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A #VQRTrueStory Essay

ISSUE:  Summer 2020



Photograph by Anna Surinyach

Had anyone heard from Ana? She always answered her phone, but today wasn’t answering for me.

She’s fine, her friends said when I called one after another. Like nearly everyone else in Barcelona, Ana didn’t leave the apartment often. But yes, she was safe.

Ana is a sex worker, and before the pandemic, I’d been curious about her life and the neighborhood where she lived, El Raval. In the fall, I’d met with her at bars on her street, where we chatted over vermouths.

But before we knew it, Spain was shuttered under lockdown.

The Spanish army had mobilized along the highways to ensure that residents stayed put. Police officers patrolled the streets and issued fines to anyone caught outside without good reason. Bikers weren’t allowed. Joggers weren’t allowed. Journalists needed credentials. Barcelona, normally thronged with tourists in the spring, was so devoid of human activity that wild boars were strolling down thoroughfares. Pedestrian crossing signs continued flashing; traffic lights kept their old rhythms. The boars couldn’t have cared less; the city was theirs now.

By late March, the only people on the streets were those deemed “essential” by the government—supermarket clerks, delivery workers, home health assistants, bus drivers. Their professions were listed in a state decree. Indispensable. Which made them, of course, among the most vulnerable.

Ana could not work during the shutdown. How was she paying for food? And rent? More worrisome: What if she did find a way to work?

What then?

Her friends reassured me: They were all cooped up at home.

Ana worried for her own health, yes, but she was more concerned about the other women living in her apartment. At 58, she’s like a mother to the sex workers on Carrer d’En Robador, just a hyphen of a street where they work and live. Ana helped shape the rules of work in the flats—twenty minutes max, only penetration, no touching, no oral. Before the lockdown, the women came to Ana if there was a problem with a client, if they felt sick. She kept her phone on all night. At daybreak, she swept the street. 



Photograph by Anna Surinyach

Ana moved to Barcelona from Brazil two decades ago, seeking a safer city to work. She speaks in a rapid blend of Spanish and Portuguese. I had to strain to catch everything as she told me about life under Spain’s lockdown. She said she was fine, in her apartment. The other women were too scared to leave so she did the grocery shopping. Some of them had stopped smoking on account of the virus and for lack of tobacco. She couldn’t wait to get a vermouth after the shutdown ended.

And the neighborhood?

“Quiet,” she said. The square just off her street was barren: the lingering waiters gone, the couples vanished, the children nowhere even in earshot. Her clients, men she’d meet on the street and take up to her room, were nowhere to be found. An alien emptiness.

And the girls—Ana’s girls, as she calls her younger colleagues—they’d be off the street too, of course. Work was hard to come by. A sex worker called Mistress Misskronoss told me that some prostitutes have gone online to sell sex over video calls, but those who worked on Carrer d’En Robador had neither the contacts nor the social-media profiles to find clients and make the transition. Meanwhile, Ana’s friend Janet was seeking financial assistance for Robador’s sex workers, but faced a dearth of support, so she and other prostitutes across Spain had set up a donation-based fund. Barcelona had promised a moratorium on evictions and the Spanish government had approved a law to prevent COVID-19-related layoffs. Yet no accommodations had been made for workers in the informal economy, the most vulnerable of this city. They weren’t paying the rent, didn’t have the money for that. “We do have money for food, thank God. We just have to wait now, everyone has to wait. There’s nothing else to do.”



Photograph by Anna Surinyach

Ana and Janet are founding members of a neighborhood sex workers’ collective called Putas Libertarias—Libertarian Whores. There are many sex workers in Barcelona, Ana said, but they’re not all the same. There are doms and porn actresses, women who own flats and women who rent, women in clubs and women on the street, transgender women and immigrant women and nonbinary workers. Men, too, though fewer. There’s sex trafficking, mafias who force women into prostitution. But Ana was adamant: That’s not the only story of sex work here.

Putas Libertarias was born from crisis. In 2006, Barcelona passed a “citizen safety ordinance” that gave police the power to fine women for selling sex in the street—even though prostitution was often tolerated elsewhere in Spain. In response, a handful of street workers formed the collective to establish a safer model of sex work that cuts out third parties and relies on community support. They attend neighborhood meetings to voice concerns and find allies. They count around forty members and three shared flats.

“We were excluded from the neighborhood, just for being putas,” Janet said. “So what do we do? We go and resist.”

Ana and I first met at an eviction protest in mid-November. Bank officials had come to Carrer d’En Robador to evict a sex worker from the flat where she lived. She had rented from a third party, but the third party didn’t own the apartment.

Hers is a typical story in El Raval, a dense neighborhood near Barcelona’s port, at once a site of voyeurism and repulsion, a place where residents and outsiders fight for public and private space.

For centuries, outsiders have written a story of El Raval situating the neighborhood in a discourse of poverty and vice.

As the pandemic threatened to upend Spain’s social order, that story crept up again.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases here was lower than that of wealthier neighborhoods as of early April. But that could have been a story about the availability of testing and the unlikelihood that residents—many of whom are undocumented—would seek treatment.



Photograph by Anna Surinyach

For months the balcony has been one of the only places in Barcelona where people are permitted outside: flamenco shows performed on balconies, guitar concerts on balconies, movies screened from balconies onto another building’s walls.

But Ana, unlike many, does not spend much time on balconies. She is usually indoors, cooking and cleaning for the women in the flat. The last time I saw her, during a reporting trip in November, she led a photographer and me up to one of the apartments on Robador. When we entered the building, the smell of roasting meat filled the stairwell.

Ana gave us a tour—a four-bedroom shrouded in warm, yellow light. Butterfly stickers dotted the walls. Zulle, a Colombian woman in charge of the flat’s logistics, sat on an armchair in the living room, greeting women and their clients as she glanced at the news on TV. When women left, Zulle hurried to make the bed and place a condom on the sheets.

After our tour, we went for vermouth at the bar next door. The bartender grinned as we entered. “Guapa,” he called Ana. A man seated next to us referred to her in the formal usted.

I marveled as the bar’s patrons doted on her. I’d stumbled upon a sacred place in the middle of the city, where, underneath the neighborhood’s layers of contradictions—posh museums and a hundred squats, selfie-stick-hoisting tourists and police patrols—the people who lived there worked together and protested together. Prostitutes held the community together. 

“I’m in love with this neighborhood,” Ana said.

By April, Spain’s social fabric had been deeply disrupted. The sex workers no longer lingered at the bars, the neighbors no longer held their weekly meetings. Just a month earlier, Putas Libertarias joined the International Women’s Day strike to argue that sex work was, indeed, work. Six days later, they were out of work.

Suddenly, my phone cut out. I had used up the minutes on my Spanish SIM card. I put five euros on the card and called Ana. “Sorry,” I told her when she answered. “I ran out of money.” She laughed. “It happens to me too.”

These dispatches are from #VQRTrueStory, our social-media experiment in nonfiction, which you can follow by visiting us on Instagram: @vqreview.


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