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From Toads to Queens. Transvestism in a Latin American setting by Jacobo Schifter - HTML preview

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Of course, many would simply label such behaviour hypocritical, yet one would be better served by seeing the latter as varying manifestations of a condition known as multiple personality disorder. Who would argue that we are the same person at 10, 20

or 50 years of age? The changes that take place in a person over his or her life course are no less significant than those which drive someone else to wear boxer shorts one day and bloomers the next.

It is not clear when it began to be taken for granted in the West that one must have a unified personality if one is to be seen as normal.

Freud of course contributed to this state of affairs when he theorized that the path to a „normal‟ heterosexual existence can only be reached by passing through a number of discrete psychological „stages‟33. However, be this as it may, the little work that has been produced on the subject cannot lead anyone to the conclusion that cross-dressing makes one either a healthier or sicker individual34. In short, transvestites dress as women for numerous reasons, not all linked to the desire to be sexually attractive to men. For example, homosexual cross-dressers go in drag to gay bars where the men have no interest in them. Others wear women‟s clothes at home, when no one else can see them.

For many, pleasure is derived simply from the acquisition of make-up, wigs, jewellery and accessories. As Pepa would argue, transvestites aspire to a different state of being.

Feeling like a princess



There are people who would say that you‟re mentally ill.

How would you respond to that?


I really enjoy what I do. As well, I‟m a productive person, and I like my work as a journalist. I‟m not doing anything wrong by cross-dressing. When people criticize me, most do so less for dressing in drag and more for doing what I want. Of course, the reality is that we all have deep, hidden desires to do crazy things, but we‟re generally too scared to actually go ahead and do them. Some people would like to make love stark naked on a beach but are too scared to do so. Others dream about stealing a whole bunch of money but are afraid of being caught. Thus, when people see a transvestite, they‟re angry and jealous that here‟s somebody who has the guts to do what he wants and doesn‟t care what society thinks. This is what triggers the anger more than anything. They feel that we‟ve got the balls to do what is forbidden. This is why they call us sick, perverts, criminals. What‟s wrong with a man wearing women‟s clothes? Who said that pink is feminine and blue is masculine? That‟s all bullshit. In Scotland, men wear skirts and it‟s seen as normal. Priests go around in these long black dresses and no one says anything. Why is it that a monsignor can dress in pink and I can‟t?


But you have to hide from people. You can‟t be Pepa and José at the same time.


I can‟t be both because of prejudice. Nonetheless, there are people who know both faces.


What do you feel when you are José?


I feel like anyone else, whereas with Pepa it‟s different.


How do you mean?


When I‟m dressed as a woman I have another personality.

I am happier, sexier, more seductive. I feel more sure of myself and can attract straight men who are looking for a woman. It‟s a different relationship. We talk about different things and I even feel my body temperature is different. However, one doesn‟t dress like a woman only to attract a man. Not at all! One does it because one wants to experiment with something new, get into one‟s feminine side, and be emotional, soft and sexy. One wants to look pretty. Of course, straight men also have these tendencies but they‟re afraid of letting them out, and so they look for drag queens so that they can vicariously experience what it‟s like to be a woman. With us, they can let themselves explore their feminine side. They‟re so cowardly and 42



Do you think transvestism makes people react to you differently?


Of course. In the first place, when I dress like a woman, people respond to me as though I really were one. Even my friends, who know that I‟m a man, when they see me wearing a dress they don‟t talk to me like they usually do.

They are softer and more considerate. They light my cigarette for me or help me down the stairs. These are learned reactions that we all have when we are with a woman. My clients are straight men. They‟d never dream of having sex with a man. But they see me as a woman.

They treat me differently, kinder and more gently than a gay man would. They whisper romantic stuff into my ear, and they‟re more careful when they‟re having sex with you.


What do you feel when you take off your make-up and wig and become José again?


Very sad. I think I would miss José if I had to give him up, but leaving Pepa is more difficult because she‟s more attractive. I feel empty when I‟m not in drag. My breathing, heart beat, metabolism, really my whole body functions differently. I‟m going to confess something to you. When I‟m in drag, I seldom pee because it‟s harder to do it in the street. So I‟ve got used to holding it. The same thing happens when I fall asleep with my make-up on: I have different dreams, with more intensity, more colour and feelings. My sense of humour and language are also different. As a man my humour is sharp and sarcastic. But when I‟m Pepa there are certain words, like „fuck‟, „bitch‟

or „queer‟, that I would never say as a woman. It‟s not conscious really, I just don‟t do it.


Are there people who know you as both a man and a woman?


One is my sister. She knows that I‟m a transvestite and has seen me in drag. At first, she almost had a heart attack, even though I had prepared her for the occasion. But little by little she got used to it. However, I notice that she still reacts differently to me depending on whether I‟m in drag or not. When I‟m a woman, she‟ll talk to me about emotional stuff, relationships, fashion. When I‟m dressed as a man, we talk about things like money, finances and even soccer. It‟s not on purpose, it just happens that way.

It‟s the same with my butcher. When I go dressed as a woman he‟s very sweet and gives me samples. But as a man, he‟s colder and more distant, and never gives me 43

anything. I‟m the same person but he cannot deal with José and Pepa in the same way.


What is it that you like most about transvestism?


I love to have two faces and be beautiful in one of them. It would never occur to me to have my penis removed because it‟s such a great source of pleasure. Really, I feel lucky for being able to have sensations that most people, out of fear, would never dare to have. There is nothing better than being able to make love to a man after he‟s done the same thing to you. This for me is like winning the lottery. There are thousands of men who would look gorgeous in drag but they'll never dare to make the leap.

They are going to be toads all their lives when they could have been princesses, excuses-moi, queens.


There are people who would say that man and woman are made for each other and their sexual organs are complementary.


That‟s the worst sort of bullshit. Men report to me that sex with women is not that good. In the first place, women have different organs than men. They last longer, and sometimes never come. Men have to rub their clitoris to arouse them, sometimes it hurts and sometimes they don‟t feel like it. Men usually aren't sure if they came or not because they're experts at faking orgasms. Female genitals, my clients tell me, are foreign territory and they don‟t know how they work. Men, on the other hand, feel tight when you‟re making love to them. When a woman starts lubricating, she sometimes becomes too loose. Some men tell me it gets worse after childbirth. With a transvestite however, you know when he‟s coming. You can also do it at the same time and you know what to touch because his body is the same as yours. Once you‟ve both ejaculated, you can then relax and not have to worry about your partner having multiple orgasms, as is the case with women. Do you think it‟s really better with a woman?


