Pregnancy, labor and murder at the border (speech April 2002)

“Pregnancy, Labor and Murder at the U.S.-Mexico Border”
Speech by Elvia R. Arriola
Associate Professor of Law, Northern Illinois University
and Executive Director, Women on the Border.
Conference: Gender and Sexuality at the U.S.-Mexico Border
At the University of Texas at El Paso
April 25-26, 2002

6:00 p.m.

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to share with you my thoughts on gender and sexuality at the Mexican border.

You will be hearing from my notes from a work-in-progress titled “The Sacrificial Female Body in the Global Economy”. Although my intended paper is much longer, today I will be focusing on three parts. First I want to share with you some stories of the workers I have met through my research and face-to-face contact with maquiladora workers at the Mexican Border.  I will be introducing you to some of the individuals who are volunteer activists with an organization called the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras/os (CFO), which has its main offices in Piedras Negras, Coahuila (next to Eagle Pass, TX) Through some of their experiences I hope to give you a glimpse of the conditions and challenges they face as workers and organizers for social justice in the maquiladora industry.  Next, I will tell you a little about what it means for me to engage in feminist critical legal theory, drawing a little from the written research I have already published in which I analyzed the intersection of immigration law and free trade public policy (i.e., NAFTA) border, using the voices of women workers to illustrate the industry’s operations and to identify the problems that arise from a gendered human rights perspective.  Third I want to make a short commentary on a theme I have called “sexual terrorism, anti-terrorism and the global economy,” and to use the film we have just viewed (Señorita Extraviada) as a background to my criticism of the current governmental stance in promoting more of the global economy and free trade policy along the lines of NAFTA as a remedy for terrorism, while ignoring other pernicious forms of “terrorism,” that are distinct byproducts of the “global economy,” including systematic violence against women.


Let me first explain to you how I met some of these workers who volunteer for the CFO. In the winter 2000 I published a hefty law review article called Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair: Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S. Mexico-Border. That summer I returned from a visiting professorship in Chicago to my home in Austin, Texas and began to give some thought to finding a way to produce a second part to my research project in which I would begin to focus more intensely on not just the operations of the industry form a gendered labor perspective, but from angle that would look at the health impact on workers.

Before too long I learned about a newly formed activist group that was taking people to the Mexican border “to meet maquiladora workers and learn about the global economy in Mexico.”  I jumped on the opportunity and was able to join the group at the last minute; my bilingual Spanish-English abilities became an attraction for including me on the ride.

Once there I met not only a number of fabulous people who seemed committed to educating the broader public, including open-minded U.S. allies, to their cause for justice in the maquildoras.  I learned that while the CFO was not a union that it often engaged in union type organizing activities, although it worked with a methodology that I found interested.  For one it relied on the pedagogical techniques familiar to anyone who has read Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that is it depended upon the worker learning first about her rights and then passing on that knowledge directly to other workers who would feel empowered to know they were not along.  Second, while the workers would become familiar with the laws of Mexico that are designed to “protect” them against abuses in the industry, knowledge of the law is not deemed enough.  The CFO stresses community and solidarity and doesn’t make a move under the labor laws without a sense that there is true unity among the workers for an action to be taken—meaning that they understand that the risk of opposing say, an obstructionist and corrupted union, may mean they will lose jobs, be blacklisted, be harassed, etc.

That first weekend of visiting the CFO was a very powerful experience for me.  My research had come to life.  In fact I met a person’ whose testimony at international human rights events had been published and that I had used in my own article.  I was sold on the importance of forming solidarity relationships with these people.  I went back very soon, this time with permission and invitation to interview many workers who were eager to tell me their stories.  That weekend I met Patty, a young woman who when I met her had three children, had been an activist for about 8 years and who I always remember because of the emotionalism that overwhelmed the both of us when I asked her to detail some of her earlier experiences as a maquildora worker.  During the interview she cried as she recalled that the stress of the long work hours, without even a break for the bathroom (unless it is on the company’s schedule) had caused the miscarriage of her first child.  It was a memory that hadn’t been recovered in many years.   I also met two sisters, both of whom had been fired by Dimmit Industries, which made jeans sold in the U.S., who described to be how even the appearance of questioning of authority by workers can become the basis of an uncalled for layoff or firing.  Raquel also told me of the time she developed a serious bladder infection because of the policy of so many companies in not letting workers go the bathroom when they feel their bodily urges.  So she learned to control it so much that she had lost all sensibility in that part of her body and as a result had developed a serious infection.

Another worker I met that weekend, Juany came from a large family.  Very poor, from a family with rural, farming roots, Juany described herself as someone whom when she met her first CFO volunteer was so shy and so intimidated by authority figures in the workplace that she wouldn’t even lift her head, wouldn’t look someone in the eye and only knew total and complete submission and deference.  Today Juany is a powerful voice and a leader activist. In a reunion last fall with U.S. allies, a group that even included some lawyers from Austin, Juany astounded a number of us in the group with her ability not only to identity the relevant portions of the labor law that should help a group of workers who had been scapegoat in the post-9-ll layoffs, but also in her ability to argue against the expected position the employer was likely to take.

