Looking Out from a Cardboard Box…

by Elvia Rosales Arriola, J.D., M.A.

It was late morning when I parked outside the home of Rosa María Ramos Rivas, “Rossy, ” 34 years old and the mother of two young boys. As I stepped out of the car I was careful to zip up my briefcase, a little worried that my tape recorder would fall into the mud left over from the heavy rains that had fallen over Ciudad Acuña, a border town with a booming maquiladora industry that sits on the other side of Del Rio, Texas. Rossy had just awakened, as she works a 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightshift at General Electric in Ciudad Acuña. She, her boys César and Marco, and her husband Abraham live in a two room house that she considers an improvement to the days when her family had no more than a blanket and their body warmth for cold nights. “We came here from Comarca Lagunera, Torreón with a wool blanket, a suitcase and our two small children,” she told me. They arrived in Cd. Acuña in search of work as they could no longer stay with her husband’s parents working as field hands without wages. Until they found work they stayed with a niece, then another, then an uncle of Abraham’s.

As soon as one of them had a job an older woman rented them a “cuartito de cartón,” a tiny room in a shack built of nothing but scraps and cardboard. When I asked Rossy how they survived under those conditions she said “it was hard, yet better than feeling in the way in someone else’s house. Eventually someone gave us a cooking pan, and a chair, then someone sold us a small dresser for fifty pesos and some “tarimas” (factory platforms). We slept on the tarimas because we had no bed, and put up with some really cold nights, all huddled beneath one blanket.”

As we talked I looked around at the room with two beds in which the entire family slept, noticing that this was the only room that had a cement floor and I commented, “I guess that’s how a lot of families come here?” To which Rossy replied, “the majority come this way.” She went on describing the gradual changes in the nine years since their move to Cd. Acuña. “The big change came after about a year when at Christmas, Arneses y Accesorios, where my husband worked, gave out a thick wool blanket to each worker, and my ‘aguinaldo’ at General Electric allowed us to put a down payment on this plot of land.”

Depending on the timing and its valuation in relation to wages, the Mexican tradition of an annual bonus/savings plan for workers known as the Christmas “aguinaldo” can improve the lot of a struggling employee. Rossy referred to the end of their first year in Cd. Acuña with the aguinaldo and the extra blanket as a period when their family turned a corner. But buying the land was only the beginning. Through a government housing assistance program they could buy discounted building materials but then had to hire the laborers to begin building. On the typically depressed wages in Cd. Acuña that average about $25 dollars per week, the process of establishing something akin to a residence took a long time. “We first tried to improve upon the “cuartito de carton.” Someone would sell us tarimas and we would add them on. One week it might be three, another week it might be five.”

Over the summer I’d slept in Piedras Negras in the home of Amparo Reyes, and had heard her say, referring to the newly installed “real” door to their bathroom, that she and others who helped with home repairs and additions, including her two boys, learned by the task how to become “carpenters and plumbers and whatever else you need.” So I asked Rossy if she and Abraham had built the room I now sat in. “Yes, we did, you learn as you go along. We kept building with the tarimas on the cuartito de cartón. But we eventually did the same to this place because someone was trying to squat on our property so we had to move in before the building was finished. So there we were sleeping under the open air and building on with cardboard and tarimas to keep the inclement weather out.”

Que triste se oye la lluvia — How sad the rain sounds…

Every time I listen to the Venezuelan song “Casas de Cartón,” which begins with the refrain “que triste se oye la lluvia,” I am struck by the brutal honesty of the lyrics referring to the sad sound of the rain on a “casa de carton,” the standard housing of the extremely poor throughout Mexico and Central and South America. I first heard its soft melancholic tones as a sound track to a short and poignant documentary produced by Heather Courtney, a University of Texas student who filmed the first delegation of Tan Cerca de la Frontera (So Close to the Border) Austinites who traveled to Mexico to meet maquiladora workers through the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (Committee of Women Workers at the Border, CFO) to learn more about their work, wages and living conditions. Heather’s film captures a desolate existence for workers and families who come to the border in search of a better life, often staking their claim to that vision on a plot of unclaimed land in a city that promises work in one of the thousands of Maquiladoras at the Mexican frontera.