What‟s the down side of it?







understanding and, worst of all, the lack of large sizes in women‟s shoes.

A few succeed

Of course, some transvestites have realized their dream of becoming truly glamorous. Alma Stone, for one, met an Italian business man who took her to Rome, where she now works for an 44

exclusive clientele. With the money she is earning she plans to have a sex change operation in Belgium. The following is a passage taken from a letter Alma sent to a friend in Costa Rica: I am really happy in Italy. Men here are very handsome and there‟s little harassment. It‟s totally different from Costa Rica where you‟re always being hassled by the police or by people on the street. Enrico took me to a first-class joint called „The Night Out‟ which only employs transvestites. I charge $500 dollars for sex. Can you imagine how many Costa Rican dicks I would have to suck for that kind of money? Clients here really do treat you like a queen. Three weeks ago an entire team of soccer players came to the bar. They offered to pay $500 to the one who made them hard first. They all got undressed and their manager was chosen to be the judge. If you had been here you would have done it for free because they were all really good-looking. Gina was the one who won the prize since she dances and moves her tongue like a boa constrictor, which drove them crazy.

Doris Faye, another transvestite, now owns an upscale night club in Chicago. She has also been remarkably successful.


I came to Chicago without any money at all. I used to clean houses and work as a waitress or a receptionist in cheap hotels. I was illegal and all the money I saved I sent to my family in Puntarenas. One day I met this business executive who asked me out. In my bad English I told him that I was really a man and didn‟t want any hassles. He told me he knew and said that he wanted to get to know me.

We had sex that same night. Next day, he sends me this beautiful ring. We dated for a couple weeks before he proposed to me. We finally got married with this gay pastor and I‟ve been with him now for nine years. Mike gave me this night club to have fun with. I‟ve made money with it and we organize great drag shows. Our girls live like queens.

In another case, Gloria Day, a boy from San Pedro de Poás in Alajuela, became a famous jazz singer in New Orleans. His effeminate appearance and delicate features made him look stunning as a woman. He had been brought to the United States by a sailor whom he had met in San José. In a similar vein, Augusta now works as a model in Milan and has started to design her own line of clothes. Although she has no plans to return to Costa Rica, she continues to send money to her family in Cartago so that they might buy their own home.

Thus, as is attested to by the stories outlined above, there are cases in which transvestites‟ dreams of riches and fame come true, even if the latter only last as long as they can preserve their youthful appearance.






discrimination ensures that they remain more toad than princess, with many retiring after a few years, if they have not already been killed by drugs, AIDS, gay bashers or at their own hands through suicide.


The Neighbours

Over the last ten years, a number of significant changes have taken place within San José‟s transvestite community. In the first instance, there has been something of a geographical shift. That is to say, in the 1980s most transvestites lived and worked in an area known as „El Libano‟ (so called because of the presence in the neighbourhood of a well-known movie theatre catering to gay men). Most were poor, as were their clients, who were either 46

working-class men employed in area stores, canteens and markets, or rural labourers who travelled in and out of San José via the local bus station. However, since 1990 growing numbers of transvestites moved to a new locale, known as Clinica Biblica, in the city‟s south-east. This area is attractive to transvestites engaged in the sex-trade for several reasons: not only is it quiet and close to downtown, but it is characterized by a more middle-class clientele.

As one might imagine, a number of factors were at work in inducing middle-class men to become involved in such numbers with the transvestites of Clinica Biblica. Transvestites themselves were at a loss when asked to account for the shift in client profile or why the „strip‟ had re-located at the time and in the manner that it did. Most referred to the increasingly tight housing market in Libano, leading many to look towards the city‟s southern and south-eastern neighbourhoods, where rented accommodation remained relatively cheap. Still, this does not explain the popularity of Clinica Biblica, located as it is between the two areas identified above.

What we do know, however, is that the growing numbers of relatively wealthy clients have served to drive up the price paid for sex, while at the same inducing more and more transvestites, many of them young, beautiful and middle-class, to become involved in the sex trade as well. Of course, this change in San José‟s sexual geography has not served the Libano district and the transvestites who continue to live there well. The bulk of the latter are older and retired from active involvement in the prostitution business, though they continue to suffer from its ill effects, including health problems, widespread substance abuse and, for many, grinding poverty in a run-down boarding house. As Laura put it, the

„Libano has become a garbage-dump and cemetery for transvestites.‟

The Libano

As has been suggested above, when we first did our first series of interviews in 1990, most of San José‟s transvestite community was concentrated in the Libano district, with the majority living in the neighbourhood‟s many cheap hotels, boarding houses and brothels; very few lived with their families.

The boarding houses


In the 1980s, one of the most well-known boarding houses for transvestites was the „Pension Romantica‟, a rambling old mansion with ten bedrooms; when I visited it in 1990, it was still in its prime. Each room was divided into two sections, and everyone shared the house‟s single bathroom and sink for washing clothes.

Moreover, the house was seldom quiet: „Mayela Maria,‟ screamed one transvestite, „where‟s padding I lent you?‟ „I‟m still using it,‟

the other replied, „can I keep it one more day?‟ „Fucking queen,‟

the first one shouted, „when are you going to buy some yourself?‟

For the most part, the bedroom walls are decorated with posters of naked men and Hollywood actresses, blown-up photos of the room‟s occupant in drag (usually in the pose of the starlet whose name she has taken as her own), along with assorted wigs and clothes hanging off of nails driven into the plaster. As I glanced through an open doorway, a fat man in a wig greeted me. „Hey there, my name‟s Elizabeth Taylor,‟ he said, holding up a large picture of the actress taken with her „Cat on a Hot Tin Roof‟ co-star Paul Newman I did not have heart to tell him, but I found he looked more like Don Francisco in drag than the famous actress with violet eyes. „The only thing he‟s got in common with Liz Taylor is his big ass,‟ interrupted another transvestite from down the hall. The fat man ignored the insult, and invited me into her room. I looked around as I went in, and saw four black wigs, all of which were worn out and singed, along with a dog-eared pink satin bedspread covering the bed. Some cheap nightgowns hanging in the closet were half-hidden by an old sheet covered with red roses.

