Voices from the Barbed Wires…summary


ELVIA R. ARRIOLA, Voices from the Barbed Wires of Despair, Women in the Maquiladoras, Latina Critical Legal Theory and Gender at the U.S. Mexico Border, 49 De Paul L. Rev. 729-815 (2000)     (87 pages )  (This Summary – 5 pages)

This study uses the lives of working women to ground a critique of the intersecting relationship between the free trade policy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and  immigration law and policy at the Mexican border.

The term “maquiladoras” is Spanish for the assembly plants owned by transnational corporations that operate primarily in the export market for goods such as TVs, VCRs, stereos, auto parts, appliances, clothing apparel, discount coupons, and thousands of other products that can be found in U.S.A. factory outlet malls and popular family shopping stores (e.g., Wal-Mart, Target).

To appreciate where the maquiladoras start we have to go back to the 1960s.  In 1964 the U.S. formally abolished the Guest Worker program which had started during World War II and under which Mexican citizens came here temporarily, usually as laborers for picking agricultural crops.  In 1965 Congress, would initiate the Border Industrialization Program which was later re-named the Maquiladora Program.  In 1993, the US, Canada and Mexico signed NAFTA, giving the maquiladora program a booster shot for growth.

Maquiladoras assemble rather than manufacture the products.  Component parts may be produced in the U.S. or other countries that are essential to the globalized economy today. In Texas, many of the maquila factories distribute the manufacturing process into the production of component parts on the U.S. side  and assembly in a Mexican “sister city ”  (e.g., Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Coahuila).  Their colloguial term is “twin plants.”  Under NAFTA the goods produced in the sister city are then exported back into the U.S.A or Canada for sale.  Overall the attraction to the investor is that there are not only lowered production costs but also reduced tariffs from so investing on foreign soil.

The term “maquila” once referred to the portion of grain a miller kept as a payment for his services.  Today,  however, it refers to these transnational corporations which, by virtue of NAFTA, continue to open up in every Mexican city and town along the Mexican border or further into the interior.

As of 1999 there were over 4235 maquiladoras just along the border.  A current advertisement on the Internet for a current guide to the twin plants estimates  in 2001 over 5,000 parent and border companies.  Of course, among pro-labor activists the term “maquis” is synonymous with  “sweatshops” and their rise is seen as a symbol of the death of American unionism because on the U.S. side the opening of a maquiladora means that a company moved away to avoid union wages and benefits. On the Mexican side, a new maquiladora may create more jobs, but not necessarily living wages or a higher quality of life as many carry well the image of the “sweatshops” where employees labor long tedious hours, in monotonous repetitive tasks that also often expose them to toxic materials and dangerous instruments.

This article is not a novel inquiry into the conditions for women in the maquiladoras.   Nor is it a novel examination of human rights concerns at the Mexican border, especially as affected by contemporary immigration law and policy.  However, this study differs in offering an analysis of how the two sets of concerns, labor and women and human rights problems caused by border law and policy, intersect, and how that intersection may be understood with a gendered perspective.

Gendered Perspective – Part I

The first use of gender as a category of analysis narrowly focuses on Latinas in the maquiladoras.  Here the study addresses the host of factors in a person’s identity that intersect with gender– e.g., age, sexuality, class, culture and race–and that influence the structure and the availability of the jobs and the forms of discipline and control in these assembly plants. By so using gender as a category of analysis, one is able to get very specific in illustrating industry patterns of recruitment of female workers, hiring, payment of low wages, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination and abuse and discipline in the maquiladoras.  This perspective also provides the theoretical context for asking– why is that employers seem to prefer women in the hiring; why in fact do they prefer very young women, why, for example, would employers hire applicants whom they know are probably presenting them with a false birth certificate to show they are 16 and old enough to work according to Mexican labor law,  and not really 14 or 15?

Gendered Perspective – Part II

The second prong of the gendered perspective is applied to the larger context of the maquiladoras industry operating within the legal and political culture of the Mexican borderlands.

The maquiladora industry 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.

