by Adriana Camarena
Originally published in El Tecolote July 12, 2018
“At 13 years old I went on the run….” she recounts.
Gaby was born in Portland Oregon in 1988. She is a Spokane-Kalispel Native American. “It was rocky at first. When I was 2 years old, my mom got into drugs and my dad took us away. I don’t know what was going on, but he was also an alcoholic. We lived with him until I was 6 years old, when one of his roommates molested me. Grandma stepped up and decided to take us in. I have a brother one year older. My brother and I are like salt and pepper, cereal and milk. We stayed with her until I was about 12 years old. We started getting in trouble and got taken away to foster care, but we kept on running to meet up with each other. Then my brother got locked up and I didn’t want to get caught…”
“Later I met the man who would be the father of my two sons. He was 10 years older than me. He was 23 and I was 14. But he took me in, his family took me in, his mom, his dad. …We were together about 8 months when he told me, ‘I’m going to Mexico for a little bit.’ I argued with him, ‘I can’t just be put out on the street.’ He didn’t want to take me, but we went to together.”
Gaby crossed into Mexico without papers in 2003. “I stayed for 4 years until I was 18 years old. I learned how to speak Spanish. People would tell me, ‘You look Latina, how come you don’t speak Spanish?’ They would call me ‘La del Norte, La Gabacha’ (the one from the north, the American). I learned how to paint ceramics in a bodega in a little pueblo near Patzcuaro, Michoacan. I made pots. 80 pesos for 3 decenas. We bought a truck and would go sell them in Puebla and Guadalajara, on the street corridors where there are English-speaking tourists. Speaking English helped me sell.”
Gaby and her daughter wait for a bus in the Mission District, July 2, 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
“My first child was born at six months and he died. His heart just stopped. He was born all whole. His grandpa cried, he loved him already.” Gaby had two more boys, but her relationship took a turn for the worse.
“My baby daddy and I, we went through a messed up relationship. He started hitting me, when I was 16 years old. He sent me to the hospital several times. His dad beat him up one time. ‘She’s just a little girl!’ he yelled at him. His aunt jumped in another time.”
Gaby started biding her time to her 18th birthday. “I was an illegal immigrant to Mexico with no papers on me.” She got documents sent from home. “After the last time he sent me to the hospital, I told myself, ‘I can’t do this no more.’ I contacted my grandmother and told her to send money. My grandmother put her house up, so she could send me money. It was the only thing she had, but I told her ‘Just like you got me, I got you.’
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I took a taxi to Guadalajara to a hotel and from there took a plane. Looking down from the airplane window to the land below, all I could think was ‘there are my sons.’ There is no doubt in my mind he would have killed me, to this day….”
Before Gaby reached out, her grandma had given up hope that she was alive. “My family was waiting for me at the airport in Portland. My grandma couldn’t stop crying. I started living with my brother.”
Gaby counted on the love her family had for her sons to keep them safe. “My eldest son was the first grandchild on both sides and he was very loved, cherished.” She was also determined not to leave them in Mexico. Before escaping, she had gotten her children USA passports at the consulate in Guadalajara. She gambled right, as her partner later followed north with her sons to Oregon, where she was reunited.
A week after Gaby arrived in Portland, she asked her grandmother to take her to a Mexican restaurant. “I wasn’t used to the food here anymore.” Gaby wasted no time and after ordering, and immediately asked the manager for a job. He hired her.
Gaby thrived at her job. “I like to make customers happy, which is how I made manager. Taco Tuesday was my day off, but I still came in one day. A customer had a complaint and I resolved it. He told my manager, ‘She did an exceptional job!’ I would pull 13 to 14 hour shifts. My manager started watching me on the cameras. ‘I’ve been looking at you. You are always moving. You are always busy.’ I would give free drinks to the little kids. People still ask after me at the restaurant!” Gaby smiles with a twinkle in her eyes, proud of her superior customer service skills.
Her father is a semi-trailer truck driver. “We would go on drives, 3, 4 days at a time. My dad brought me to San Francisco and I wanted to stay, but he told me, ‘I just got you back, I can’t let you leave.’”
“My dad is the reason I know how to work on cars. ‘Hand me this, hand me that,’ he’d say in the garage. I’d tell him, ‘Why don’t you teach your son instead?’ ‘You’ll thank me later,’ he’d say.”
For Gaby it would be a dream to get her mechanic’s tech license to make her dad proud.
