This case study explores the operation of a brothel community in Frontier City, Mexico during a period of economic prosperity (1969-1972). Participant observation provides a typology of the major forms of prostitution practiced and the characteristics of the clientele (American, Mexican-American, Mexican) are discussed. The literature on prostitution is fairly extensive and this monograph is intended to add to those portions of it that favor a sociological interpretation of an ancient social institution. The research for this study was conducted more than two decades1 ago and is now being released for publication since it is highly unlikely that I (or anyone else) would now be able to recognize any of the hundreds of prostitutes and their clients that I interacted with during 1969-1972/Summer: 1974--much less for me to be able to release discrediting information that may cause them harm of any kind. As a further precaution I assigned fictitious names to all of my informants (including "Evangelina") in the process of transcribing my field notes. This was necessary because La Zona also serves as a center for night life and underworld recreation.
While conducting the study, many who trusted me were involved in varied illicit deals, contraband was touted, and sometimes agents of social control (police, assorted officials) and otherwise "respectable" citizens of both Mexico and the U.S. were observed in situations which would tarnish their reputations and conventional identities, and certain military personnel - just by being on-site, or by living in Mexico - were breaking military regulations. As a double safeguard I then took the fictitious names and, for the most part, eliminated them entirely by specifying the context of the interaction. For those irritated by the phrases "according to informants" and "an informant said", I apologize. While this may seem a bit paranoid - and it is somewhat awkward - it must be noted that the Mexican government did not authorize my research and the keen reader of footnotes will discover that the risks of being identified as one freely talking to "the American asking questions" are not imaginary. The danger lies in being misidentified as a tool of the police, or the underworld, since both have contacts on the scene.
True, in most cases one's notes are private, but this could not be guaranteed when dealing with U.S./Mexico border crossing inspectors and the on-site Mexican police who engage in routine searches for weapons and "suspicious materials."The initial field research was conducted when I was in my early to mid-twenties--without benefit of any form of sponsorship, research grants, or official recognition--and was an important part of my forming a professional identity as a sociologist. While the research served as an ethnographic "rite of passage" for me, premature release of the study could have generated controversy and proved damaging for those who had become part of my extended family (many of whom were still active on La Zona or currently in the American military). Moreover, the political and media climates of the times favored the superficial exposure of cosmetic issues internal to Mexico, i.e., drug busts, street shoot-outs, and corruption which, while real enough, often understate--and possibly deflect--the importance of overriding U.S. interests.
Lastly, the academic climate in the seventies was clearly becoming hostile to certain kinds of deviance research and the cutbacks in funding at many universities in the eighties saw labyrinthine administrative requirements in the area of human subjects research grow in direct proportion to the dwindling amounts of funds available. At best, the study of social deviance was losing some of the luster it had acquired in the late sixties and, at worst, there were growing suspicions--according to detractors--that deviance research, itself, was a questionable activity since such study was perceived as either being irrelevant to imagined "larger issues"--which were increasingly seen as exclusively the result of political contests of one kind or another - or that such study, of necessity, would serve to reinforce a particular status quo.
The latter concerns are more troubling than the former because of their tendentiousness which is antithetical to the conduct of any actual research: either one's subjects must be shown to experience the requisite amounts of victimization, false consciousness, or oppression so as to make the research "liberating" (and,hence, unnecessary, since this conclusion is known before the data are gathered), or the "inside story" of the life-world of one's subjects is assumed to be so fragile that it must not be made public lest they become further discredited than they already are. In any event, I did not want to muddle my fledgling academic career in controversy2, so I used my materials from La Zona in classroom lectures over the years and pursued other areas of research until my field notes acquired a wholesome shade of yellow--and were thus harmless. What results is a study of those structural features of La Zona that make the social meaning of the practice of prostitution--as experienced by clients and the women themselves--clearest in the eyes of an outside observer. A few caveats, however, are in order.
