Shades of Iris

Iris and Angeli at the Alameda de Hércules / KAMILAH SMITH

Iris works and lives in the Alameda de Hércules, where she’s respected by her neighbors. In the meantime, the local government tries to eradicate all forms of sexual trade.

Standing at about five feet ten inches with raven black hair, a few grey strands peaking out at the hairline, her thick eyebrows and deep oak brown eyes unwavering as her full red-stained lips open, Iris proclaims: “When you die, you die. Period.”

“Hell is this,” she says, looking out toward the orange trees and cars in the distance. “This is hell. After you’re born, you’re living in hell,” she says in a frank, even voice as her dark eyes stare straight ahead. As she describes her life, her face and voice remain even, her pitch unvarying
except when she laughs or becomes passionate.

She motions her hand in circles while describing her day-to-day: she wakes up, puts on her clothes and makeup, makes her bed, prepares her breakfast and eats it out in the street
where she will start her day’s work.

“I’m transsexual, okay? I took courses for working at a hotel, as a hostess, and I ended up in prostitution,” she says. “Right now, the moment isn’t appropriate and we’re in a crisis, not
only in Spain, but in the world. So, a person has to keep working in things that aren’t pleasant.
And with me, it isn’t pleasant. But I have to eat, and you gotta pay to eat and to live.”

Iris: a thin circular membrane that encloses the pupil, which controls the amount of light that enters the retina, comes in various shades and colors. And so, Iris juxtaposes the various shades of her identity and phases of her life as a transwoman prostitute.

She bashfully chuckles and her eyes widen as if to ask if she really has to say her age. 34 years old, she moved from Cádiz when she was about 20 and now the Alameda de Hércules in Seville is her neighborhood. Characterized by its restaurants, bars and clubs, children at play accompanied by their distracted parents, modern fountains, a few decadent houses, and two grand columns—removed in the 18th century from the ruins of a Roman temple in order to serve as pedestals for the statutes of Julius Cesar and Hercules—this is the space that Iris navigates on a daily basis, a few meters from her spot at the intersection of Joaquín Costa and La Mata streets.

“The Alameda has a lot of character, and lots of single guys too. There are all of these famous bullfighters and flamenco singers and dancers who lived here.” She describes the neighborhood as forever-moving. Lines appear around her cheeks as she laughs at the fact that she can’t sleep from the non-stop noise.

Her family doesn’t live with her in the Alameda, but she talks to them often and has a good relationship with her mother and siblings.

“I call her to ask how she’s doing, and for recipes. My mom doesn’t like to cook, but she had to learn. She had to learn because, obviously, she had seven kids.” She smiles and shrugs. Though she still chats with her mother, Iris admits that since she started to change from man to woman her mother hasn’t been there for her in the way she needed and wanted. And with an intake of breath and flat voice she utters, “But I continue forward,” she says as she sighs. “I continue forward,” she repeats.

However, Iris is certainly not alone.

“There are good neighbors here, here good neighbors, here good neighbors. Over there, over there,” she echoes as she points to various apartments on the street and to José Luis Romero’s restaurant, at the end of La Mata street. In the midst of these good neighbors, Iris has received some ugly looks or people “looking over their shoulders, typical stuff.” But she respects those who respect her, affirming with a nod of her head. The majority of them greet her, although some tend to be friendlier or more suggestive than others. For example, the many catcalls to which she responds with a smile or a laugh.

“She’s really appreciated around here, at the bakery, at the pharmacy, at the grocery store, everyone likes her. Go ask,” says José Luis, busy at the counter of his haute cuisine restaurant a mere 30 meters away from the threshold of the house where Iris works.

“She’s come to eat here a couple of times when invited by one of her clients. Very gentle, very polite, and very concerned about her figure. I’ve met her at the grocery store more than once and she’s always commenting on what she will or won’t eat so as not to get fat,” José Luis says. “I’ve told her that she’d do well if she decided to open a little business, like an alternative dinning place or something. She’s smart, and pretty too, and she has a very charming manner.”

Though as friendly as the neighbors or the catcalls may seem, they don’t compensate for the friends that she has, which aren’t many.

“Very few friends, maybe three I think, friends in this life. Very few, very few. In this world it’s very difficult to have friendships. Not just because of our job, but in general,” she makes a circle with her arms to include Angeli who sits across from her right in the door of the house they share.

Angeli is a widowed Afro-Latina woman from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where she worked as a nurse. She came with her children to Seville eight years ago through a program to care for elderly people. But the hours were very few and very little pay. In the end, she lost her job due to the economic crisis. She has known Iris for three years after they initially met through a mutual friend and later became close friends as well as co-workers.

“I think she’s a great girl. I respect her a lot because she respects me,” Angeli says. Beyond working together, they shop and go out to eat, and Iris even spends time with Angeli’s two daughters, one of whom is studying cosmetology and the other to be an electrical technician. “No one should judge anybody. People like him, you have to accept it,” she says in reference to Iris’s transsexual identity.

For the local authorities, Iris’s and Angeli’s dignity can only be achieved outside of prostitution.
The novelty of the Ordinance Against Sex Trafficking and Prostitution that the City Council enacted a year and a half ago is that it seeks to penalize the clients of prostitution. There is a big possibility that many of Iris’s and Angeli’s clients are deterred by the likelihood of receiving a hefty fine from the local police, who would consider them accomplices of sexual trade.

“Well, if they hear about the fine, they get scared. But honestly, some of them would deserve it!” Iris says with a laugh.

One street down from Iris and Angeli, in a house full of modern art and designer furniture, lives María with her husband and two daughters.

