Sex Work Dynamics in Tijuana: Ethnographic Narrations of the Zona Norte and Coahuila Street

    Reception: February 3, 2021

    Acceptance: June 24, 2021


    This article presents narrations and social dynamics of the red zone or the tolerance zone in Tijuana, Baja California, which has been, for seven decades, one of the most important enclaves for sex work in the Mexico-United States border. Coahuila Street, known locally as “la Coahuila”, located in the Zona Norte, has one of the world’s most dynamic sex markets. This work presents the findings obtained after almost five decades of visiting this peculiar space by the border, and specifically, from a three-year period (2015 to 2018) in which ethnographic visits were carried out gathering narrations by sex workers, employees in establishments, users and visitors, all of whom share experiences surrounding sex work in this area. The aim is to offer a retrospective and current look at the dynamics of sex work in the Zona Norte, the diversity of actors that interact in La Coahuila, as well as narrations and descriptions on this place which is unique for the country’s sex market.

    Keywords: , , , ,

    sex work dynamics in tijuana: ethnographic narratives of the zona norte and coahuila street

    This article presents narratives and social dynamics of the red zone or the tolerance zone in Tijuana, Baja California, which has been, for seven decades, one of the most important enclaves for sex work in the Mexico-United States border. Coahuila Street, known locally as "la Coahuila", located in the North Zonehas one of the world's most dynamic sex markets. This work presents the findings obtained after almost five decades of visiting this peculiar space by the border, and specifically, from a three-year period (2015 to 2018) in which ethnographic visits were carried out gathering narrations by sex workers, employees in establishments, users and visitors, all of whom share experiences surrounding sex work in this area. The aim is to offer a retrospective and current look at the dynamics of sex work in the North Zonethe diversity of actors that interact in The Coahuilaas well as narrations and descriptions on this place which is unique for the country's sex market.

    Keywords: sex work, border, Tijuana, sex tourism, ethnography.

    Welcome to Tijuana ... where polka becomes cumbia, norteño becomes techno, mofleros are sculptors, painters are graffiti artists and culture is in the Zona Norte.

    Welcome to Tijuana
    Roberto Castillo Udiarte


    In Mexico, determining the size of the population engaged in sex work is a complicated task; despite the fact that the 2010 Population Census (inegi2010) sought to estimate the number of people engaged in this activity, the figure obtained seems to imply an underreporting, if we take into account the results obtained in the 2020 Population Census (inegi). These discrepancies are only a reflection of the complexity of this issue, particularly in terms of obtaining figures and the relationship that often exists between sex work and forced labor. The obligation imposed by some local governments regarding sanitary control registries for sex workers, with the intention of reducing the spread of various sexually transmitted diseases, is another mechanism for estimating sex work figures; however, these measures leave out all activities that are carried out clandestinely or informally.

    The complexity of addressing this issue also extends to academic spaces. In theoretical and political terms, for example, there are two positions on the conception of sex work: abolitionist and regulatory. The first advocates the elimination of sex work and denounces the exploitation it entails (Butler, 2007; Jeffreys, 2009); the second recognizes the possibilities of work and empowerment that sex work -under certain conditions- can offer women (Cedrés Ferrero, 2018; Lamas, 2016). A third debate has to do with making "transactional sex" visible, understood as that which is carried out informally by way of subsistence, without the person necessarily belonging to the market or prostitution networks (Leclerc-Madlala, 2004; Epstein, 2007). Other debates surround male prostitution and the dynamics that operate according to their gender and activities (Perlongher, 1993).

    It is not the intention of this paper to take a unique position with respect to any of these theoretical discussions, so the term "sex work" is used in this article to refer specifically to the sexual exchange between consenting adults in exchange for money. In Mexico, as in other Latin American countries, ethnographic works on prostitution are scarce; as will be described below, an important part of them are focused on public health issues and diseases associated with sexual practice, or around the analysis of male prostitution (Barrón, 1996; Cedrés Ferrero, 2018; Lamas, 2016; Perlongher, 1993; Ríos, 2003). On few occasions the voices and places of those who practice sex work, or of those who work daily around this activity, some of them as part of the circuits that operate around prostitution, such as padrotes, waiters, cab drivers, among others, are addressed.

    The observation of spaces and the ways of inhabiting them, along with the collection of accounts from sex workers, as well as informal conversations with doormen, talacheros, waiters, nannies, ex-cops and other characters in La Coahuila, allow us to use "experience as a vehicle to understand the urban" (Grimaldo, 2018), particularly when approaching the history and conformation of the Zona Norte of Tijuana from an experiential perspective.

    The projection of social reality usually generates a center-periphery relationship (Santos, 1991), and in the case of Tijuana, an important aspect of urban development since the 1950s had to do with the centrality of three elements in its social and economic horizon: the border, the Central Zone and the Northern Zone. Even today, despite the expansion of the urban sprawl and the development of industrial zones to the east of the city, this axis of the Border-Central Zone-Northern Zone represents a cartographic and symbolic base of what is assumed as "Tijuana" and its relationship with imaginaries about the border, black legends, and in general a space where some of the most important historical events have occurred.

