El Castillo, Bogota brothel that became a refuge for the socially excluded
By Irene Escudero
Bogota, Jul 8 (EFE).- In one of the largest former brothels in Bogota, now people can learn how to “pole dance” on the same stage where women used to work for tips from the crowd.
El Castillo, in the Santa Fe district, known for prostitution and drug sales, has transformed itself into a unique venue where sex workers, homeless people, transsexuals or migrants living in the area can attend photography or hairstyling workshops and pole dance classes, or can attend concerts and shows.
Wearing a pleated tulle skirt and a bra, Valentina grabs the pole, lifts her entire body, raises her legs, twists, releases and lands elegantly and sensually on her feet again.
Others – transsexuals or non-binaries like her – try to imitate her on the stage in El Castillo’s main room, which with its galleries (now converted into a museum of the night) and the big bar at the entrance (transformed into a library offering books instead of drinks) leaves little to the imagination.
There is no mistaking what the rooms upstairs were used for, with heart-shaped mirrors on the ceilings, false walls that hide staircases and photos everywhere of people engaging in sexual relations.
Formerly, El Castillo was a nightclub, but after the authorities pulled its license it fell into the hands of the Bogota City Hall, which rescued it and converted it into a refuge for the district’s diverse population.
“It’s a laboratory of social innovation that via the arts is seeking economic revitalization, but also a social transformation of the area … and of the imagination,” Ana Maria Parra, with the District Art Institute’s (Idartes) Line Art and Memory without Borders.
And perhaps most important, what stands out to people entering the Castillo de las Artes, is that it gives a push to their routine. Polo, an actor who lives on the street, knows that on Mondays and Thursdays he has to quickly go out to sell or collect trash for recycling so he can be back by 3 pm for his theater classes.
His dream was to have a theater group and perform onstage for the public, and “soon I’ll be finished and we’ll have a group once again,” he told EFE.
Something similar is going on with the members of the Trans Ensemble, who since June – when El Castillo’s monthly program began – have met to dance and act.
“For us, it’s been like a kind of way out of sex work (into) doing other kinds of activities,” Marcela Agrado, one of the older members of the group, said.
They began with 20 people and each day they have one or two more. Right now, they’re discussing what their next activity will be but they already have some ideas: “We want the show this time to be more campy, more sparkly,” said Samantha, a young non-binary girl.
The building is adjacent to Avenida Caracas, one of the main streets in the Colombian capital, and in front of it stands La Piscina, another big nightclub. Around it are little shops, street vendors, recycling carts and “pagadiarios” – hostels where people who have no money can spend the night.
Marcela said that on El Castillo’s street the same female prostitutes ply their trade, some of them minors who “shouldn’t be doing that,” and on the back street are the others who were not born female and who face much more social violence.
In June, “we took in seven trans girls in different circumstances, mistreated, beaten, attacked, abused,” Marcela said, adding that she knows well what exclusion, mistreatment and indecent treatment at the hands of society and the police means.
Now, she wants to “recover our girls, get them out of their comfort zone and teach them that there are other activities they can do to express themselves as trans women in full freedom of their gender.”