Over many years, the cobblestone streets had given way to the congested asphalt of the greater part of Quito. From where I sat at my kitchen table, the view out the window was disconcerting, like I had been kicked out of the heart of the city, only to feel as if I had never left it in the first place. The architecture of Calle La Rueda mirrored the style of our Spanish conquerors, houses that blended into each other, with flower pots at each delicate balcony, and wooden frames for the windows. How I wished to return to the patrimonial houses in the historic district, with their creamy blues and yellows. The buildings here suffocated each other as they absorbed the smog and pollution of Quito. They turned everything gray. Still, every night a fog descends over this entire city, not as a blanket, but as a veil that covers everything except the vague pinpricks of light that can be seen across all our mountains.
The doorbell’s ring interrupted my thoughts.
“The caterer’s here, can you let him in while I put this away?” I heard my mother call over her shoulder to Blanca, our maid. In a hurry, I tried to cover my photos with an envelope, but just as I moved to hide them from her sight, she walked in through the swinging door. She held a vase in one of her hands.
“Karina, could you take this?” she said, shoving the vase into my arms. Once her hands were free, she adjusted her jacket, and ran a hand through her hair. A strand had tangled up around one of her pearl earrings. For a moment, she studied me, and then her eyes moved over the photos. “You should clear this area. The caterers are going to need the space.”
I set the vase under the table, and I started collecting my photographs, only touching the edges so that they wouldn’t smudge.
“How was work today?” My mother asked. The caterers walked into the kitchen, and she turned to them. I was able to slip the photographs into their folder without further scrutiny. “You can place those platters over here. The drinks can go in the pantry until we need them. Blanca, can you show them how to use the stove and oven? Thank you, I’ll be right out here once you’re ready to set up in the dining room.”
My mother pressed her hand against the swinging door, but before she walked through, she seemed to remember that I was still standing in the middle of the kitchen, holding my photographs against my chest. She regarded me over her shoulder, and then said, “Kari, come with me. Let them have the kitchen.” I followed her through the swinging door into the dining room.
Javier was dressing the table, making sure to add three glasses of different sizes, two forks on the right side, and one napkin for each place-setting. The chandelier’s light glistened against the silverware, and reflected off the milky plates in front of each chair.
“Listen Karina, I wanted to talk to you before everyone arrives for tea. Your Tío Jorge is staying for dinner. He wants to offer you a job in his marketing agency. I think it’d be a good step up for you. You’d be working with larger companies, and you’d make some great connections, more money,” She paused when she noticed my expression. “I think it’d be a good opportunity.”
“Mama, I like my job,” I said. “It’s always interesting.”
“You mean it’s dangerous,” she retorted, checking the shape of each napkin, as she worked her way around the table.
“It’s not dangerous,” I responded. “I shouldn’t have told you about that.”
My mother paused, and turned to look me in the eye. “A child died a few weeks ago, and you saw his dead body. That’s not something a young lady ought to be exposed to. You should’ve never taken that job in the first place. It’s not safe.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “I can’t live by myself until I’m married, and now I’m not allowed to choose my own job?”
“Stop being ridiculous Karina,” My mother started massaging one of her temples with two fingertips. “Why does this job matter so much? It’s just a couple of pictures. It’s practically an extension of your hobby.”
“I’m in charge of documenting the transition,” I sighed. “I’ve told you this a thousand times. It’s important to demonstrate the renovation process for when the neighborhood opens to tourists next year. So much has happened there, it means something, it has to be recorded.”
When we were first hired by the ministry of tourism to investigate and gentrify the historic neighborhood in the south of Quito, we were met with varying levels of hostility by most of the inhabitants of La Rueda, but Lucia had opened her home to us. I think she welcomed the improvement to her neighborhood, and the business opportunity for her empanada shop. Lucia’s hands were strong from kneading dough, but delicate from folding ripples into the empanadas de viento. Her kind face was stressed beyond her years, and her clean clothes showed the wear of hard work. She had proved invaluable when we first arrived, but even more so when she explained the politics of the neighborhood around her kitchen table later on. Rodrigo had stood to one side, frustrated by the lengths we’d have to take to befriend the local people. He had rubbed a lighter in one hand, and had typed into his cellphone in the other. He thought he was being discreet.
Rodrigo did not care much about this particular project, he preferred to work with museums and national exhibitions. For him, there was more “dignity” in those types of projects, which really meant that they were easier to explain to his family. He even made a point of wearing an expensive collared shirt to this visit, in contrast to his usual work polos.