She took out one of the nightgowns. „Richard Burton gave this to me for our second wedding. I‟ve only worn it once because of its deep sentimental value.‟ The nightgown was made of blue velvet, with fake black pearls sewn in around the neck; some of the pearls were missing. According to Liz, Burton bought it himself for her at Fashion Palace, a clothing store in San José. However, her friend Penelope offered a different account of its origins. In her version, the nightie was made from a satin curtain which Liz had stolen from the Libano movie-theatre.

Pension Romantica, like most of the boarding houses inhabited by Libano‟s transvestite community, had a steel door to prevent unexpected visits by disgruntled clients or the police. To be let in, residents were required to identify themselves to those inside; otherwise, the door would not open. It is for this reason that transvestites‟ houses were known as „bunkers‟.

„Open the goddamn door you deaf queen,‟ I heard one transvestite shout from outside, angry at the slow response to her knocking.


„Can you believe it,‟ she said as she was let in, „I didn‟t get a single trick today. I walked up and down all day and didn‟t make a cent. At this rate I‟ll be poorer than a bare-footed nun.‟ „Well, bare-footed you‟ll be if you don‟t pay the two thousand colones you owe me,‟ replied the gate-keeper.

The hotels

The typical establishment is characterized by a dirty curtain covering the door, through which one passes to a large room with red furniture (red being transvestites‟ favourite colour) and pictures of men with over-sized penises on the wall. Beyond this is the office where the hotel administrator works and sleeps. In it, one typically finds a mattress on the floor, a desk serving the dual function of clothes-drawer and deposit for articles by pawned by transvestites needing money for drugs (the administrator‟s second job is that of drug dealer).

I could hear a conversation going on as I pushed my way past the curtain into the first room, and upon poking my head into the office, saw a skinny transvestite, dressed only in panties, speaking earnestly to the man behind the desk: „Look, this watch used to belong to Prince Philip, son of Juan Carlos of Spain. I bought it in Barcelona four years ago, and since I‟m strapped for cash I have to sell it.‟ To my eyes it looked like an ordinary Seiko. „The second hand has disappeared,‟ she added, „but it still tells the hours.‟ Liz, who was by my side, interrupted her: „The only thing this watch has in common with royalty is the fact that there‟s a queen trying to sell it. Pepa stole it from a john last night.‟

Beyond the office, there was a long hall-way with bedrooms on either side. Interestingly, none of the rooms had doors; all had been removed and replaced with curtains. These, it seemed, proved useful at times when discrete entry and exit were required, for example when a transvestite wished to rifle through the valuables of a john who was in the middle of sex with someone else. Of course, there were those who would deny that any such thing takes place: „No!‟ exclaimed Penelope to one of her clients,

„how can you even suggest that somebody stole your chain? Here you‟ll only find honest, hard-working prostitutes, you must have lost it yourself. We even pay our municipal taxes!‟ „Listen to me, you fucking whore,‟ replied the john, „either you give me back my chain or I‟ll cut off your little shit-filled tits!‟ The transvestite thought about it for a moment, and then handed the chain over. „Oh yes, your chain! Here it is. I forgot that I found it on the floor a little while ago.‟ The man grabbed it and made for the door, 49

telling me as he passed, „if you‟re going to sleep with one of these faggots, leave everything you own at home.‟ After he had left, Penelope told me who he was: „That brute owns a stall selling chayote near the Central Market.‟

In general, each bedroom contains nothing more than a bed, a couple of chairs, a small table for rolling joints or snorting coke, and a roll of toilet paper. The walls and sheets are usually dirty.

„Here, we‟re both clean and ecologically friendly,‟ explained Carla. „How‟s that?‟ I asked. „Because we ask the johns to help us try to conserve water, just like the best hotels, and we only wash the sheets once a month.‟ In addition to sex, these rooms are also used for drug consumption by the transvestites and their friends.

Given that it was the hotel manager who sold them the drugs in the first place, there is generally no problem in consuming them on the premises. Through one doorway that I glanced, I saw three transvestites smoking crack. „Hey, do you want a pipe?‟ Rebecca asked me. “No thanks,‟ I answered.

Beyond the bedrooms is a kitchen. Like the entrance foyer, it is decorated with posters of men and rock stars, and contains a large, round table surrounded by four chairs, an electric stove, various pots and pans and a locked chest of drawers, used to keep pawned articles. An effeminate, jolly-looking man greeted me. „Hi there, my name‟s Tina Turner and I‟m the one who does the cooking around here. Right now I‟m in the middle of preparing a banana souffle for the queens of this castle,‟ she said seriously. „You know that they have very delicate stomachs and that they don‟t eat any salt at all because of their high cholesterol.‟ I didn‟t ask to see the souffle. The kitchen was dirty and disgusting, and while there I saw a number of cockroaches scurrying across the floor. The cook tried to reassure me: „If I serve you some food and you feel sick, don‟t worry. Their royal highnesses have already had some and they‟re still fine.‟ That‟s okay,‟ I said, „I just ate lunch so I‟m not too hungry.‟

When not being used to prepare culinary delights, the kitchen is also a place where the transvestites come to consume cocaine, an activity that will be explored in greater detail in subsequent chapters.

Like the kitchen, the bathroom looked as though it had never been cleaned, with old toilets and even older plumbing. Above the stalls (again without doors) were two crumpled signs saying „Adam‟ and

„Eve‟. However, everyone used „Eve‟ because „Adam‟ was backed up and not working. For those wishing to shower, they had 50

to stand on top of the toilet and use a hose hanging down from the ceiling. „Darling, where can I piss?‟ asked a john as he left one of the rooms. „The men‟s washroom is being renovated, so you‟ll have to do your business in this bottle,‟ Julia told him.

The apartment blocks

Meanwhile, other transvestites shared (and indeed in some cases continue to do so) apartments in the area of the Libano with one or more of their colleagues. In a typical case, Marie Antoinette lived in a complex with approximately 20 units. Upstairs were three bedrooms (she shares the unit with two others), while on the main floor there was a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and living room.

The apartment was filled with old, worn-out furniture, and the walls were festooned with posters of favourite artists or movie stars. Johns came to the house as though it were any other brothel.

