Info on Maquilas

Tijuana’s Maquiladoras: Producing Resistance

Emilia Pool
Rebeldia, Vol. 5, No. 60, 2008 (Original in Spanish)

Tijuana is loaded with struggles and stories of denunciation. If you begin with the wall, you see migration, police abuse toward migrants, separation of families and the Border Patrol. You can follow the wall to the barrios where it stops them from growing any farther. In the heart of the barrio is resistance. In the distance are the maquiladoras and their world: 47 industrial parks with 200,000 workers who, in shifts sometimes from three to eight, sometimes two shifts of twelve hours, continue production 24 hours a day.

It’s a maquilapolis, like the title of the documentary that narrates the geography of a city that, more and more, lives and grows for the maquiladoras. In the neighborhoods is the demand for housing, water, electricity; the organizing of the residents. And closer in to the center of the city the organizations: a graphic rebellion, a feminist collective, labor organizations. The stories of Tijuana are found, their struggles, many led by women, accompany and strengthen each other.

I. Maquiladoras

Tijuana: The Mexican Dream?


Images with buses, streets, the exodus of workers from their workplaces, where they spend 8 to 10 hours daily, from Monday to Saturday. Images of maquiladoras, of bridges, of streets full of lights and dust, of conglomerations of people who board buses or taxis, of people who ride standing up in the buses and disappear in the sea of vehicles of public transportation. Images of advertisements they see every day. Images of men and women who arrive tired to their homes, the fatigue evident. Images of men and women who are received by their children with hugs…” FADE OUT


Mago: I’m from Puebla.
Manuel: I come from Chiapas.
Carmen: I was born in Tapachula.
Rogelio: I’m from Michoacan.

All work or worked for many years in the maquiladoras and form part of the Information Center for Working Women and Men (CITTAC), a collective affiliated with the Zapatista Other Campaign in Tijuana.

Another Manuel: I’m from Tlaxcala.
Another Rogelio: From Motozintla, Chiapas.
Hugo: From Acapulco.

They tell how them came here, to the northernmost part of the country, attracted by the stories that are told of Tijuana: “that here they don’t bother to pick up dropped dollars from the floor, that here there’s an abundance of well paid work,” says Mago. Manuel, the one from Tlaxcala, adds, “They tell us that here one can get a good car for almost nothing, that one will have work, a house, everything. It was the ‘American dream,’ only without the risks of crossing to the other side, the American dream in Mexico.”

Rogelio, not the one from Michoacan, but the one from Chiapas, tells how they were brought up here by people from the maquiladoras: “Buses arrived to Motozintla and we were invited to work at the northern border, they told is we’d earn a lot. I was earning 30 to 40 pesos farming in Chiapas, and that’s why I came. The bus I got on was brought from a maquiladora, by a woman, and that’s how 40 of us from where I’m from came, also my in-laws came. They have both ends of the business, because the woman of the bus also was renting apartments in Tijuana for those of us who came from far away.”

“But the dream crashed really quickly,” Mago assures.

Just as in other jobs, generally in the service sector (restaurants, transportation, sex trade), the men and women who work in the maquiladoras come from other parts of Mexico- “the south,” as they say in Tijuana about any other part of the country: Monterrey is the south, Sinaloa is the south, not to mention Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz.

Mago was a farmworker and then later a domestic worker in Puebla. “There were so few possibilities that we dreamed, who doesn’t, of a better life with good health, housing and education. They told me that rich people from the United States would come to Tijuana and that, in the nightclubs, they’d drop money when they paid, and that’s why they say that in Tijuana they sweep up dollars. Many of us came because someone from the family or people we knew had already come here. I came because I had a cousin here.”

