DOING JUSTICE WORK IN MEXICO
By Judith Rosenberg
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.