By Judith Rosenberg

Since Josefina Castillo and I have made so many references to our work in Mexico, and since St.  Hildegard's has given wonderful support for some of our  projects, and we have in fact just completed a delegation in which Betsy Wilbur participated, I thought it was time to give you some background to this work and what we do.

The first thing to say about this work is that it is based on a human relationship between an Austin group and a Mexico group, and that we pursue this relationship across many obstacles to understanding and trust. The Austin group is called "Austin Tan Cerca de La Frontera" (ATCF) or "Austin So Close to the Border."

Our colleagues on the other side are an independent group of maquiladora workers and former maquila workers who have been organizing for 20 years in border cities from Matamoros in the East to Aguas Prietas on the Arizona border.  They are called the "Comité Fronterizo de Obreras" (CFO)  or "Border Committee of Women Workers," and are headquartered in Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, a scant three and a half hours from Austin. People in Austin don't often realize how close the border is, hence one of the reasons for the name of our group.

The next part of the puzzle is: "What is a maquiladora?"  The short answer is that they are factories or assembly plants operating in Mexico, owned by foreigners (mostly U.S.), and producing goods for export from Mexico only.  Since the 1960's U.S. corporations have been moving manufacturing facilities into Mexico, in search of inexpensive labor.  Starting in 1994, NAFTA speeded up the process until, in June of 2001--before the recession hit--1.4 million Mexicans worked in border maquiladoras.

Maquilas are equivalent to sweatshops, and are part of a system and a logic that claim--because of the difference in cost of living between the two countries, what counts as a low wage in the U.S. is more than ample in Mexico. This is a lie, and amounts to an alibi for horrible working conditions.  One study estimates that U.S. companies save $20,000 per year per laborer by relocating jobs across the border.  Tax and tariff concessions and exemptions further contribute to U.S. corporate profitability.

Another study indicates that if Delphi--the biggest foreign employer in Mexico and a GM spin off--doubled the wages of all their Mexican employees, the cost to them would be negligible: one-tenth of one percent of their gross income.  Only an immoral business philosophy continues to push wages lower.  Some U.S. companies are using the recession as a cover to close factories in the Mexican border region and move further south to a less sophisticated labor force that they can pay lower wages. Sometimes they leave without paying back wages or severance pay.

While local government officials in Mexico and high-level management benefit directly from the maquiladora system, the infrastructure of cities does not.  The population of Ciudad Acuña, across the border from Del Rio, spurred by southern Mexicans looking for work, has doubled since 1991--amounting now to about 120,000.  The city has not kept pace.  There is almost no public transportation; half the homes use outdoor latrines. Acuña invests in roads for cross-border trucks and limousines, but not in services for the people.  Worker residential neighborhoods are unpaved and have no water or sewage systems.  The mayor of Acuña has also arranged to keep labor unions out of Acuña, a further incentive to foreign industry but harmful to workers whose salaries average 100 pesos less than the equivalent work for the same employer--Alcoa for example--in a different location.

All over Latin America, people know "casas de carton" or houses of cardboard semblems of poverty an exploitation.  These homes abound in Acuña, sometimes serving as dwellings for people who work 48 to 60 hours a week for Alcoa, a major employer in Acuña. The crowning glory or the final insult of the maquiladora system is that it thrives by routinely violating the Mexican Constitution and the Federal Labor Laws.  Local governments collude and turn a blind eye.

Mexico has a long history of people's movements, and today many groups seek to better conditions and change relationships responsible for the country's economic crisis.  A crisis that has grown steadily worse for poor people in the last 20 years.  Our colleagues, "The Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) is one such group.  They are  are composed of present and former maquiladora workers, and led by women, mostly volunteers.

Their primary strategy is to study the Mexican Constitution and labor laws, teach law to groups of workers in their homes, and then help workers advocate for themselves through citing the law and fighting for it.  A very appealing feature of the CFO philosophy is that they never impose an agenda on the workers, but instead respond to needs that workers articulate.  They say, "Always go to the workers with empty hands"-- equivalent to our idiom of an "open mind."

We in Austin go to the border full of ideas and desire to help, born aloft by our access to wondrous resources. However, in endeavoring to work as partners with the Mexicans, we in Austin have learned the importance of going to them with "open hands."  It means following their lead and even studying their lead patiently. After all, they take risks that can cost them their jobs, the welfare of their families, their possibilities for the future, and even their lives.  They encounter blacklists; smear campaigns, and death threats.  By comparison, we risk nothing. And so cross-border solidarity has been a road to learn.