“I felt and said, when I arrived in Tijuana to work in the maquiladoras, ‘Finally! Now I’m going to be able to obtain what I’ve always deamed of,’ but the reality is that the maquiladoras don’t fulfill your dreams and the salaries aren’t necessarily good,” explains Mago. “As a domestic worker I would eat leftovers, worked around the clock, what that mean is that I was always at the disposition of the owners of the house. Since then I’ve always dreamed of having enough to buy my own house, and with that idea I came to Tijuana. And I began to work hard in the maquiladora. I was used to working hard and would even work double shifts, and I remember others would tell me, ‘no matter how hard you work, you won’t get rich, that’s how it is with maquiladoras.’ But I didn’t understand that, I wanted to work, more and more… but after a few years passed I realized that I was more tired, downtrodden and without money for building a house. I began to see that I was fed up, I saw that they’d fooled me, that I didn’t have my own life, that I was dependent on what the boss said. The maquiladoras steal our lives from us and destroy our dreams,” Mago says. This led her to fight.

A Rewarding Job

In spite of how difficult it’s been, Mago thinks that: “our lives won’t ever be the same after participating in the struggle’” and that it’s a mistake to feel defeated when things “are slower than what you’d like.” Mago, with the experience that being a farm worker and a maquiladora worker has given her, is now a legal advisor in CITTAC: “the work is rewarding because I’m learning, and not working for a company, but rather for justice. That is, my bosses are not at CITTAC; my bosses, those who I work for, are the working women and men.”

“Here we totally respect the decisions of the workers. We don’t do anything that they don’t want,” says Mago, and she tells how she got here: “It all began through a process of reflection: Where do I want to be?, On which side?, and my decision was to be under and to the left, as the Zapatistas say, because that’s where I come from, because that’s what I am. I want to work for my fellow workers, with my people,” and she says that she will never again, “see things with rose colored glasses. I am understanding capitalism more, that’s my enemy, not my fellow worker, not the machine…I won’t ever again be someone who doesn’t know what her rights are.”

CITTAC, Mago explains, accompanies the workers in their struggles, but doesn’t lead them: “it’s the power of the workers that strengthens CITTAC, the workers’ struggles in the maquiladora came before this organization. I remember reading about struggles from decades ago, before CITTAC existed and before I was born, because even though we don’t know our rights, there is something instinctive that makes you see that things aren’t right.”

Rogelio is from Michoacan and works in the maquiladora. He came to Tijuana after spending some time in Mexico City with his family. He knew that one of his brothers was living somewhere around here, but he hadn’t heard anything about him, and that’s how the whole family came in search of this lost brother and of a better future: “We found my brother, and my parents and other family members came, and we all lived on top of each other in a little room that was 2 meters x 3 meters in size, we suffered, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have water, but we put up with it, thinking: ‘we’ve taken the first step, and the future will be better.’ Because if we would return, we would return to the same, to the bad situation that we had before. But here there was a future, an uncertain one, but with hope that sooner or later we were going to find something better.”

Rogelio doesn’t deny that he had planned to go to the United States, but he thought that it was necessary first to have some savings because, “Why go through the hills if I can go through the door?” He never went and he stayed and worked in the maquiladoras, and he’s worked at eight different companies. “But also, a long time ago I began to fight for my rights and I stopped being afraid, because we’re scared to speak out because you don’t want to lose the little that you have, you think you’ll lose your job, and then where will you get food for your kids. If you lose your job, you have to start all over. But you have to speak out, even if you get fired: it’s like when you don’t know how to swim, you have to get started and practice… I’ve stopped being afraid, you have to stop being afraid.”

He tells how, sometimes, “you think you’re alone, and you get overwhelmed: you see that the maquiladora exists on one side, the government on another, and on another… me. Then I thought, ‘If I protest, who’s going to help me? How can I fight against this if I’m alone? Then you realize that you aren’t alone and that the rest of the workers are fighting also” Rogelio continues: “One realizes that the bosses are pushing us to produce and produce, and meanwhile they’re standing there with their hands on their waists. The maquiladora has a psychological power, they do things to make you feel important, like you are part of a family, and for that reason we end up competing against each other.”

“When I started working in the maquiladora I began to really try hard, as they say, ‘I got on board,’ but you start to realize that they take you for a fool. I rose up to higher positions, but they never raised my salary. Then I thought, ‘If you are going to pretend lyou’re paying me, I’m going to pretend I’m working,’ I’m not going to kill myself for nothing any longer, and I began to work slower,” explains Rogelio. “That’s what hurts them, and I slowed down on the assembly line. They think that we don’t realize, that we’re stupid, they treat us as if they were doing us a favor by giving us work.”

