Manzanillo, c. 1890s

History of the "Shady Ladies" in Manzanillo

by Susan Dearing

Prostitution and red light districts have long been an aspect of Mexico's social settings. A red light district, known in Mexico as the "Zona de Tolerancia" (Zone of Tolerance) is a neighborhood where prostitution and other businesses in the sex industry flourish. The term “red light district” was first recorded in the United States in 1894, in an article in The Sentinel, a newspaper in Milwaukee. Other mentions from the 1890s are numerous, and located all over the United States. 

One of the earliest known panoramic photos of the port of Manzanillo

Please click on photos to enlarge

Port Customs 1869

The Zona de Tolerancia in Manzanillo, most likely started with the development of the port (about 1825), and, later, when they started building the railroad (1880).

Beginning the building of the
railroad system, 1880

Building the new port
customs office, 1882

Later in 1880, progress being
made on the railroad

Of course, when you have a port and a railroad, you need the military to protect it, so along came the Mexican Army and Navy, both based in Manzanillo.

Another portion of track laid to
intersect with the main dock

Finished passenger train

Federal troops on horseback
early 1900s

And, when ships visit a port, they bring in merchant marines, and along with ships, you need dock workers and day laborers to load and unload. Then there are businessmen, politicians, farmers--and don't forget tourists--That's a lot of men--and men have needs...

Independence Day Parade
Army marching, early 1900s

Independence Day 1928
Navy marching

Prostitution has existed in Mexico, either legal or illegal, for centuries. One thing that has to be differentiated is actual prostitution from adultery. Adultery by women was harshly punished, but prostitution was a different situation, since women sold their time and services to men. There was no adultery when there was social consent.

Building the new port required manual labor as well as
burro and mule labor

The first official dock for the port
of Manzanillo. Note the 3-masted
cargo ship in the background

Many men, engaged to marry a chaste and pure woman would relieve their "needs" with a prostitute prior to marriage. It was also looked upon as a "learning experience," and a father would, more often than not, bring his sons to a prostitute for their first sexual experience, sometime between the ages of 12-16. 

Independence Day parade
Manzanillo's first fire truck
with all-volunteer

First locomotive to arrive in Manzanillo, 1880s

Streets of Manzanillo,
about 1910

For hundreds of years, many Mexican wives have turned a blind eye to a husband's consorting with prostitutes and mistresses.

Birth control was nonexistent in Mexico until the 1970s--and (still) discouraged by the Catholic church.

Federal port dock, customs and immigration, 1880s

Having a husband visit a prostitute would give a married woman a break from her marital obligations, which often resulted in pregnancy and more children.

The Tolerance Zones are usually located within a few blocks of the downtown business district and the railroad depot. One hundred-plus years ago in Manzanillo, there was more to the red light district than the two short blocks it is today.

It featured saloons, gambling houses, and prostitutes who worked mainly in bawdy houses and shack-like cribs, but also in dance halls and variety theaters.

Manzanillo's passenger terminal,
the lifeline between the port and Guadalajara, Jalisco, in its heyday had two passenger trains per day. Passenger service ended in 1992, with further port expansion.

Departing for Colima and Guadalajara, the passengers get ready for the 8-hour ride, with stops in more than 20 small villages, along the way. The train traveled through verdant valleys and deep gorges.

Avenida Mexico, Manzanillo's main
street, at the corner of Calle Juarez, c. 1905.  Today, Avenida Mexico is Manzanillo's main shopping district, and the tracks that once ran down the center have been rerouted.

The Zona de Tolerancia in the
1800s looked much like any other street. It was what went on inside
that made the difference. The photos to come are what Manzanillo's Red Light District looks like today.

"Quinta de La Rosa" today

A bawdy house would have a bar and dance floor up front, a place for a band or a piano, and rooms in the back--sometimes two floors of small cubicles, not much larger than space for a bed and wash stand.

Bar area & rooms in the back

Painting of a "Soiled Dove"

Ruins of another "Bawdy House"
in the
Zona de Tolerancia

The "Quinta de La Rosa" in Manzanillo, was one of the places where women could be gathered in an orderly, safe, and controlled environment. Not all women at the Quinta were prostitutes, some were just exotic dancers, and others functioned similar to modern escort services.

The interior, showing the bar,
dance floor, & rooms in the back

Tables and seating for the clients
& 2 floors of "cribs"

In the early days, many times, if not most of the time, the bathroom was down the hall. At a price of 1 to 5 pesos, prostitutes attracted local residents from all walks of life and an array of visitors from sizable numbers of sailors, dock workers, ship hands, railroad workers, cowboys, farm hands, ranchers, businessmen, soldiers, politicians, students, gamblers, and tourists.

These professional prostitutes were dedicated full-time, and were known in the community for their services. No one thought badly of them, as is done today in Western societies. All men and women in town knew of their profession; it was not hidden, but considered a necessary part of society.

The managers of old-time Mexican brothels during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were mostly men--necessary considering the typical rough clientele.  The prostitutes ranged in age from the teens to the sixties but were usually in their twenties. Though some worked part-time while holding other jobs (such as taking in laundry), or engaged intermittently in prostitution when money was short, most were dedicated to the trade. The bawdy house would open in the evening, starting with a show (not necessarily sexual, but maybe a little raunchy). Perhaps a band, sometimes a comedian, maybe a piano player. Drinks started flowing and the men started loosening up, with the help of the scantily-dressed ladies wandering around the room.

Today, this is just a bar, known
as a
botanero, but in decades past, the ladies' rooms were up above.
Today, they are just apartments.

A closed "cantina" in the Zona, another wood structure. It offered drinks to go, live entertainment, and ladies of the evening.