For example, Maria Elena from Reynosa, who was 27 years old when I interviewed her gave me a most graphic illustration of the kinds of health problems that can arise from exposure to toxicity in a maquiladora and from failure of the employers to care enough to provide them with safety gear.  She once worked for a predecessor of TRW, making thousands of seatbelts per day.  She began her job at fifteen.  Her job entailed her cutting the same kind of part to a seat belt all day long.  She had to produce literally thousands, and as fast as she could.  During the interview she pulled off her white socks and showed me the scars on her feet that were left over from the mysterious infection that had emerged on her exposed feet at seventeen.  By this time she had worked for the company two years.  The infection got so bad that it was pre-gangrenous and the doctor warned her that she had to leave the environment that was no doubt causing the problems – in this case the exposure to the fine dust particles filled with some chemical that was damaging her skin.

OTHER EXAMPLES MAYBE –Amparo –who exemplifies the migrant who comes from extreme poverty and moves north in search of work – she was sexually abused by her father; then beaten when she got pregnant; had her baby alone in conditions she would best describe as hardly a livable home. Has raised two boys on maquiladora’s wages: Has lost jobs and will continue to lose them for organizing but she is committed to the struggle to educate others –

Juanita – whose answer to my question about the health impact – told me about the time the chemicals on the worksite caused an infection on her finger that would not heal – the Seguro Social’s answer- why don’t we just amputate the finger _ she ran out crying; left the job and healed it with home remedies after several months.

Juan Pablo, who was fired for being an activist –maybe because of his gayness; he found acceptance among the CFO; he tried to cross the U.S. to experience the greater openness on sexuality: but found Dallas to be much too hostile to immigrant workers and after a year got on a bus back home to Piedras Negras. ]

The commonalities for all these workers is in their working conditions and pay as well as a number of other environmental factors that affect their work on a daily basis – earnings of about 25-35 U.S. dollars per week, depending on the employer, 10-12 hour workdays, harsh supervisory methods that are infused with arbitrariness and capriciousness, toxic environments and continual threats to health; sexual harassment, sexualized favoritism Very little about the system is set up to respond to workers’ needs, whether it is exposure to toxic chemicals or adequate safety gear to prevent injuries.  Some workplaces operate like fiefdoms- supervisors have absolute control over the worker’s hours and can mark them up for insubordination if they question the rules of the workplace in any way.  As a result organizing for rights invokes a grave risk.   When CFO volunteers first talk to workers in their homes it is not unusual to discover that the workers do not know that they even have rights.  The most common frustration that is likely to turn the worker into an activist is an acute injury or a long-term illness that they cannot get attended to in the Seguro Social.  The attitude of the employers (and often union representatives) is that if the worker is unhappy – they can head for the door because hundreds wait in line for a job, no matter how poorly paid.

I cannot emphasize enough how the treatment of the workers and their health injuries resulting from these working conditions evoke the image of a total dehumanization of the worker.  She or he is nothing but a commodity to be used up.

(Mention that Norma Iglesias Prieto first documented the conditions;  see her work: La Flor Mas Bella de la Maquiladora  How I relied on her work because it had a feminist perspective.  But I found need to talk about law and public policy so began the project of doing my own interviews – thus Voices Project II; began to talk to workers of the CFO).

The situation with Paty, that of miscarriages on the worksite is too common.  That of Juanita and her medical conditions is even more common; workers complain of guts and gashes because they don’t have adequate safety gear; the impact on the children –  child labor is rampant; the law says don’t hire them before 16 but over and over the workers tell me that they started at l4 and l5 and they just acquired a false birth certificate.

Amparo tried to get her children out of the system – she put them through school as long as she could and made huge personal sacrifices.  But eventually her older son, who wanted to be a commercial artist couldn’t stand to see his mother go without eating to feed them. So he quit school and started working in a maquiladora.


I look at law and public policy through lenses of gender. I continue to be focused on women in the maquiladoras because it is a place where the borders of race, class, age and sexuality meet.   For a few years now, critical race feminists have been arguing the value of the intersectional perspective; the work I have done is just that; a holistic view of gender that is inclusive; sensitive to the variety of factors that define a personal identity; a perspective that allows me to deconstruct the abstract concepts in law, public policy and political discourse (e.g., free trade, the global economy,):

My mission is simple – to humanize the discourse – give a face to the impact of NAFTA.

A.  Using Gender as a Category of Analysis – I have argued in my study Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair that the problems at the U.S.-Mexico border that have expanded under NAFTA can be understood by looking closely at the maquiladoras for their impact on women’s lives.  Many other perspectives, such as economic class, or racial attitudes could also be used as the starting point of analysis.   I use the gendered lens to be critical of how law, culture or society constructs meaning to the relations between the male and female sexes, or explains how and why they are different from each other.   My use of gender as a category of analysis is inclusive.