In Texas, it is the term “Colonias” that refers to substandard housing and self-help settlements lacking sufficient water or sewer services to meet the residential needs of its predominately Latino population. In Mexican Spanish the term “colonia” is actually a city section, neighborhood or division. I find myself always explaining this to my Anglo partner and friends when they see reference to an address prefaced with the term “Colonia,” a legacy of the residential patterns during Spain’s active colonialism in Mexico from 1540 through 1821. Colonias do have paved streets and public services, while a neighborhood still in the early self-help settlement stage is more like a “slum of hope” waiting to be integrated someday as a formal colonia and as an addition to the city’s working-class districts. But until such neighborhoods do acquire that status, taking as long as twenty years, life in Mexico’s ” casas de cartón” can be rather grim as illustrated by the period of Rossy and Abraham’s marriage when all they owned were a blanket, a suitcase and the clothing on their bodies. ??I had actually met Rossy and her husband Abraham over the weekend in a large reunion in Piedras Negras with activists from the CFO and from Austin-Tan Cerca de la Frontera. Rossy and her husband came as CFO volunteers from Cd. Acuña. It had rained and thundered so hard during the morning sessions of the reunion that I found myself talking to the new people I met about how some of the poorest maquiladora workers manage to survive such bad weather conditions. Two young CFO volunteers from Reynosa and Río Bravo were quick to tell me that in their region several dozen families had recently lost “absolutely everything” in a storm that had flooded whole sections of the squatter settlements. Many workers were in the desperate position of trying to recover their meager possessions from the flood, knowing that every hour and day away from work meant fewer wages under the typical piece work and quota wages system in the maquiladoras. As Verónica Quiroz invited me to visit Reynosa and Río Bravo for more interviews, she decried the substandard existence of maquiladora workers, even those who do not live in “casas de cartón,” who like her own family, can only afford second-hand clothing and cheap household goods on the shabby wages paid maquiladora employees.

Yet with all of the melancholy that accompanied the stories of the workers’ existence I was also struck in this meeting by the range of emotions that could be evoked in a gathering of workers united in a common struggle–from the anger and sadness that accompany the horror stories of bad wages, unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, or hostile employers and union reps, to the joy and laughter shared in the company of U.S. allies as they dramatized for us the victorious outcome of some recent labor conflict. For example, María Elena Robles Guardado, the CFO volunteer for Cd. Acuña who later took me to Rossy’s home, seemed both to laugh and cry during a break in our meeting when she shared memories of days early in her marriage when she too lived in a “casa de cartón” and fought the constant leaks during storms similar to the pounding rain and thunder we were hearing outside. With the laughter of relief and a look of remembered despair she uttered, “those were terrible days that I remember too well.” I pictured her struggling to find cover for herself and her then baby girl Cindy, who is now six-years old and living with her parents probably in the same home, one not unlike Rossy and Abraham’s house–two rooms that have been added on to over the years with metal castoffs, wood and brick.

Ciudad Acuña: Boom Town without a Center

A drive through Cd. Acuña is hard for the compassionate observer. Everywhere are casas de cartón contrasted against cheap shopping bargains, hotels, the Americanized food in the restaurants with welcoming signs in English and trinkets being sold on the sidewalk by the city’s most recent immigrants or those deemed too old to get work in a maquiladora. The obvious signs of Cd. Acuña’s burgeoning population is in the hundreds of casas de cartón, some built precariously on lands that can count on being flooded during heavy rains.
There are other indications of a city that has grown too fast. For example, on a long break from the CFO-Tan Cerca reunion I walked out to the plaza with two families from Cd. Acuña looking for a “paletería” or ice cream shop for us and about four children. One woman remarked that what was missing from Acuña was a plaza with a central market like that of Piedras Negras (about sixty miles southeast, in Coahuila and on the border as well). Throughout Mexico the plaza serves as a social center of town and is marked by its park benches and shady trees under which families and friends sit. Often there is a nearby “mercado” offering a variety of small businesses and local, affordable food stands. Cd. Acuña, however, displays the subtle yet significant impact of the booming maquiladoras in its cozy economic arrangements between the industrialists and the city’s business elite. The larger maquilas typically distribute discount coupons to their employees for food and clothing at the largest grocery stores and major furniture or clothing stores, instead of increasing their real wages or offering premium pay for overtime. Every time I hear of these arrangements I recall early American labor history references to “the company store.”

Child Laborers Washed Away in a Storm

I have a photo from my late September trip that is of a small boy pushing a row of shopping carts in the lot of one of these major supermarkets in Cd. Acuña. I took it just after I’d seen a group of young boy children inside the store, wearing uniforms and being lectured by the store manager. Although I know that child labor in Mexico is an issue continually highlighted in the surveys and reports of human rights organizations I still find it appalling every time I receive another confirmation of its existence. I am still stunned, every time I hear another female maquiladora worker tell me in an interview that she is in her early thirties and that she is already a grandmother, or when in response to my question as to when she first started working she says that she started at the age of fourteen in a maquiladora, or that from the age of seven she helped her sharecropper parents pick the harvest.