How "Austin Tan Cerca de La Frontera" or ATCF got born --our creation myth--demonstrates another side to cross- border solidarity.  It all began when The American Friends Service Committee, of which Josefina is the Austin coordinator, brought three obreras or women workers to Austin as part of a U.S. speaking tour.  It was October, 1999, and their first stop in Austin was the Church of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, where they spoke to a small audience comprising parishioners, Quakers, workers in the immigrants-rights movement, and members of the Austin Peace and Justice Coalition.

I came from the Quaker side of the house, and this was my first exposure to the Mexican crisis.  What I saw and heard were three female "Davids" speaking Spanish only, willing to take on "Goliaths," and able to move mountains.  Since then, the more I get to know these women, the more I am drawn by the fire of their conviction, their insistence on justice, autonomy, and dignity, and compelled by the example of their resourcefulness.  They have changed my life.

It happened to be a Saturday, this day of the miraculous appearance at Nuestra Señora, and the same day as the Living Wage Coalition was staging a monthly picket outside The Gap on Guadalupe to protest sweatshop conditions of U.S. manufacturing in Southeast Asia.  The protesters asked the CFO women to join them, and so a relationship of mutual support across borders began to form.  At this moment, a profound idea came to some of the Austin protesters.  They asked why we are so concerned with the exploitation and abusive conditions that U.S. manufacturers go to Southeast Asia to perpetuate, and are not equally concerned with the conditions they create much closer to home, at the Mexican border.

Doug Zachary and Tom West started plans to take an Austin solidarity delegation to the border so that Austin people could begin to see for themselves what was happening and draw their own conclusions.  The first delegation happened as early as one month later, November 1999.  It included a UT film student, Heather Courtney, who captured footage that she subsequently edited into a 17-minute documentary.  Zachary thought of the name for the group, "Austin Tan Cerca de La Frontera," or "Austin So Close to the Border."  One not-so-obvious meaning is that the name paraphrases a saying by Porfirio Diaz, ruler of Mexico from 1876 to 1910, who was pretty much a dictator but who nevertheless had a tendency to say true and pithy aphorisms.  He said, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

From the onset, ATCF and the CFO agreed that the northerners would supply a monthly salary--a living wage--to the CFO to pay one of their full-time organizers.  It has been a struggle for us,  but we have continued to do this since November of 1999. Originally, we paid $420 a month, which compares to a factory salary of $140 to $280 a month.  Eventually, we added an extra $180 to help pay for an enlarged office space that they occupy in Piedras Negras.  This is the concrete part of our support, but not all we are looking for. In the long view of history, Europe--and then the U.S.--has always coveted the natural resources of Mexico, from gold and silver, to timber to labor, and so relations have been fraught with exploitation, supported by ideologies of racism, manifest destiny, and now neoliberalism.  Given the past, and the differences in culture, language, class, race, and nationality that still exist, it is hard to make relationships of equality between people across the border. Nevertheless, a human relationship is growing.

One way I saw it during this January delegation, which incidentally, is the 11th we have taken, is that the compañeras announced a new six-month campaign of organizing in Alcoa, in a different division than the one that has occupied them for several years and with which they are currently at an impasse.  They said very clearly and they said it twice: "in the new campaign, we will depend on you for support."

We had several discussions about the timing and the form of support we might give, but the important things I saw were that, one, they are including us in their strategizing; and two, the strategizing is being done by new people within their organization.  For a long time, they have depended on the vision and drive of a very dynamic woman, Julia Quiñones, who started work in the maquiladoras at 14 and started organizing at 15--twenty years ago.  The appearance of new leaders shows that the CFO are acting on a difficult democratic principle of shared leadership and development of the abilities of many people.

Another focus of this delegation was that it coincided with the celebration of The Day of the Three Kings, a more important holiday in Mexico than Christmas.  It is the time that children receive gifts.  In U.S. terms, we were to play Santa Claus.  Accordingly, they supplied a gift list of 55 children, their genders and ages from infants to 15-year-olds, whose parents lost jobs at Alcoa during a fight for women's rights.  We were nervous about finding enough toys for all.  Emails shot back and forth between Austin and Piedras Negras.  In the last one we said, we are pretty sure we can find 55 toys, but are not sure they will be suitable for all the age groups.

In retrospect, we can laugh.  We ended up with hundreds of toys.  I don't know how many.  Betsy's truck was crammed full.  As it turned out, even when the guest list of our party expanded, there was plenty for all. Usually there is never enough of anything, and I watched the anxiety of some of the parents who feared, until the last gift was given out, that there would not be enough for every child.  In our time at the end of the trip, when we traditionally sit together in a circle for reflections and commitments, the women said over and over how happy it made them to see their children smile.  We could see plainly ourselves that they were children who had owned no toys.  None.  But what tickled me was that the adults wanted toys too.  Several of the women--and they are people who live hard lives, for whom there is perhaps never enough color, never enough softness--went home hugging stuffed animal dolls.