Card workers on the Las Vegas Strip, advertising for the sex trade and often working without papers, endure humiliation from tourists, fight their employers for pay, and are targeted by police.
The first thing they do is put on those T-shirts.
A man in his late 50s wears a yellow one, the words “Orgasim Clinic” misspelled around a red cross on the chest. A short, frail man’s shirt displays the silhouette of a voluptuous woman bending over. “HOT GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU IN 20 MINUTES,” it reads. One block away, a woman puts on a shirt featuring the QR code for a pornographic website. Walk up to her, scan her with your phone, and you’ll be sent directly to the homepage.
These are the “porn slappers” of Las Vegas: the people who stand on the Strip, the city’s gambling and tourism center, distributing handbills for erotic services – cards which they flick and slap to draw attention. At any given time, hundreds of them are working for five outcall services, the largest of which puts 10,000 ads in tourists’ hands each week. They are famous for their T-shirts; gift shops even sell them as souvenirs. But tarjeteros, or “card workers” as they call themselves, refuse to wear the garish tops on bus rides or foot commutes to the Strip. They put them on when they have to.
“I felt bad doing this at first. It bothers our families,” one worker, a woman named Consuela, said. “The siblings, the parents, the spouses – they don’t like that we do this.”
Neither does the rest of Las Vegas. Targeted for citations by police, barred from casinos, singled out by lawmakers and frequently accosted by tourists, the handbillers are – like the women on their cards – among the most disenfranchised workers in the city.
“Some people tell us, ‘Go back to your country,’” Consuela said. “They shout, ‘Hey, the border patrol is coming!’ At times, they throw the cards in my face.”
“Occasionally tourists smack my hand very hard,” José, from El Salvador, said. “Sometimes they hold the cards and ask, ‘Is that your mother? Your sister? Your daughter? Is that your wife? I stay silent.”
Like Consuela and José, the vast majority of the handbillers come from Latin America, and it’s no secret that many are sin papeles – “without papers.” Speaking from sidewalks outside 3,600 room resorts, the handbillers seemed eager to vent. All of our conversations took place in Spanish and every name but one has been changed.
While nervously glancing to the street, Consuela and José said supervisors monitor them from cars. Competing escort services post handbillers right next to each other all along Las Vegas Boulevard, but each stands alone anyway – if they are caught talking to one another, they say, they will be berated for it.
“The bosses want us here like statues,” Consuela said. “It can make someone crazy standing like that.”
The supervisors aren’t the only mobile part of the operation. In the middle of my conversation with Jose, we were interrupted by a vaquero, or “cowboy”, whose job it is to ride his bicycle up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, dropping off packets of 500 escort cards every 20 minutes, a kind of pornographic munitions unit deployed to the front line.
Several sun-soaked blocks away, past showgirls in feather bikinis, Elvis and Optimus Prime, I met Rafael from Mexico. “The worst part is the pay,” he said. “Also standing here eight, nine, 10 hours a day. Sometimes 12. The heat can be insufferable. I feel it from the soles of my feet.”
Carla, from Mexico, and Victor, from Cuba, said they were ashamed of their pornographic product. Others expressed frustration over the wages – $5 an hour, when they’re paid at all.
Sin City is not overflowing with work for unskilled migrants. Rafael does however have a second job steam-cleaning restaurant floors on the overnight shift, part of a 16-hour workday. In her spare time, Consuela bakes bread for Mexican bodegas. Carla cleans houses on her day off, while José, one of the oldest handbillers, has no other work and is vulnerable to exploitation. I learn more about that later.
When a boisterous group of young men approached in a stream of tourists, Consuela handed them ads to “call for a good time” with Spice, Flower and Tyra, each in erotic poses and fully naked except for two or three dots that look like glittering lights.
Occasionally, a tourist asks them for advice on which escort to call. “I can’t recommend any because I don’t know them,” Consuela answers. “They pay me to pass out cards; I don’t know anything about this.”
Other times, handbillers are castigated for enabling a vast and pernicious sex trade.
“Some tell us, ‘Don’t hand out those dirty things,’” Consuela said. “But what would I do to survive? I ask them, ‘Do you have another job for me? I can do lots of work.’”
The handbillers admit to feeling shame – but they shrug it off when they can. “It’s dirty work, but I have to eat and pay rent,” Consuela said.
