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Putting a Heart in an Economic Tin Man
Border delegations bring home the truth about a world so close to us, but kept so far away

SOJOURN
Newsletter of the American Friends Service Committee, Austin Area Program
March 2007

By Scott Taylor

A community organizer (third from left) along with her family in front of their house in Ciudad Acuña. These community organizers are called "promotoras." They meet with workers in their homes and explain to them their rights under Mexican law. A delegation from Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera visited there recently. - Photo by Jessica Walker Beaumont.

The economic reality of the border is not easy to describe in words or in figures. In a recent presentation to high school students I asked them if they could guess why immigration from Mexico had doubled in the two years following the NAFTA agreement. Their eyes immediately glazed over. This is a common reaction. To some, the term "economics" carries with it a connotation of cold calculation and enigmatic numbers. But, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (Austin So Close to the Border), a program of the AFSC, brings these theoretical economic discussions to the level of the concrete.

ATCF takes four delegations each year to the U.S.-Mexico border to visit with workers from the "maquiladoras," factories which are primarily sweat shops, and to learn from the civil rights organizers who educate those workers.

The 12 of us left Austin on January 5th, at around 8:00 in the morning and arrived in Piedras Negras Mexico at around noon. It was surprising to all of us how close Mexico was to Austin . Before we knew it, we had arrived.

At our first waypoint, Piedras Negras, we met community organizers, and then visited a worker-owned maquiladora called "Dignity and Justice." Then we hopped back in the van for a guided tour of the industrial complexes of the city.

The scale and scope of these complexes were truly remarkable. Later that afternoon we set out for our final destination: Ciudad Acuña with a population of 200,000. This is a city of factories; a city where about 90 percent of all people work in the maquiladoras. Many of those workers had lost their livelihoods as farmers or small business people due to trade agreements such as NAFTA.

Several families in the community warmly welcomed us into their homes to discuss various situations in the factories. Afterward we once again toured the huge complexes of factories in our van. All the while, our local guide cited the human rights violations of each one of the factories as we passed them.

A settlement of "casas de cartón" (cardboard houses) in Ciudad Acuña , Mexico . Often workers from the factories live as squatters in these houses awaiting the day when they might be able to afford their own homes.- Photo by Jessica Walker Beaumont.

The group fell silent as we approached one of the hillside communities of cardboard houses. It was as though we were looking into a very private space - someone's living room. Workers live in these communities because they can't make enough to afford housing.

The whole experience was thought provoking to all of us in ways we had not anticipated. I soon realized that there are many realities of economics that facts and figures just can't describe.

In the city of factories, there are endless days of winter cold in unheated houses. There, it is difficult to keep the laundry clean when you have a dirt (or mud) floor. There, hands become crippled after a 10-hour shift in a maquiladora.

The January delegation of Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera celebrates a Mexican Christmas tradition on the day of "Tres Reyes" (Three Kings) January 5th. This is the day when many Mexican children receive presents.
- Photo by Jessica Walker Beaumont.

These were some of the themes that came up during the "reflections" discussion period of the delegation. In these discussions, I have often seen people retreat to easy answers, or quick policy or business fixes. To their credit, the delegates saw the families that we visited as real people with complex problems. They focused on the simple joys of living, like the piñata party we attended as part of a Christmas celebration. We also discussed the struggles that were so apparent.

What touched me the most was that this world, this city of sweat shops, lies closer to my house in Austin , Texas than does the city of Dallas . The border is a part of who we are as Texans, and as U.S. citizens.

It is crucial for people to understand how important these delegations truly are, particularly for the delegates. There is nothing else like them in Texas . We fulfill a deep soulful need - a human need - to reach out a hand across the short span of the border to the workers who make our clothes, cars, TVs, and furniture for pennies an hour, and let them know that we know that they exist, and that we want to understand their struggle.

 

"It was as though we were looking into a very private place - someone's living room."

 

That is solidarity, and it is the essence of " Austin So Close to the Border." These communities remain largely invisible to Texas , the rest of the United States and to the world. The many hundreds of factories sprinkled just across the U.S.- Mexico border would look like so much spilled salt from afar, but seen from ground level their realities hit close to home. The feedback I received from most of the delegates confirmed this. Many focused on how fulfilling the experience was for them. This border delegation put a heart back in the proverbial "Tin Man" of economic trade analysis. In fact, I think it showed us that all of our hearts beat in the same unyielding metal chest. Our lives are a part of their lives, no matter what river may separate us.

Scott Taylor is the Administrative Associate at the AFSC Austin Office.

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