    Methodological note

    This article was constructed from a period of long-term observation, ethnographic tours, as well as accounts provided by characters in Tijuana's Zona Norte, including doormen, talacheros, waiters, customers, and sex workers. The visit to the bars and the increasingly active presence of sex workers known as "paraditas",1 The fact that prostitution is a form of street work in the Merced neighborhood of Mexico City, made me inquire more about the origins, motives and forms of work of these women. Accessing the field was a difficult task, due to the way in which prostitution is structured around voluntary work, but above all as a result of forced labor, particularly in the case of the women who work as prostitutes. paraditas. The figure of the waiters and doormen worked as a hook to establish contact with the different sex workers and other characters that contribute with their stories in this article. It is important to mention that none of the people with whom I spoke refused to give information, although more than one session was required with each case. In general, most people were willing to tell their story anonymously and in confidence. Due to the conditions and characteristics of the places, it was difficult to obtain video or videotape recording, so we resorted to recording in field notes and different interview sessions to complement details of the experiences shared.

    For Aceves, narratives are "spaces of interdisciplinary contact and influence ... that allow, through orality, to provide qualitative interpretations of social-historical processes" (Aceves, 1994: 114). The story makes the history of the subjects more accessible, as opposed to biographical histories, where the experience can be overwhelming, or perhaps more complicated to access. An advantage of narratives is the room for maneuver they offer the researcher, since the experience of the subjects can be told in a fragmented or partial way and taken up as part of a more comprehensive reality (Mallimaci and Giménez, 2006: 176). Thus, the collection of information was carried out, specifically, under three modalities: 1. direct observation and ethnography consisting of tours of the Northern Zone and La Coahuila, inside and outside their premises; 2. conversations and personal communications with workers inside and outside their work spaces, and 3. interviews and subsequent personal communications, in order to learn about crucial aspects of their experience and work.

    Geolocation of La Coahuila in the North Zone of Tijuana

    The Zona Norte is the tolerance zone present in the imagination of the city's inhabitants, but also of many national and foreign tourists; located between the border with the United States and Tijuana's downtown area, its heart lies along Coahuila Street -La Coahuila- and Callejón Coahuila. Although the North Zone and La Coahuila have several access points, it is common to reach it through First Street, right where the monumental clock is located, which, due to its design, has entered Tijuana's imaginary as the cut-out symbol of the famous McDonalds golden arches. The statue of the patron saint of musicians serves as a reference point for dozens of mariachis and norteño bands that offer their services. Half a dozen bars stand out for the communities. lgbttiqThe historic Hotel Nelson is also located nearby. One block further on, Primera Street, between Revolución and Constitución Avenues, offers the passerby a series of bars, dance halls, billiards and old hotels. Some of these places were remodeled during the first decade of the new millennium, such as the Río Verde or the emblematic El Fracaso, a dance hall with a jukebox and three dozen women waiting for an "invitation" to dance, considering that each dance costs one dollar. In this same place it is also common to find "paraditas" with rates a little lower than those of other places, since it is a place frequented by working class people. In contrast to these bars, the Red Dragon is visible, a bar aimed at a younger population with different types of income and cultural consumption, although in recent years this space has been adopted by followers of the metal and rock genres. Continuing along First Street to the west, the next two blocks offer "paraditas" of older ages, as well as the transvestite and transsexual area. Turning at the corner of Calle Primera and Calle Constitución, and only 500 meters from the international border, begins the descent - symbolic and literal - into the heart of the Zona Norte: La Coahuila. On this threshold is where two iconic places of Tijuana's nightlife are located: El Taurino and the Zacazonapan bar (now relocated); the former known as the city's first gay bar, with a cowboy theme and strippers dancing on the bar; the second, nearly 40 years old, became a reference point for urban subcultures in its last period. The Zacaz, as it is still popularly known in its new location, was a basement with wooden walls and poor lighting, adorned with photographs of Bob Marley, the Beatles and other cultural icons. popgenerated an atmosphere of underground The event was a place of collectivity, mediated by the open consumption of drugs, alcohol and a diverse musical repertoire, and also served as a resting place for some of the dancers from the strip clubs in the zone. The contrast between El Taurino and El Zacazonapan, both in terms of activities and target public, speaks of the diversity of spaces and tastes in the Northern Zone.. The closure of the Zacazonapan bar in 2019 disintegrated the daily lives of many young people and regular visitors of all ages and opened the door to the gentrification of this space. Zacaz was relocated in 2020 to Seventh Street, between Revolucion and Madero Avenues, in the downtown area, within another circuit of bars with diverse themes and styles, covering at least three blocks between Sixth and Seventh Streets.

    Map 1. Demarcation of the sex tourism zone in Zona Norte Tijuana; the blue line represents the Coahuila alley. Source: Own elaboration.