Pablo, our boss, saw this as an opportunity to tie his communications company to the ministry of tourism. He sat at the kitchen table, nodding his balding head at everything Lucia mentioned, while he looked over to the government representative to gauge his reaction. I’m not sure he heard a single word Lucia said.
“You need to worry about two people,” Lucia explained, passing a cup of coffee to each of us. “Mama Riña controls everything from El Mercado up to this street corner, and El Puma’s territory starts here and runs down under the stone bridge. They compete with each other, and tensions are running high.”
“Who’s this Mama Riña again?” The government representative asked. He turned back through his notes, searching for the name. He was a middle-aged man, comfortable in his position, and after that first day, he decided to keep in contact via email only. He too had better and larger projects to work on.
“She controls the marketplace, and owns most of the houses on this block. Some of El Puma’s men raided one of her trucks on Monday. She’s been fuming ever since.” Lucia studied the upheaval down in the streets from her window.
“Look, there he is,” Lucia whispered. Rodrigo gave me a look as I got up from my chair, but I didn’t care. I moved to stand behind her shoulder, my curiosity getting the best of me. La Rueda was crowded at this hour, filled with rushing people, and noise from street-carts.
“I don’t see him,” I said. “What does he look like?”
“That’s him,” Lucia pointed. I followed her finger to a decrepit man, slouched on the sidewalk, his body small, even amongst the children playing soccer in the middle of the street. He was missing a leg, and his ancient crutches lay next to him. He held up a plastic cup for spare change every time someone passed by him. He shook it up and down for emphasis.
“That’s El Puma?” I asked, astounded. “But he’s a beggar!”
Lucia laughed. I could tell that she had anticipated my reaction. “Don’t underestimate El Puma. He manages the drug trade in El Centro. More than half of those boys out there work for him.”
“They’re just children,” I whispered. They kicked the ball between them, avoided cars, and jumped in front of the people walking down the sidewalk. Their ball hit a street-cart, and the vendor threw a bottle at them. It shattered near El Puma’s body, but the man did not react, other than to remove a piece of glass from his cup.
Lucia’s smile disappeared. “A fate I wish to spare my son.” I took out my camera and snapped a couple photos of El Puma and the children in the street. A part of me clenched up, but not out of shock, exactly. I couldn’t put my finger on the feeling curling inside of my chest.
It was only a few days later when Lucia took me on a special tour of Calle La Rueda. The more I investigated La Rueda, the more I saw this as an opportunity to learn about the people that lived here, to experience a life so far-removed from my own. To make some sort of a difference. But I was only the photographer. Rodrigo had scoffed when I asked him if he wanted to come along.
We stopped at every house, and Lucia told me stories about the people who lived inside. Lucia explained that most of the time, the inhabitants of La Rueda paid rent to Mama Riña, and agreed to keep quiet about El Puma’s dealings in the street. Lucia’s cousin, Maria, rented the candy shop from Mama Riña, but Maria’s son made the rest of their rent money working for El Puma. He sold gum and cigarettes on the street.
“It’s a never-ending wheel, unarueda sin parar,” Lucia said with a slight smirk, and a glance at the ceramic sign up on the street wall which read: Calle La Rueda.
As we started to walk over the stone bridge, the commotion below drew our attention away from her tour. A group of people had gathered under the bridge, and their voices grew from whispers into a heated debate. They were gathered around a body, but I couldn’t make out whether the person lying on the cobble-stone street was dead or alive.
“Que Pasa?” Lucia called down. Her voice echoed under the bridge, and the crowd froze. They looked around in alarm, their argument paused in panic, before they recognized Lucia above them.
One of the women spoke up, “It’s Fernandito. He’s dead.” Someone was crying in the crowd.
Lucia gasped, and drew a hand to her mouth in astonishment. “How’d it happen? Does Josefina know?”
“We’re trying to get his body to her, but we can’t let the police find him,” Another man voiced. “He belonged to El Puma. Someone tipped off the police, and they came after the boys two days ago. Fernandito’s been missing ever since. Turns out he tried to hide in the generator shack beneath the bridge. He got too close to a wire or something, because he’s been shocked dead. Poor Josefina, this was her only son…” Another wail raised in the crowd.
They moved apart just enough so I could see the small body of a boy, with dark hair and gangly limbs. He was probably one of the boys I had seen playing soccer out here not a week before. I couldn’t make out his face. The man nodded at us, and then they turned back to their task. They enveloped the boy’s body, and moved down the street in a hurry, scared to get caught.