I later found out that the super markets’ small boys in uniform bag and carry out groceries and pick up the shopping carts, but they are not employees, even if store owners seemingly depend on their services. Under Mexico’s labor law, a worker must be at least 16 years old in order to earn wages. Instead, the children get tips. It is up to their families to buy the uniforms demanded by employers if they want the job for their children. By October, the picture I had taken of the small boy pushing a huge row of carts in front of my car suddenly took on a different meaning as I drove with Maria Elena Robles toward Rossy and Abraham’s house and we approached a bridge near the very same supermarket. Maria Elena informed me of the city’s most recent tragedy involving the torrential rains. “Three of those little boys who work the carts died right here. It was raining hard, the bridge flooded and they were going home after the store’s closing at 11 p.m. They never made it home because they drowned in the flood.”

Booming Maquiladoras and Dehumanized Workers: Cogs in the Wheel of Global Production and Competition

US residents that are learning for the first time about my work in Mexico often tell me that the situation in Mexico’s maquiladoras evokes for them the history of the labor movement in this country of a hundred years ago, a time that we associate with the birth of unionism, bitter labor-management struggles and the improvement of working hours, wages and working conditions. Yes, I say to them, and there is a good reason why in city after city Mexican workers are beginning to say no to intolerable wages and working conditions. Four hundred workers at a Cd. Acuña subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) known as Arneses y Accesorios, effectively said no to management when they walked out on October 4, 2000, because nothing had followed from the petition presented to ALCOA’S CEO Bob Hughes, who came to Cd. Acuña on May 4, 2000 and personally heard thirty workers tell him how they simply could not feed and support their families on the miserly wages paid by Arneses.

The Cd. Acuña workers consistently decry the huge wage disparities that exist between them and ALCOA workers in Piedras Negras. Apparently “top wages” at the Cd. Acuña Arneses plants are 450-500 pesos per week (about US$45-$50) but most workers throughout Cd. Acuña, I am assured, earn only 200-300 pesos (US$20-$30 )per week which are seen as barely above starvation level. Juan Tovar Santos, the CFO volunteer who led the October 4th walkout says he’s never seen a raise in the nine years he has worked for ALCOA-Arneses. To feed his family of a wife and four children he repairs cars from his home on the weekends.
María Elena Robles’ main task as a CFO volunteer in Cd. Acuña is to educate its US allies on the relationship between maquila wages and desperate living conditions. She does this by explaining charts she made that illustrate “la canasta básica.” The “basic market basket” chart is drawn from the lived realities of maquiladora workers and shows the average wages in Cd. Acuña and the needs of a typical family trying to feed, clothe, medicate and educate its children. The figures start out with the basics of food, housing, utilities and clothing, and always leave for last the “extras” of medicines and school supplies, books and mandatory public education fees. It is no surprise then, that such typical wages (about US$21- $31) induce so many children to stop their education at the 6th grade and to go out looking for work to help their families, a desperate mission symbolized by the applicant’s obtaining a false birth certificate to prove that he or she is 16 and legally able to work.

On the day after I came back from my latest trip I simply burst into a flood of tears from the raw emotions triggered by witnessing lives of struggle and stories of pain. Were it not for the courage I see in the workers who continue to support and educate each other, I might be paralyzed by the institutionalized arrogance seemingly at play in cities whose economy thrives on the explicit and implicit privileges for investors under NAFTA. I might be so overwhelmed by the more disturbing stories as to think they just can’t be true or that the situations are too difficult to challenge. I read a Cd. Acuña newspaper article buttressing an earlier story from a worker about how a group of women employed by Standard Components of Mexico, one of them pregnant, were intoxicated by the fumes from a middle of the night explosion of a can of solvent carelessly left near the factory ovens. The women detected the strong odor at the start of their 6 a.m. shift but the supervisors wouldn’t let them stop working. Management didn’t evacuate the area or provide medical assistance until seven women complained of headaches, nausea and began to faint. As I put down the article I wonder whether the pregnant woman, Juanita Rodríguez Duarte, may have miscarried knowing from other research that pregnant women in the maquiladoras frequently have miscarriages right on the worksite because worker health and safety are given such a low priority.