Rogelio tells how the workers began to organize during his time working at the company Sohnen. “Suddenly we got together, we began to talk after work, then we started meeting Saturdays at a park, discussing things that we’d been thinking about. At first there were 15 of us, then 20, and later there were about 40 workers.” The results, says Rogelio, were satisfying even though not with the strength that he would have liked. “When things move slowly, when you begin the process of suing and all that, a lot of people become dissatisfied and they leave, but it’s a process.”

“A long process,” says Mago, and she adds, “Organizing in the maquiladora is very complicated, but even so, there have been some successes, it really is possible… What happens is the maquiladora takes away your strength, you leave tired, and if you have children, you have to leave work running to pick them up from school, or to feed them, to clean house… When is there time to think about organizing?”

But even still, explains Mago, “We’re in this, looking for and forming networks of solidarity, of communication, learning from the experiences of other fellow workers.” She once had the experience of being fired from a textile maquiladora for demanding el reparto de utilitdades [Mexican labor law requires companies to pay ten percent of the profits to their workers every year.] Due to their organizing, the two shifts united in the struggle, “connecting with other workers, making plans”, and calling for “work stoppages” on both shifts. They were fired. But, really, Mago sees this as the fruits of a fight and not a defeat. “The company didn’t count on our organizing, it didn’t occur to them, and no, our lives are not going to be the same after fighting back.”

In CITTAC, giving legal advice and carrying out cases “is only a small part of our work, an important part, but a small part. What we do is political work, the idea is that the workers will no longer have to come to CITTAC, and we’ve already seen this, workers who learn how to defend themselves legally and to carry out their own cases. Also, here we have workshops about labor health and safety, about human rights, about labor rights… We try to organize, to strengthen the struggle, make connections of solidarity among ourselves, the workers.” And she concludes, “We workers can do so much without the bosses, and they can’t do anything without us.”

Against the ways of the maquiladoras

Bety works for the business Munekata. In a city focused on the production of televisions, this factory is dedicated to producing the casings that contain them. Bety entered this plant 4 years ago, and came 12 years ago to Tijuana with her husband Jorge, from an indigenous Huasteca community in Veracruz. For Jorge Zapatismo attracted his interest “from the start because it’s not about being poor or not, or light skinned, but about a way to think, to resist against the government. We had many points in common, the humbleness, doing thngs for others, to do things for oneself, not expecting help from the government.” For several years Jorge has worked with CITTAC, but for Bety it was different. Four years after beginning with Munekata, they gave monthly labor contracts and after 6 months they laid her off with the promise that they would call her when she was needed. They gave her no severance pay nor did they pay her for the last week she worked.

After this she decided to turn to CITTAC. After reading the manual of “Worker’s First Aid” which they had prepared she said, “I couldn’t believe it was true. I went to a meeting and it was brought to my attention and I still haven’t given up. Now only if they run me off will I leave the factory; they try to do it subtly and let you go without your owed severance pay.

This is the story of many other women and men workers also. Many of the members of CITTAC arrived at the center after a problem at work. In order to share the stories of the workers the organization produces the Boletin Maquilero. They distribute the publication in the maquiladoras under cover; they hand them out to people in other factories, above all where there is labor unrest, and better when the workers leave rather than enter their workplaces, because sometimes they search in the purses and pockets of the workers. “If there are problems in a factory they go to others where there are more activists to leaflet. It lights a fire where they go – ‘yes, it is true,’ they say -. People come to CITTAC when they see in the Boletin where it is and they arrive if they have problems in order to ask for help in their cases.” The maquiladoras assert that information about the factory should not be published outside the business, and they promote the belief that it is not possible to publicize anything which happens inside the factory.

In the maquila is waged “a daily battle with the supervisors, against their over bearing ways. The wages never go up, and if you say anything they say to you: ‘there is the door.’ It is a fight to no longer allow the bosses to make us slaves. Because we have a history and must continue to make our history.” They speak of a battle to not accept what the owners and the business want to impose upon them. “When I began at the company the supervisor would shout at us, he would make everyone cry. They would call us dummies, good for nothing, they would insult our mothers, they would humiliate us. They wouldn’t let us sit down and, since no one else was in charge, they would do whatever they wanted. We sent letters to Munekata and they were published in the Boletin. The workers were saying, ‘Yes, yes this all happens’. And with the letters, they put someone else in charge too.”

