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For the labor rights and all human rights of the maquiladora workers

 
   
   
   
Home> CFO in the Media 1998
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Taking Flight

Masiosare, La Jornada
July 5, 1998

Por Ricardo Hernández

Originally published in slightly different form in La Jornada, “Masiosare” (weekly review) No. 32, July 5, 1998. Reprinted by permission. Translation by Rachael Kamel.

When I look at Julia Quiñonez it makes me think of director Wim Wenders and his film about the angels who come down to earth and get themselves mixed up with humans—real angels, not their cheap imitations in Touched by an Angel. A little while ago we drove across the border between Reynosa and McAllen, and the gringo immigration agents didn’t ask her anything. They didn’t even ask to see her papers. “It’s because she’s an angel,” says a sixtyish compañero who is traveling with us. He meant it. And I believe it, because when I’m with the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO), worn-out metaphors mean something again, and trite remarks become inexplicably convincing.

Esperanza, who works for General Electric in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, is not being melodramatic when she says that the opening of the CFO office in Piedras Negras (on April 3, 1998), was like a dam bursting. After seventeen years of grassroots work with hundreds and thousands of workers in five border cities, the CFO finally went public by opening its first office—complete with computer and CFO@comuni-k.com.
The Zapatistas of the Maquiladoras

Esteban walks out of a factory called Rassini’s and heads over to the CFO office to check the e-mail. From a maquiladora production line to the information superhighway. It’s hard not to compare these workers to the Zapatistas at the other end of Mexico. Not just because they’re surfing the net, but because these workers, just like the Indians of Chiapas, draw their strength more from moral authority than from political savvy.

Members of the CFO voice a constant refrain: to stick with what the workers say. As a result, demagoguery is absent, and even oratory is scarce. They’re not seeking political power and don’t pay much attention to elections. Their decency, and the way they make everyone feel included, win them respect. It wasn’t for nothing that at Carrizo Manufacturing, the workers themselves started calling the CFO members in their ranks “our Zapatistas.”
Paty Leyva is one of them. She’s been working in the maquiladoras since she was fourteen. Now she’s twenty-seven, with three children. She has delicate ways and a certain air of distinction; I can imagine her running a nonprofit in Mexico City, with sensitivity and good judgment.

Paty is with Armando; Norma with Esteban; “Dolly” with Rey; Julia with Oscar. Four young couples, like hundreds of thousands in these border towns, where there are by far fewer aunts and grandmothers to keep watch. I don’t see many couples, or even single people, over thirty or thirty-five. Older people look out of place, as if we struck a sour note, at least in Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña.

Besides, career options here are limited; when you can’t work in a factory any more, your only alternatives are to flip burgers or become a househusband (king of your own castle?), a small-time drug dealer, or perhaps a bouncer. Taxi drivers, that plague of Mexico City, don’t even exist in these two cities.

Maritoña is with her boy, Isabel with her two kids, Mericia her three, and Esperanza, four. Single mothers, also young. They can talk to you about ergonomics and the Federal Labor Law. They also know that the 1996 salary of John F. Smith, the CEO of General Motors, was equivalent to the salaries of 3,128½ Maritoñas.

The Wings of Many Desires

I’m trying to figure out whether it’s their youth that allows the CFOs to smile so brightly when they leave the plants after a ten-hour shift with two short breaks. Like Paty smiles as she explores the computer in the CFO office and finds a picture of the orange-colored entrance to Carrizo, looking just like she saw it in person that morning, decorating the cyberpropaganda of the Piedras Negras industrial park, which announces in English its search for “a few good companies—seeking a large, low-cost, skillful labor force.”

I think that Esperanza, at least, would like it if I said out loud that the CFOs wear their own wings of desire: the desire for justice. If I keep on like this, though, I’ll only deserve to be washed away like toxic waste to the circle of hell reserved for sentimentality, there to burn myself up in about three more lines. I don’t want to gush, either, about the other dimension of the CFO: their distance from political games, or the way that for years they maintained an otherworldly, almost virginal silence in public (just like angels). For good or ill, the CFO stood apart, uninvolved and unaware of the last fifteen years in the development of Mexican social movements—perhaps because its eyes were turned more toward the north.

Duet: Eddie Vedder with Julia Quiñonez

The comparison is anything but gratuitous: neither Subcomandante Marcos nor Julia Quiñonez likes to be identified as the leader of the organizations they belong to. Although both have a voice in important decisions, they are more interested in trying to interpret and serve what comes from the grassroots. Julia is ten years younger than Marcos, not as sophisticated, and—thank heaven!—she doesn’t smoke. Among her many virtues she has cultivated a genuine modesty and an unstoppable way of doing things that place her in the ranks of those who really make a difference. Maybe that’s why she appeared in an article in the in-flight magazine of Continental Airlines, crossing the skies in a photo that shows her talking on the phone with a big smile. She’s standing in her house, her twins and her little girl behind her, before the birth of her fourth child.

