La Frontera and the oldest profession


During the Texas gubernatorial campaign of 1990, wealthy Republican oil-man and rancher Clayton Williams was quite early enjoying a 20-point lead in the opinion polls over Democratic standard bearer Ann Williams.  But when Williams began to shoot from the hip in his public statements, his seemingly insurmountable lead slowly but surely evaporated.

During an outdoor meeting and barbecue with representatives of the media at
Williams’ west Texas ranch, a reporter remarked that it appeared as though a storm was brewing and that those at the gathering might be in for a heavy downpour.  With words that were far from being politically-correct, Williams replied, “Weather is just like rape; when it’s inevitable, just sit back and enjoy it.”

Later, at another press conference when Williams was questioned about his youth, he mentioned that a significant amount of his coming-of-age was spent in Mexican zonas de tolerancias, or better known on the US side of the border as boys towns, special areas in border towns that provide legalized prostitution and unique floor shows that have attracted Americans for almost 100 years.

As for Williams and his aspirations for the Texas governorship, Ann Richards went on to become governor, and Clayton Williams is largely forgotten, appearing only occasionally as a footnote in Texas political history.

Immediately prior to US participation in World War I, Pancho Villa’s cross-border raid on Columbus, New Mexico, prompted the deployment of an American force under the command of General John J. Pershing, which pursued Villa throughout northern Mexico.  Although Pershing never managed to apprehend Villa, the American presence in Mexico established a precedent for designated areas that would be set aside for Mexican entrepreneurs and camp-followers, such as launderers, purveyors of alcoholic drinks and promoters of prostitution.

As for the prostitutes who followed Pershing’s army, they were regularly examined by army physicians, and a standard rate for their services was arrived at.  Thus, the basis for zonas de tolerancia was set; and, at last count, at least 8 such areas exist today along Mexico’s border with the US.

The zonas, as they are called in Mexico, are seen by the municipal governments in the towns where they exist as not only a means of locating the vice-trade outside commercial centers but also of policing, controlling and enhancing the security of sex-workers, local citizens and visitors alike.

A boys town in a larger border town will typically be characterized by various levels of service, with elite establishments having the appearance of exclusive night clubs and which even provide comfortable accommodations and meals for the young women working the locations.  As a rule, these enterprises are frequented by well-to-do Mexicans and foreigners.

Less desirable brothels constitute the majority of the pay-for-sex businesses in boys towns, and are normally patronized by middle- and lower-class Mexican nationals.

Finally, free-lance prostitutes, who may be new to the area or who may be less physically desirable, sometimes rent cubicle space in structures located on the peripheries of the zonas, which they utilize for sleep during daylight hours and for the performance of their trade during the night.

Also offering services in boys towns are regular bars, restaurants, convenience stores and various small businesses catering to the needs of the community.  Present, too, will be a medical clinic providing special care for the prostitutes and a substation of the local law enforcement authority.

During a recent outing to a Mexican border town located some fifty miles from my home in Brownsville and after no little quibbling and wrangling with the management of a fairly large and officially authorized brothel located in a designated area, I was able to interview two young women working as prostitutes, “Maria” and “Monica.”

Maria gave her age as 23 and told me that she commuted to her job from Monterrey, usually arriving on Thursday morning and returning by bus to her home on Sunday evening.  She also divulged that she is a single-mom, using her earnings to support two children and her invalid mother and setting aside savings to build a house.  Maria was most emphatic that she could not expect comparable income in any other endeavor which her secondary-level education would qualify her for in business or industry in Monterrey, or in any of the maquiladoras along the border.  She also stressed that she did not find her profession disagreeable and felt safe in her working environment.

Monica, at 19 the younger of my two interviewees, informed me that she was originally from Saltillo and, in search of travel and adventure, eventually arrived at la Frontera and found legalized prostitution to be a steady source of good income.  Monica insisted that she did not plan to remain in her profession indefinitely and was saving money to ultimately cross the border to the US, where she hoped to find employment as a companion for the elderly.  In the meantime, Monica has been making it a point to sharpen her English language skills in practice with the clients she serves.

My impression of the establishment I visited was that it was clean, safe, efficiently run and regularly patrolled by the police.  The patrons that I saw in the bar area were mainly middle-aged Americans who seemed to be well-behaved and orderly in their conduct.  All in all, my visit did not coincide with any negative preconceptions that I might had about brothels.

Boys towns along the border, I believe, prompt some thought-provoking lines of reasoning.  As it now stands, with few exceptions, prostitution is an illegal activity in the US.  Accordingly, millions of dollars and untold thousands of hours are spent annually by law enforcement in what, for all practical purposes, is a fruitless effort to implement the law.  With virtually no control existing, unsavory elements, usually associated with organized crime, have found prostitution to be a highly lucrative activity.  And, along with this, many of those working in the sex-trade in the US find themselves enduring brutal treatment and inhuman living conditions, while exposing themselves and their patrons to a myriad of STDs.

It would seem that the major benefits of legalization are that, as in the boys towns of la Frontera, pay-for-sex sessions – which are inevitable in any society – may occur in managed environments, creating safety for prostitutes and clients alike, while minimizing the likelihood of contracting STDs. Certainly, the zonas de tolerancia in Mexico do not have all of the answers in how to deal with the oldest profession.  Nevertheless, their advantages clearly exceed the drawbacks of the status-quo in the US.

Byline:  John Barham, formerly a dean at the University of Texas at Brownsville, retired from the University of Missouri in 2006.  He currently divides his time between San Miguel de Allende and frequently lectures on Mexican history, culture and politics for the International Elderhostel program.