By Judith Rosenberg
April 14, 2009
In 1999 Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera, a solidarity project, began going to Mexico at the border and we have not stopped. We took our name from Porfirio Diaz’s quip: “Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God,” realizing, as if for the first time, that Austin, Texas is only a 3-and-1/2-hour drive from Mexico at its closest point, and that if, as we picketed the Gap, we were so concerned about sweatshop labor in southeast Asia, why not about labor conditions in the maquiladoras in our own backyard. This realization struck many of us like a bomb. It threw us into a new relationship with “globalization.”
What jolted us was the visit of three women workers from the Border Committee of Working Women and Men, a Mexican NGO. The American Friends Service Committee had created a speaking tour for them and Austin was the first stop. Like Davids facing Goliaths, these women organized for justice and dignity and better conditions in the US-owned factories. They spoke at Cristo Rey church and we sometimes look back at that moment as the miraculous appearance of the three maquiladora workers, or of the CFO as they are known by their Spanish initials.
At that time, almost 10 years ago, organized crime at the border had already reached alarming levels. Unfortunately, not many people were alarmed. At least the Mexican Congress’s research office cared enough to study the matter: in 1999 208.7 major federal crimes (or MFCs) were being committed per day. That’s 76,175.5 per year. (MFCs include homicides, arms trafficking and kidnapping.) Drug cartels had begun to flourish in Mexico in the 80s after the DEA and other US anti-drug agencies closed off the Caribbean and South Florida as channels for Colombian cocaine bound for the US market. Then with the passage of NAFTA in the 90s, commercial traffic over the border mushroomed and gave the cartels many piggyback opportunities for crossing drugs, money and guns. Given this history, going back several years, what has now suddenly given US and Mexican authorities a fierce sense of urgency?
In 1999 when Austin Tan Cerca first visited the CFO, they were consolidating themselves. They had just rented an office in Piedras Negras, a milestone that gave maquiladora workers a safe space, away from management spying and reprisals, and a boost to labor and human rights organizing. A powerful campaign for workers rights and dignity was underway in Alcoa (automotive parts) and, though the flight to China had begun, there were still garment factories where the CFO was helping workers learn their rights and win significant severance. In this way, a generation of laid-off workers was able to fund better living conditions or the start up of small businesses of their own.
In 1999, also, evidence of a crime wave against mostly young, always poor women had appeared in Juarez. These gender killings, or “femicides” as Dr. Julia Monarrez Fragoso dubbed them, had begun in 1993 and targeted women with atrocities that followed a pattern of kidnap, rape, torture and mutilation. Victims’ remains were dumped in public places. Though the numbers of these horrific murders never reached the proportion of homicides, the offense is as bad or worse and they continue to this day with impunity. Where was officialdom’s urgency to address this femicide? It never materialized.
Our government doesn’t seem to recognize problems unless a solution is handy, preferably one that lends itself to the famous US fix-it mentality and can be subcontracted. Now that crime at the border is officially alarming, we will have more law enforcement personnel--BEST, ICE and CBP; operation Armas Cruzadas; intelligence analysts, Operation Firewall, biometric identification, cross-trained dogs that detect both weapons and currency, X-ray units to scan passenger vehicles, license plate readers and more. What a growth industry! What a great place to find a job in our sagging economy! And that, I believe is one of the purposes of the war on drugs in its current phase, a kind of stimulus package. The other is to keep us scared and therefore eager to go along with the military solution, inadequate as it may be. As Iraq ramps down, the military/industrial complex finds new markets.
But how will all this personnel and hardware, promised by Homeland Security, get to drug cartel roots? How will these remedies help heal the injury that people, communities, social structure and culture within Mexico have already sustained? They won’t. Hope for affected communities now lies, I fiercely and urgently believe, with the CFO and similar grassroots organizations and movements.
The CFO provides a model of citizenship that transcends fear and the fierce lethargy of now. I have seen with my own eyes how their presence in a locality affirms and gives focus to the impulses of working people to take care of each other, despite the alienating influence of the maquiladoras. I have seen their vision and democratic methods help build vital, functioning community in groups of a 10, 100 or a few thousand. It’s a remarkable dynamic that they set in play. They are not consistently mobilized, but over the nearly 10 years that we have visited them, the CFO maintains a consistent presence, building strength one step at a time, one person at a time.
A visitor playing devil’s advocate once asked: ‘You’ve been organizing for a long time. People are still pretty poor and powerless. What have you achieved?
CFO coordinator Julia Quiñonez answered: “Our greatest achievement is that we raise consciousness and overcome apathy and defeatism. Without that we can do nothing in the maquiladoras. For example, if a woman is yelled at at work she can start to learn her rights and then she can become forceful. She can look her boss in the eye and say ‘don’t yell at me’ and then tell her husband ‘don’t hit me.’ That is our greatest achievement. We build on that.”
One thread at a time the social fabric re-knits itself, not an easy or fast way to respond to difficult social problems and not the only way... but touching real lives in a way that Homeland Security and Plan Merida never will. And so, I seek perspective on this partly real, partly orchestrated, crisis of violence and feel a fierce urgency to go to the border now.
P.S. We were talking about the financial crisis and the inadequacy of bailout that leaves the distribution of power and resources exactly as is-- dangerously and disastrously unbalanced. Former delegate and local activist Leslie Cunningham said: "Yeah, that's why the CFO is so important. For years they have found ways to redistribute resources and power. In small ways, but at least they're doing it."
As we approach our tenth anniversary, I invite you to join Austin Tan Cerca's 39th solidarity delegation, October 9-11, to visit the CFO in
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Yes, these are the folks who used to make your Calvin Klein's, are now making automotive parts you didn't know existed, and who are directly affected by "free" trade. Corporate-led globalization built the maquiladoras on their backs. In addition, these are the folks taking the lead at the border in FAIR trade and inventing innovative ways to empower and advocate for themselves. We meet these working women and men and their families in their communities and homes, we celebrate Mexican culture with them, and learn about steps they've been taking for almost 30 years to improve conditions of life and work and to defend human rights, justice and dignity.
Each delegation is limited to about ten participants to allow for an intimate experience. Delegations are usually scheduled for January, March, May and October. Each departs from Austin on a Friday morning and returns on Sunday afternoon. The cost is $200-300 (sliding scale), which includes transportation, meals, and two-night hotel lodging. A translator will be present for all activities. Limited financial assistance is available.
Join us for a trip that not only informs, but personally connects you to grassroots leaders in the growing international response to corporate globalization. For further information, contact Austin Tan Cerca at 512-474-2399 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and please visit http://www.afsc.org/austin/ht/d/ContentDetails/i/18266