First, it was not clear to me when the research was originally conducted that, in fact, a period of "prosperity" characterized the years 1969-1972. This was only apparent when I returned in the summer of 1974. It is important to mention, however, that during 1969-1972 the Mexican peso traded at roughly seven to the U.S. dollar; the Vietnam War was being waged; there was no gasoline shortage; the local bull ring was typically packed to capacity on the weekends; during rush hours one could walk across the International Bridge faster (in either direction) than traffic could proceed, and it would be a decade before AIDS would receive substantial public attention. Second, I was very close in age to most of my informants and also unmarried. This facilitated a range of social contacts that would have been quite difficult to both experience and achieve had a larger number of years--and social statuses - separated me from those with whom I regularly socialized and recreated. For example: hitching a ride to and from Mexico - and La Zona - allowed me to capture the impressions of the journey common to both prostitutes and clients who were age-peers.
This was an historically limited opportunity, however, as social conventions on both sides of the border limit such activities to the young. I experienced friends, colleagues or objectionable folks and settings, depending on the circumstances, which became a "subject matter" only in the process of writing. Thus, many taken-for-granted gestures, impressions and ways of behaving, e.g., being almost totally innocent of risks, were not initially seen as problematic. At another level, prostitution embodies the essence of sexism - without which the institution could not survive, much less flourish. Yet, in everyday interaction, both on and off-site, the prostitutes refer to themselves as "the girls" - in part, due to cultural conventions; in part, because some are not yet adults; in part, because the word "prostitute" is an outsider's term and is never used as a form of self-referral. This, at times, produces politically incorrect prose. While I defer to, and appreciate, norms governing non-sexist language wherever possible, I should note (to linguists and others) that this polite convention strains credulity in a setting, which is characterized by racist and sexist contours.
Those who work the brothels for their livelihood, recreation, entertainment, or to break the monotony of the region, fashion a language shared by their social peers--whatever the larger society may dictate. For example, no prostitute on La Zona conceives of herself euphemistically as a "sex worker" - no matter how much those in certain academic circles may wish this to be so - and virtually all prostitutes refer to a large percentage of men as "boys". Moreover, affectionate monikers which are conventionally applied only to significant others, i.e., "my love"; "my hero"; "dear"; "honey"; my "only one"; are part of the general vocabulary of intimacy that surrounds settings where prostitution is practiced. Such verbiage is decidedly left at the door when the work-role ends. Intimate language is truly shared only among a small circle of confidants - or may be mentioned (along with Mexican curse words and certain forms of slang) in a joking manner.
In a literal sense, the illusions surrounding brothels take perhaps as much time to unlearn as they do to slowly accumulate from the pastiche of folk wisdom, off-color jokes, and from media and literary interpretations - as well as from conversations reserved "for men only" in the company of fellow travelers. One such fiction surrounding prostitution is likely the result of media depictions and clinical studies: that prostitutes and their clients are readily identifiable as sharing a fixed and easily classifiable vocabulary of motives which fits conveniently into some larger agenda - as if the social categories we create actually match and portray lived realities. In the world of film this is constituted by "the shoot" (which defines the relevant setting, actors, props, and actions) which must, of necessity, be congruent with the plot--thus we all know what "hookers" are supposed to look like. In like manner, television assigns contrasting images, musical themes and action sequences to hold attention - thus we come to expect that noble (or ignoble) purposes will soon surface from the shadows to influence the lives of the protagonists.
Clinical studies artificially extract the prostitute from her life-world in pursuit of etiology, symptoms, or manifestations of pathology - thus we all know that the denizens of the demimonde are emotionally troubled, psychologically imbalanced, helpless victims, or in need of our sympathy. The representativeness of such women-in-therapy is rarely questioned, and absent from such studies, of course, is even a hint of the "demand" side of the phenomenon, i.e., the male clientele and their supportive subcultures. Lastly, those with a literary bent - having met their "ladies of the night" in novels - can create their own fictionalized encounters, and screenplays will often feature uncommonly attractive starlets who play at being hookers - with the theme of redemption being thrown in for box office appeal. This monograph tells the story of the determinate impact of physical structures and social arrangements which combined with a prevailing economic climate and an historical milieu to influence those whose lives are organized around a deviant occupation. I have abstracted, and scrutinized, the social structural elements of life in a Mexican brothel community.
Others may favor alternative interpretations and the reader must judge for him/her self if the categories I have used best describe the realities-at-hand. A Postscript (The Summer of 1974) explores significant changes in the scene after roughly two years.