4 min

A dreamer not a dancer

Woman's journey to Toronto's underground

Credit: Joshua Meles

Her statuesque figure straddles the couch on which she sits. With eyes lingering, she struggles to recall the events leading up to her going underground in Toronto.

Wendy Maxwell Edwards, 33, is a bisexual Afro-Costa Rican mother of two living in Toronto for the last seven years.

In this she resembles her ancestors who left Jamaica in the late 1800s to work in Costa Rica. They never belonged to that nation and the term “migrant West Indians” was used to define their descendants. It was not until the 1950s that apartheid in Costa Rica was abolished and descendants of these migrant West Indians truly had a stake in the country.

Today, Edwards feels her ancestral past is coming to haunt her thanks to the indifference of Citizenship And Immigration Canada. With a deportation order against her since last December, she has left her job as a bilingual customer relations agent, her community work, her apartment and gone into hiding.

“Home is where I am. I am without a land and so were my people. Where I go, I make it my land. After living seven years in Toronto, this is my home,” she tells me.

With no status here in Canada, Edwards has received much community support, including from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and an on-line petition, With the help of allies, she has volunteered as an interpreter, administrative assistant and workshop facilitator for women leaving the sex industry.

She’s also been active in the queer community, giving out condoms and speaking with youth at Toronto’s gay clubs as a volunteer for the Black Coalition For AIDS Prevention. She has even contributed an article for the Canadian AIDS Society’s book, A New Look At Homophobia And Heterosexism In Canada.

Edwards arrived in Toronto the summer of 1997 from the coastal town of Quepos in Costa Rica to work as a bartender or so she was led to believe. The problem though, she says, was her contract stated her job was “burlesque entertainer” and her entry to Canada was as an exotic dancer.

Growing up in Puerto Limón, the province of most Afro-Costa Ricans, Edwards lived a very sheltered and privileged life. Her father was a distinguished politician, one of the first black men to be elected to Costa Rica’s parliament. She was raised by both her parents and a grandmother. Though her school friends came from a wide cross section of the society, economic and social circumstances pushed many of them into varied paths. She saw some of her high school friends become street thugs and dons of drug cartels, that use Costa Rica as a shipment point to North America.

When the US waged its anti-drug war campaign on Latin American countries in the early 1990s, Edwards was hanging out in a city club when the police raided. They allowed all the white people to leave and continued to strip-search all the black people. Taken to police headquarters, Edwards insisted that she never belonged to any drug-related gang, but was arrested and interrogated. After hours of interrogation, Edwards was forced to sign an affidavit without being allowed to read it and released.

“It was such a foolish thing to do, if only I could turn back the hands of time,” says Edwards of the affidavit.

Some days later she heard word on the street that there was a price on her head. Scared for her life and the safety of her children, Edwards left her plum job in hotel management and went into hiding.

Edwards took odd jobs as a bartender, as a waitress and on one occasion as a masseuse. It was while working as a bartender at a hotel that she had a chance meeting with two Canadians. One introduced himself as Tony, a location scout for a Toronto film company. Tony said he could hook her up with a bartending job in Canada.

After an attempt on her life and police reluctance to offer her protection, she soon settled on coming to Canada and found herself working not as a bartender but as an exotic dancer. Until 1997, exotic dancer was a special category for immigration to Canada, which made it difficult to leave the profession.

At first her costumes were the simple miniskirts and blouses she wore to the clubs back home. It was not long before she realized that she was not making any money.

“I was wearing too much clothing,” she says. With a quick costume change “the loo” began to roll in.

Edwards says dancers pay as much as $15,000 a year out of their tips back to the employer. There is the renewal of the work permit, contract, DJ fee and floor fee. Then there were, wigs, makeup, manicures and pedicures.

“The night a man refuses you, it plays with your mind: Maybe I am not beautiful enough.”

Edwards says there can be discrimination among the other dancers if they know you are queer. Her ability to speak English made her a target of abuse by the Eastern Europeans and her fellow Costa Ricans. She was once attacked by another dancer, and when she reported the matter, her employers threatened to return her to Costa Rica. Edwards says the employers used the fear of work permit suspension as a regular tactic to control workers.

She wanted out, but her employer said she couldn’t. Edwards attended a workshop conducted by Magaly San Martin for survivors of domestic abuse about their immigration options, which resulted in her talking to the activist about her sexual orientation and the industry in which she worked.

Edwards left the industry after a year and a half, and filed a refugee claim, an option she originally didn’t know she had. As well, she launched a case over her working conditions at the strip club. Edwards won that case at the Ontario Labour Relations Board before eventually settling out of court on issues of worker’s benefits.

She returned to school and graduated from a program in telecom electronics, but in the meantime her claim for refugee status was turned down; the Immigration And Refugee Board Of Canada says that Costa Rica has the means to protect its citizens from persecution, so Edwards was not eligible for refugee status here. She believes the decision has more to do with Canada maintaining its economic relationship, particularly tourism, with Costa Rica. In December 2003, a deportation order was made. She decided to defy the order and go underground.

After reading one of her poems, “Where Do I Belong,” one wonders if Edwards is reliving her ancestral past or if Canada’s domestic workers scheme of 1955 is raising its ugly head disguised as exotic dancing.

Despite her situation, Edwards sees a bright future. She’s hoping she will be granted residency in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. She intends to offer an after-school language program for Canadian children. After all, her parents made it possible for her to learn several languages – she speaks English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. Now she wants to share that with the next generation.

* Rhoma Spencer is an actor, director, play creator and broadcast journalist from Trinidad and Tobago based in Toronto.