This supervisor “one time wanted to scold me, but he couldn’t; he had to respect me,” explains Bety. The same thing has happened with others, because they are not used to workers talking back to them, making them see that if something happens, they are the ones responsible for it (because if something comes out wrong, they suspend the worker but not those in high places). Another supervisor made a head of a line become incapacitated due to stress, after being in charge for only one week. Bety said to her fellow workers, “we’re not going to be shaking from fear just because we have her as our supervisor.” Bety also is head of a line. “There are other workers who are bothered by the way I am.” They say, “If you are the leader you ought to yell,” and I don’t yell. Others just compare the words with what is written in the Boletin, or want me to be fired or want me to quit. I always answer them but always with a reason.”

Many workers who form part of CITTAC work in their own legal defense and help others carry out their cases, in addition they hold workshops on labor rights, workplace health and safety, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. Even though it is those with the most experience that conduct cases before the Board, everyone learns the legal procedure and they carry this learning with them if they change factories or cities. Other workers come to the organization, not just those from the maquiladoras, and even those who have not come in some time, who for some time have not been to meetings, form a part of the group. “We are making a network. So, even if workers change places, workplaces or change cities, they continue the work. There they are.”At times the meetings and workshops are held in houses or common spaces. So the homes become part of the space for struggle and the workers organize themselves not just with fellow workers on the job but also with their neighbors.

As workers in the maquilas and with CITTAC the comrades have learned of other struggles. In this way they learn what happens, recognize spaces in which to struggle, maintain communication and motivate each other. “It is important to encourage others and in return be encouraged by others.” Now they explain, the rhythm has diminished, they have fewer resources to go to meetings outside Tijuana and less communication, but they are organizing projects “so that we will not lose steam, so we do not continue like that. If not, it is as if we were in favor of the government’s plans.” The comrades have the idea to collect funds to create a camp with children of the city, with children of workers of the maquiladoras and others from Baja California in the end of July or the beginning of August. The idea is to camp in Tecate where the children will learn of the National Indigenous Congress and of the indigenous peoples and that they will participate in workshops organized by The Graphic Revolt and by BACU.

Time and movement

In the maquiladora, a sarcastic comment about a ridiculous pay raise made during the visit of an executive from the company’s foreign headquarters is enough to get you fired from the company. The pressure is constant and the work, they say, must be done a certain way, the correct way. “It’s frustrating that they time you when you go to the bathroom, or to see how long it takes your brain to react when telling your hand to move. With all this about time and movement, which they put a lot of importance on, they have you tied, and they use it to punish you,” explained workers of the Sohnen maquiladora in 2007.

The struggle of the workers of the maquiladora is about time, says Jaime Cota of CITTAC. “Even though it seems like a minor issue to some, or something simple, the struggle of the workers is about time, because in the maquiladoras everything is regulated by the clock: the time for going to the bathroom, the time for eating, the time for producing…” They take away your time from your family, your time to organize with other workers, they are seeing how they can steal even a few seconds from you… One worker was even punished for arriving 35 seconds late. That’s why there isn’t time to go to the bathroom, so they don’t lose a few seconds on the production line.”

Manuel explains how at Sohnen there is a traffic light that measures time against a standard. “A traffic light that pressures you. You are always working against the light. You have a chart that you have to follow, 35 seconds to unscrew a top, 15 seconds for the next operation… and there were workers who wouldn’t go eat so that they’d have time to meet the standard, because if you didn’t, there would be punishments or they’d call attention to you. If the light turned red, a buzzer would sound to make it clear that you hadn’t reached the goal.”

In the daily struggle, of working like an ant, some workers, such as Rogelio, have decided to lower the goal, to work slower, as a stance against the robbing of your time that happens in the maquiladora: “ This, about the time, is a mental blow: and do it quickly, don’t make a mistake, because they’ll take points away from you… the idea is to take more and more away from you, produce more and more, times and movements have to be adjusted, synchronized, and, from above, the bosses looking for where things are getting held up on the production line, where they can steal more seconds and make adjustments.”

