May 5, 2020
This month, DSW honors Jaime Montejo, one of the founding members of the Elisa Martinez Street Brigade to Support Women; the sex worker support organization can be credited with decriminalizing sex work in Mexico City. Montejo dedicated his life to uplifting the sex workers of Mexico City. Early this month he died after contracting COVID-19.
Fellow activists and community members continue Montejo’s critical work, fighting for the rights and dignity of all people, even as they mourn his devastating loss.
In a Los Angeles Times article, Kate Linthicum reported that just last month, Jaime was in downtown Mexico City with co-workers from the Street Brigade. Wearing a surgical mask, Montejo and his co-founders, Elvira and Rosa Icela Madrid, brought meals, face covers, and tarps to sex workers who had seen their livelihoods disappear overnight as a result of the pandemic. Unable to find clients, workers were forced out of the $5/night hotels they had been living in and set up a makeshift camp near the subway station.
Montejo and the Madrid sisters met as students together at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, studying prostitution in Mexico City’s red-light district in the 1980s. Their research coincided with the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Mexico. Sex workers were dying at alarming rates, while being subjected to regular violence at the hands of police, managers, partners, and criminals posing as clients. The trio resolved to make things better. Upon graduation, they set up an advocacy group in the La Merced neighborhood of the city to help workers access healthcare services and contraception and to file reports when they were harassed or assaulted.
They founded the Street Brigade in 1993, named for a sex worker who passed away from complications of AIDS. The organization helps both trafficking survivors — who want to exit the trade — and consensual adult sex workers in need of support. Their advocacy led to a 2014 victory when a judge in Mexico City ruled that prostitutes should be recognized as non-salaried workers, allowing them to access certain benefits. In 2019, city lawmakers effectually decriminalized sex work altogether.
At his memorial, one transgender woman remembered how Montejo’s work had given her a family after she was kicked out of her house at 14 for wearing girls’ clothing. The crowds that gathered to honor him maintained “a healthy distance,” unable to embrace in their grief. Instead, they wrote notes to him and his fellow co-founders and left the notes next to the memorial.