Upon entering the living room, one‟s eyes were immediately drawn to the large rug in the centre of the room, originally red but now a mottled grey. Several candles, each dedicated to a saint from whom favours were sought, were burning in a corner, while the room‟s only table was covered with clippings from fashion magazines, old issues of Extra 34, along with a little bowl filled with potpourri and someone‟s leftover breakfast. The rest of the room was no less messy, with wigs and a large, cracked mirror hanging from nails in the wall, clothes draped over every available chair, several books about witchcraft and the occult lying on the floor, a photo of Marie Antoinette‟s lover turned upside down („because this was how I felt after he left me,‟ as she put it) and finally a few bottles of perfume and aphrodisiac potion sitting on a window sill. „This one never fails,‟ she assured me, pointing to one of the bottles. „I sprinkled some of it onto the food of a Member of Parliament I was seeing, and after that he couldn‟t get enough of me. He even sent me to Miami using money for his constituents. I just love corruption.‟

Moreover, from time to time one will come across true luxury items in the apartment, say a Persian carpet or some fine porcelain, only to find them gone by the time of one‟s next visit, exchanged for cash at the local pawn-shop. Generally, these items were all stolen from clients‟ homes. „This painting is an original César 34

A Costa Rican Tabloid.


Valverde35,‟ Sonia Martha informed me, „I took it from a john while he was sleeping.‟ She then pointed to a statue of David leaning against the wall: „Do you know where this one came from?

Anita stole it from a priest!‟ „She just loves doing penance,‟ added Sonia Martha with a smile, „ she‟s a very Catholic nut-case.‟

Of course, life in an apartment block was not without its problems.

When Marie Antoinette first moved into the complex, she was harassed by her neighbours, who would bang on the door, ring the buzzer and then run off, laugh in her face, tell her that she had made a pact with the Devil. This went on for quite some time, until finally Leticia advised her to buy several bottles of cheap, strong-smelling perfume from the Lucky Palace, a neighbourhood department store, mix them all together, and then go around to each of her neighbours‟ apartments at midnight and spray the concoction all over their doors. Needless to say, the harassment largely ceased after this message was sent. Indeed, Marie Antoinette even went so far as to say that her relationship with her neighbours has become almost friendly:

People around here treat me well. When I first came here I didn‟t know anyone but now I do. I‟ve been here for two years now, my neighbours at the front are gay and they don‟t bother me, I say hi to the old woman over there, but the others I really can‟t stand, though everyone accepts us.

„What‟s up?‟ I ask, and if they laugh I say, „why is it that you laugh at me and not at your mother‟s cunt?‟

The migration

However, despite their longstanding presence in the Libano district, over the course of the 1980s many transvestites began the process of moving out of the neighbourhood, and into working-class districts mostly in the southern section of San José. Leticia remembers things being very difficult at the beginning: I‟m now living in León XIII36. I love the life here and everybody knows me, though it was really bad initially: no one could stand me, though now I don‟t have any problems with the neighbours. From the beginning I felt I had two 35

Costa Rican painter.


A lower middle class neighbourhood.


alternatives: either I split or to hell with the consequences and I stay up.

In somewhat similar fashion, Kristina moved into a house close to a church, and was faced with a priest who was extremely unhappy with her presence in the neighbourhood.

People told me that in his sermons the priest was calling me things like „sinner‟, „degenerate‟ and „fallen woman‟.

One day I stopped him in the street and said, “look pops, what‟s your problem with transvestites?” The coward started backing away, saying how he loved us because we were all God‟s children. So I told him, „look, you know that I know what you‟re up at your pulpit. Why don´t you worry of the children you like to fondle and leave me alone?‟

Others moved into heterosexual brothels in the area. Patricia was one of the ones who did, even going so far as to share her living quarters with other prostitutes, all of whom were careful not to reveal her true identity to the johns. „But what happens when a client discovers that you‟re not really a woman?‟ I asked her. „It‟s very simple really. Some are so drunk that they can‟t tell the difference between man, woman and beast in any case. Others get pissed off and leave. Most however stay put and pretend they didn‟t see anything.‟

Meanwhile, a few, Lucero among them, went so far as to set up gay brothels, often in the face of extreme hostility on the part of nearby residents:

I can‟t say I‟m too friendly with the neighbours around here. There‟s a lot of scandal-mongering going on, and the kids call me „faggot‟, „queer‟, all sorts of stuff. I don‟t like it, and I try to avoid it as much as possible by keeping a low profile when I‟m out in the street. Although we receive clients here, the truth is that it‟s often better to get tricks in the Biblica, since you know men with cars have got money.

Also, the neighbours say how it sets such a bad example to have men coming in here.

In the early 1990s, one of the best-known establishments was that of Ana Karenina. Located next to a playing-field, it housed no less than six transvestites at any given moment in time, all of whom were engaged in the sex trade on a more or less full-time basis. On the second floor of a two-storey building, the brothel had five 53

bedrooms, each occupied by a transvestite along with a lover or friend. On the main floor there was a heterosexual bar, and although there was occasionally friction between bar patrons and the transvestites, this was the exception rather than the rule. In short, each group had come to accept the other as simply part of the landscape. As Ana Karenina put it, „I won‟t deny that it was difficult at the beginning, but now we‟ve made our peace. We don‟t set foot in the bar and in return the drunks don‟t bother us upstairs.‟ However, even though this tacit understanding served for the most part to keep latent tensions in check, there were nonetheless moments when conflict would erupt: One night someone shouted out that the building was on fire. I don‟t know if it was Angelica smoking at the back, but in any case we all ran out into the street, wearing nothing but bras and panties. The drunks from the bar started to hassle us and yell stuff like, „come over here baby so I can spray you with my hose,‟ you get the idea. So all of a sudden Agatha, who doesn‟t take any shit, went up to one of them and pulled down his pants. „This is no hose,‟

she shouted, „this is a straw.‟ After that they stopped screwing with us.

From the suburbs to the street

For the most part, San José‟s transvestites have abandoned the Libano cinema and the red light district that surrounds it, choosing instead to find housing in neighbourhoods further away from the centre of the city. However, this is not to say that everything has changed since the 1980s: most significantly, their families continue to reject them, leaving them with little choice but to leave their own homes and move in with other transvestites.