    The descent to La Coahuila is also diverse in all aspects: the facades of the stores along this stretch reflect different periods in the history of the area. Among taquerias and food outlets, such as Kentucky Fried Buches and Birriería Guadalajara, there are also hairdressers, grocery stores, liquor stores, telephone booths and clothing stores. In addition, distributed in the outskirts of 15 hotels and restaurants, up to 50 "paraditas" offer their services to all those who circulate along this street. One of the most notorious bars in this stretch, for being a modern construction and having a joint hotel, is La Malquerida, formerly known as La Charrita Bar. This place marks the beginning of Coahuila Alley. Continuing along Constitución Street, different bars and "gentlemen's clubs" come into view; among them are places like La Gloria, which has extensive dance floors and tropical music, ficheras and dancers for hire. Across Coahuila Street, all that remains of the Molino Rojo is its striking sign that adorns the public parking lot it has become. Across the street is the emblematic Chicago, with restaurant, attached hotel and about a hundred girls, which competes against the most popular places like Hong Kong and Las Adelitas..

    Coahuila, as the main street of the Zona Norte, also offers contrasts: to begin with, it has the main bars and the most striking hotels in the area today, such as Hong Kong, Las Adelitas and Las Chavelas, alternating with hotels, boutiques erotic shops, exclusive food places and a "Christian" temple. Continuing along this street in a westerly direction, places that were once famous, such as the Manhattan and the New York, are now closed; hotels and a couple of cantinas persist, among them the As Negro. To the east, towards Revolucion Avenue, there are lower class bars and erotic clothing stores, sexshops and old hotels. Coahuila Alley, between First Street and Coahuila Street, bounded by Constitución Avenue and Niños Héroes Street, attracts attention because of the presence of more than one hundred "paraditas", distributed along its 140 meters of length. Alone or in small groups, between casual and scantily clad, the "paraditas" serve as a less expensive preamble to what the bars and clubs offer in terms of women and sexual consumption, considering that places like the Hong Kong and Las Chavelas have several access doors in this part of the area. In this space there is also an Oxxo, small food places and a casino and gambling house of the Caliente franchise.

    Map 2. Some bars, brothels and hotels in the vicinity of Coahuila alley, located between Coahuila and Primera streets. Source: own elaboration.

    Old bars such as El Burro and La Carreta still survive in this alleyway, although it is evident that cuarterías, hotels and other bars have had to modernize in order to remain competitive among increasingly diverse audiences. One more contrast in the glamour The main feature of La Coahuila is the presence of neglected premises that serve as a shelter for drug dealers, known as "tiradores", who shout "How many, how many? Towards the end of the alley, in the direction of Niños Heroes Avenue, bars and clubs seem to adapt to a less demanding and lower income public. At the same time, there is a tendency for the owners of large and famous places to acquire some of these venues in order to remodel them and convert them into vertical spaces more attractive to higher-income audiences. Thus, the Northern Zone is in a phase of gentrification This has occurred gradually and steadily since the first decade of the new century, as has been the case in other parts of the central region.

    Gay bars and transgender workers

    Behind the Tijuana Cathedral and to the west, on First Street, two streets became the preferred space for transsexuals and transvestites. Standing on the corners or outside several hotels, such as Mi Oficina and La Perla, these workers used to offer their services night and day; their outlandish costumes, masculine voice and, in some cases, body modifications gave them a distinctive component that separated them from the rest of the sex workers. The approach they used with the client was more aggressive, with shouts, whistles and insinuations with their bodies to attract attention. It is important to mention that some of these workers were addicted to drugs. At the end of the nineties and during the first years of the first decade of the new century xxibars like the Noa Noa served as a refuge for them, allowing them to change their wardrobe, touch up their make-up, or escape the street for a while. Ten years ago, the number of transsexual transvestite workers was numerous, and there was strong competition on the streets. Today, only a couple of dozen are visible working day and night.

    Map 3. In red, area of gay bars and brothels in the Northern Zone; in blue, the corridor where transsexual and transvestite workers are located. Source: Prepared by the authors.

    A characteristic of the eastern part of the Zona Norte was the multitude of bars called "de mala muerte" in the nightlife caló; towards the western part is located the passage of the Santa Cecilia square, flanked by a giant clock and the historic Nelson Hotel. In this square are located places like the dfthe Ranchero and the Hawaii, three very unique gay bars. Performing a cruising by El Ranchero, an informant shared his perception of visitors to this site:

    most of the attendees here are posons (you know, if she doesn't think she's Beyoncé, she thinks she's Thalia); the predominance of the jotitas There is a bit of everything (as in the vineyard of the Lord): from "mayates", who will go with you for a few bucks, to the "musculocas", you know, those gym girls, very marked and toned. Oh, there are also the "potranquitas", who are the typical "machines", bearded and with well marked biceps, but as soon as they walk around farting, they sprout the Ana Barbara (Commander Pink, personal communication, June 2015).

    Some of these places had "dark rooms", used for anonymous sexual relations, so that the constant glances among the attendants were an additional component to the services offered by the bar workers that could lead to a flirtation. Other spaces for this type of activity were the bathrooms of the bars, where young men could be found performing oral sex on older men.

    Two decades later, almost at the beginning of the Santa Cecilia square and next to the monumental clock, Las Cabinas was installed: a sexshop disguised, with double bottoms in the back, with booths and dark rooms where for eighty pesos one was allowed access and could wander through the corridors to do whatever the client wanted sexually. It is imprecise to define the number of clandestine sites for these activities in the Northern Zone.

    The universe of sex work in the Northern Zone: doormen, waiters, "talacheros", "nanas" and hairdressers

    People working inside Zona Norte bars - waiters, "talacheros", doormen, "nanas", makeup artists and hairdressers - can work under two schemes: as fixed minimum wage workers with tips, or as self-employed workers who must contribute a daily fee to the venue's managers.

