Down and dirty English

June 2, 2014


Belo Horizonte, Brazil

By Pilar Olivares

As I went chasing after “ladies of the night” (who sometimes work in the daytime too) I discovered that some of them are proud to be sex workers, almost too proud to be bothered by someone like me – a photographer looking for a good story.

I was on an assignment to take pictures of a group of prostitutes who are taking English classes once a week in preparation for the World Cup. They hope these lessons will help them communicate better with soccer fans who might use their services when they come to Brazil.

Of all my subjects, the most elusive character to photograph was Cida Vieira, the president of the Association of Prostitutes of Minas Gerais (APROSMIG), based in the southeastern Brazilian state whose capital is Belo Horizonte.

Before our first meeting I spent a whole day at the APROSMIG office just waiting for her to appear. While I was there, I saw quite a bit of activity in the small room they rent as office space, but it was mostly from women looking for condoms. They would enter, open their plastic bags, and the secretary would drop in a fistful of the little packets.

Brazilian sex worker Laura Maria do Espirito Santo (R), holds packets of condoms as she and Cida da Silva, both members of the Association of Prostitutes of Minas Gerais, attend English classes in Belo Horizonte, May 12, 2014. A group of sex workers are taking English classes to better attend to soccer fans during the 2014 World Cup. Picture taken May 12, 2014. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares (BRAZIL)

Some of the women would walk out without muttering a word after signing a paper for what they received. Others, however, would stay a while to tell anecdotes, laughing and describing the sexual fantasies of their clients in some detail.

Patricia, the secretary, is the daughter of a prostitute and also used to work as one herself. She looked at me with distrust at first, but then she started laughing at my face when she saw me react to some of the sexual tales that I heard. Once she also surprised me by lifting up her shirt and showing all of us a huge scar crossing her stomach. It looked as if she’d had major surgery, but that wasn’t it; the scar was a souvenir from a client with a knife.

APROSMIG is likely the best-organized group of sex workers in Brazil. They sponsor events, beauty pageants, and English classes, and are invited to international conferences. Lately they have been very busy responding to requests from local and international media.

Their vice-president, Laura Maria, is an enthusiastic and cheerful veteran of prostitution. Igor, their English teacher, told me she is also his best student. I enjoyed photographing her during the classes. When she speaks the new language she always ends her sentences with a chuckle.

Joking among themselves during class, these women not only learn to say “hello,” “good morning”, and recite the days of the week; they also learn erotic words and phrases that they use on the job every day.

Laura Maria asked Igor to go straight to the words they need the most, from the names of sexual organs to the very crude words that some clients demand they say.

Laura Maria also let me accompany her to her workplace – a little room she rents inside a hotel that is not necessarily for sleeping. The place is dismal and dirty, and in the hallway I not only passed men of all types, but also a parade of cockroaches.

We stopped at the front desk for the key, and the male receptionist looked at me with surprise. I wondered if he was thinking that I was Laura Maria’s client.

In the end, I figured that with the dark glasses I was wearing nobody would remember my face. I stayed for a short time to take pictures and then Laura Maria asked me to leave. She needed to work to pay her rent, and with me there nobody would come in.

Looking through my dark glasses, the men I passed in the hallway looked like wandering ghosts. From time to time a woman’s figure would peer out from a half-open doorway, as the ghosts decided which one to enter.

I left the dark hotel and returned to the Association’s office, where Patricia asked me how it went. We stood in silence for a moment and then she just laughed at my expression.

A few hours later Cida appeared and I finally got to meet her. I realized that she had no idea what Reuters was or what I was talking about when I had called her on the phone from Rio. She looked at me reluctantly and it seemed she just wanted to get rid of me.

Then she mentioned she was leaving the next day for a prostitutes’ convention in Peru, my home country. I seized the opportunity and began to talk to her about the food there, including our famous ceviche. She had never heard of it, and she doesn’t speak a word of Spanish. I hoped her new English would be useful to her on her first trip abroad.

In any case she has carried on with the lessons, and let me come back to photograph her taking part.

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