Moreover, as growing numbers of medium and upper class adolescents are attracted to transvestism, more and more of them may be found prostituting themselves on the streets around the Clinica Biblica. Marilyn and Monica are typical of this trend: the former is a transvestite who grew up in Rohrmoser, the latter is one whose family lives in Escazú. Both of these neighbourhoods are among San José‟s wealthiest suburbs. Moreover, both Marilyn and Monica continue to live with their parents, who have no idea that their sons dress up as women and are actively engaged in the sex trade. In the words of Marilyn,

I‟m from a good San José family. Nevertheless, I love 54

dressing up as a woman and turning tricks on the street. I keep all of my clothes in one of the „bunkers‟ close to the Biblica. That‟s where I go to change. One time I was picked up by no one less than one my dad‟s friends from work who‟s a doctor just like himself. He‟s known me for years, but it didn‟t cross his mind that the voluptuous blonde who just got into his car was his colleague‟s little boy. He still comes over to my parents‟ place and he has no idea that I know his little secret.

Of course, by no means should one take the marked increase in the number of transvestites working the streets of San José as indicative of the fact that more are being born. In short, despite Esmeralda‟s observation that each weekend is characterized by the appearance of about five new transvestites in the district around Clinica Biblica, it is not a cloning machine that is producing them.

Rather, the growth of the community is due to a number of factors, including greater middle class acceptance of the phenomenon (both among the johns and the youths themselves) and, as will be shown below, the patent inability of the state to put a stop to the practice, whether it wished to or not.

The ‘ paqueteo’ revolution

While it is not particularly surprising that the Libano district would one day lose its status as the locus for San José‟s transvestite community, it is not at all clear why a shift in geographical locale would in itself produce such a significant change in the transvestites‟ johns and lovers. In other words, one must ask oneself why the transvestites‟ old clients did not continue to seek out their services in the new red light district. The answer is simple: because the new johns were wealthier and thus were able to offer the transvestites more money and a better standard of living. Nevertheless, this in turn begs another question: where did the new clients come from?

In short, it appears that they were drawn from the relatively large number of men who were already coming to the quiet back streets of the Clinica Biblica neighbourhood in order to obtain the sexual services of female prostitutes working here. At a certain point however, the precise date of which none of the interview participants could remember with any certainty, the transvestites

„took over‟ these streets, along with the johns who cruised them.

In this way, the penetration of transvestites into the area cannot be seen merely as the replacement of one group of sex trade workers 55

by another. Rather, it encompassed nothing short of a sexual revolution. In traditional psychiatric terms, men who had formerly been exclusively heterosexual became bisexual overnight, as they stopped picking up women, opting for transvestite men instead.

How is this possible? Can sexual orientation truly be so elastic that heterosexual men can be „converted‟ to bisexuality in such a manner? As one might imagine, the answer is both yes and no.

On the hand, it is clear that the transvestites‟ client base had to come from somewhere, and those who had been their johns in the Libano district had neither the money nor the means to travel across town to the new strip. For the most part, the latter were either day-workers or unemployed. Meanwhile, as our interviews with the transvestites have shown, not only did the new clients from the Clinica Biblica area tend to be car-owners (a strong indicator of middle or high class status in less developed countries), but they were generally employed in white-collar professions as well. It is in this sense that the clients were „new‟; however, this is not to claim that their „conversion‟ was either immediate or entirely free of tension.

How so? In short, when we attempt to determine the identity of those who pioneered the migration to the Clinica Biblica area, it soon becomes apparent that they were precisely those who were most adept at paqueteo, the process whereby a transvestite renders herself so feminine in appearance that she is able to „pass‟ for a woman. In this way, the Clinica Biblica area was initially appropriated by transvestites who looked as effeminate in appearance as the female prostitutes who were already working there, opening a space into which others, less feminine in appearance, could follow.

Susy, for example, remembers the early years when „I would go the Biblica by myself and I‟d look like any of the other prostitutes there.‟ According to her, at the beginning neither the johns nor the other sex trade workers suspected that she was a man. Some of the clients would kick her out of their car when they realized the truth.

Nevertheless, little by little „the johns started to get into it and after a few months some of the clients started to say that they liked doing it better with me than with the prostitutes. These guys recommended me to some of their friends, and they also asked if I knew any other transvestites they could meet.‟ Susy went on: „At first I would only invite other paqueteros, but gradually I started to bring along others who were more masculine looking, until eventually the johns were into transvestites of all types.‟


It was the same with Zola. She never went back to the Libano once she had left, since she was so feminine that no one could tell she was a man simply by looking at her. However, she confessed that „a few years ago it was fairly difficult to get picked up by straight men around here [in the Clinica Biblica], but it‟s getting easier all the time.‟ Moreover, in her view, „transvestites have become a fashionable commodity in the sex trade around here.

Anyway, prostitutes weren‟t much competition since they were all pretty haggard and not too hot in bed.‟

In this way, one might argue that johns‟ sexual preferences and tastes underwent something of an evolutionary change, itself the product of an accident of geography. If one or two transvestites had not migrated to this area at the time and in the manner that they did, it is quite likely that the johns would have continued to see the same prostitutes they always had. At the beginning, one presumes that they were angry to find out that it was a man they were with and not a woman. Nevertheless, they slowly began to enjoy that which the transvestites offered, thereby increasing demand for their services. Soon, the area was completely taken over by transvestites, while the female sex trade workers were forced to migrate elsewhere. Still, it must be borne in mind that this was only a partial „conversion‟ for most of the johns, since in other






heterosexual in orientation.

Needless to say, this phenomenon warrants further investigation.

However, in the context of the present work it was not possible to interview a sufficiently large number of johns in order to develop a clear understanding of their conversion to bisexuality. Instead, the evidence at our disposal is largely circumstantial, consisting in the first instance of automobile makes and license plate numbers, which we used to identify the clients. These revealed that most of the latter came from either a middle or upper class background. In the second instance, we have the testimony of the transvestites themselves, who assured us that most of their clients were married professionals. Moreover, those who used to work in the Libano district emphasized that these clients were markedly different from those who engaged their services in the old red light district.

Similarly, in our interviews with Clinica Biblica home owners, it was made clear to us that the johns who were now picking up transvestites were the same ones who had previously been seen cruising for female sex trade workers. Finally, one might argue that there is currently a new wave of displacement gathering force, 57

whose locus are some of the city‟s straight bars. In short, as we will see below, a new generation of paqueteo transvestites, the majority of whom are Panamanian, have started to frequent locales that had previously been exclusively heterosexual. As our interviews with these individuals demonstrate, their ability to

„trick‟ men into believing that they are in fact women has served to attract an entirely new population of johns to the particular pleasures of the transvestite sex trade, echoing the turn of events in the Clinica Biblica area in the process.