“It’s time” says Carmen. When the male and female workers of the maquiladora speak about their work and their struggles, they always do it while imitating – they imitate the multiple movements that they do thousands of times per day.

From one end to the other

The passenger bus from Tapachula, Chiapas, to Tijuana, like the one that Carmen Duran took, takes four nights and three days. From the southern border, where “poverty is big,” Carmen traveled to the northern border in search of something better. In Tapachula, her mother died, and her father was a soldier who later emigrated to the United States. Carmen also went with her brother across the border. A little while later, they were detained and accused of being immigrant smugglers because they were with a friend who didn’t have papers. She was deported and spent some time at the youth detention center in Tijuana. Then she began working in the maquiladoras. In thirteen years she has worked in nine different ones.

Tijuana, which grows at an accelerated pace because of the number of people who come here from southern Mexico, grows in a disorderly way, like the barrio where Carmen lives – it was land that was occupied by those who now live there, 16 years ago, when there weren’t any city services. Carmen’s neighbors “all work in the maquiladora and come from Michoacan, Morelos, Sinaloa, Oaxaca, Veracruz… those you see there with a better house or with cars, it’s because they work across the border.”

Carmen’s struggle for her rights as a worker overlapped with the struggle in her barrio, known as Lagunitas, for the legal ownership of the land and the demand for basic services like water and electricity. “If you can achieve things by fighting for them, then you realize that it goes for outside the maquiladora too, also in the barrio where you live. Of course it’s difficult, but when you know your rights, you keep fighting, and we know it requires patience, because a struggle is a long term thing… We’ve gone against the current, especially the women, but it’s been a good experience, the experience of meeting people who have the same ideology, of learning, of learning how to defend your rights in the factory and not just here. Many friends have told me that the struggle has transformed their lives. Before the managers thought that it was easy to control the working women, but not any more, now they see.”

Carmen and her fellow workers managed to organize a walkout at the Piedras del Pacifico maquiladora, which produces decorative stone for walls from compressed rock dust. In the factory the workers have to paint “quickly, without a break” hundreds of stone kits. Before, Carmen worked in Sanyo where she got sick from breathing in lead every day. “I couldn’t even stand up, I had a rash all over my body, and the medical exams showed that I had lead in my blood.” She also got fired from Panasonic, with a short and firm statement: “You are no longer part of the Panasonic family.”

There are many barrios like Carmen’s. They are known as “belts” that grow and grow far from the center of Tijuana, where “not even the politicians visit during their campaigns.” They are “abandoned barrios,” small cities within the city. The majority of, if not all, its habitants are immigrants, some new arrivals and some second or third generation “whose destiny is already laid out” as Reynaldo, a resident of one of these barrios, puts it, “to work in the maquiladoras.”

Maunel also came from Chiapas. He’s been a member of CITTAC for years and is in charge of publishing the Boletin Maquilero magazine that CITTAC periodically puts out about the struggles of workers in maquiladoras. Manuel was fired from Sohnen, but unlike the vast majority of cases, after only three months of work at Sohnen he obtained a severence payment of twenty thousand pesos. This is easier to understand when you know his story, when you know that he actually started working there in order to support the workers in their organizing. “The company realized that this was a real challenge. It was strong for two years and it still exists. Many weren’t reaching the production quota, many sued the company, there were a lot of flyers passed out. They removed the strongest members. In the three months that I was there, the struggle was really heating up. Then the company wanted to get rid of me.” The company fired Manuel with an offer of 800 pesos of severance pay, but he sued to b reinstated. And got it… for forty minutes. As soon as he returned to work they made him sign some papers and a guard escorted him to the door. Manuel returned the next day. “I told everyone that I had been reinstated.” He sued again, and finally they offered him a higher severance payment. The struggle in Sohnen was one of the biggest maquiladora struggles.