It assumes that how those differences between male and female are viewed affects in turn how a society or culture distributes power and resources.  In a gendered and patriarchal world or culture this distribution is usually unequal.

In that unequal distribution, women’s differences from men are often used to justify lower pay, second-class citizenship, objectification of women’s bodies, sexualized harassment and abuse of girls and women, etc.  In essence it is a devaluing of the female in relation to male, or of the feminine in relation to the masculine, women to men, girls to boys, etc.

To use a gendered lens, in my view, is to look at person’s identity with holism, or holistically.  That is, with sensitivity to intersection factors such as race, class, age, sexuality and culture, from which the analysis can benefit greatly with the use of narratives, drawn from the experiences of women who work or have worked in the maquilaadora industry. The use of gender at the Mexican border, for example, allows the researcher to inquire, what role does gender play in explaining any alleged forms of oppression in the maquiladoras?  Why, for example is it a matter of recorded history and contemporary fact that women have been so heavily represented as “ideal workers” in the maquiladoras?  How do the workingwomen’s gender, and the Mexican or Anglo attitudes about their class, their sex, their gender role expectations or their race affect their treatment in the factories?  How does gender intersect with race, class, sexuality, age, and culture to explain the paltry wages that most maquiladora workers are paid?  Are there specific ways in which a female maquiladora worker is treated that one would never expect of a male maquiladora worker?  What expectations do factory owners or supervisors have of working women in the maquiladoras that they do not have of men, and why?    Is the treatment universally bad and less about gender and more about poverty and race or class, or does providing a gendered view give one additional reasons to critique the whole enterprise and alliance between government and investors in Mexico and multinationals in the U.S.?   At root, I think of using this kind of perspective as broadening any concept of engaging social justice theory with critical practice (i.e. “praxis”).

B.  Using gender as a category of analysis.

1.  Gender at work with Mexican patriarchy – The Mexican woman’s gender role is one where she is traditionally viewed as dependent on men and one who has little experience in the working world, and thus with making demands for better pay, or better working conditions.   Many Mexican workingwomen interviewed internalize these attitudes, speaking of factory owners preferring women “because men created more problems for them.”  Meanwhile plant managers believe them to have special qualities as workers stating, for example, “females are much less tolerant of mistakes, poor quality, whatever.”

2 Gender at work with sexist ageism – Factory owners prefer to hire young Mexican women in the factories because they are easier to manipulate and exploit.  Job security is equated with allowing herself to become the object of sexualized attention and with invasions of her privacy.   The “Miss Maquiladora pageant” for example, encourages women to curry favor from the bosses and supervisors with sexualized and stereotyped conduct for “ladies.” Not surprisingly, such behavior is viewed as the anti-thesis of an angry and frustrated worker who seeks to unionize her co-workers and demand better pay, a healthier and safer workspace or.

3. Gender and pregnancy discrimination – One extreme example of gender differences explains a particular form of abuse by maquiladora owners in the practice of mandatory pregnancy testing for new and current employees.   The irony of the pregnancy tests, which often include not only “surprise” urine testing but also examination of menstrual pads to prove that a young workers isn’t pregnant, is that to this day, the industry seeks out young women as workers because of their “natural ability” to engage in delicate, fast, repetitive and monotonous work.  At the same time a young woman is more likely to show interest in dating, getting married and getting pregnant to have a family. Consequently, the female body is both a benefit to the employer because of its youth and strength and ability to be put to work and it is a burden because of its potential for fertility and motherhood and the facts of life that will interfere with the industry’s demand, especially in a boom period, for a 24—hour production schedule.


Now, obviously someone who has an interest in examining the working lives of women in the maquiladoras cannot escape the question of Mexico’s role in the global economy.   This portion of my paper seeks to bring together an analysis of the post-September 11th rhetoric of global economics as an answer to “terrorism” throughout the world and to question the relationship between the two from a gendered and human rights perspective.  This is not an easy analysis because the overwhelming sense I have had in talking about this issue is that people don’t want to talk about it.  There is so much emotionalism and romanticizing of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the thousands who lost their lives on that day that the rhetoric of “patriotism” eliminates the possibility of questioning the policies and the answers that our current administration is currently proposing to handle anything from the Middle East Crisis to the threat of another lurking terrorist attack of massive destruction.

But let us think for a minute about what it means to participate in the global economy.  I have been told we cannot escape it.   And so this means that we allow for the further expansion of multinationals whose agents trot throughout the world in search of new natural resources either to mine, or places where products can be assembled more cheaply than what it would cost to do the work for union wages on domestic soil, if you imagine that whether it is to bring cable TV or microwaves or to new markets, or make them want to buy a McDonald French fry or watch a subtitled version of Disney movies, then we have to think of globalize as having global subjects –women, men, children, indigenous populations, workers, communities, rivers, lakes, etc.

I think it is clear that if in fact we cannot escape globalization then we cannot escape the need to come up with everything from the good, to the bad to the hope and the possibilities embedded in a socio-political-economic reality of living in a globalize world.  It is clear that we do not have yet a critical theory of globalization.   There are no strong voices right now that would advocate for the global subject.  If anything what we have is strong voices in the current administration, as witnessed by President Bush’s recent trip to El Salvador and Peru, that would advocate more globalization, and that would characterize the forging of those economic alliances with other countries as an answer to global terrorism.