The Battle for Clinica Biblica

The district

Few buildings in San José‟s central core are as imposing as the National Theatre. Situated in the midst of manicured gardens, marble statuary and a broad, tourist-filled plaza, its poise and elegance stand in mute witness to „official‟ Costa Rican culture and values. Heading south from the Theatre, one is soon confronted with yet another icon of official culture: the „Colegio Superior de Señoritas‟, where the daughters of the country‟s ruling elite have been receiving a „proper‟ education for more than a century. However, even here the effects of unsustainably rapid urban growth are in evidence: stonework stained black by smoke and exhaust fumes; pavement that is uneven and pitted; and garbage accumulating in the street.

Moreover, if one continues south from the College things get even worse. The streets become increasingly narrow, the stench of diesel exhaust hangs in the air, dirty water from eaves troughs drips onto the pedestrians below. Although this has become an area of bustling commercial activity, many of the neighbourhood‟s long-time residents refuse to abandon their homes in favour of some distant suburb. So they cling tenaciously on, ensconced within their modest bungalows, protected from the dangers outside by bars across their windows and steel grating on their doors.

The Clinica Biblica sits in the middle of this neighbourhood. Built in 1929 by Protestant missionaries, it has become one of the city‟s best known - and most expensive - medical centres, with a multi-floor extension of concrete and glass serving as an appropriate testament to its financial success. Moreover, this is further underscored by the countless pharmacies, walk-in clinics and parking lots that have sprung up in the vicinity of the Biblica.

Until a few decades ago, this was one of San José‟s most distinguished neighbourhoods. Now, when night falls, the area‟s most recent arrivals take over its streets. Dressed in short skirts or hot pants, with low necklines and high heels, between 60 and 100

transvestites may be found working the area between the National Theatre and the Colegio Superior de Señoritas on any given night, mincing and cat-calling as a procession of prospective johns drive slowly by.


The transvestites

Walking along these streets one night when there was a fine rain falling, I was faced with what can only be described as an exercise in contrasts: Miriam‟s elaborate blue sequin dress next to Corinthia‟s white mini-skirt; Aurora‟s coiffed hair, expensive perfume and black scarf alongside Veronica‟s nondescript dress and pony-tail.

Generally however, all of the transvestites working the streets of the Clinica Biblica do so in groups of three. The majority are Costa Rican, though there are some foreigners as well, mostly Panamanians who have come to San José because of the city‟s reputation for being somewhat more accepting of transvestism than is the case in their own country. Corinthia is one such individual.

She arrived in Costa Rica four years ago, and generally finds that the working conditions are much better here; according to her, being a transvestite in Panama requires either that one pretend to be a woman 24 hours a day, or else that one be prepared to face more or less constant harassment. Miriam, meanwhile, has another explanation for the large number of Panamanian transvestites working in the San José sex trade: quite simply, one has to have white skin and blue eyes to make money in Panama; in Costa Rica by contrast, the johns like the Panamanians‟ exotic beauty and quick tongues.

It has been roughly nine years since the transvestites took over the Clinica Biblica, abandoning in the process their former haunts around the Libano cinema. Moreover, while some continue to live in the old neighbourhood, most of the transvestites now working the strip have their homes elsewhere in the city: Consider for example Pandora, who owns her home in San Pedro (to the east of the downtown core), or Miriam, who rents a flat in the Biblica, but spends her afternoons at her mother‟s house in Desamparados (a city at the southern edge of the capital).

Moreover, there have also been changes in the transvestites‟ work-place. While the street continues to play a key role in providing the initial point of contact between john and transvestite, the sex itself takes place either in a car or in a motel room. Of course, many also continue to receive clients in their own homes. Still, this is not to say that all is well for the transvestites of the Clinica Biblica: at the minimum, they must contend with a work site that is also a battle-field.


Upon this battle-field, a number of well-defined forces are arrayed against them. In one corner are those who come to the neighbourhood simply to attack or harass the transvestites working there. In another are local residents and home-owners who have organized in a bid to rid the neighbourhood of its night-time denizens. And finally there is the police, upholders of law and order, and the transvestites‟ sworn enemy.

The Colorientos

Pepa Carrasco arrives at the strip after nightfall. She stops on a corner next to a green-grocer. Wearing a short black skirt with a jacket to match, her hair in a simple blunt cut, she holds an umbrella to shelter herself from the rain. Her make-up is discrete and understated, her perfume delicate and sexy. It‟s not a good night: there are few cars, and even fewer prospective johns.

Moreover, when a car finally does stop, she quickly realizes that it‟s not sex that the three young men inside are after. „Son of a bitch, faggot, whore, fucking queer!‟ they shout as they throw rotten eggs at her. Poor Pepa is forced to beat a hasty retreat, throwing a rock at the car as she flees. Her clothing, make-up and perfume are all ruined, as are her night‟s prospects.

Monique, meanwhile, remembers being stopped by four men who asked her if she wanted a ride. Once on the outskirts of the city, near the Zurqui tunnel, the men raped her and then threw her onto the road. „Fucking whore, you don‟t deserve a penny, ugly faggot that you are,‟ they shouted as they pushed her out. Monique had to hitch a ride on a banana truck in order to get back to San José.

As for Mimi, she was once assaulted by a group of students in the area around the Costa Rica High School. They shouted obscenities at her as they threw stones, one which broke a tooth. Then, when she arrived at the Calderón Guardia Hospital, the staff refused to treat her. „Sorry sir, but I‟m sure you‟ve got AIDS and I don‟t want to go anywhere near your blood,‟ she was told in the laboratory.

Ana Karenina recalls being splashed with urine after a man on a moped grabbed her purse: „Filthy dog, shit face, whore, heretic!

Repent your sins and give yourself to God,‟ he yelled as he drove away. Meanwhile, Esmeralda remembers her early days on the street, when she didn‟t yet know that she should be wary of cars with tinted windows or driving at high speeds: „They yelled I don‟t know what as they drove by and threw a bottle at me. It hit me on 61

the head and I needed five stitches to close the wound.‟

Of course, the greatest irony is that, despite the violence directed towards them, it is the transvestites themselves who are accused of being dangerous criminals who routinely carry rocks and knives. It is the same old story: blame the victim and in so doing avoid addressing the real issues at hand. In Costa Rica, there is a long tradition of such behaviour: Jews who were accused of being communists; Blacks who were denied entry into many businesses and offices, Indians who were deemed to be second-class citizens, and women who were called „hysterical‟ for speaking out about male violence. In all cases, marginalization and persecution are justified though a twisted logic which transforms victims into the authors of their own misfortune.