The feeling of being overwhelmed with the information is becoming familiar with each visit. Just as I begin to put away the article about the contamination and the pregnant worker, two snapshots fall out of my folder of notes from this latest trip. They depict two children belonging to Nicolás Navarro Moreno, an ex-employee of ALCOA’s subsidiary Arneses y Accesorios, who worked for several years in Plant No. 7. Looking at the toddlers I am taken back to the meeting room in a large restaurant in Cd. Acuña where I was handed these two photos by Sr. Navarro while he and Ramiro Minjares Gonzales, also an ex-employee of Arneses, ardently explained to a group of CFO volunteers and allies their problems with ALCOA.

In Cd. Acuña, Arneses y Accesorios’ 11,000 factory workers assemble electrical wiring harnesses and components used in the dashboards of several major auto styles sold in the US. Nicolás and Ramiro spoke on behalf of fifty current and former workers, all of whom want ALCOA to stick to an alleged verbal promise they got in 1997 of lifetime medical preventive exams and/or necessary treatments, because from 1989 to 1997 they were exposed to “MOCA,” a highly toxic component typically mixed with resins to make plastic molds that encase circuit wiring. The material safety data sheet describes MOCA as 4,4′-Methylenebis (2-chloroaniline), a medium viscosity liquid with a light amber color and a mild characteristic odor that should never come into contact with the skin, eyes or clothing, and that has mutagenic/genotoxic qualities as well as carcinogenic effects.

In 1997, the company’s doctors allegedly informed the workers that MOCA caused urinary tract cancer in laboratory animals. Nicolás spoke passionately, handing over copies of his research and medical records to me, to Ricardo Hernández of the AFSC, to Julia Quiñones of the CFO and the CFO’s lawyer, Fernando Fonseca, uttering his vow not to give up the campaign to make Arneses follow through with its 1997 promise for medical care. Their campaign has grown out of the recent difficulties workers are having in obtaining the MT-1, the company’s assurance to the IMSS or “Seguro Social,” that a worker’s injuries or illnesses are work-related and therefore that their testing and diagnosis should be provided cost free. Towards the end of our discussion Nicolás handed me the photographs of his two small children, saying, ” we know from these studies and other sources that this substance can change a person’s DNA structure. I worry about what I might have passed on to these children because we had them when I was still working with this chemical without any adequate safety gear.” In fact, it is a widespread problem in the maquiladora industry–the lack of adequate safety gear and appropriate ventilation around a worker’s job site. Consequently, as recently alleged in a NAFTA complaint against two companies in Matamoros that, like ALCOA, assemble auto parts using strong solvents and glues, institutional disregard for worker health in the maquiladoras leads to chronic and acute medical problems such as nausea, headache, migraines, chronic breathing difficulties, miscarriages, stillbirths and birth defects, and all are related to workers’ exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products.

It should be noted that ALCOA Fujikura Ltd’s San Antonio office did not return two FNS calls to comment on these matters.

Of course, no amount of reporting or documentation can make up for the visual symbols of the maquiladora industry’s presence at the border and its impact on workers and their families. They are seen just walking through the colonias and barrios filled with children walking out of shacks, without shoes onto unpaved rocky streets that turn into ponds of mud and water during heavy rains, and that are blights on the landscape when contrasted against the fancy buildings and parking lots for the maquiladora management that are located right across the highway. Or there is the emotional and visual impact of visiting a maquiladora worker in a home that may or may not have a toilet, that has walls and ceilings made of cardboard, wood and metal castoffs, as she tells you about co-workers nearly losing fingers and hands to job accidents, spontaneous abortions and poor medical care, or just how she and her family are trying to eke out an existence on the insulting wages that typify the global economy’s “race to the bottom.”

The competition in the global economy is driven by the promise of higher and higher profits, viewed as obtainable only by lower production costs and the cheapest foreign labor, all at the expense of the worker’s right to a life of dignity, health and happiness. One obvious explanation for the depressed wages, at least in Cd. Acuña, is that the city has no significant union presence. It is also rumored that the mayor vows to every new industrialist to keep the city union free. As a result, every new maquiladora, regardless of the public-relations image its parent corporation may communicate worldwide, can quickly become a fief, run by local supervisors who impose strict master-servant methods of production, oversight and worker treatment, with the single aim of achieving the highest level of production for the lowest possible cost. Of course, when production is the goal, then it is more important to get the new employee working rather than to train him or her on safety issues, or teach them enough English to read a warning label about a toxic chemical, or to spend money on expensive protective gear. When keeping the machine running is more important than the impact of the machine on the humans running it, then the workers must be dehumanized. It is an economic system that thrives on turning humans into machine parts themselves, into cogs in the wheel of global production who do not think, do not feel, do not hurt, do not have lives, families or loved ones.


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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