    The doorman, in addition to acting as the first filter for the entry and exit of clients, also keeps track of the sex workers' income and expenses by means of a logbook. This position is considered a prestigious position, due to the economic responsibility it entails.

    Waiters can be fixed or rotating; while there are some bars that have a very large and rotating staff, others have small but fixed staffs. There are bars that prefer to have female waiters and others that only employ men. Waiters are paid a fixed salary for twelve-hour shifts five days a week. Some of them receive between $80 and $150 in tips. The "talachero" acts as the cleaner, but also has the function of running errands, for which he receives tips.

    Figures such as "the nanny" play an essential role in the most famous places: from selling clothes, food and cigars, to taking care of lockersThe "nannies" are also provided with a variety of services, such as combs or brushes, cell phone recharging, and sanitary towels, among others. For the "nannies", the dressing room and bathroom area becomes their area of operation: hooks with clothes, towels, etc. sexyThe "nana" also has to pay the manager a daily fee in order to be able to work. The "nana" must also pay the manager a daily fee in order to work.

    Since a few years ago, the most famous bars in the Northern Zone started to hire make-up artists and stylists to improve the "production" level of the girls through professional make-up and hairstyling services. Although the hiring occurs at the request of the bar, each service must be covered by the girls who use it. Also, stylists and makeup artists must pay a daily fee to continue working at these locations.

    Sex workers

    The sex work market can be divided into two main categories: those who have been victims of trafficking and those who freely decide to work in this activity, whether on a casual, temporary or permanent basis. With respect to the first category of people who work through trafficking, an important reference point are the women who work in the streets and alleys of the Merced neighborhood in Mexico City, through forms of exploitation exercised by their partners or family members. Many of them come from the states of Puebla and Tlaxcala, but also from Hidalgo, Veracruz, the State of Mexico and Guerrero. In Tijuana, this experience began to be visible during the 1970s and became more prominent in the following decades. Barrón (1996) illustrates the development of sex work in the streets of the Zona Norte, as well as the attempts of mobilization and organization of some of these women to protect themselves from police repression during the 1990s.

    The "paraditas" began to become more visible during the 1990s. The term, which refers to sex workers who offer their services openly on the streets, originated decades ago, when La Coahuila began to become a space where some women temporarily offered low-priced sexual services in the busiest streets of the Northern Zone. These women resorted to this activity for two reasons: to cover their expenses and their children's living expenses, or to provide money to their partners to buy drugs (Mr. Venegas, personal communication, 2020).

    The number of "paraditas" began to rise with the establishment of "cuarterías" and transient hotels. In addition to offering a place with the basic elements for these women's work, such as a bed and a chair, these places tended to operate at low prices and for short periods of time. The spaces assigned to these workers were agreed upon verbally between the people who owned the space, usually the business owners, a supposed municipal authority and the padrotes. The "paraditas" began to settle outside bars, hotels and other businesses that served as their workplace.

    Although there have been variations in terms of the component and number of "paraditas", they constitute a heterogeneous group in terms of age, complexions and backgrounds. In the mid-1990s, Barrón characterized the "paraditas" in terms of age and place of origin among other characteristics (Barrón, 1996). Currently, this population numbers around 400 workers in the streets of the Northern Zone. According to information obtained during fieldwork, the "paraditas" work ten to twelve hour shifts and have daily quotas established by the padrote, which they call "entregar la cuenta" (handing over the bill). The amounts fluctuate from 1,500 to 3,000 pesos per day. These workers usually rent apartments or rooms in old hotels and buildings in the downtown area, sometimes on a seasonal basis.

    Maria is a "paradita" who came to Tijuana brought by her husband-daddy, although she is originally from a town in Veracruz; she and her husband met in Mexico City. They soon became sweethearts; months later, he began to have economic problems and asked her to look for opportunities on the border. Upon arriving in Mexico City, Maria says that her husband's financial problems were so bad that he asked her to work in La Coahuila, with the idea that it would be temporary:

    My first day at work was horrible, I wanted to run away but I had to support my man ... after a couple of weeks everything started to change and the money came in; I started to like clothes, telephones, and I changed my appearance, I started to wear more daring clothes, you know, to teach ... you learn to look for the client, to convince him, to make him happy and leave you more money; you offer more services, that is the life of many of us who are here (María, 23 years old, personal communication).