A.  The Question of Terrorism

I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of terrorism because the word has overwhelmed contemporary discourse and is always on the tip of the tongue of our current President.   The roots of terrorism it is often believed, lie in the rage and despair that come from the wide gap between those who have and those who don’t. The dictionary meanings describe it as either the act of terrorizing; as a system of government that governs by intimidation; as a systematic effort to use terror to overthrow a government.

No, I happen to find it ironic that the U.S. is taking this lead in the world on getting rid of terrorism. And that the Bush administration is trotting around the globe, selling the message of free trade to countries like El Salvador, where we have a sordid history of alliance with terrorists who killed hundreds of innocent people and whose murderers were kept in power and strengthened with the U.S.  Military and the School of the Americas.  But we don’t think of that kind of terrorism when you enter into a current conversation about terrorist activity – what we think of is evil Arabs who destroyed hundreds of people’s lives here in New York and destroy frequently the lives of innocent Israelis.  Some argue with me saying that terrorism of that kind poses a threat to the safety of others and that a global problem requires a global answer.  But since when have we guaranteed peace to all as a result of our economic polices in other countries.  Whose battle is it?  Peace and Safety for whom?  Hundreds and thousands die day in and day out around the world and many do so because other forms of terrorism that we don’t think about, like economic terrorism.   Like the policies that tell a country, accept the financial policies of the World Trade Bank and Organization or die.   Yet the current discourse has us believing that there is only one kind of terrorist to worry about. That is the socially constructed image of a brown man who is an undocumented illegal with fundamentalist beliefs.  He is defined as someone different from the “average American citizen” who has no respect for American values, who is daring to enter our neighborhoods, eat in our restaurants, and use our public facilities (post office) for destruction.  But no one ever thinks of the terrorist as wearing a blue suit and nice tie from Nordstrom’s or Nieman Marcus who forces upon governments free trade agreements in the name of economic recovery without caring about the consequences of that design on the workers who will be essential to the success of that new version of global economics.

B.  The Other forms of Terrorism – Economic, Domestic and Sexual Terrorism.

Economic Terrorism

NAFTA is currently being sold to the countries of Latin America through what is being called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).  It will mean an expansion of the many duty free privileges for the investor as well as the investor protection parts of the agreement that create a right to sue any signatory government for interfering with the promised and anticipated profits of the foreign investor in that country.   Chapter 11 is that provision in NAFTA and it is a powerful tool.  It can hamper the democratically founded actions of a government that seeks to pass an anti-pollution law or from acting on a policy that by the corporate investor is deemed “tantamount to expropriation” and therefore the stripping of future profits.  (If the government regulates I get hurt economically, therefore you, the consumer have to pay).

(The Metaclad example – San Luis Potosi- governor said, you clean up this dump first; local authorities said, don’t build here until you clean up; U.S. company we’re going to build and we’ll go to the federal authorities).

A recent public television program by Bill Meyers captured the problem well as it described Chapter 11 as a fraud and lie to America – what it does is give the foreign investor protections that are “triggered” by the phrase “tantamount to expropriation ” within NAFTA.   The criticism is simple –– this is nothing but the undermining of democracy and an unprecedented boon to corporate investors – the whole idea that a corporation should be guaranteed profits in an economic venture, when gambling is at the heart of venture capitalism is ridiculous.    Yet our President goes traveling around the world selling democracy.  Meanwhile the free trade agreement being sold by this democratic and powerful country of ours actually mocks democracy, literally interfering with the power of a government to respond to the concerns of its citizens that a certain product is harmful and dangerous; it heeds not at all that these investor protections may actually cripple a government with millions of dollars in damages which could be used for health and welfare but that must now be used to pay a corporation for its loss of “anticipated profits” (!).

It is well understood that at the heart of NAFTA and the proposed FTAA is a marriage of the principles of capitalism and neoliberal economics; a kind of effort to make governments more “efficient” and less socialized in nationalizing its services and resources by allowing business to take over.   In Mexico that has led to the destruction of the communal agrarian system known as the ejido.  So when the members of the economic forum get together their goal is to pound out those provisions for expanding the markets engaged in free, unregulated, trade throughout the world.  To some it is nothing but the infusion of government with corporate philosophy; the ultimate coup by the economic conservative to make government more efficient. “ (Give me your governmental programs and I’ll make them turn a profit.  Conservatives have been speaking this line for a long time and now they have it down to a science. )

The market economy is no guarantor of success and profits; it’s all a gamble, while to those who work in the industry it is sometimes the only means of livelihood.  Mexico has sacrificed much to have foreign investment.  In abandoning the ejido it abandoned its indigenous populations and farmers.  It has contributed to the rebellion and the feelings of betrayal by rural peasants and indigenous (e.g., the Zapatistas) who charge rightly that the conquest of the indigenous peoples and the genocide of their cultures has continued after 500 years, despite the Mexican Revolution.