“Dios Mio!” Lucia said, crossing herself twice. She turned to me, “You see, that’s the fate I wish to spare my son.”
There was a time when the white paint of this house shone in the afternoon sunlight, and the strings of a guitar or the deep sound of a saxophone drifted out into this street at all hours. But in its many years of disrepair, wooden shutters had been added to the windows unevenly, casting shadows that looked like discombobulated prison bars. Little by little the bare walls of this converted brothel had absorbed the smell of prostitution. It could still be tasted in the air now, a mixture of sweat and something almost fishy, rotten but stale at the same time.
Three girls remained on the soiled mattresses on the floor. They were the last to be evacuated from the brothel, but they seemed in no hurry to move. Though prostitution was legal in Ecuador, not one of the girls in front of me looked anywhere near eighteen. Their soft cheeks, and still-developing breasts gave them away, if their large eyes weren’t convincing enough.
The girl nearest to me pulled her legs up under her chin, her dark bangs matted against her forehead. I could tell she was analyzing me from under her curtain of hair, but her expression remained blank. I hesitated for a moment, and then I took her picture.
The girl behind her turned to face me then, where I stood by the door, an invasive alien in their space. The disturber, and the disturbed. She had been playing with a dead moth on the floor. “Are they going to relocate the rest of them?” she asked in a low but raspy voice. Her hair was dyed wine red—secretary red, my mother would have said—but her roots were a deep black. Her finger pulled out one of the moth’s wings. Behind her, the last girl curled up on her side, and pretended to sleep. Her hair had come undone from her bun, and stringy stands covered her face from view.
“I suppose so,” I whispered. I didn’t know what else to say.
The red-haired girl nodded in slow motion. “And what about us?” she wondered out loud, maybe as a question for me, maybe just to herself. “What’s gonna happen to us?”
“I’m not sure,” I said after a few seconds. “They didn’t tell me much. I’m just the photographer.”
“It’s all the same,” the girl with bangs finally spoke. Her eyes remained flat, her chin settled into her knees. “They’ll say that we’re gonna be taken care of, but we’ll end up in the streets. I just gotta make sure I look older next time.”
Rodrigo came down the stairs. For once, there was no cigarette in his hand. He wrinkled his nose at the smell, and his face contorted with disgust. The girl with bangs studied his expression for a moment, and then said, “See something you like, guapo?”
“They’re here for them,” he addressed me. “The municipal people upstairs. They’re talking to Pablo. Kari, could you come upstairs with me? Come on, please?”
I followed him up the stairs onto the cobblestone street outside.
“Why are you talking to them anyway?” He ran a hand against pants, as if he was trying to wipe something dirty away.
“It’s my job,” I answered. “I have to capture the process.”
“Your mother would not be happy if she knew you were talking to prostitutes,” Rodrigo answered. “And just so you know, your job is to take pictures. You’re stepping out of line with these people.”
“Why’s that?” I retorted. “Because they’re not society?”
“Exactly!” Rodrigo insisted. “People like us aren’t supposed to befriend people like them.” He waved his hands all over, and I could see that he wasn’t just talking about the prostitutes, he was talking about all the people in La Rueda. He was talking about Lucia.
“You think you’re so much better than them, but you have absolutely no idea what their lives are like. You can’t understand what they’ve gone through. Their pain, their happiness, you know nothing!” I felt the heat in my cheeks, and my words came out in a huff.
Rodrigo snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous, Karina. You come here thinking that you’re doing these people a favor. You think that you’re helping them get ‘better lives,’ but be realistic, we’re only helping the government.”
“We are helping them,” I responded. “Lucia’s going to get more customers in her empanada shop, and we’re making the neighborhood safer, and we’re helping the local economy.”
“Oh, please!” Rodrigo shook his head. “If you go downstairs and ask any one of those putas, they’ll say that they were much better off without us sticking our heads in their business. They want to do it.”
“You’re wrong,” I insisted. “You’re so wrong. Don’t insult them.”
“You really think the government will help those girls?” Rodrigo asked. “Stop being so naïve, what we’re doing here is building an attraction for the gringo tourists, that’s all.” He turned away from me, and pulled out another cigarette. The girls came up the stairs then, escorted by the municipal officials. Pablo pretended not to see them. The girl with bangs granted me a small smile as our eyes met, and I knew she’d heard our fight. Her smile wasn’t exactly a thank you, it was more like she pitied my idealism, but appreciated my hope.
