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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible

Valentina in the Streets and Lila in the house

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 We talk with Valentina, a tall, elegant acquaintance of Antonio's, who wears a short yellow dress thirty years out of date.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, as Antonio points out, Ricardo's offers a place to go, a way of making money if they are lucky.

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 motives.

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