Protecting the Rights of Maquiladora Workers
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AFSC TAO Newsletter
December 2003

Rain, Mud and People

By Tom West, ATCF Coordinator

The Laredo delegation's "cultural sharing" event included good food and mariachi music. Tom West and a mariachi musician are pictured above.

Thirteen of us took off Saturday morning under cloudy skies and headed for Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. We were participating in one of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera 's (ATCF) border delegations and were looking forward to experiencing the reality of the global economy along the Texas-Mexico border. A rainy lunch under the rest stop shelter foreshadowed the deluge to come.

We quickly found our motel that Saturday afternoon and checked in. A sharp-eyed delegate spotted the hotel where the Border Committee of Women Workers (CFO by their Spanish initials) were holding a women's workshop on Human Rights only a few streets away. We sat down in their meeting room, saddled with notes and drawings from the meeting, while the CFO finished their meal down the hall. A worker from Alcoa Piedras Negras, joined us and brought us up to date on their efforts to form an independent union.

We met with the women, about a dozen or so from various towns, and heard about their work. During the discussion, a woman spoke of a sexual harassment situation that she was familiar with. A quick socio-drama was put together to show us how this might be handled. Time ran out on the conference room and we headed out for a big dinner. Good food, music and dancing turned this into a great social event. We headed back to our motel for an early bedtime not realizing what the skies had planned for us and all of Laredo.

Morning dawned deceptively quiet and gray. Rain, rain and more rain came down hard that night. My feet found our floor flooded as I got up to check things out. We headed out for breakfast and discovered the extent of our predicament.... Laredo was flooded!

Breakfast was finally found at the S Market, a big western Wal Mart styled affair with a “deli” counter. They fixed us up with eggs, cheese, beans and tortillas. Hot water mixed with Nescafe and O.J. off the shelf quenched our thirsts. OK, so it felt like the Target snack bar, but it gave us a chance to check out prices and figure our next move in light of the rain. A security guard questioned one delegate as he wrote down prices for his news article. We're still not sure what that was about.

Out we went to tour the maquiladoras with Juanita Lopez from Piedras Negras and Alicia from Laredo. We stopped at a private home for tamales Vera Cruz and moved on to the colonia where Juan Pablo had opened a unisex hair salon on a paved road. Juan Pablo has been with the CFO for eight years and was a worker and leader in the Piedras Negras textile maquilas. He has since gone on to organize in Laredo, and style hair. He introduced us to his work but had to break away as a young man came in for a hair cut, seemingly unperturbed by the dozen gringos packed into Juan's small salon with cameras, notebooks and tape recorders. We made plans to meet Juan back at the motel.

Laredo was busy and jammed with traffic. Some streets were littered with stalled cars, or with cars unlucky enough to have come onto a hole or open drain under the flooded street. We maneuvered on to the motel to continue our conversations. Holed up in the motel, Juanita, Alicia and Juan Pablo spent several hours sharing with us their work, lives, histories, and hopes. They explained elements of their organizing style, their knowledge of labor law, and their experiences applying these. They updated us on recent actions. They explained living costs, wages, and payroll deductions. Personal experiences in the maquiladora factories were recounted, often showing a little of the emotion that accompanies powerful experiences.

We also asked what motivated them, what kept them going. Fueled on by sodas, cookies and a few breaks, we talked for about three hours until Juanita had to leave for Piedras Negras. She expressed discomfort over the 2 1/2 hour bus ride that was facing her and the preponderance of men onboard from other places heading out to new places north. I was moved that she would endure this in order to spend time with us. Juanita Lopez, as a volunteer, continues to devote her life to creating justice in the workplace and realizing the Mexican worker's faith in the future.

Juan Pablo directed us to an outdoor taco stand with tables on a small plaza. We had not been able to head out into the colonias as planned, understanding from our hosts that the roads would be impassable. The workers we were planning to visit likewise had their own struggles that day and a dozen muddy gringos trudging around their place (if we could have gotten there) would not have gone over well! But good folks and lively chats over hot sopes and tacos made for fun conversation on a warm night. Our translator, Howard Hawhee , told what many present believe to be the funniest, “most embarrassing moment” story of all time. Take him out for a taco and you might hear it, but don't have any food in your mouth when he gets to the end!

The next morning we made an effort to tour some of the colonias. The rain had held off with only light occasional showers. All around the outskirts of Laredo people walked through muddy streets and on road shoulders to get about their business. Crews were out shoveling and sweeping gutters. Cars and trucks sprayed a fine mist of mud as they passed by, and the maquiladoras churned out the products of their labor. We had to limit our driving to paved roads, halting when the dirt roads appeared as churned up mud ruts.

We returned to the restaurant where Juan Pablo and Alicia had a short time to reflect with us over coffee and way too many maletas (a grilled cheese sandwich with beans). We asked for six maletas and got six platters totaling 24 maletas! With bellies full of cheese, beans, bread, pastries, sodas, coffee and juice, we settled in for that nice drive back to Austin. The drive was a great time to continue discussions about these issues of trade, rights, dignity, democracy and the very human struggles we are learning about. It was also a great time to make life-long friends who share common concerns and a desire to see a better world. Although the rain made the trip at times a little frustrating, we had a chance to take a hard look at a city exploding under the stress of a system of maximum exploitation with minimum return to the society that fuels its engines. The weather served to highlight this city awash in people, cars, production and mud.