This is a personal report of the recent delegation to the border, which in many ways was a satisfying and successful trip because of the strength of the Austin delegates and because the CFO managed their part pretty much without Julia’s participation. Not that it isn’t always great to see Julia Quiñones, their coordinator, but they are acting on the principle of developing broad leadership and so for the first time Margarita Ramirez was our main host, in Piedras Negras and Acuña. In the latter city we saw quite a bit of Juan Tovar and met new people. It’s exciting to see the CFO act on their principles – they generally do – even it means encountering growing pains. One thing that motivates me to write now, however, is that this trip was depressing for me. . . .
During the summer I attended a series of high-energy Alcoa workers’ meetings in Acuña. And though it was very hot and dusty in Parque Fifí where they met, and though I understood about 25% of the Spanish, it was thrilling to witness the workers’ pride in themselves and in the principle of solidarity, their sense of their place in history and their daring commitment to struggle for a better life for their communities – and not ever without a sense of humor, somewhere along the way. I swear these meetings were a high point in my life. And now of course that phase of the movement is over. After victories, one of which was their establishment of a genuine workers’ committee to speak for them, Alcoa slammed the door on dialog, and fired 186 workers. When we saw Julia for a short while on Sunday before we left to come home, she put this setback in perspective – just one step in a long struggle; the necessity to adopt the strategies that the moment requires and go at the speed that the road will bear. They are working on new projects – one is to renew their organizing in Nuevo Laredo where they’ve had no representation that I know of for a good while.
And then there was the situation with Irma Salvadór and her son Osvaldo. Below is an excerpt of a letter I wrote to St. Hildegard’s, a church where I go for worship and which contributed food and cash for our delegation to take to the despididos (fired ones) in Acuña. The letter is to thank them, to report on the trip, and to make a prayer request. It gives details of the hunger strike and work stoppages in August that led to Alcoa firing the 186 leaders. And it tells about Irma and Osvaldo. This is the letter:
We brought the food and cash that you all donated. Specifically the need was to help feed workers who had been fired from Alcoa in Ciudad Acuña where the US aluminum giant has 11 plants. The firings were one turn in a long story but were clearly reprisals against workers who had organized stoppages in August. The purpose of these stoppages was to support two pregnant workers who went on a hunger strike outside Alcoa’s Plant 5 to demand their rights. A company bus had hit one on her way to work and Alcoa refused to take responsibility. The other, Lucía Santiago, had trouble with a supervisor who harassed her and then shifted her to a heavier work assignment. She finally miscarried, while at work. A third woman, Philipa, had joined the hunger strike out of sympathy. This kind of harassment of women is not uncommon. It’s a feature of local management techniques, I am sorry to say, after hearing it come up over and over again in worker meetings.
I was very moved to be taking food to the workers. It is moving to feed people. At the same time we know that aid is always just a drop in the bucket and we were aware of this as we joined our Mexican colleagues from the CFO to repackage the food into portions for about 20 families. Despite the inadequacy of aid, it is still extremely worthwhile. It contributes to life in the moment. It shows that we care. In sharing our resources it makes us one community for a moment and that is important given the violence of the borders we struggle across.
Now I come to the prayer request part of this letter. One of the fired workers is a woman named Irma Salvadór. She has two children, Lysette, 19, and Osvaldo, 16, who both have a spinal paralysis since birth and have lived in wheel chairs all their lives. Irma and her husband are devoted parents. As in many families that live in the shadow of the maquiladoras, their arrangement was for one to work the night shift and the other the day shift so that someone would always be home to care for the children. Both children finished escuela secondaria mostly while living with Irma’s mother in Vera Cruz. Both know a little English. Lysette is a feisty young lady and wants to work, especially now that her mother has been fired. Osvaldo is a more gentle personality and when I met them in July he seemed to be frequently sad, quiet but not withdrawn.
One plan for the recent ATCF delegation was that Irma, who is a fabulous cook, would provide the main meal for us at 2 pm on Saturday. When we got to Acuña we soon learned that plan had changed. Osvaldo was in the hospital with pneumonia. Irma was there with him, around the clock, as were her husband, her sister, and other family. The CFO had quickly made other arrangements for our afternoon meal. Philipa the hunger striker had jumped into the breach. On Saturday night, however, Irma turned up at our hotel quite late as we were heading out to a restaurant. She wanted to say hello and tell us about Osvaldo. She feared the worst. The hospital had not been responsive and Osvaldo’s condition had grown worse while he waited a few days to be admitted. She asked me to visit; Osvaldo had asked to see me. So that night we did pass by the hospital on our way to the restaurant and stopped so that I could go in. Irma somehow got me in to Osvaldo’s room – not really allowed for non-family members. The little guy was fighting a terrible battle to breathe. He flailed his arms and legs. He had been struggling since Tuesday. He had a tube in his lungs, coming out of his mouth, which was taped in place by a big strip of white surgical tape across his face. He couldn’t speak. I could hear the phlegm in his chest. Nevertheless, he smiled when he saw me. It was hard to see the smile around the tape, but it was unmistakable and like light in the darkness.
Since then I feel permanently sad and quite overwhelmed by Osvaldo’s struggle. I tell you this to share the sadness and also to ask you to pray for him. I realized then that poor people in Acuña, people who work long hours and hard, do not have good medical service, if any. I am fearful for Osvaldo and shocked by the lack of medical care.
We perceived one sign though that Osvaldo might be OK. On Sunday morning as we were leaving Acuña we drove past the hospital in our van. Irma was outside with her family and we beeped. But even before we beeped we saw that she was smiling. Maybe Osvaldo is OK. Please pray anyway.
That’s the end of my letter. That was October 14 . I’ll let you know what I find out.