When I came back to the brothel a few weeks later, the girls’ intimate smell lingered to remind me of their young faces, barely out of childhood when I had met them. If stones could preserve memories, I was sure that these walls retained each and every one of them.
Something constricted in my throat. Breathing through my mouth, I tried to angle my camera to capture more of the narrow room with its deserted cots. I needed to move deeper into the space, but for some reason, I hesitated.
“Karina,” Rodrigo said, coming in through the wooden door. “Lucia is outside. She wants to talk to you.” He held a lit cigarette in his hand, and as he moved, ashes fell onto the floor.
I nodded once, and then walked back up the stairs onto the street outside. The day had grown gray. The wind picked up in streets, carrying litter down the sidewalk, as if it were leaves and not trash. Lucia stood by the door, holding a plastic jar filled to the brim with colada morada. The blackberry drink as thick as a smoothie, but richer in taste.
“Colada morada just like you like it,” Lucia said. “No pineapple, so your throat won’t swell up.”
“Gracias, Lucia,” I replied, taking the jar from her hands. I had never seen her without her apron.
“Tell your boss to come by my house later,” she frowned. “I need to talk to him.” There was a strange tension in the air, the street had emptied in the last hour.
Rodrigo stood a little apart from us, sucking in the last bit of his cigarette, as he tried to get ahold of Pablo on his cellphone. I took a quick sip from the jar of colada morada, while I studied the intricate facades that had grown familiar to me over the last few weeks.
El Puma was nowhere near his usual spot, under the shade of one of the balconies. The boys had all disappeared, and the street vendors were blocks away from where we stood, at the doors of the now-vacant brothel.
There was something about the silence in the street, something unusual. Lucia looked nervous, her eyes wouldn’t stop returning to Rodrigo. I could tell she was impatient for him to finish smoking.
“I think we should get in—” Lucia began to say, when a woman burst through one of the doors at the street corner. For a second, I could focus on nothing other than the large kitchen knife she brandished in one of her hands.
“Who did it?” She shrieked, shaking the knife above her head. “Who’s the hijo de puta that killed my son?”
“Vamos, Kari,” Lucia murmured, pulling at my arm. Rodrigo backed away.
The woman shook her head from left to right, while she addressed the closed shutters, and tinted windows of her neighbors. Her body trembled, and her chest puffed out air as if someone had forced her head underwater, and finally she was allowed to breath, even for a second, just as the torture began again.
“Who did it!” She repeated, even louder this time. Her face turned red, and the sound ricocheted against the walls. “Cagate en tu puta mierda! Face me you coward!”
“Karina,” Lucia whispered, with more urgency this time. She tried to drag me away again. “We need to hide, now!”
The cold light of the day glinted off the knife held in the woman’s fist, and then her eyes met mine. The woman rushed towards us, like a bull charging in the ring. Rodrigo grabbed my other arm, and in two seconds, all three of us were behind Lucia’s closed door.
We could still hear her heated screaming outside. Her steps echoed up and down the street along with her voice. Police sirens rang closer and closer to us. Lucia’s son had come down the stairs, his youthful face pale in the dim light. He studied each of us with his dark eyes. Lucia’s apron had come undone in our hurry to get inside.
“Mami,” he said, “Que pasa?”
Lucia hesitated. She eyed her son as we walked upstairs, and then explained to us, “El Puma had one of Mama Riña’s sons killed in revenge for tipping off the police about the boys.”
Lucia pulled her son into her arms, and ran her fingers through his dark hair with delicacy and swiftness, as if she were petting a cat. As if she needed to reassure herself that he was okay. Lucia’s eyes lost focus, but seemed fixed against an empty spot on the wall. I could see her planning her next step, calculating what to do with the aftermath, in the back of her head. For a few minutes none of us spoke, and my heart stopped racing.
Rodrigo and I turned out the lights in the kitchen, and we stood in silence across from each other. Our eyes met, and I could tell from Rodrigo’s expression that he had expected this to happen here, in the south side of the city, nowhere near the gated community where he lived. He had been proven right. This was nothing more than a story he would relate to his friends over and over to justify his belief that he was better than the people in Calle La Rueda. I wanted to say something about their humanity, about Lucia and her son. The young girls forced into prostitution. The candy vendor. The mother of the boy that got electrocuted. I wanted to tell him that only circumstances separated the direction of our lives. That he couldn’t understand because he had never been forced to make these decisions. That this was not just another anecdote for a cocktail party, this was real life. But I couldn’t speak.
“A fate I wish to spare my son,” Lucia whispered from the shadows.