Gaby, accompanied by her daughter, clarifies a problem with her food stamps at the San Francisco Department of Human Services, July 2 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
Eventually Gaby made her way back to the Bay Area. “I wanted to move to San Francisco, to the city, I am a city girl.”
Gaby started up with a boyfriend in Richmond, and the abuse immediately began both from him and his mother. They had her running to buy drugs, which is how she came to meet the Weed Man. She and Weed Man fell desperately in love. When her ex-boyfriend came after her, the Weed Man shot him, and Weed Man went to prison.
Out on the street alone in Richmond, Gaby began living in abandoned buildings and houses. “I heard about a lot of girls doing that and I started doing what I do now. At first, I was working for myself then I got introduced to a pimp. He was a good pimp. He had his main girl, but she taught me how to manage myself.”
Who is a good pimp? “Some pimps don’t let you spend your own money. We would get our own food and other things we needed. He would only ask us to tell him before we bought anything big. Once I even bought a taser, but he was ok with that. I felt protected. The first time I walked out with the taser in my bag, here comes a man ringing up on us, so I zapped him,” laughs Gaby. Gaby describes a cooperative working relationship with Good Pimp and Main Girl. “Every day we would go shopping, and we were really well kept; hair; nails; clothes.”
But not all pimps are good pimps, some are crazy mutherfuckers. Gaby learned to avoid eye contact with other pimps, and walk fast past them. “They could kidnap you; I’ve seen girls get put in the trunk of a car. We get scared to report things like that….You see other girls out there, bruises on their legs, grip marks on their arms, you just know her daddy don’t take care of her. You think, ‘Why not just leave him?’ It’s not that easy for everyone. Everyone has their story.”
When Gaby had earned enough money, she left her pimp. “When I left him, he was in tears.” He gave her her earnings. “‘Well, it’s yours,’ he said, ‘you earned it.’”
Gaby then fulfilled her goal of living in San Francisco. She now works in the Mission sex work corridor from Capp to Folsom streets, from 16th to 20th streets.
A street sex worker without a pimp is called a renegade. “It’s more dangerous, because at the end of the day you don’t have any protection.” Gaby was recently threatened with a knife to the neck. “It’s the most dangerous thing that has ever happened to me. He took my money back. Basically, he got free service,” she says dejected.
“Only because of the experience I have, I know how to stay safe.” Gaby pulls two shifts, an evening and morning shift, with a break in between. She avoids the peak service hours: “I’m not making anything at that time, and there are too many pimps out there. I don’t want to get hemmed up. Some might be part of a sex ring.”
Survival sex work
The sex industry encompasses a wide range of jobs including peep shows, pole and lap dancing, masseuses, pornography and full service escorting. Sex workers stories are likewise varied. In the City of San Francisco, the sex positive movement has succeeded in showing the public that empowered female and male sex workers carry out the vast array of sex work. But this tends to overlook that smaller percentage of sex work where race, ethnicity and poverty is determinative of the level of empowerment of a sex worker over their work. Out on the street corners, girls cut their teeth in the business for the first time, or the poorest survive.
Gaby’s daughter plays on a welcome mat that carrying seal of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, San Francisco Offices, July 2, 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
Gaby and her daughter play with play-doh in a taquería, Mission District on July 2, 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
Pike Long, deputy director of the St. James Infirmary, explains “that many who work closely with sex workers use the term ‘survival sex work’ to describe more precarious work like Gaby’s.” Attending to the needs of survival sex workers—commonly women and transwomen—is one of the main focuses of St. James Infirmary’s outreach and programming. In developing services, St. James holds to the main mottos of the sex worker movement: “Rights not rescue” and “Nothing about us without us!” At the core of any successful harm reduction program in the City with people in conditions of vulnerability is the exercise of their right to self-determination.
Gaby’s plan when she came to the Bay Area was to stabilize herself with a job, find a place to live, and bring her two sons. Meeting her goal has taken longer than expected. She now also has a 5-year-old daughter to feed, dress and keep. “The good thing about what I do is that I work 3 hour shifts for $300 to $400 a day. I’m not greedy. I have a work schedule. I could make more money, but with those hours I work I can spend all day with her.”