“Iris always gives my four year-old gifts. She’s very sweet with her,” María says sitting at her office in the state art center that she manages. “I know what she does, but she’s trying to take courses and do other things. She doesn’t like her job and wants to leave that business. Iris is amongst the few who are left following the big transformation of the neighborhood.”

The Alameda de Hércules flourished at the beginning of the 20th century. The entire city would come here for high and low forms of entertainment: Flamenco cabarets, big cafes, theatres, the city’s first open-air cinemas, even the Carnival celebrations that the city no longer holds. This is where young people would also come to stroll along the boulevard under the elm tress, to meet friends and to flirt. Then, the families who lived in the little palaces and in the bourgeois houses on both sides of the Alameda started to move towards the periphery of the city and the area became a sort of redlight district. There were many brothels and after the civil war the neighborhood fell into deep decline. By the 70’s, and until its recent restoration, the neighborhood was filled with heroine and prostitution. Urban speculation also made its appearance and many buildings, from the most humble to some of the noblest, were knocked down.Most people buy viagra on internet considered it a dangerous place to visit.

María’s eldest daughter, Carmen, is a 22 year-old college student who has known the plaza since she was a child.

“It was very different from now. Look for photos on the Internet of how it was before the reconstruction. It was only dirt, a lot of junkies,” she says.

She describes the relationship between herself and Iris as amiable yet distant.

“Everybody around knows her and her friend Vanessa, and Deborah, who’s her boss
or her madame,” she says. But despite the greetings and chit-chat, Carmen isn’t totally at
ease around Iris and her coworkers.

“It’s an uncomfortable sensation. For me, it’s normal to pass them and say ‘hello, good afternoon,’ or if I go with my little sister who’ll say something, but the situation changes
when there’s a client. And then there are [other prostitutes] not so kind. But not Iris!” she clarifies with raised eyebrows. “Iris always greets me.”

And though these awkward situations have occurred, her father has managed to create
quirky, fun greetings like “How goes business!”

Carmen nods her head and buries her face in her hand to describe her embarrassment.

“No one knows the future,” Iris states. She smiles as she tells how much she wants to have
kids and marry, although she knows it will be difficult. “I always knew that I wanted to change my name. My dad died in 1984. I was about six or seven years old when I saw this singer from Tangiers on television. No one had told me before, but she was a man,” she says.

“I changed my name when I underwent my transformation and it remained,” she says. The iris, more than a colorful membrane, controls the amount of light that can enter the pupil. Likewise, Iris assuredly states that she doesn’t know what the future brings, but she’s a “girl in her own world,” her own shade, and she continues forward.


Fines for the costumers

The former municipal delegate for Women’s Affairs and a legal advisor explain the plan in force against sexual exploitation.

Prostitution is no laughing matter for María Dolores Rodríguez, former city councilwoman, delegate for Women’s Affairs (2008 to 2011), and member of the Socialist Party, nor for Amparo Díaz, lawyer and legal adviser on the Integral Action Plan Against Trafficking, Prostitution and Other Forms of Sexual Exploitation, which was enacted by the city’s government after receiving the support of all council members on November 26th, 2009 and that is intended to be in effect from 2010 to 2015. These two women have spearheaded awareness campaigns and ordinances to protect women’s rights, focusing on issues that range from domestic violence to prostitution.
They bluntly and unapologetically assert that prostitution is one of the grossest forms of gender violence.

“It’s said that prostitution isn’t rape, but why not? Because you pay for it?” the former delegate argues.

The 21 objectives laid out in the Integral Action Plan are to be achieved through 56 actions or steps. María Dolores Rodríguez recounts the success with which the local ordinance against sex trafficking and prostitution was received by the City Hall, yet the Integral Action Plan was more of a struggle, in part due to an initial disagreement between the conservative Popular Party, who prefer to address prostitution as an issue pertaining to public order, and the Socialist Party, who saw it as one of the main manifestations of gender violence.

The former municipal delegate emphasizes that, in the end, all council members voted in favor of the Integral Action Plan and for the subsequent Ordinance Against Sex Trafficking and Prostitution, the latter of which came into effect on May 26, 2011.

“We need to change the usual references to the shame that these practices bring to the streets of our city,” says María Dolores Rodríguez. “Our intention is to put an end to the stigmatization suffered by the women so that the clients abandon the hypocritical anonymity under which they perform actions that, while having a negative consideration when observed in public, are in reality tolerated thanks to the silent complicity of society.”

One of the most prominent features of the new approach introduced by the Integral Action Plan is the ordinance that fines clients of prostitution with penalties from 750 to 3,000 euros. In the period between October 18, 2011 and September 20, 2012, a total of 113 clients of prostitution received fines from Seville’s local police, regardless of the fact that there had since been a political shift in power following the Popular Party’s success in the March 2011 local elections.

Amparo Díaz asserts that in Iris’s case, the plan offers resources to leave prostitution. She points to a number of municipal bodies that she guarantees would give some type of assistance
to Iris: Delegations of Women Issues, Social Welfare, Cooperation for Development, and Coexistence and Safety. A total of 500,000 euros was the initial budget for a plan that is evaluated by the different delegations every year and which is providing specific training
for many municipal workers on the ways in which to help women who are subjected to
sexual exploitation.

María Dolores Rodríguez concludes: “this is not the fulfillment of fantasy, or a fun or leisure
activity, nor the problem of a few women who have chosen this freely. We’re talking about women who live in poverty and under precarious circumstances. In fact, in the last
few years we’ve seen an increasing number of women trafficked against their will in order to
be sexually exploited. We’re talking about violence against women.”