Borderlinks Trip to Nogales

      I eagerly boarded the bus, armed with the Borderlinks reading packet and my preconceived notions about what to expect in Nogales.  By the end of the day, I realized that my assumptions about poverty and  maquiladoras were a hundred and eighty degrees from reality.  I have traveled extensively throughout the United States and twenty-one countries, but I have always viewed poverty from afar – from a car, bus, train, or a “safe” walking distance.  And having been in the corporate world for twenty-five years, I thought I had a good grasp of the maquiladora factories along the border.  This hands-on trip changed my aspect of both subjects.

     The initial drive through Nogales was like other border towns that I had visited – until we drove up the dirt road and entered the colonia of Bella Vista.  The poor roads, lack of sidewalks, and little shanty houses was just as Maria Guadalupe Torres described in her article “We Are Not Machines: Corporations That Bring Jobs Must Bring Justice Too.”  Torres’ article is about living in the border town of Matamoros and working at a maquiladora. Her vivid description of her colonia (neighborhood) was remarkably similar to Bella Vista. The countless stray dogs just added to the overall experience. 

     Our lunch was hosted by Lupe.  She and her dogs met us at the doorstep and graciously welcomed us to her humble home.  The house consisted of one kitchen/living area, one bedroom, and behind a curtain was some sort of shower.  Toilet facilities were outside. The total size of her dwelling might have been 300 sq ft., and was built (including land) for approximately $2,000.00  It was constructed from scrap lumber and strips of tin.  The family consisted of her husband, three children and one grandchild.  The food was prepared on a wood stove, and I assume it was also the primary source of heat.  Two bare light bulbs, a radio, and what looked like a 50 year old television, were the only signs of electricity.  Her house and neighborhood had no potable water (water tank filled every Sunday by city truck), no sidewalks, no sewers, no infrastructure.  Based on what I learned about the environmental and health issues in the article “Two Countries, One Population, Shared Community Health in the Borderlands,” I am reasonably sure the septic tanks and trucked in water came from questionable sources, impacting the health risks of Lupe’s family and neighbors. The floors were dirt, but a well-worn broom by the door was evidence that Lupe kept her house as clean as possible.  Numerous pictures and trinkets of Christ revealed that they were a very religious family.  Lupe’s husband drove a truck for the city and the family’s total monthly income was $450.00  They did not own a vehicle.  Her husband and children rode the bus to school and work.  Based on the handouts provided by Borderlinks, Lupe’s family is spending the majority of their income on food, transportation, and educational expenses. 

     We asked Lupe if her family had any desire to migrate to America.  She emphatically replied “no.”  They were not willing to risk the journey across the desert.  She had family in Mexico and thought that life in the U.S. would be difficult and confusing.  I kept saying to myself “what a remarkable woman.”  Even though she was surrounded by abject poverty and squalor, she was genuinely happy.  Her only goals were to provide good food for her family and to send her children to school.  Her positive attitude and love of life showed me a new perspective.  I will never forget Lupe and the brief visit in her home.

     The maquiladora program was started in 1965.  These hundreds of foreign-owned manufacturing plants (primarily U.S. headquartered) are designated free trade zones.  The owners have 100% control, have exemptions from taxes and most tariffs, and enjoy considerable freedom from environmental restrictions  We visited Curtis, a Milwaukee based electronic assembly plant. I was shocked to learn of the wages paid to workers.  Besides not being a “living wage,” ($8.85 - $13.30 a day), the owners enjoy a virtual “union free” workplace.  NAFTA enforcement of worker rights to organize are lax.  "Ghost unions” are corrupt and accept bribes from management. Their role is to keep out real unions.  Existing Mexican labor laws are not consistently enforced.  Lastly, by not having to pay local taxes, the maquiladoras’ are not investing in local infrastructures (water treatment, sewers, roads), which are necessary to help raise the standard of living and quality of life.  Unlike their counterparts in the U.S., they are not, and don’t plan to be, good “corporate citizens.” 

     I’m ashamed of the behavior of the American maquiladoras.  What can I do to help change their behaviors?  I plan to write Congressman J.D. Hayward and Senators Kyle and McCain and urge them to visit (if they haven’t already)several maquiladoras.  Tax incentives for U.S. companies that participate in the maquiladora program should be revisited.

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