After her second shift, Gaby sleeps for a few hours in the car. “Or until my daughter lets me!” Once awake, they typically go to a shelter or park restroom to clean up, and head out to breakfast. Together they Facetime her two sons in Oregon nearly every day. If there is money to spend, they might shop at Ross or Walgreens for clothes or a toy. On a bright day, they might head out to the zoo or to the beach or have a water balloon fight at the park. “But the beach is the #1 spot. She goes all the way in. She is not scared because the first time I took her, I jumped right in. We get sandwiches. Sometimes we stay a few hours, sometimes we stay all day!”
There are also errands to run, laundry to do, dinner to eat, buses to ride, government services to apply for, and grooming, “When I get my nails done, she gets a mani-pedi.”
Her daughter’s father stays nearby in the Mission too, but they no longer live together. “We’re better friends now, and I would never take away his daughter. He takes care of her, brings me money every week, but like me he doesn’t have a normal job.” Gaby relies on food stamps to get by.
Gaby eats tacos de asada in a taquería in the Mission District, July 2, 2018. She missed tacos.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
“I just say ‘do your best, even better than your best.’ He called me on Father’s Day to wish me ‘happy father’s day, mommy-daddy’,” laughs Gaby.
“My dad, he also knows what I do. They all just want me to be safe. That’s their only concern.”
Day laborer lodgings
The greatest risk to Gaby and her family right now is homelessness, not her work. “The first step to my stability would be to get a home. I’m tired of being on the wait lists, but it pushes me to go towards what I want. I want to be without government assistance. Who wants to be on welfare for the rest of your life? I can make that in a day. I’m looking for just a little room to rent; up to $1,000 a month or less is what I could afford. I would like to stay with just another woman.”
When Gaby first arrived to the Mission, it was still possible for day laborers, including street sex workers to find and afford a room to house themselves and even their family. But rooms are hard to come by in the gentrified Mission, and even more for someone who makes a clandestine living. “All these places that rent to people, they want proof of income. Working under the table, I just can’t give it.”
I ask Gaby what sex work has given her. “It bought me independence. I bought myself a car. I’ve travelled. Since 2009, I’ve been to work in Vegas, Sacramento, San Jose, Salinas and Oakland….Obviously, I am not going to do this forever, but it’s not hurting anyone…”
One day she hopes to find a normal job that she likes: “I like to make customers happy…. I was a cashier at a casino. I really want to be working at a casino job again. I’m really good at that. I’m a quick count as a bank teller.” Gaby slaps her hand across the palm of her other hand, counting invisible money.
“But even if I was a casino cashier, I would do sex work to get me by week to week. In a normal job you get a paycheck every two weeks, if you are lucky. Food stamps don’t last all week. You need something else. There has to be a side hustle 3, 4 times a week.”
“Call my work under-the-table, but I’m clocking your whole daily paycheck just in a few hours….”
In May, a group that calls itself the Central Mission Neighborhood Organization (CMNO) went door to door in the vicinity of the traditional sex work corridor handing out a flyer to promote a meeting for “tackling the prostitution issue in the Central Mission.” The leading voices of the CMNO are wealthy gentrifiers who have bought homes in the zone, including an executive who works for a sustainable clothing company, an executive at Pinterest, and of course, a realtor. The organization has been active on Nextdoor and Facebook approximately since 2010. The CMNO has worked in an insular fashion in lobbying the past and current District 9 Supervisor, SFPD and DPW to solve problems on “their streets.” That, without calling in organizations with expertise in providing services to homeless people and sex workers in the Mission.
I attend the second meeting of the CMNO on June 18 at the Mission Rec Center on Harrison Street. The meeting agenda states that “Safe streets=Zero tolerance for street prostitution in our zone.” To their surprise, the meeting is also attended by a significant number of queer radical organizers who live in the Mission. “As a mother, as a lifelong Mission neighbor,” said one radical mother, holding a toddler, “I am very concerned that there is a call for more policing of sex work.” As the meeting progressed, the language is changed to discuss the issues. The new members explain that the word “prostitute” is offensive to many sex workers and obfuscates the fact that sex work is work, and they ask not to refer to the homeless as encampments to be swept.
Gaby and her daughter hold hands at a bus stop in the Mission District, July 2, 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
Gaby and her daughter in a playground, Mission District, July 2, 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
The meeting is an exercise in building tolerance by acknowledging the basic humanity of our neighbors. We all survive together in this capitalist racist world, whether unhoused or housed, whether we earn our wages as corporate whores, wives obliged to sleep with husbands or survival sex workers. Solidarity is key.