A man did not have to wait all night if he had a "regular" he visited, or was strongly driven with need. Behind the bar and stage was usually an open courtyard with benches and tables and chairs, where a man could meet his chosen girl in a quieter atmosphere for more drinking and scintillating conversation.

After a drink or few (he was expected to buy the lady's drinks--same as today), a deal was struck, money exchanged, and they went back to the cubicles. 

One of the popular shows, performed about 60 years ago, was a gorilla/female impersonator. The actor had a costume, where one side was a gorilla, complete with an apelike face and lots of body hair. The other side was made up to be a woman, decked out in ladies finery of the day, complete with shoes, hair and makeup. When the comedian would turn one way, the audience saw a woman, caressed by a gorilla. When he turned the other way, the onlookers saw a gorilla molesting a woman. People would come from all over to see this show at the Quinta deLa Rosa, including women, accompanied, of course, by their husbands. So began the sexual revolution in Manzanillo.

El Fuente, Centro Nocturno:
"The Fountain, Center for Night Activities," is still open with rooms upstairs, With recent port expansion, more rooms have been added.

One of the original wood structures.
An attempt has been made to
preserve it by giving it a coat
of paint and propping it up. It is missing the roof.

The life of Mexican prostitutes was hard. Though prostitution paid better than most jobs open to women, few prostitutes prospered. Most were poor or not far from it, owned little personal property, and were beset by the ever-present threats of violence, venereal disease, pregnancy, and harassment by city officials.

In the early 1800s, it is possible that some of the girls were enslaved, kidnapped or bought in the Philippines, China and Malaysia. Other prostitutes may have been indigenous Indians, captured in other remote areas. Men were taken captive, too, and used for general labor and to work aboard ships. Since birth control was non-existent--the only option was abstinence (no money there) or the rhythm method (not very effective)--many prostitutes did become pregnant, which took them out of the work force for about 2 months yearly.

The "Dressing Room of Sonia"
Wonder what Sonia does?

Many prostitutes hoped they would meet a man and marry. And sometimes it happened. To men of Colonial Manzanillo, an area with very few women, having a wife, whatever her past, meant free sex, and a round-the-clock maid and nanny, saving him money that he would have spent on those services. And there were many women who were willing to trade The Life for a new life.  That also meant that a prostitute's child, if a girl, would have a chance to go to school and get an education, instead of growing up into The Life.  Boys of working girls were mostly put to work, as soon as they were able to hold a shovel or pick. Since there was a shortage of women in Manzanillo, and an overabundance of men, and the port was slowly growing, many common men chose the only women available to be their wives.
Though the government of Mexico had great plans for the port of Manzanillo, revolutions, political upheavals, wars and uprisings put plans on hold various times. Yellow fever plagued the town, and decimated the population more than once.

Pirates raided the ships coming into the port. There was no sanitation. Sewers drained in the streets; drinking water and water for bathing was scarce. The small creeks that ran into the bays quickly became dry as water was siphoned off for farming, drinking, and other uses. It was a rough time for women--and men.

This could have been a brothel in the old days, but today, just apartments

Sign in the closed brothel says,
"Prohibited to urinate on the stairs"! What were those guys thinking?

At the same time that men forced kidnapped and enslaved women to work in the brothels (which sometimes were not much more than small thatched-roof shacks with a mattress--sometimes no more than a woven mat on a dirt floor), European women, where prostitution held no taboos, willingly came aboard the ships destined for this coast--or anywhere--looking for a new life and adventure.

Some were looking for a husband, and a new start. And many times, it worked. Leaving their past behind, and with the allure of lighter skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, these most desired females sometimes found their mate, but just as easily, the fallen doves could have been victims of violence, hunger, rejection, disease, or even suicide.

In the Zona de Tolerancia, prostitution is allowed but often carefully controlled by the government. This doesn’t mean today's tourists shouldn't be careful, as there are some who operating under the radar. Today, visitors to the Zone may find a variety of erotic entertainments, ranging from lap dances to strip teases, to sex shows, to the companionship of working girls and transvestites.

In order to work, prostitutes are required to have a health ID card that the local government issues to sex workers. Each month they undergo a series of medical tests for sexually transmitted infections and every four months, for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). If all goes well, Manzanillo's Department of Health renews their cards. But a prostitute can go through a lot of men--and a lot of chances for catching an STD (sexually transmitted disease). The newspapers are saying that HIV has grown by 800% over the past 5 years. And the sad part is that the men, who are availing themselves of prostitutes are bringing it home to their wives, who inevitably pass it on to their children. Imagine a shady lady--"entertaining" just one gentleman per night, most likely a low figure. That would be 120 men in a 4-month period--minimum. What are the chances of contacting some STD or HIV? The odds are not with you, gentlemen.

This is Colima's Ballet Folklorico,
but this attire could well have been what the classiest ladies of the evening wore in the days when proper women's skirts covered the ankles.

Rooms for rent in the Zona.

Hunting and gathering, and subsistence farming--NOT prostitution--are the world's oldest professions, but "working girls" have been found in nearly every civilization on Earth stretching back throughout all recorded human history.

Wherever there have been money, goods, or services to be bartered, somebody has bartered them for sex. If you go to the Zona de Tolerancia in Manzanillo, bring money--the ladies todaydon't trade their services for goods..

NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles about women in Manzanillo, and their roles in history. The feature stories are dedicated to Amalia Garcia, who died in May 2010 at the age of 95. Amalia was a courageous woman who saw the best and the worst of Manzanillo's history--and lived it. Future stories will feature Amalia, and her daughter Rossella Caligaris, who currently owns the Maria Cumbé Boutique on the boulevard in Salagua.

Author Susan Dearing has lived in Manzanillo 20 years, and is the author of the guidebook, "Manzanillo and the state of Colima, Facts, Tips and Day Trips."