The argument is that one cannot appreciate the presence of the industry at the border without also seeing how it is ineluctably intertwined with a closed border (militarized) for migrant laborers.   Free trade policy and immigration policy have a complementary relationship at the Mexican border–the one creates an open face for the investor, a welcoming presence identified by the continual traffic of NAFTA trucks to and fro the “twin plants. ”  The other is a closed border that through increased presence of militarized border patrol activities, targets for harassment, and detention those Mexican workers who seek to cross the border to reunite with families or to search for better job opportunities in the U.S. than they might find in the maquiladoras.

This duality at the border also has a gendered impact :  whereas the presence of the maquiladoras is largely a story about working women and exploitation, the story about the border is about mostly male migrant laborers being drawn to the border looking for work.  However, in some factories it is clear that female workers are still the preferred employee, and bad wages overall make the jobs unattractive for male workers desiring to support their families. Yet the border is a constant attraction for those who may come to the Northern territories of Mexico in search of jobs or who may end up working in a maquiladora.   Because crossing the border remains a constant attraction to many migrants, its militarization has caused hundreds of deaths of male migrant laborers who drowned or died in mountains and deserts–all because they were trying to avoid the infrared telescopes, the helicopters, or the search dogs brought in to control the border for drug trafficking and smuggling.

I argue that the border today presents two faces:

The gendered impact can be seen in the “open v. closed” faces of the border.  While the open one welcomes investors and free trade, it also produces an international division of labor not only between Mexican and American workers, but also between Mexican women and men.  Migrant laborers get hired according to stereotyped assumptions.  More women are in jobs requiring deftness of small hands; men get to work in jobs requiring heavy lifting.  Wages are gendered;  but no matter what the wage it isn’t a living wage. All of the jobs draw migrant labor of both sexes from Mexico’s impoverished regions in the interior.

The second face is one of a closed border – in contrast to free trade policies induced by NAFTA, the closed face of the border is about a 24 hour operation of the border patrol to keep migrant laborers out.   While the open face of the border means more highways to accommodate the traffic coming from the U.S. side with component parts for the maquiladoras, the closed face is about keeping migrant laborers out and the border operations providing a  metaphoric symbol of discipline to the poor Mexican laborer that he should stay at home.

Daily enforcement of this symbolic message ensures a perceived success under NAFTA that the American investor continue to be able to open maquiladoras in Mexico and to be guaranteed a surplus of cheap, exploitable labor.

Explaining it All with Narratives

The above analysis lends itself to a picture that is best understood with illustrations from workers’ experiences.  As much as possible the study relies on the voices of workers to illustrate the impact of the law and public policies, and their potential for perpetuating oppression. “Narratives,”  of course  are viewed as controversial in legal discourse, but this study views them as powerful, useful and essential.   The study relies on a feminist critical perspective and an inter-disciplinary perspective for looking at questions of subordination.

Narratives help us deconstruct the abstract, the statistics, and 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.  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.  Examples of those abuses like 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 she’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 feminist critical scholars, but also audiences beyond the legal academy .  It is true that one could always question whether the way in which a narrative is being used is truly serving the analysis.  One could ask, is this 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?   And, while narratives can be powerful, they can be risky, because one may legitimately ask whether the story of one person speak to the experiences of a whole group. In the end, this study relied on narratives because they 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.

One needs narratives to bring to life the day-to-day experiences of oppression, of the migrant farmworker, the domestic servant, and of all those whose experiences betray all of those politicians’ promises that more free trade agreements will in fact improve the working lives of those hired by the maquiladoras.  Yes, there is always the risk of the “disconnect,” that someone won’t get the point of the story; while 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.”

This is a critical legal analysis. Some of the stories gathered within and that are being gathered in Voices Project II may trigger strong emotions of anger and sadness.  But lawyers, the kind of people who graduated from our law schools, are doing that everyday when they talk to juries and try to get them to feel for one side or the other of a case they just presented as a story supported with a body of evidence.   So sometimes stories are just communicating an individual experience, but sometimes they are communicating the universality and the complexity of personal dynamics that collided with the assumptions of particular laws and policies.    So, whether stories are personal, or narrated, or part of a formal research project, they are arguably a very important deconstructive tool for seeing the multi-layered aspects of the questions one brings to the table of critical analysis




Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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