I loathe talking about people as personalities. Here in the CFO office, though, we’re not fifty yards from the Rio Grande/Río Bravo, and so many things are done gringo style. So I allow myself to imagine writing something that would start by saying, when I look at Julia Quiñonez it makes me think of director Wim Wenders, and that kind of foolishness. Like someone else might write, All one night I walked through the jungle until at last, near dawn, I reached Marcos . . . Instead of talking about the workers, or the Indians, their starvation wages or their starvation without wages. Or about the environmental nightmare and urban disaster that is Ciudad Acuña. Or about the workers who cross every week from Piedras Negras to Eagle Pass, Texas, where they sell their blood to help cover their weekly expenses.

I could be talking about Maritoña, who’s trying to figure out where to get $1000 for the dental work that her ten-year-old son needs so urgently, because he hardly ever eats without his mouth bleeding. About how heavily that $1000 debt will weigh on her, because she only earns $37 a week. Or even about how Julia breaks out in a sweat when she sets off in her aging van to scale the hills that hold the shantytowns of Acuña, where her infinite patience takes her often to explain to more women their rights under the labor code.

So it feels contradictory when we send out PR telling how Julia spoke about the maquiladoras at the Copenhagen Social Summit, in the Beijing Women’s Conference, in Guatemala, in Mexico City, and in more places than she can remember in the United States. How she herself worked in a maquiladora owned by Johnson & Johnson, from the age of fifteen until she was twenty. How she studied social work at night—and how she was born in Torreón, where she lived until her parents took her northward when she was eight, never suspecting that the change would make their little girl’s eyes grow even bigger and brighter. But the propaganda serves a purpose: in Julia, you can see the great dignity and courage of maquila women.

I’m not trying to make a difference, says Eddie Vedder—naturally, after he already has. But I believe Pearl Jam after I hear Julia insist, with her steady gaze: it’s not me but the workers, the women who decide. And Vedder again: Let’s call an angel . . .

The Forklift Operator and the Minority Whip

April 1998: four women from the border travel to Washington for two days of lobbying. From Piedras Negras come Paty Leyva and Julia. Esther from General Motors arrives from Reynosa. All three are with the CFO. The fourth is Bety from Factor X in Tijuana. “We want to have influence in Washington,” says Julia in a public meeting organized by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin America Working Group. Then she adds, “but we haven’t come to ask for your pity, but to say that we believe it is very important for us to be connected to you, because together we can make positive change.” That’s the idea she wants to linger in the minds of those who are listening, not just the horrific stories that Paty and Esther have told.

In the Capitol we visit the office of the minority whip, David Bonior, third most important in the Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress. The four Mexican women sit across from nine representatives and a dozen congressional staff. Bonior called the meeting, sending an invitation describing the Mexicans as honored guests. Each of them speaks, then Paty Leyva shows some of the “safety equipment” that the maquiladoras give out to their workers: a flimsy cotton mask, which is supposed to protect against the lint that also gets in your eyes, your nose, and your ears in the garment plants; plastic goggles like swimmers use, which are supposed to protect workers from the rivers of mud at the LABASA brick-making plant; plastic earplugs, which are supposed to protect against the intense, unending noise of the riveting operation at Carrizo; and a pair of workgloves, which are supposed to protect those who handle the recently cast components of automotive chassis. The key term here is “supposed to.”

The representatives feel the gloves, which once were yellow and now are stained with grease, stinking, stiff, held together with homemade denim patches, and even so falling apart. They look like hands. As if one of the forklift operators from Rassini’s were here in person, shaking the hand of a congressperson.
Paty goes on, because she still has to show the solder used in the maquiladora Lirifius (that’s “Spanish” for Littelfuse), whose label indicates that it’s banned in California because it can cause cancer. She also has a photograph of a woman who was sickened by this solder and then fired by the company when she fell ill. The last thing Paty shows are the one-sided scissors that she uses when she sews Dockers. They look just like the ones I bought at Strawbridge’s in Center City Philadelphia.

Workers in Black, Going Back to the Future

We move in a posse, because that’s how they all live, inside and outside the factory. At 11:00 one night, eight of us set out from Piedras Negras, heading for Acuña. Julia is driving the ’98 Ford Expedition rented by one of our friends on the other side: a black van with polarized windshield, black like the outfits that many of the CFOs agreed to wear for the inauguration of their office. Just like the Men in Black, they said. No way we’re not going.
In the darkness of the highway, we turn on the hi-beams that Esperanza makes, while we’re cooled by an air conditioner just like the ones that Esther is assembling right now on the graveyard shift in Reynosa.
Forget about not turning up the radio, says Julia, because it’s so much better than her tape player; that’s why Maritoña has already begun to sing “Jefe de Jefes” from the Tigres del Norte, while Esperanza and Julia flow together and turn into Candelaria, Rosa Lupe, and Marina, the Malinches of the maquiladoras, who go back to the future from the third paragraph of page 147 of The Crystal Frontier by Carlos Fuentes, singing softly, I’m sailing beneath the water, and I can fly up high . . .

— May 1998

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