    Although there seems to be consensus that most women who commercialize sex do so for economic reasons in contexts of marked social inequalities (Lim, 1998), there are also those who enter the sector to pay off personal or family debts. They are usually induced or seduced by someone close to them: a boyfriend, husband, family member or friend. Fernanda, for example, who began her work at Las Chavelas bar, came to Tijuana recommended by a friend who also lived in Acaponeta, Nayarit. She decided to move to Baja California to pay off a debt she owed:

    You're left with the idea that you're never going to go back to this, but when you need money your ideas or plans can change. That's the truth. I came to work in the bars here for a special reason, because I was "drugged out".2 with a Coppel credit card; I bought a bed and a closet and then I couldn't figure out how to pay for them. I was paid very little per week where I worked, that was decent over there. The first trip I made to Tijuana I stayed about ten days. I didn't sleep, and if I lasted so many days it was because I couldn't go home alone. For me it wasn't just the first day that was difficult, it was all of them. What bothered me the most was that there were men who wanted to grope you or take you up to the room. The truth is that I never dared to do that. Here in the bar you see a lot of ugly things, but you put up with it. The second trip was calmer because I knew what I could do. In the end I was able to return to Acaponeta and pay my debt with Coppel. The only bad thing is that the friend who brought me "burned me",3 gossiped4 that I worked in a bar, but I denied everything ... it was known that women who traveled to Tijuana ended up becoming whores ... I held my pride, maybe I betrayed my morals, but I did not let any man put his hand on me (Fernanda, 23 years old, personal communication).

    Although in the minority, there are other women who sell sex to obtain supplementary economic resources while they study. There are also minority situations of young women who sell sex to maintain a high standard of living and consume luxury items; some others do it as an expression of their sexual liberation and others as a rational economic decision based on costs and benefits.

    I come from Hermosillo and I study accounting at the University of unison and to help me I work in a hotel ... because I am single and my parents are separated ... as I have to pay for my school and buy my things on the side, I like to dress well, to be fashionable. I come to give it when I go on vacation; you know what you come for, that's all. Every night the same thing, get ready before going down to the bar, then sign up with the doorman and wait nine hours, that's how long the day lasts. Many times it's the waiters who move you, other times it's the customers who talk to you. I'm very lucky because the men look for me, not me for them; some to chat, dance and drink, others urgently want to go up to the room. Some haggle over the price, but I charge a fixed $100, plus $20 for the room. Anyway, the thirty minutes go by fast. Sometimes I stay here for ten days, the longest I've lasted is two weeks. I go back to Hermosillo by plane, and with a good amount of money I have earned, good clothes and the payment of tuition I am not short (Liz, 21 years old, personal communication).

    Traditionally, voluntary sex work routes come from the states of the North Pacific region, i.e. Nayarit, Sinaloa and Sonora, but also visible are those originating in the states of the Center-West and Center-North: Zacatecas, Jalisco, Querétaro, Guanajuato and Michoacán, not to mention Mexico City and the State of Mexico.

    Age is an important factor that defines this sector: younger workers have a better chance of getting paid in the higher-end sex work sites, although there are also older women who, using the experience factor, manage to earn higher incomes than younger women. It is not possible to say that there is a single cause that explains why certain types of women end up as sex workers in the Northern Zone. According to the accounts provided by the workers, it was found that most of the non-street workers obtain information about this type of work through family members, friends and neighbors; Crystal's case is associated with this type of situation:

    I come from Guaymas, here I fell by fate. I had a partner with whom I had a baby, but everything started to go wrong because he got into drugs. In the end that ended; I became very depressed and ended up anorexic. After a year, some friends who were visiting me took me out of the house and convinced me to come with them to Tijuana. They just told me I would be fine, so I left my baby with my mom. I arrived at the bar and took it as a party, men wanting to conquer you, free beer and music to dance to. Here they offered me a room, free food and everything. The ugliest thing that happened to me was meeting a "plebe" from the high school I was in. We saw each other and recognized each other, but we automatically pretended we had never looked at each other before. It was a coincidence (Crystal, 20 years old, personal communication).

    There are also cases of other women who were brought there by recruiters, who usually contact them in their places of origin through networks of friends, offering them transportation, lodging and the expectation of a good income:

    Here in Culiacán it was common for a padrote to show up and offer you a job in Tijuana. He would gather six "morras" and come to Tijuana, he was offered a little money for each girl he brought. He offered transportation, lodging and food. Obviously, he would look for the youngest girls, preferably hot ones. He didn't tell you that you were coming to work as a whore, but we all knew what we were coming for. At the bar you were free. Competition and envy among "morras" was not lacking, but there was always work. Some days you did better with the chips, others with the rooms (Tania, 26 years old, personal communication).

    Some of these businesses establish a written agreement with the sex worker, so that they are obliged to serve a minimum time equivalent to two weeks, otherwise they have to reimburse all travel and living expenses incurred. Not all of the newly arrived women were obliged to offer sexual services: some of them earn their income only as escorts or ficheras.

    From Hong Kong to Black Ace: economic and recreational contrasts in the Northern Zone

    Part of the contrasts that occur in the Zona Norte have to do with the income level, ages, personal tastes, type of music preferred and place of origin of customers, whether local or foreign. A wide repertoire of options can be found in the Zone, making it an attractive and diverse space. Some old bars and cantinas from the seventies still prevail among customers who bring just enough money to pay for a caguama (a bottle of beer of almost a liter), to those who have the luxury of inviting to their table a "damita", a term used to refer to the ficheras, that is, women who charge for their company in the bars.