Of course the argument is made that in fact the only means for Mexico to enter the First World will be to expand foreign investment.  Whether it is the talk of policy analysis or foreign investors the maquiladoras continue to be seen as a boon.  The theme runs in the background of the film we just saw – “you don’t touch the maquiladoras.”  So no matter what is happening with the consequences of Ciudad Juárez going out of control with economic expansion, it is still seen as the answer to Mexico’s economic woes.  Economic conservative President Vicente Fox continues to encourage the foreign investment and to open up the borders, an issue that has become more difficult to sell given the intense focus on militarizing the border even more to “prevent terrorism.”

Yet is clear that the whether investments are at the border or in the southern tips of Mexico in Mayan lands, the industry we know as the maquiladoras is not designed to help the worker; it is designed to help the foreign investor.  Neither NAFTA nor NAFTA on steroids as FTAA has been called is designed to help workers acquire a living wage, no matter what the rhetoric says in the agreements.  (E.g., although the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation –NAALC incorporates the promise of compliance with international labor norms, there is widespread lack of enforcement with health and safety issues is rampant; E.g., cities like Cd. Acuna (next to Del Rio, TX); the mayor promises  – there won’t be unionizing in this town to bother you; of course, he is a shareholder in the company that leases the land to the investors; because when you have government and investors in bed with each other it’s easy to pay off the elected union leaders and the voice of the worker is going to be lost.  The final obvious problems are detailed in the human face of NAFTA I have previously described; women’s bodies being made essential to the success of such industries, conditions feminizing poverty, oppression being highly gendered, some of the violations of the law rising to the level of human rights abuse.  Thus it hasn’t surprised me at all that post September 11th that maquiladora workers who I stay in touch with through the CFO in Mexico also lost their jobs in this economic recession.  They would be the first to go because they are most likely the ones who are targeted for work activism.  Add to this the militarization of the border and you have situation at the Mexican border that is ripe for abuse as factories close, workers lose jobs and there is more and more desperation to cross into the U.S., only to be faced with intensely militarized crossing points and inducements to risk life and health in crossing through other more dangerous areas.  Let us remember, as we see in Ciudad Juarez or any other city along the border, that these industries represent the pulse of the economic interdependence between the U.S. and Mexico.  When we do well so do the workers—relatively. El Financiero just reported that 239,000 jobs had been lost simply in the maquiladora sector. When you’re talking about 1 million workers that’s nearly a 25% unemployment rate in that sector alone.  Workers who don’t have it good to begin with earning non-living wages, working 10-12 hours per week, being exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace because of inadequate safety gear, accidents like cuts and gashes are standard.

Domestic Terrorism.

I find it quite amazing to see the naiveté of the American people as new laws are being passed and new agencies are being created to ensure our “national safety” without any consideration for how these new security measures are likely to affect our civil rights and liberties.   Personally, I do not see a happy answer to terrorism in the global economy.  It fits too neatly with another rhetoric about increasing methods being used to secure “homeland security” without any concern for the trampling of civil liberties. But the lessons of history remind us that there have been other times of crisis and that crisis often invites rash judgment, reaction and poor decisions in the making of policy and law.   (E.g., Korematsu and Japanese internment camps!)

Yet we are all being lulled into this sense of “we’re taking care of you” with news reports of the latest measures being taken for homeland security by the linkages being forged now between the CIA, the FBI, the Homeland Security Office, and the Secretary of State.  I worry about the propaganda of national security those banks on anti-immigrant attitudes, which can be especially exploited with the image of a lurking terrorist in our neighborhoods, sending coded messages to linked computers that provide data of flight patterns or train schedules.   It is the kind of rhetoric that makes it easier not to question the new legislation that is very problematic from the standpoint of civil rights and liberties.

Consider for example that the Patriot Act provides for a host of measures that should worry the civil libertarian.  For example, the “sneak and peak” provisions that would allow for you e-mail and mine to be tapped without notice, your telephone accounts to be examined, your bank accounts scrutinized; all with no notice; unless of course, the investigators find something and then you can invoke your rights under the self-incrimination clauses or get yourself a good lawyer.  Whether it is in changing the role of law enforcement and its access to computers and computer use, authorizing pen registers and trap and trace devising, broadening the definition of “foreign intelligence information,” allowing the collecting of domestic intelligence without the legal restrictions associated with domestic law enforcement (e.g., due process, notice, Miranda rights), expanding the use of wiretapping, or delaying notification of a citizen that her home might have been the subject of investigation, we have a loosening of the standards for domestic surveillance that is contrary to other laws that were put into place because of historic abuses (e.g., Watergate).  In the name of terrorism we have policymakers crying out for more intelligence (why didn’t we know they were going to do this?) but not crying out enough for balancing the need for preventive investigation with the protection of civil liberties.  The usual safeguards to protect our constitutional rights were simply given up in the name of national security, with no real sense that the new laws will in fact do any better of a job in helping us prevent terrorist activity.