Known customers make Gaby’s work safer. She already has a few regulars. “Many are married. Many of my customers are immigrants. Their wives are far away. They don’t want to have a girl here. They just want that physical attention for a moment. They also don’t want to keep looking for girls. It’s scary for them to pick up a girl. Some have pimps looking to rob them. Latino immigrants are particularly vulnerable.”
“A regular customer comes around 2, 3 times a week. But regular or no regular, just give them good service and hopefully they’ll call you back.”
I ask Gaby what it would mean if cops cracked down on prostitution on Mission streets. “It would be really hard. Say I then had to get normal work, I would have to work at least a week before I got paid, more like two weeks because most jobs give only two checks a month. I don’t know how I would be expected as a single parent to make it during that time. Then I’d need to keep that job. It would also need to be a nightshift, so I could be with her….”
Regarding the CMNO flyer, she responds, “I work every day. If I take a day off, it means no money. There have been struggle days. I don’t think people understand what it is struggle; to have to steal cereal and milk so your daughter can eat; to risk having her taken away from me. My two sons were once taken away by CPS; it was traumatizing to them and me. The best interest of the child is to stay with their mother. My daughter is afraid of police.”
I mention that some neighbors don’t want their children seeing sex workers on their streets. “I can understand that. My daughter doesn’t know what I do. I protect her, but there is a limit to what you can keep from your child in San Francisco. Take gay pride, you’re going to see naked people with their dingle dongle hanging out. But we come out at night. Your kid should be in bed at that time. If your kid is out that late, something is wrong with you.”
Every night Gaby tucks her five year old daughter into bed. She starts by blocking off the windows to her car with dark paper. She then reads several books to her daughter. “Her favorite are the Disney stories and fairy tales.”
Gaby and her daughter embrace in a playground in the Mission District, July 2 2018.
Photo: Adriana Camarena
Gaby then waits until the father of her daughter arrives to stay with her, “If I can’t leave her with him, I don’t leave her with nobody else.”
She puts on her work clothes, and goes out, “The hardest thing is looking back at her as I head out. I’m going to get us out of this situation.”
Dancing with Wolves
Our interview wraps up and we cross 24th street to go our different ways. At the crosswalk, I ask Gaby if she has a Native American name. “No, because you have to do a ceremony and I haven’t. But if I did, I would be called ‘Dancing with Wolves,’” she says wistfully, “because I am like a wolf. No, I am like a lion. I am lionhearted!”
Mission Legacy Business
I walk the length of Capp Street, from 16th Street to 24th, once during the day and once at night, wondering how far back this hustle has existed on Mission Streets. “I know they’ve been there since at least 1972,” tells me an old school Mission homeboy, “I know because I was raised a block away from Capp and 20th and I would go find my dad over there to ask him for money. He would be there, hanging out with the women.” Articles about the multi-cultural youth population of “…Negroes, Spanish-Americans, poor whites, Indians, Filipinos, and Samoans of the neighborhood…” in the Mission from the 60s also mention pandering and prostitution as common jobs for poor youth in the deteriorated neighborhood. (Chicago Tribune, 1968; Sun Reporter, 1969)
The prospect of Gaby and other renegades like her having to risk everything to work in the vastly more dangerous Oakland streets, because of the inconvenience perceived by some gentrifiers leaves us with only one solution. Actually, it is a resolution for Supervisor Hillary Ronen to consider and introduce:
Considering the historic presence of sex work during the rise of the Mission Latino Cultural District, and in line with other efforts to preserve its culture and character, the City and County of San Francisco hereby declares sex work a legacy business of the central Mission District.
Unsettled in the Mission is a series of literary non-fiction essays by Adriana Camarena to be published periodically as supplements in El Tecolote through January 2019. Her writing is based on portraits of the traditional working class and poor residents of the Mission District for an exploration of Latino identities and histories. This is a collaborative project supported by the Creative Work Fund, however, the views and opinions expressed in “Unsettled” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Acción Latina.
About the Author
Adriana Camarena is a Mexican from Mexico, complicated by an upbringing in the U.S., Uruguay, and Mexico. She became a resident of the Mission District of San Francisco in 2008. Since arriving in the Mission, Adriana began collecting tales of borders, line-crossings, and overlapping identities told by residents to provide a layered picture of this traditionally working class immigrant neighborhood in California. To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.