    El Indio is one of those old bars that survive, despite appearing empty; with a peeling wooden bar that is almost falling down from old age, old posters and faded paper flowers, plus an altar dedicated to the Santo Niño de Atocha, make the pool table and the unique jukebox not look so lonely. On the other hand, at La Malquerida the atmosphere starts after midnight, with live music almost continuously. Girls on the central dance floor or dancing at the bar, holding on to shiny metal pipes, accompany visitors so they don't spend the night alone. A beer for a girl costs eight dollars, ten if it is a drink, plus a dollar tip. The girls interviewed mentioned the existence of a strategy so that the beer or drink they are invited to have is substituted by a non-alcoholic drink, a "chile" in native terms; the waiters and the girls are aware of this method. Almost across the street from La Malquerida survive two locals who seem to function as table danceThe bars are usually empty, but at the entrance there are scantily clad girls with angry faces. A few steps ahead is La Valentina, a huge and dark place compared to the other bars in the area, with wooden furniture and red armchairs, as well as a very large dance floor. This place boasts of being the cleanest place in the Zona Norte: its dance floors, bathrooms and hallways look spotless. Outside La Valentina, haulers offer beautiful girls, good variety and beers at 2×1, as there is usually strong competition with other businesses. In front of this place you can see La Carreta, a bar that offers a certain sordidness: women who aren't doing show on stage appear seated on chairs or at the bar, displaying a variety of tattoos that may be indicative of a difficult past, a sign of attachment to a loved one, or a trivial taste. The make-up is usually excessive, sometimes trying to hide the hard life they have led, linked to addictions. This place concentrates a high number of women with addiction problems or with partners with addiction problems.

    Thirty meters from La Carreta are Las Chavelas and Hong Kong, two of the most popular places. Before being allowed to enter, the client is forced to undergo a body search to prevent the entry of weapons. Las Chavelas (photo 1), considered the palace of northern music, is spacious and airy. It has two large bars, a stage for concerts and a private room area. It is said that this place once had the most beautiful and select women in the area. Even if it is a Wednesday night, the day is special because live norteño music groups perform. The place is packed, with no less than the famous group Los Cadetes de Linares, alternating with the group Sentenciados. The whole atmosphere is festive: the tables and the bar are full. What the waiters recommend to get into the mood is to settle down at a table to seat an attractive girl. Customers must also choose between ordering a bucket of beer or a half bucket of beer, depending on their budget. Each bucket costs eighty dollars, of which the girl receives ten tokens, and at the end of the day she can collect her commission. At the time of this tour, there were about a hundred women in the bar available for drinks and dancing. If the type of music or the girls at Las Chavelas didn't convince you, you could go to the bar next door, the Hong Kong, owned by the same owner. Both places share the four-story, 100-plus room Hotel Cascadas, which costs $100 a night or $18 for a 30-minute time with a girl from either bar.

    Hong Kong has different scenarios that allow it to advertise itself as an exclusive and high level place. The recommendation made by customers is to be careful with the wallet, because money tends to vanish fast. Each drink for a girl costs nine dollars, and a bucket 90 dollars. The girls at the bars and in the aisles ask for a voluntary contribution of one dollar; if you want to touch them more times, you must take out more dollars. The shows are a visual attraction for visitors and visitors alike. voyeuristsTo be able to sit at the foot of these runways requires a lot of bills and a willingness to be soaked by the foam and water. Throughout three levels, tracks and small private rooms, the play of lights and reggaeton serve as a backdrop for the parade of more than a hundred women displaying their bodies, fully or partially naked. "On a typical safari night in Hong Kong many things can happen, especially that you run out of the money you had in your wallet" (casual conversation with a customer, October 2016).

    Photo 1. Regular customer at Las Chavelas bar in the Zona Norte of Tijuana. Source: Guillermo Arias, 2009.

    Across the street from the Hong Kong is another business of the same chain, El Tropical, a bar with more than three decades of history. It is said that, before looking like a modern and shiny place, the premises where this bar is located looked dark and dilapidated. The Tropical has a space for 300 customers; 30 waiters and about 100 girls keep the place moving. The atmosphere is festive, customers of various ages and nationalities arrive ready to have a good time. Filipinos usually arrive in groups from Los Angeles and San Diego, California; some are skilled at dancing and tend to be very jealous of the girls. They are quick to learn to speak Spanish and like to brag about their apparent profession: it is common for them to claim to be doctors or engineers, although this may be a lie, according to the girls who shared their stories. Asian clients generally prefer women with fair skin and slim builds. Korean clients tend to show up more frequently on weekends; many of them work as technical personnel for maquiladora companies in Tijuana and San Diego. Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese also circulate; in their case there is a mechanism of linking these types of places in La Coahuila with those they know in their home countries. Several girls also commented that these clients like to fall in love with them, regardless of whether they are fleeting loves. None of them can predict how the night will end: while for some it will go very well, for others it will not even be enough to pay for lodging, food or debts for clothes, shoes, perfumes or cosmetics they have with the "nana". Due to the large number of women working in these types of places, the companies that operate them have been forced to build or adapt more rooms in the hotels.

    In the North Zone, the old saying that "there's always something wrong with every wrong" is true; in addition to ostentatious places such as the Hong Kong or the Adelitas (photo 2), spaces of lesser visual importance -such as the As Negro- are maintained by the continuous flow of patrons who enjoy the "traditional" cantina experience: gambling and alcohol, with a minimal presence of women and music by artists such as Chalino Sanchez, Los Tigres del Norte and Ramon Ayala. These spaces serve as evocative of bygone eras, when the gentrification and diversification were limited.