As a matter of policy I do not support the rhetoric of globalism as a remedy to anti-terrorism because I distrust it.  In my opinion, the same philosophical approach that would allow a corporation to undermine democracy by suing a government because it passes an anti-pollution measure (e.g., NAFTA’s Chapter 11), would also allow a government to sneak and peak at my personal e-mails in order to target me through guilt by association as a potential terrorist.   Thus, because the voices of dissent are in the minority, or don’t have the powerful connections to government that are the privilege of the corporate lobbyist, we have seen their voices repressed, as was witnessed a year ago this week in Quebec, when the Canadian government simply built a four foot wall with a chain link fence to keep out the peaceful protests of feminist, labor, environmental and human rights activists at the latest of the economic forums designed to expand the pro-free trade agenda.  What this means is that the “anti-globalism” individuals might be identified as being pro-terrorist and that the unleashing of this philosophy of anti-terrorism is really an unleashing of domestic terrorism on our civil rights and liberties.

I think the voices of Zapatismo captured the ironies of the pro-globalism rhetoric well.  At least in Mexico it translates into a program that is not designed to respect difference but rather to homogenize it; it is designed not to accept the expression of dissent but instead to squelch it and to label the organized who are oppressed as the terrorists.  At least in Mexico the economic philosophy that gives rise to globalism creates both economic and domestic terrorism by engaging in cultural genocide, destroying the identity of the indigenous by turning it over to private investment, and thus destroying a relationship to the land upon which their history is etched including the history of their Conquest.  Their point being, of course, that 500 years later the indigenous are still being conquered and overridden.

Yet, U.S.A. economic and governmental elites try to convince themselves that what we do is export freedom and democracy, or loans and financial aid only to those who tow the WTO line.  To do this however, they have to be in denial over how much of our wonderful package of Red, White and Blue freedom and democratic political theory rests on the foundation of erasing important parts of history of cultural genocide, whether on Native-American soil here or on other parts of the Western Hemisphere and a they have to deny that current efforts to globalize the economy is part of the same historical pattern.

It may not be imperialism but it certainly may be a new form of empire – at least a reorganization of power throughout the world that has empowered the multinational to do government and life for us. Whether it is subsidiary factories in Mexico, or the Yucatan region, or in South America or East Asia – the function is same  — to exploit resources, to multinationalize means to homogenize (e.g., McDonald’s or Disney everywhere) or to be selective in the differences celebrated, thus turning anti-terrorism into a programmed view of the world on glitzy media channels that exclude the voices of difference and dissent.

3. Sexual Terrorism.

My final comments are about the sexual terrorism that is also a definite byproduct of promoting more global economics as an anti-terrorism remedy.

Women of course, have been key to the expansion of the global economy.  Whether seen in my own work or studies elsewhere, female labor is key to the success of corporations who invest internationally. Women who experience multiple forms of subordination, however, are the most oppressed national minorities.  For the women in the maquiladoras we are talking about interlocking oppressions seen in the conditions of their families, the lack of adequate nutrition, shelter, health, employment civil liberties violations in not being able to speak out against the abuses, being stripped of reproductive rights and violations of their sexuality.

The sacrificial female body.

I want to argue that free trade agreements like NAFTA have nurtured sexual terrorism at the border.  Because so much of the global economy thrives on the exploited labor of women, the body of the working poor woman is a sacrificial victim. Gender attitudes make them ideal employees but also perfect victims.  I am no longer shocked at how young a worker may tell me when she started working. I am still shocked at young some of them are when I learn of the permanent disability they might have acquired from working in the factories.   I have been more disturbed at the parallels between the ages for recruitment of the young women to work in the factories and the youth and association of the victims of the unsolved murders with work in the factories.

As essential is her body to the success of the profiteers her voice is deemed unimportant and unessential; my work then is about trying to give voice to the threats to her health and safety, to get people out of their complacency and to bring awareness to what is happening just minutes or hours away from some homes in the U.S.  This is a challenge that is even presented here in El Paso, where there are people I hear who have never set foot in Juarez and no knowing of the lives of the people who live minutes away from them.

The courage of filmmaker Lourdes Portillo is in saying to the viewer, “see what is there and see how these workers, these victims of the murders are so close to us because of the work they do.  They assemble the products you and I will buy from a favorite market; their blood, their sweat and their grief is a part of the item you have in your household.”

Institutionalized Indifference

One cannot see this film and not ask why?  Why aren’t both governments doing more?  There are obviously many possible theories and answers.  Whether it is the intensity of the organized crime in Juarez, the inefficiency of the law enforcement agencies, the lack of resources to investigate, corrupted officials or institutionalized lawlessness and misogyny, all play a part.  It is certainly appalling that no mention is made in official reporting of the relationship between the maquiladora industries and the expectations of workers to show up at all hours, and the lack of protection for workers coming to and from the factories.  Portillo’s interviews gathered information that differed little from that I have gathered.  That workers indeed are expected to show up very early and leave very late; that when they are suspended they are on their own to find a way home, there is no escort system to ensure their safe return to their homes or neighborhoods.   That working is essential in order to survive.  And that many young girl may see the miserly wage as the opportunity to experience a bit of liberation and to help out her family. Meanwhile they are being murdered.

