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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Elderly former prostitutes have found a refuge from their tough street lives in a Mexico City retirement home, a first in a country where deep-rooted machismo has little sympathy for aging sex workers.
The refuge, named Xochiquetzal after the Aztec goddess of beauty and love who was also the patron of prostitutes, houses 25 former sex workers over the age of 60.
Most were still working until recently, having no other source of income, often for just a few dollars a client.
"I've suffered enough," said Maria Ramirez, at the home.
"I was sleeping on the street. Sometimes I had 10 pesos ($0.91) and I could only eat bananas."
The residents range from cheerful ladies with part-time jobs to frail older women. Many entered the sex trade as young women after being abused and carried on through middle age while sleeping on some of the capital's grimmest streets.
"Every day a sex worker reaches old age and finds herself in the same situation," said Carmen Munoz, who had the idea of opening the home and now runs it.
The women all have beds at the shelter and receive three meals a day and the services of a psychologist.
Munoz, a prostitute for 30 years, was lent the colonial-era house in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Tepito by the left-wing city government.
She renovated it last year with a housing ministry grant, painting it bright yellow and restoring a fountain in a central courtyard, although the government funds do not stretch far enough to cover day-to-day needs like food and medicines.
For Marta, 74, a prostitute on the streets of Mexico City after she fled her home in the central mountain town of Patzcuaro to escape an arranged marriage, the house is the first place she has called home.
"I am completely alone. But here, I have my friends," said Marta, who never completed school and only spoke the Indian language Otomi when she arrived in the capital.
The 12-year-old Marta was quickly picked up by a pimp who exploited, beat and threatened her for most of her life. She also had two children with him, who she now rarely sees.
"Sadly I went through something nobody would want," she said. "I didn't live like other people who have boyfriends who take them out. My lot was to work from a young age and very crudely."
She said it grew harder to make ends meet with age. "Men want young women, young flesh as they say. We are too old."
Women are accepted at the home if they are over 60, homeless and have no financial support. They are not made to stop working, although most try and switch to selling things like candy on the street or making handicrafts.
Prostitution is illegal in Mexico but is often only rated a misdemeanor or is tolerated by authorities, with local police often bribed to turn a blind eye.
Mexico City's liberal left-wing government is proposing making prostitution legal in the city, a move that could cut down on child prostitution and lead to health benefits for sick or elderly sex workers.