    There are places with different target audiences, although the most emblematic place in the Zona Norte is still Hong Kong; two bars capable of competing with it are Las Adelitas and El Chicago. Paradoxically, Las Adelitas is next to a Christian temple. Although it is an old bar, the Adelitas has been transformed into a space where "bad girls" become seductive ladies; at the entrance of the bar there is an image of an "adelita" dressed in red and white revolutionary clothes, with a revolutionary hat and a shotgun in hand (photo 3). One aspect that stands out in this place is the large number of women who have undergone cosmetic surgery, be it breast augmentation, liposculpture, or facial surgery, among others. The penetrating looks of the Adelitas' hostesses replace what words can express. A long line of women in the aisles showing their voluptuous bodies announces that desires and fantasies can be within the client's reach, it is only a matter of agreeing on a price or a fee. In his novel Full moon on the rockswriter Xavier Velasco gives us a vivid portrait of this place. Another experience similar to the Adelitas is El Chicago, a memorable site in the imagination of pachucos, rockers and bikersalthough it has been recently transformed to offer a daring visual spectacle for the clients. This place also has a hotel service to facilitate the work and consumption of sexual services.

    Photo 2. Sex worker in Las Adelitas, one of the main bars in the Zona Norte. Source: Guillermo Arias, 2012.

    Chicago represents the border of La Coahuila to the north, separated only by two blocks from the border with the United States. These blocks are occupied by old and neglected hotels, dilapidated neighborhoods and buildings, and small commercial establishments serving a floating population of street vendors, garbage collectors, drug dealers, drug users and families living in impoverished conditions. Towards the international border, two types of landscapes capture the passerby's attention: a bridge leading to the El Chaparral and San Ysidro checkpoints and, on the other hand, towards the sea, the border fence, made up of two parallel ten-meter-high steel and concrete walls. These barriers are equipped with the latest surveillance and security technology: 24-hour lighting, video cameras with night and thermal vision, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) ground and air units.cbp).

    Photo 3. The presence of police forces in the Northern Zone is constant. Source: Guillermo Arias, 2010.

    Differences between local, national and foreign customers

    Part of the local clientele are construction workers, journeymen, contractors, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers and maquiladora operators; also technicians, professionals and small and medium-sized businessmen. Among the national clientele are professionals and executives who visit the city for work purposes, but also Mexican vacationers who, given Tijuana's reputation for nightlife, end up in the Zona Norte. Without a doubt, the work offered by the "paraditas" became an easy and simple way to satisfy the sexual needs of clients with a low budget, compared to what they would have to pay in the closed spaces; the difference could represent four to five times between one place and the other. Although the "paraditas" charged little, at the end of the day a padrote could receive between 3,000 and 5,000 pesos per day, an amount that in a week could represent an income of up to 30,000 pesos, not to mention that some could have more than one woman working for them.

    The growth of the Asian population in Southern California brought with it an increase in their visibility in the bars and nightclubs of Tijuana's Zona Norte: hundreds of Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Thais influenced the sexual offerings and the subsequent modernization of some places in the city, in order to emulate the tolerance zones of cities such as Manila, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. The spending they were able to do made them preferred customers for the businesses. The attraction of these people for the bars, particularly for the female workers, was undoubtedly their economic capacity in comparison with the Mexican client. Anglo customers represent a wide variety of ages, social groups and income levels. They visit Tijuana alone, in couples or in groups of friends, and may spend hours, stay a night or a couple of days. The regular flow of international clients makes places like Hong Kong a truly cosmopolitan space.

    With the sanitary restrictions put in place to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic in covid-19, the local authorities decreed the closure of bars and nightclubs, a situation that forced the various businesses in the Zona Norte to adapt, simulating their closure by literally closing their main doors. In order to solve this contingency and not suffer economic losses or fines from the authorities, the services of places such as Hong Kong, Las Adelitas and El Chicago began to be offered directly in their hotel rooms, out of public view. Although the border between Mexico and the United States was partially closed, prohibiting the entry of Mexicans with tourist visas to the neighboring country, the restrictions for foreigners entering Mexico were completely null; this allowed the flow of people in La Coahuila and its surroundings to continue unabated, mainly conformed by American and Asian tourists. One of the factors that contributed to give visibility and publicity to this new clandestine modality were the social networks, since through platforms such as Reddit, people interested in this type of services were able to learn that Hong Kong, for example, operated on the seventh floor of the Hotel Cascadas, where all the rooms in that section were open and interconnected for the almost normal operation of this iconic place.

    Final thoughts

    One of the most prolific sex markets in the world is located in the northern corner of Mexico and is an indisputable reality. Although the descriptions and narratives presented in this work extend as far as the processes of modernization and gentrification In the Northern Zone, trying to emulate the sex districts of cities in Europe and Southeast Asia, there are new dynamics around tourism and sex work that have not been addressed. Since 2008, with the boom of social networks and the arrival of the smartphonesAs a result, people began to integrate their daily lives with the virtual and digital world. The Internet became part of people's daily lives; part of this socialization inevitably encompassed the sexual realm. While some people focused their creative efforts on developing websites and applications dedicated to finding partners or dating, others took advantage of the possibilities not only to offer sexual services but also to provide authentic virtual guides to sex work: from pages dedicated to describing how to get to La Coahuila and avoid being scammed -or worse, robbed-, to forums where women in the Zona Norte were meticulously reviewed by their clients, so that future consumers could have a realistic notion about their expectations; thus, on portals such as Yelp, commonly used to review restaurants and businesses, reviews began to appear and tips on places in La Coahuila such as Hong Kong, Adelitas and El Chicago, among others. These businesses opened their own pages Webfeaturing photo galleries with the girls of the month and offering a registration for events and memberships. vip.