Now the authorities are accusing a new minority of going about armed with dangerous weapons. But the question that remains unanswered is who initiated this cycle of violence and who is responsible for perpetuating it? The answer is simple: those who hate transvestites. Yet they are not the only ones implicated in this regard; church and state must also shoulder part of the blame, given the extent to which they uphold a homophobic value system that provides the climate necessary for gay bashing to continue unchecked within the population at large. In this way, a sermon which equates homosexuality with perversion and sinful behaviour is doing little more than fanning the flames of hatred. „Society must be freed of such moral blights as homosexuality, prostitution and transvestism,‟ intones one priest being interviewed on television. Others speak loudly of the „corruption, sin and immorality‟ of gay men. Of course, by virtue of these venomous words the Church has no need to dirty its own hands in pursuit of the goal of ridding the Earth of homosexuality; others are induced to do so on its behalf. Of course, the parallels with the fascist era are obvious: although the Church was not itself responsible for carrying out the Holocaust against the Jews, it provided ample moral cover for those who did. Within this context, the proviso that „we hate the sin but love the sinner‟ is, as Pepa puts it, „pure bullshit‟: „The Germans didn‟t distinguish between sin and sinner as they hauled the Jews off to the gas chambers.‟

Colorientos‟37 is the name given to the men who come to the Clinica Biblica area in order to harass or, in some cases, attack any 37

An expression used to describe individuals who blush easily.


transvestites they may find there. „We call them colorientos because, as they‟re driving by yelling “faggot” or some other insult, you can see their faces turning pink,‟ explained Herman Loria, the coordinator of „Priscilla‟, an ILPES programme serving the neighbourhood‟s transvestite community.

Generally, the colorientos arrive in the Biblica armed with rocks, plastic bags filled with excrement or urine, and even pellet guns.

The pocked walls of local buildings, along with the scars on the bodies of area transvestites provide ample testimony to the seriousness of the attackers‟ intent. Moreover, many colorientos will pose as johns in order to entice a transvestite to their car and, once she‟s close enough, out come the fists with which to beat her.

„It‟s all a game to them. They see it as a way to let off some steam, assert their manhood and express their homophobic tendencies. You could almost say it‟s a form a catharsis for them,‟

suggested Loria.

Moreover, in his opinion, society‟s traditional rejection of homosexuality is reinforced when a man is seen dressed up as a woman, and so taunts and insults are resorted to as ways of setting the person on the right path. „Perhaps if I insult you enough I‟ll be able to teach you that what you‟re doing is wrong. The message is simple: if you change your ways, I‟ll stop taunting you,‟ he added.

Not surprisingly, the attacks draw their own response on the part of the transvestites, who have taken to keeping rocks at the ready should they have the opportunity to heave one through the windshield of a passing coloriento‟s car.

Johns and neighbours

Thus, the Biblica is not a particularly welcoming area for transvestites, who typically work there until the early morning hours. However, the precise time at which individual transvestites leave varies according to personal preference and the business prospects for the night. For example, Emperatrix typically goes home between one and two in the morning, while Corinthia and Miriam tend to stay on until two and three respectively. Finally Pandora, who, after almost two decades of work in the sex trade only goes out on Fridays and Saturdays, generally calls it a night at three o‟clock, though she will occasionally stay out until six if conditions appear to warrant it.


Needless to say, the transvestites‟ presence in the area around the Clinica Biblica has served to attract hundreds of men who come to the area in search of sex. The noise generated by their vehicles, combined with the shouts of colorientos and the transvestites'

equally vulgar replies, ensure that their presence does not go unnoticed by those who live there. Moreover, this noise is aggravated in turn by those who sit in their cars and leave their sound systems blaring, while the transvestites dance to the music on the sidewalk nearby. Finally, the sex trade itself is not a quiet activity, whether it is taking place on the street, or in the neighbourhood's back alleys and vacant lots.

The residents, meanwhile, are forced to put up with this hullabaloo on a nightly basis, regardless of the fact that many moved to the area long before it became a commercial zone - in some cases 30

or 40 years ago - and many see it as their only home, a home that has become increasingly unlivable in the wake of the transvestites‟


„For the past nine years we‟ve had to endure a blight that doesn‟t let us live in peace,‟ remarked Olga, whose house - which she shares with her elderly parents - is situated two blocks away from the Clinica Biblica:

I once had the misfortune of seeing oral sex in progress, one man masturbating another, while one finds condoms everywhere, urine and excrement on our doorstep. Then, after a certain hour in the evening, they start drinking liquor, fighting each other, using drugs. All these things have made our life unbearable. Their presence here brings with it all sorts of unwelcome visitors, like the kids who come here to throw stones and yell at them, while using the most foul language imaginable. The circus starts at six p.m., and by ten it‟s unbearable. Pay-days and weekends are the worst. Right up until Sunday ... it‟s all the time really. Then, if we dare to look out the window, they consider it a mortal sin. If they see us out on the sidewalk, they yell at us. If they don‟t see us, they yell at us anyway.

We just can‟t win.

Of course, it is not merely the behaviour of the transvestites and their clients that bothers the residents; it is also the fact that their presence has pushed property values downwards: „No one wants to rent, no one wants to buy our houses,‟ complained Priscilla, a local home-owner.


One night at three in the morning I heard the window rattle. I thought at first it was a burglar trying to break in.

When I pulled back the curtain to take a look, what did I see but somebody pushing his big black penis into a woman out there. „My God,‟ I screamed, „what is this?‟ Then I heard a transvestite yelling back at me, „don‟t sweat it lady, you know exactly what‟s going on.‟ I was so angry that I shouted back, „why don‟t you have some respect for us?