Currently the primary source of documentation of these murders appears to be taking place by photojournalists.  (Describe photo by journalist; burned and mutilated body; looks as if she were silently screaming-the pain, the horror, and the murderers’ names).  This is the result of indifference by those who have helped to create the environment in which she worked – the “terrorist in a suit. ”The men “in business” opening up factories that are unsafe to work in and unsafe to walk to and from for work day in and day out.  To me that photo epitomized the image of the global subject most wanted and most ignored in the fight against any kind of terrorism. The woman recruited for work in the maquilas is usually between 15-35.  The women found murdered are 15-25.

Hatred unleashed is terrorism.

Misogyny, the hatred of women, unleashed is sexual terrorism and THIS too is the counter –reality that accompanies all that talk about a happier and safer world forged by a global economy against global terrorists.  In the same way that the maquiladora employers like the female applicants young, the terrorist who is murdering the women also likes them young.  They are kidnapped and raped sometimes shot and burned on their way to and from work.  It is this that I find truly ironic and tragic—that an extension of the vulnerability of the young female body, which in the factories translates into – sweatshops working conditions, exposure to toxic chemicals, sexual harassment, non-living wages, the inability even to take a bathroom break when their bodies need it, lack of job security or safety gear, humiliating forms of pregnancy discrimination and even abortions in the workplace as a common occurrence – that all of this is just a condition precedent to another form of vulnerability that leads to loss of life.  Indeed, that a tired and hungry worker may begin her walk home or may get on a bus and may never get home at all.

Factory owners don’t care that they may have to get to the factory so early that it is not even light when they show up or that a production quota is so important that they must leave at all or midnight and go home on public transportation or walk through unlit streets.  Because the home they go to is a shack in a colonial that has no lighting and no public services.    The fact that so many young women, whose bodies have been exploited for work in the factories, then become victims as they go to and from work tells you something about the attitudes of the owners of those factories.  An exploitable worker, exploitable bodies, whether for work, rape or crime.   Sexual terrorism then is the byproduct of the institutionalized indifference that is found in the maquiladora industry and the global economy at the Mexican border today.

My final comment is a rhetoric question to the El Pasoan –so why do we want to care about what is happening to the women in global economy as it is seen at the Mexican border?  The stories of the oppression and the violence present you a future and attitudes about people that are just like us.  My Abuelita and Mami worked in those kinds of factories.  Not in Mexico but in Los Angeles and some may be just the reorganized version of a factory that they once worked in during the 40, 50s and 60s.  That gives me some reason to want to pay attention to the subject at least from the perspective of my own personal history and values. I think it is ironic that right at a point when we hear consistently how Latina/os are becoming this significant presence in the U.S.  That at our backs and literally for El Pasoans, at your back doors people that look just like us are not respected, are paid low wages, and are seen as expendable laborers.

As one writer has put it so well  — the floor under the gore of Juarez and the murders of young women is an economy of factories owned by foreigners, mainly Americans.   El Pasoans don’t have to work very hard to pretend that it’s not about them because the culture of the city encourages that version of Us/Them thinking.  Ah but there is one more irony—the supervisors in those factories are often American citizens, and sometimes those 2-3 thousand managers are Anglo and white but sometimes they are Latina/os in the U.S., and they commute back and forth from the U.S. border city and earn very nice salaries so they can have a microwave, and a nice big screen TV and put into the VCR that has no doubt been assembled by workers of his own race and ethnicity that put those items together for $5.00 a day and no benefits.


When I first wrote my Article Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair, I had no idea what I was really getting into.  I was primarily interested in the intersection of law and public policy on issues of free trade and immigration at the border, viewed with a gendered perspective.  (I.e., NAFTA and immigration law).  I decided to incorporate the stories of women themselves to describe the industry – I wasn’t going to do a sociological analysis like Devon Peña (The Terror of the Machine) has done in his wonderful book; but I did want to rely on some of his descriptions and those of Norma Iglesias Prieto so as to educate readers of law review articles.

I know I wasn’t the first person to look at conditions for women in the maquiladoras.  Nor the first person to look at human rights concerns at the Mexican border, especially as affected by immigration law and policy.  What is different about my study is that I sought and continue to seek to connect the two – to forge a gendered international human rights discourse and to help develop strategies for survival and lasting positive change.

