San José, Costa Rica, 1995:
"You know the best way to recognise a successful hustler in San José?" asks Antonio. "He has an
earring, a walkman, Reeboks or Filas and a backpack."
It's early in the evening. The two of us are
having a meal in a suburb of the Costa Rican capital. The restaurant claims to
be Chinese, but the waitress is Latina and the food is no more than rice and
meat drowned in bright orange sauce. Antonio is an artist and an AIDS and
prison counsellor, a man who buries his demons and past under warm greetings,
intense conversation and a powerful embrace.
"The backpack is very important," Antonio goes on. "It shows that his latest customer
is Canadian. Canadians are very popular; the boys find them younger and much
more attractive than Americans. It's every boy's dream that a rich Canadian
will fall in love with him and take him back to Toronto. Of course if the
Canadian is not only rich but attractive the boy really has struck gold."
I have no reason to doubt Antonio, but when he and I wander the main drag an hour or so later,
few youths are to be seen and none are sporting backpacks, Canadian or otherwise.
Perhaps it is the wrong season. This is July and most tourists come between
November to April. We talk to a couple, or rather Antonio does, as they stare at me, a gringo who is not
a customer and whose role is therefore uncertain.
Soon we walk away
from the bright lights to the quieter and darker Avenida Eight. Here two or
three exaggeratedly feminine figures gather at each street-corner, feigning
disinterest in the cars cruising past until one stops and the driver looks the
small crowd over.
The youngest travesti is perhaps fourteen - a skinny breastless figure in a sleeveless
blouse, unused to her high heels. Most are in their twenties. Two or three are
stunningly beautiful. We talk with Valentina, a tall, elegant acquaintance of
Antonio's, who wears a short yellow dress thirty years out of date. Business is
not bad, she says. She has enough customers willing to pay $20 to have her fuck
them. The problem is the police. You never know when they are going to turn up
and demand money or sexual favours. At least she is fortunate that she has never
been beaten up.
We move on.
A taxi takes us to a house in a run-down part of the city. During the day the
row of one-storey buildings open to an assortment of small shops, bars and
workshops; at night the sidewalk is dark and deserted. Lila, a shuffling,
effeminate man in his fifties, opens the door and leads us down a narrow
passageway where three or four teenage boys sit quietly. At the end of the
corridor there is a sink and a stove, a table and chairs. Here a client waits
if the only bedroom is occupied. Despite the newly-washed jeans, shirts and
underwear hanging above our heads, there is a strong acrid smell that comes, at
least in part, from the dogs snuffling at our feet.
Lila charges about $7 for the use of his dingy room with its sagging, unclean double
bed, dresser, filthy armchair and faded tourist posters on the wall. The boy
receives the same amount or more. The youngest looks ten and
is probably thirteen; the oldest admits to twenty-three. Business is generally
slow with seldom more than one or two customers a night; a boy can count himself
lucky if he is chosen. Meanwhile they wait. Sometimes they talk, but mostly they are silent, as if awed
by their gloomy surroundings. Antonio and I try to strike up conversation, but
we get only monosyllables and faint gestures. Perhaps they only talk if a contract has been
agreed, and then only about whether they should disrobe and what position we
want them in.
I am aware that in some countries, including my own, some young people are
forced into prostitution. Here, despite the boys' reticence, there appears no
coercion. Indeed, one leaves and two more arrive while Antonio and I drink
coffee. Lila behaves towards them all as a maiden aunt who brooks little
nonsense but who offers the comfort of shelter and washed clothes. At the end
of the evening each returns to his home. The next day some will come back, others may not be seen for
weeks and a new boy or two may turn up. They are bored, perhaps, but they are safe. At the very least,
points out, Ricardo's offers a place to go, a way of making money if they are
Lila's house closed after this piece was written, but Lila's House, by Jacobo Schifter
(Haworth Press, 1998: misleadingly subtitled "Male Prostitution in Latin America"),
gives an in-depth view of the owner, the cacheros
(boys) and their customers. In Schifter's analysis, the cacheros
distance themselves from the customers and the sexual acts they practise,
but I suspect that an even more complex dynamic underlies their actions and