The governing body that regulates the Las Vegas Strip has not abided the presence of “smut peddling” lightly. The effort to remove the handbillers is an ongoing legal saga that has turned undocumented immigrants into unlikely advocates for constitutional rights.
In the late 90s, at the tail end of an effort to rebrand Las Vegas as a family destination, Clark County, the municipal area encompassing the Strip, outlawed the distribution of commercial content in the resort corridor, a sweeping measure the ACLU challenged as a violation of the first amendment.
“If you ban distributing any material with commercial content, you end up banning newspapers,” Allen Lichtenstein, a counselor for the ACLU of Nevada, said. “Because it has advertising, the Guardian would have been banned. Our newsletter would have been banned. It impacted a significant amount of fully protected speech.”
When the law was overturned, county officials entered potential awkward territory by suing escort services for false advertising, claiming the women on their cards were not the ones showing up to hotel rooms. “It allowed us to argue that when you buy Betty Crocker, you don’t think the woman on the box really made the cake mix,” Lichtenstein said. “It was a stretch, and an unsuccessful one.”
Elvis impersonators, “God hates gambling” street preachers, and other sidewalk-clogging sorts joined handbillers in the county’s crosshairs when a plot developed to sell the sidewalks to resorts for $1. Lawmakers believed casinos could remove undesirable activity if they owned the land. But when the scheme was tested in 2001, a judge said first amendment rights still apply on privately-owned walkways used for public commutes.
“In the legislature, the tendency is to look at the bottom line rather than the constitution,” Lichtenstein said. “We have had to ask the court to reiterate time and again that profit does not trump the first amendment.”
When I met Consuela, I asked her about Clark County’s latest move: a 2012 ordinance empowering police to ticket handbillers caught within 25 feet of littered ads. Lichtenstein called the law “unenforceable and unconstitutional”; tourists are most often responsible for ditching the cards. For her part, Consuela said she was already in the practice of picking up X-rated litter. “Some workers won’t pick them up, but I do,” she said. “There are lots of kids on the Strip, and some of the cards are very ugly.”
One of the last interviews for this story was with Marino Lozano, a 61-year-old naturalized citizen who offered his real name, adding bitterly that he was “no longer afraid”. We met in an empty lot lined with bushes the handbillers use to store backpacks and boxes of food, items they dig out during a dinner break. Marino, who walked with a limp and held a bag of aluminum cans, claimed that he hadn’t been paid in two weeks.
He couldn’t afford the lost income. The residential motel where he and his wife stayed was ready to kick them out. The couple recycled cans to get by, ate meals at churches and suffered from untreated medical conditions. He claimed that when he confronted his supervisors about the money, they threatened to beat him up if he didn’t let it go.
“I don’t care if they punch me or hit me,” he said. “I want you to tell me what I can do. If they are going to beat me, let it be for something good, something that will help our countries, because this is an injustice.”
Marino’s accusation was consistent with others I heard on the Strip. Many handbillers alleged that the individuals assigned to manage them – fellow immigrants from Mexico – were in the practice of stealing portions of their earnings. Carla called the supervisors “thieves”, while Consuela labeled it “a custom they have to rob the worker”.
José provided the only success story, alleging that when the supervisors failed to pay him for three weeks, he threatened to go to the police. They settled up, and he quit.
The only official means of recouping lost earnings is through Nevada’s Labor Commission. Teri Williams, a spokeswoman for the agency, provided documents showing numerous wage complaints against Hillsboro Enterprises, the largest escort service in Las Vegas. These allegations are nearly impossible to investigate, however. Marino’s only proof of employment was a red shirt with a curvaceous woman on the front.
“Cash workers may feel that they earn more – but they may in fact lose money if they fall victim to unscrupulous employers who are unable or unwilling to compensate them,” Williams said.
The vast majority of these tarjeteros walk away from their claims. Many look for more secure work in the ranks of rival outcalls services – only to find, more often than not, that all the companies are alike.
On my last visit to the handbillers on the Strip, on the sidewalk between Planet Hollywood and The Flamingo I saw Chewbacca, a Roman gladiator in a thong, and José – flicking cards for a new company, a balloon advertising “GIRLS TO YOUR ROOM” rising off his back.
None of the handbillers out that day had seen Marino for weeks, though several had adopted his practice of collecting cans. One worker – a woman with a QR code on her chest who was too anxious to speak with me – had two shopping bags bulging with aluminum hanging from a bicycle by her side.