ii. Watch out for the feminists

Being a woman in Tijuana is difficult. Being a feminist is also difficult. “There is a lot of prejudice. Many think that being a feminist means being lesbian, even within the left and the counterculture movements. Many say, ‘Watch out! She’s a feminist. They don’t like men.’ We still need to define feminism. To me, it means looking for equity, for equality in the differences,” Ines explains. She relates, “I wasn’t born a feminist. I believed, like everyone else, that they were against men. Over time I realized that wasn’t the case. Now I’m comfortable with my feminism. I understand a lot, and I stay away from people who know they’re going to have a problem with me. It’s not that being a feminist means being conflictive, it’s that you don’t let anyone walk over you. It’s hard to have a feminist friend. It’s a way of life. To achieve equality, we need to re-educate, starting with children.” Ines is young. She and a companera are the editors of the fanzine Madame Anatema, and she is also a member of the Colectiva Feminista Binacional (Bi-national Feminist Collective).

Several organizations arose from the struggle in the maquiladoras. The Colectiva Feminista was formed four years ago by members who had been part of the group Factor X. Housewives, activists, the unemployed, young people, students, college graduates, female workers and ex-workers of the maquiladora together make up this group, which organizes workshops for female maquiladora workers about sex and health, and that recently began a cocina colectiva (a collective catering business). They organized a workshop on the Zapatista Sixth Declaration and the patriarchy, about how it is present in different situations, in the workplace, at home, at school, at church. “When you understand that it’s everywhere, you are aware of it, you change reality. Talking about the anti-patriarchy is a way of demanding that we be taken into account, of demanding a place.” Some women of the Feminista Colectiva are also participating in Lady Fest.

“Lady Fest began during ’94 and ’97, with four women from Olympia, the Riot Girls. At first it was one day, then two. It promotes women’s rights and events in which only women participate. We’ve been organizing it for one year and it’s going to last three days. We want bands to play that have at least one woman, or honest men, not sexists. There are very few women here who are serious musicians. There are almost no all-female bands.” Ines is in a band. There will also be art exhibits of female artists, documentaries about struggles in Tijuana, food, stands of local artists and workshops.

Some events were held to raise money for Lady Fest, including a workshop about masculinity. The question, “Is your life based on equality?” was the basis of the workshop, although a lot of time was spent discussing what it means to be a feminist. “Our plan wasn’t for us to be right, or for us to tell them what the alternative was. The plan was to listen to each other and think about this. We wanted to have workshops in the barrios, with maquiladora workers, with CITTAC, with people of the organization Colectivo Chilpancingo for Environmental Justice. We thought we should first talk among ourselves. The workshop was also helpful for this. There I saw and heard my friends say things that I’d never imagined. I think women are alike in certain ways and so are men. We have things in common. We want to live freely. There are things we think no one else goes through, but in the workshop you realize there are atavisms that have to be destroyed. Genders limit our lives. We have to deconstruct them.”

It’s interesting that young men are also beginning to discuss their masculinity, as Ray and Gordo have done. With fanzines such as the one called Hombres hablando de hombres y sexismo (Men Talking about Men and Sexism), and by participating in workshops open to everyone, they reflect on their actions and feelings and start working for changes. “We are obviously influenced by our female friends, feminists, and we are beginning to talk about what we feel and how to act, that sexism is nothing more than discrimination based on gender and that men can fight against this discrimination” Ray explains. In El Gordo it says, “It’s tough to rid yourself of machismo, but it’s possible, and not for moral reasons, not to please my friends, but because you’re convinced, you have to change your insight, and that’s a process.”

Punk music and literature has been an inspiration for them to begin this process of “political consciousness, to create their own base” for social change. They tell about how their first workshop had lots of participants, from only passing out flyers and putting up signs, and many, mostly young, people from Mexicali and Ensenada turned out. In the next Lady Fest there will be a new workshop about masculinity and gender equality.

From the barrio to the maquiladoras, in Tijuana the various struggles of women run side by side. They meet up, meet again, and share goals. From Tijuana, where work is set up in a way to prohibit organizing, where there aren’t places for young people to go, where it’s dangerous to be a woman, where it seems that for children there is no alternative to violence and drugs… there are companeras and companeros, there are stories to hear, there is movement.

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