all, as is the case with some of the women here, the bilingual manager would conduct the negotiations with the gringo customers on her behalf.

Oly is the mother of six children, and she is their sole support. (The lack of social welfare programs in Mexico forces many women into prostitution.) She dyes her hair blond, because, of course, everyone knows that all men, American and Mexican alike, prefer blonds. Oly avoids regular intercourse with her customers if it is at all possible. She smiles and calls herself Senorita Cinco Dedos, Miss Five Fingers, thereby indicating her specialty, and she then gives a graphic demonstration of her skill with this specialty, with assurances that the befuddled and often drunk client has no idea what is really happening. “It doesn't really matter,” she laughs. “He gets what he wants.” She pauses. “And so do I.”

Booze is her big problem. She’ll sometimes go off on a binge with a man, or two, after she's had a dozen or more brandies or tequilas. This may happen several times a month, when she “goes crazy.” She is known to some as La loca, the crazy one, because of her wild behavior when intoxicated. One of her drinking companions once beat her up badly and left her lying in a bloody mess in a downtown hotel. But Oly says she needs an occasional release from the deadening dullness of her profession. Other girls working here are on a constant high from the use of marijuana or cocaine.

The manager of the Coco Club is a blunt, businesslike type who has been working at Tijuana bars since he was eighteen, more than twenty-five years ago. He states firmly that contrary to popular opinion, Americans will not be cheated in bars like his. The repeat business is needed and desired. Anyhow, it’s usually the gabachos, Americans, who cause the problems. A year ago, he recalls, an American pulled a gun on a girl and in the wake of this incident the police closed the bar for three months and arrested several employees. “Trouble is something we definitely do not want,” he says.

And what about the women? What are their lives like? He takes a deep drag on his cigarette before replying. Many of them, he says, just live day to day, drinking, taking pills, and the like. Others quietly save their money, hoping to better their condition some day. And, he grins, a girl isn't worth much if at least once a week an American doesn’t propose marriage to her. Are these offers ever accepted? “Yes, once in a while. But you know,” he smiles sadly, “the girls always come back.” Perhaps one day their husbands don’t want to give them money to buy something, or he loses his job and they have financial problems. And then she remembers how easy it is to make money. And she comes back. She gets back into the puta lifestyle, and soon, no more marriage.

The Coco Club is actually a brothel with a bar attached; that is, there are rooms directly upstairs that are owned by the same interests that have the bar. As such, it is one of the few brothels of its type in the city. In the downtown area there is only one other, and as might be surmised, it is very successful, being situated directly across the street from the Jai Alai Palace. This place is known as the Unicornio, and given the desire of the city to do away with such bars along Main Street, its days are almost certainly numbered. But the Unicornio is doing very well at the moment, and on a Friday or Saturday night it is nearly always packed to capacity. As many as thirty or forty girls will be on hand, and dozens of American and Mexican youths. The Mexicans seem to be very fond of sitting close to the stage and grabbing at the naked dancers. Several Americans seem to have brought along their wives or girlfriends to view the goings-on. The place is quite dark inside, and the girls, dressed in short white skirts, seem to move through the aisles like ghosts, now and then selecting a likely prospect, plopping down on his lap, and regaling him with promises of the immense delight he will experience if only he takes her to one of the upstairs rooms. Sometimes the man will rise and quickly slip off with the lady through a nearby door.

Maria has been working here for about three years. Before that she worked in the Brooklyn Bar and the Manhattan Club, and before that in the famous Blue Fox Bar on Second Street. She is in her late thirties and now shows the signs of wear, of too many years in the business. But she has done well. She owns her own restaurant, and she says it makes a nice profit. She owns her own house, too. So why is she still working? Well, she explains, she had retired for a year but then had an auto accident that was adjudged to be her fault. She had no insurance, so she had to go back to work to pay off the heavy settlement. She couldn’t sell the house or the restaurant, could she? Maria has three children, but only one is still at home. She has “adopted’’ several children off the street, the “children of Mexico,” as the homeless waifs are called. She has put them all through college, all on the earnings of her profession. No, her neighbors do not know she is a puta; they know only that she owns a restaurant and must work late.

Speaking fluent English, she says she is often amused — and sometimes frightened — by the requests she has received over the years. Once, a man from Los Angeles tried to force her into what is now called “water sports.” She wanted no part of it and managed to get away and call the police. When they arrived, they gave her customer a hard time and shook him down for some money. She tells of a San Diego businessman who used to come down for bondage sessions and other “funny things.” Her face wrinkles in a disdainful smile at the memory.

A younger girl sitting next to Maria interrupts. She would like to know, because she cannot fathom the reason, why some American couples come to her and offer her much money to share their bed for the night. Que locura! Such madness! Both girls shake their heads and laugh. These gringos! What the devil is wrong with them? An American one table away, just shy of middle-age, has overheard the conversation and volunteers the information that although many people think the Tijuana whore is dirty as hell but will do just about anything, the exact opposite is the truth. They’re surprisingly “clean,” he says, but they will do very little in the way of the sexually unusual. The general sexual mores of the Mexican woman carry over to the fallen angels. An American co-ed or suburban housewife is likely to be more sophisticated and liberated sexually than ninety-five percent of the “professional girls” in Mexico.

Maria winds up the chat by relating the story that as a child and teenager she desperately wanted to be a doctor, but that her father, of the old school, steadfastly refused to send her to college. So she ran away from home and ended up working the bars of Tijuana. Whether her story is factual or not, she tells it with feeling, and it can be noted by those who view prostitution as just another form of societal suppression of females.

As in most Latin countries, prostitution is an institution that is not likely to disappear anytime soon, short of a Castro-style revolution that effectively ended the trade in Cuba. And probably even the “victims,” the women themselves, individual entrepreneurs that they arc, would be among the first to reject that solution. And so it goes on. It’s a weekend and the Unicornio is swinging. An overweight dancer climbs up to the stage and begins an artless strip. A group of half a dozen Marines have just walked in and a waiter scurries to find a table for them. The saxophone player hits several notes painfully off-key. Drinks are being sold, bodies are coming together, dinero is changing hands. Another Tijuana Saturday night is slipping noisily into the past.

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