Some of us are older women and we don‟t want to have to see this sort of filthy behaviour going on right outside of our own homes.‟ But he couldn‟t care less. He just shouted, „well then, why don‟t you tell this guy to have some respect for me and be more careful where he‟s sticking his dick.‟

In another case, Lupita remembers her eight year old son coming up to her one day and asking her what „powder‟ meant. „Well my dear, powder is a sort of fine white dust that women use for make up,‟ she told him. „So if that‟s all it is, why is the transvestite down the street selling it in a little bag for five thousand colones?‟

Lupita didn‟t quite know what to say, so she just told him that

„some types of powder are more expensive than others.‟

Meanwhile, José, also a member of the residents‟ association, recalls several occasions when transvestites would pretend to engage in intercourse on the street outside his home. „Three weeks ago I saw a transvestite get into a car and start to have sex. Not only do they not let us sleep in peace, but every time that guy came close to coming, he would hit the car horn. I couldn‟t stand it any more, so I ran outside and yelled, “why the hell are you blowing that car horn at me? You degenerate!” And then from out of the car the transvestite yells back at me: „Go back to sleep you pervert.

What are you doing spying on me anyway?‟ Soledad, another long-time resident of the neighbourhood, had a similar experience.

One night she discovered a transvestite passionately kissing a client right outside her door. „Miss, would you mind awfully kissing somewhere else?‟ she asked politely. „Forget it, you old bag! Can‟t you see how hard it is for this old guy to get it up? If we move, he‟ll lose it,‟ was the transvestite‟s answer.

The Association

The residents have tried to address these problems through various means, going both to the police and to the courts. They have also appealed to the office of the governor of San José, who committed 65

himself roughly four years previously to „clean up‟ the capital, cracking down on brothels, unlicensed drinking establishments and so forth. He has also gone before the Constitutional Court to obtain special powers to protect the interests of the Biblica residents, as well as approaching the public ombudsman and community organizations that work with transvestites.

Moreover, four years ago the residents decided to form an organization called the „Neighbours‟ Association of Clinica Biblica‟, whose principal purpose was to lobby public bodies such as the National Assembly, requesting for example that the laws governing prostitution be changed so as to increase the penalties for those caught.

However, in the final analysis, the group sees only one solution for the problem at hand: the complete removal of all transvestites from the area around the Clinica Biblica. Focussing their efforts on this single objective, they have gone on the war path, while a range of outside groups have positioned themselves in either one camp or the other.

For Loria, an expert in the field currently working with ILPES, Costa Rican democracy continues to be characterized by a sizeable gap between rhetoric and reality. That is to say, one must not forget the fact that transvestites enjoy the same protections under the constitution as anyone else, and thus one cannot simply take away their right to free movement as a matter of course. Of course, this is not to say that Loria is unaware of the problems facing Clinica Biblica residents, and from this point of view their frustration is understandable, a point which many transvestites would concede as well.

As he put it, „one can‟t say that it‟s not an awkward situation. The neighbours don‟t want them, but the transvestites have every right to be there and in fact are insisting that they don‟t want to move anywhere else.‟

Three years ago an accord was reached whereby the transvestites agreed to avoid residential streets and work only in the commercial sector, but the near constant arrival of new transvestites on the scene has made incursions into residential areas more or less inevitable.

The governor


Jorge Vargas is currently (1997) the governor of San José and the main force behind the capital‟s „clean up‟ campaign, for which he has received both praise and opprobrium in roughly equal measure.

Subscribing to the motto „first in place, first in right‟, he argues that the residents‟ complaints must be taken seriously because they were already living in the area before the transvestites‟ arrival.

Far from taking a moral stance on the issue ( ie. in terms of the sexual orientation or activities of the transvestites), Vargas takes refuge in his mandate to justify his actions. In short, because it is his duty to maintain order in the capital, he claims that he has no choice but to clamp down on those whose nighttime activities disturb the peace of a community that has been in place for years; as he put it, „I have to intervene in order to avoid conflict on an even larger scale.‟

Moreover, according to Vargas, he has organized meetings which have brought together the parties to the conflict, as well as tabling several possible compromises. Well aware that he cannot legally force the transvestites to restrict their activities to a particular geographical area, and prevented from creating a „tolerance zone‟

within the Biblica, Vargas, together with the head of the police force and the public ombudsman, has advocated the re-location of the transvestites to a commercial sector of the city where they could carry out their activities without hindrance.

At one time the area around González Viquez Square was mooted as a possible re-location site, but the proximity of the Costa Rica High School, with its large population of young students and potentially disapproving teachers, quickly served to make this location politically impracticable. The other option considered in this regard was the park in front of the former Pacific Electric Railway Station, an area relatively close to Clinica Biblica, but almost completely devoid of any private residences.

The public ombudsman

This latter alternative was the one deemed preferable by the public ombudsman who had been called in to mediate in the dispute, and with whom the transvestites had already lodged three complaints in the past.

Adjunct ombudsman Rolando Vega, who has followed the conflict closely, is quite emphatic in his assertion that while the residents should be free to enjoy their rights, they cannot expect to do so at 67

the expense of the rights of others. In this way, any solution to the conflict must take adequate account of two distinct sets of rights: those of the transvestites to free movement, which could very well be violated should a „compromise‟ be unilaterally imposed upon them, and those of the residents to live in peace, which, under present circumstances, are being violated on a daily basis.

Thus, according to Vega, „the challenge facing us right now is how to arrive at a solution that does not trample on either party‟s rights.

The transvestites have to understand that, although they themselves have rights, their presence does generate significant problems for the neighbours. It is for this reason that I see re-location as the most reasonable way of resolving this issue.‟

Needless to say, re-location remains a contentious issue. For the transvestites, they are far from willing to give up a place of work that sustains them economically and that they have spent years developing. Still, the authorities insist that transfer of the red light district to a non-residential area is the only workable way of resolving the dispute.

Moreover, there is a widespread sense among the parties involved that the conflict could easily escalate into something considerably more serious. Certainly, the residents have not lost any of their resolve to rid Clinica Biblica of its transvestite population. At one time, soon after the founding of the Neighbours‟ Association, members initiated a campaign in which they wrote down the license plate numbers of cars coming into the area in search of transvestites. Once they had identified the cars‟ owners, they would call to tell them that they were aware of their activities, and were prepared to identify them publicly.

Now, the residents are beginning to contemplate other, more aggressive tactics. „For my part I wouldn‟t resort to violence, but there are many who‟ve offered to help us,‟ remarked one neighbour. Moreover, some of the residents have said that a confrontation is inevitable, and that they are thinking about

„getting a gun and shooting one of these sons of bitches. People around here are tired of waiting for solutions that never come. It‟s been suggested that we should hire some vigilantes, and we‟ve even been offered shock troops, but we don‟t want to hurt anyone.

But, if we get desperate enough, we just might turn to the Free Costa Rica Movement38.‟