Each month, Enrique Davalos, a professor at City College, gives a tour along the U.S.-Mexico border of the Tijuana Maquiladoras. A social activist tour, Enrique as well as former employees of the maquilas brings awareness to American consumers about the poor working conditions and environmental exploitation taking place right along our frontera.
What are maquiladoras?
Enrique’s tour passes the gates of several maquiladoras (or maquilas): foreign owned factories that have come to Mexico in order to benefit from cheap labor and lax environmental laws.
The tour begins at the San Ysidro Trolley in the U.S. where our group is taken through the busiest land port of entry in the world. On the Mexico side, a shuttle bus waits to take us along the border.
The first stop is a narrow street looking down into a shanty neighborhood called Colonia Libertad. In the middle of roofs often made of recycled materials, a nude female sculpture stands prominently. She’s known as Tijuana III Milenio or “La Mona”. Built by engineer Armando Munow Garcia in 1990, the sculpture sits in a ravine right next to Tijuana’s International Airport. This is also where Garcia lived, the interior of the sculpture doubling as his living quarters. According to Enrique, the head of the sculpture was his office and the belly was his bedroom. The sculpture is impressively made of 18 tons of brick.
The shuttle next stops along a busy road about one hundred feet from a roundabout. In the middle stands an obelisk similar to the boundary monuments along the U.S.-Mexico border. This obelisk, however, is painted red and has crosses attached. The road is right next to the U.S.-Mexico boundary wall made of military landing mat. This was once the actual boundary line, but since then the U.S. has unilaterally created a thicker wall about 300 feet away with concertina rolls on top.
Here, we get out of the shuttle and walk along the wall to see the wooden crosses affixed to the fence and scattered on the floor. First installed by a migrant group on the Day of the Dead in 1998, the number of crosses started out as 340 to commemorate those who died trying to cross into the United States from 1995-1998 (the beginning of Operation Gatekeeper). Activists continued to place more crosses along this road and they now number in the thousands, mirroring the number of migrants who have died trying to cross into the U.S.
After these two moving monuments, the shuttle takes us to a maquilapolis. Warehouses jut up against the U.S.-Mexico fence and surround themselves with thick gates. During the weekday these roads are glutted with trucks and taco carts that cater to the approximately 160,000 employees of 700 formal maquilas. There are another 200 informal maquilas with an unknown number of workers.
Enrique takes us on the tour during a Saturday when the trucks and maquila employees are gone.
There’s not much to see and worse yet, as Enrique explains, we can’t get out of the shuttle to take pictures because it’s likely security will show up and tell us its illegal.
A few years back, Mexico was known to be the capital of television production. China surpassed them for a time, but then Mexico once again took on the moniker. Tijuana also has a large production of medical items, textiles and other products (including Nike shoes).
The shuttle stops outside the warehouses of Sanyo, one of the major maquiladoras in Tijuana. The company came to Tijuana in 1983 from Japan. The founder originally planned to come to San Diego in 1978 to produce refrigerators. He realized, however, it was better to come to Tijuana because the company could save more than $20,000 per worker if production moved across the border. In the best moments, Sanyo had 6,000 workers and opened 6 maquilas in Tijuana. Over time, however, Sanyo has cut its workforce to a little more than 1,000 workers.
Maquila Working Conditions
As the shuttle drives or stops outside more fences, Enrique hands the microphone over to two former maquila employees who describe their first-hand experiences.
The largest number of maquila workers are young women, presumably because they agree more readily to low wages and long hours. They also largely come from Central America, having traveled up to Tijuana in hopes of eventually being able to cross into the United States. Instead, they often get stuck in these maquilas where wages average $80 per week, hardly enough to pay for rent, health care or provide for a family.
Generally, women are not allowed to be pregnant and are given regular pregnancy tests. They are fired if they do become pregnant. Most workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom, except for during prescribed times. They also have strict regulations on being at work on time. If they are a few minutes late, they do not receive their on-time bonuses. Safety is also a constant concern. Most employees work about 10 hours a day, six days a week. Many times they are forced to work 24 hours a day because they are required to produce a certain number of products to ship out the next day. They also often require workers to carry the weight of about 100 lbs. by themselves.
While driving in the shuttle, one of two maquila workers explained that when she encountered the injustices of maquilas, she became engaged in union organizing and in strikes. The first maquila she worked at went on strike for seven years. She then worked for another that produced cables for telecommunications. She was fired from this job because she asked if there was a union. She continued working at various maquilas, but once again was fired because she was an activist. She explained that workers have experienced threats, intimidation and incarceration due to their strikers activities.
Electronics, television, medical products, regardless these maquiladoras use various chemicals which many times affect the health of the workers and the surrounding communities. It is well known that many workers become sick or die because of their exposure to these chemicals. As we drive by the most expensive real estates in the area, Enrique explains that often houses are right next door to a maquila and there is no kind of protection for the life of the people regarding all the industrial activity right next to their home.
The next stop along the tour is a soccer and basketball field. Behind it sits an ugly concrete warehouse. Unmarked, you don’t know what company is there, but the area was once extremely toxic.
In 1994 Jose Kahn was ordering his maquila workers to make some underground holes and simply bury toxic waste produced from batteries for cars, boats, etc. They did this here at the maquila, which sits at the top of a hill. Eventually, the lead and other toxic substances leaked into the the neighborhood of Colonia Chilpancingo at the bottom of the hill and people became sick.
The EHC and the citizens of Tijuana notched up a success in 2004, when they forced the Mexican government to clean up an abandoned factory called Metales y Derivados, where over 23,000 tons of waste were warehoused. The remediation work lasted until 2008, when the results of a final inspection satisfied environmentalists.
This was a huge victory, although the owner ran away to San Diego and never had to pay anything. Instead, he opened a new maquila, which churned out profits of over $1 million.
The Old Curio Market
The solution to all this industrial madness? Craftsmanship. Buying local. Individual businesses that eclipse the large factories.
The last stop along the tour was the old curio market where Ollin Calli offered lunch us lunch and discussion. Located in an alley off to the side of Avenida Revolucion where artists gather, Ollin Calli sells craft wares and also advocate for maquila employees.
They organize workers, have labor lawyers to help and address workers issues in general. In 2010, for example, Ollin Calli tried to help workers organize, including public transportation to and from their home, raise in wages, etc.
Thank you, Enrique!
For much more information, see:
The movie Maquilapolis, which vividly depicts the issues described in the tour. Description: Carmen works the graveyard shift in one of Tijuana’s maquiladoras, the multinationally-owned factories that came to Mexico for its cheap labor. After making television components all night, Carmen comes home to a shack she built out of recycled garage doors, in a neighborhood with no sewage lines or electricity. She suffers from kidney damage and lead poisoning from her years of exposure to toxic chemicals. She earns six dollars a day. But Carmen is not a victim. She is a dynamic young woman, busy making a life for herself and her children.
Find out more about the tours and social justice for maquila workers. Sign up. Volunteer. Donate. Support. Get active or take the tour.
Copyright 2015 by Barbara Zaragoza.