    At the same time, websites such as mileróticos, locanto, adultguia and sustitutas, among others, began to use the word "mileróticos". escort to try to remove the stigma from words such as prostitute, whore, prepaid, among others. The virtual world expanded the sexual market and allowed workers to provide their services outside the traditional places and even without necessarily having to have a representative in the middle. Dating applications such as Tinder, Bumble and Grindr began to be used by people who, under the cover of looking for a date, offered their sexual services after having established an initial contact.

    At the same time, internationally renowned virtual communities, such as Reddit, began to have sections where they actively discussed not only places in La Coahuila, but also girls who worked directly in those clubs and escorts of pages such as those mentioned above. The massification of Youtube and the phenomenon of the youtubers and influencers on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram allowed the appearance of guided video tours through the accounts of different tourists visiting Tijuana and, specifically, La Coahuila, which gave greater exposure to the area, in addition to the possibility of touring its alleys and observing the "paraditas" virtually.

    This new stage, in addition to providing greater visibility and bringing the world of La Coahuila closer to globalized spaces, opened the market to new participants, including students, professional women and those in search of an extra income or a higher standard of living, as in the case of women in search of a higher standard of living, as in the case of women in search of a higher standard of living, as in the case of women in search of a higher standard of living. sugar babiesThis expansion of the market and the new technologies also allowed for the emergence of the phenomenon of the "whorehouse" phenomenon, referring to women who exchange sexual favors for economic benefits from people with high purchasing power. This expansion of the market and new technologies also allowed for the emergence of the phenomenon of the "sex trade". camgirlsor pages such as Onlyfans, girls who, by means of a camera Web can offer different sexual services or perform live broadcasts in exchange for dollars, cryptocurrencies or different items from pages such as Amazon, eBay or MercadoLibre. The phenomenon of camgirls and sites such as Onlyfans has sparked a new debate on the recovery of sex work by female workers and female empowerment through the free exercise and enjoyment of their bodies - alone or with their partners - in exchange for substantial earnings.

    Finally, beyond the new forms and directions that sex work seems to take in recent years, the debate on the conception of prostitution as work or exploitation should not overlook the context of high violence in Mexico, which has increased since the last three presidential six-year terms. Despite efforts to destigmatize sex work, it is evident that a completely vertical hierarchical structure continues to operate, with little room for action for the women involved: beyond the breaks, freedoms and privileges that women in places like Hong Kong, the Adelitas or the Chavelas, compared to the "paraditas", the risk of violence is always present depending on the context, the periods and the other actors involved in the circuits and modalities of sex work. Even with such a scenario, this type of work and all the actors involved are still present in the daily life of this space, which makes of the North Zone an emblematic place that constantly seems to renew itself.


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    Alberto Hernandez Hernandez D. in Sociology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Professor-Researcher attached to the Department of Public Administration Studies (deap) of El Colegio de la Frontera Norte and a member of the sni (level iii). He was coordinator of the project Multilevel policies for the return and reintegration of Mexican migrants and their family members (2018-2019), carried out by El Colef under the auspices of the National Human Rights Commission (cndh). Among his publications are the books Bridges that unite and walls that separate. Borderization, securitization and processes of change in the borders of Mexico and Brazil. (coordinator; in press); Changing creed in contexts of mobility: the interconnections between migration and religious change, Alberto Hernández, Liliana Rivera Sánchez and Olga Odgers Ortiz (coord.) El Colef / Colmex (2017); Lines, limits and boundaries. A look at the borders from Latin AmericaAlberto Hernández and Amalia E. Campos (coord.), Colef/, Colef/.ciesas (2014); the author's book Northern Border: Scenarios of Religious Diversity, El Colef/Colmich (2013).

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    EncartesVol. 6, No. 12, September 2023-February 2024, is an open access digital academic journal published biannually by the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, Calle Juárez, No. 87, Col. Tlalpan, C. P. 14000, México, D. F., Apdo. Postal 22-048, Tel. 54 87 35 70, Fax 56 55 55 76, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, A. C.., Carretera Escénica Tijuana-Ensenada km 18.5, San Antonio del Mar, No. 22560, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, Tel. +52 (664) 631 6344, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente, A.C., Periférico Sur Manuel Gómez Morin, No. 8585, Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, Tel. (33) 3669 3434, and El Colegio de San Luis, A. C., Parque de Macul, No. 155, Fracc. Colinas del Parque, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Tel. (444) 811 01 01. Contact: Director of the journal: Ángela Renée de la Torre Castellanos. Hosted at Responsible for the last update of this issue: Arthur Temporal Ventura. Date last modified: September 21, 2023.