It is clear that the maquila industry, which originates at the border at least since 1965, has re-shaped and is continuing to reshape the socio-economic character of dozens of cities along the border.   And it continues to do so because of a borderlands culture that is in turn hugely affected by the presence of U.S. lawful activities at the border, such as INS border patrol, drug enforcement, and corporate expansionism under NAFTA.  It is easy to see the gendered impact – in the favored hiring of women and the sexual terrorism that accompanies it in places like Juarez, and in the militarization of the border and the risks to life and health to mostly male migrants who cannot support their families because of the loss of the ejido system, the discrimination in hiring, and the generally non-living wages earned in the maquilas.  The opening being open to investors but closed to workers and migrants is a hypocrisy and yet it is daily enforced at the border – through the force of immigration law and policy, defining the unwanted identity and desirable identity, making it possible for the investor to be assured of a surplus of cheap, exploitable labor.  This analysis can get complicated but that is why I have used narratives to try to expose the workings of the law and public policies, and their potential for perpetuating oppression.


[A word on narratives – I collect stories so that what we’re talking about doesn’t become too abstract; I will tell you about Irma Salvador a maquila worker and her husband Osvaldo who are maquiladora workers.] Irma was among l85 workers who lost their jobs at a subsidiary of ALCOA in Ciudad Acuña, on the other side of Del Rio, Texas.  The timing of the layoff was perfect for ALCOA.  September 11th gave them an excuse to accomplish what they had wanted to do earlier- get rid of the workers who are seen as troublemakers because they dare to protest wages and working conditions.  But it didn’t stop there with ALCOA.   After they laid off some workers, a few got to go back and now the recession brought about by September 11th became the reason for cutting back on wages. The very thing that had made them troublemakers in the first place was their complaining about the fact that they earn non-living wages.  Irma and Osvaldo have two children who are disabled; in fact how I met them was that through other activist groups an effort was made to get new wheelchairs for Lizette and Osvaldo and they needed a Spanish interpreter.  Because they have spina bifida and their surgeries to straighten their backs destroyed the ability to walk they will be in wheelchairs all their life.  They had outgrown the wheelchairs, which had also been donated by a humanitarian project that didn’t take the time to fit them to the bodies of a spina bifida child. They are loved and clearly cared for.  Their bodies are about the size of healthy children of age 5 or 6 at the most.  Osvaldo was so debilitated by his last bout of pneumonia that he can no longer even sit up.  The cost of a new wheelchair?  $6-10,000 each for a decent one.  Where would their parents ever get something like when they earn together about $50.00 U.S. per week in a border economy that functions at about 90% of the U.S. dollar.

So when I think about the global economy, I think of people like Paty, and Amaparo or Lizette and Osvaldo. Because they illustrate what lies behind the remedies for terrorism – reproducing a lifestyle that is profitable to the investors and their shareholder but inhumane for the global subject whose voice is not being heard.   It is economic terrorism.

I first want to recognize that what we call “narrative” is already controversial in legal discourse.  I on the other hand believe they are powerful, useful and essential.   As a feminist critical theorist I am committed to an inter-disciplinary perspective on the question of subordination.  I am trained as a historian so I believe in the use of narratives.

Narratives help us deconstruct the abstract, the statistics, the public rhetoric that is proposing the expansion of NAFTA type policies through what is being called the Free Trade Area Agreement for the whole of the American continent and that will be the focus of a summit by ministers of finance and heads of state in Quebec this coming Spring.

Narratives even help deconstruct what we like and don’t like about the border—from the U.S. perspective of the border just being a place for great bargains and shopping or now foreign investments, and what is bad, such as the human rights and labor abuses that can’t be understood until you hear the story of the woman who had a miscarriage right on the worksite because of unsafe working conditions, or the what it felt for the man who nearly lost a foot or a hand because of poor training and dangerous equipment, or the one who can’t get a job because she tried to organize a union and she got fired and now he’s blacklisted throughout the entire industry in that city.

A critically based analysis, or praxis, meaning the connection between critical theory and practice, absolutely assumes the relevance of narratives, as an important way of communicating issues that concerns Latina and feminist critical scholars abut also audiences beyond the legal academy.

Of course one could question whether the way in which a narrative is being used is truly serving the analysis; has it turned into just the telling of a story, or is the choice of the story told a true aid in addressing the problems of multi-dimensional aspects of oppression.

Yes, while narratives can be powerful, they can be risky, because one may legitimately ask to what degree can the story of one person speak to the experiences of a whole group? I use and rely on narratives because they often most powerfully illustrate the patterns of treatment and the conditions; they continue to provide the issues that are open for legal analysis and that suggest the possibilities for social justice activism.

The stories I document may offer the counter narrative that is embedded in the assumption made by such political figures as the President elect of Mexico who just told a gathering of Fortune 500 investors last month in Austin, that “Mexico is open territory for investors; come one and come all, we welcome you.”

We need narratives to bring to life the day-to-day experiences of oppression, of the migrant farm worker, the domestic servant, and of all those who are not showing the promise of the free trade agreement that promised an improvement in the working lives of the host country to a maquiladora.

Those of who do use narrative, know that while there is the risk of the disconnect, that someone won’t get the point of the story, at other times the narrative is “the light bulb” that goes off in someone’s head and that helps them get beyond abstract terms like “free trade policies,” “transnational corporations,” or “human rights abuse” and “labor exploitation.”]

About wpadmin

law prof emeritus, lawyer, writer.
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