Delegates’ Reflections, past border delegations into Mexico to see the human face of NAFTA.
A trip to the border to hear the voices of maquiladora workers can be a life-transforming event. A reflection is simply “a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation.” (Webster’s Dictionary).
S P R I N G 2017
May Delegation Reflection Essay
“Delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña:
NAFTA and maquiladora workers”
by Lissette Almanza
I left Austin on May 26, 2017, with empty hands (manos vacias) to go on my first delegation trip to the border produced by Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera. Our group traveled as the 65th delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña where many foreign companies have moved their factories for cheaper labor, primarily American-owned corporations. We gathered the night before at an orientation meeting and dinner hosted by Women on the Border, Inc.
This delegation took place at a very pressing and historical time in the United States. On May 18, 2017, just a few days before our trip, the Trump administration formally announced plans to fast track the renegotiations on NAFTA, triggering a 90-day consultation period. Thus, bilateral negotiations with Mexico and Canada could potentially begin as soon as August 16 rolls around. Trump called NAFTA the “worst trade deal” during his campaign and promised to withdraw or renegotiate the trade deal, which unsettled many American multinational corporations. Now, his promise seems to be on the path to fulfillment. This is a thought that incites fear of the unknown among many who for the past quarter of a century have lived under the mechanisms of free trade in North America.
With all of this in mind, my desire to learn about the working conditions of maquiladora workers grew. I wanted to see first-hand the effects of free trade on Mexican citizens. I knew there was a side to the story that has been left out from the debate surrounding NAFTA – a story that the media, economists, and political leaders don’t tell.
When we arrived on that humid Friday afternoon, we sat in a circle surrounded by delegation participants, maquiladora workers, and labor rights activists. I listened carefully to their stories. Their cruel reality did not match the economic and political rhetoric of those in support of NAFTA. The working conditions inside the assembly-line factories are inhumane. They work in unsafe temperatures during their 10-hour work shift, they barely get a short break for lunch, and workers are treated like machines. The extreme low wages that they are paid are also a form of exploitation. Unfortunately, everyone of working age in a household must toil to bring food to the table. Otherwise, their maquiladora wages are insufficient for survival.
There were other moments during the trip that left me with a mixture of feelings – feelings that I still can’t fully wrap my head around. The house visits to the workers’ homes were a clear illustration of the damages that NAFTA has done to working families. Their livelihoods reflect economic oppression. Their small decaying homes and the poor living conditions of the colonias where most maquila workers live indicate the exploitation of the most vulnerable populations across the border. How could I not feel anger and sadness at what I was seeing? The violation of workers’ rights is a violation of human rights, and Mexican maquiladora workers have had to struggle with this for the past 23 years. Those in the fight for their labor rights have had to suffer threats and intimidation because of their efforts to earn a living wage. How terrible.
The zenith of the trip came on Sunday morning as we sat and reflected on all that we had learned that weekend. Questions from delegation members kept arising and the desire to know more about the struggle of our Mexican counterparts was still there. There was so much more to learn and many more stories to hear, but our time in Ciudad Acuña was coming to an end. I sat there listening as delegation members, maquiladora workers, and labor rights leaders shared their thoughts and their feelings. Yet, I still could not process exactly what words I wanted to say.
I felt thankful for such a unique opportunity to learn directly from maquiladora workers about their working conditions under free trade and their struggle in the fight for their labor rights. Despite endless labor violations and threats, Mexican workers have found the courage to fight for their rights for many years. I find that admirable and inspiring, which is why I committed myself on Sunday morning to their cause. Their stories were so impactful that I realized that uniting with the maquiladora workers’ fight is the only way to help bring about change. I will start by helping to raise awareness about the damages of free trade through sharing their stories with others. Given the pressing times for NAFTA renegotiations that we are seeing, it is important now more than ever that people know about the real effects of trade policies. As a student in the Global Policy Studies Program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, this experience will also serve me to challenge the free trade economic theories we are taught in class. It’s not just about the statistics of trade gains and losses that economists teach us, it’s about the people who suffer through it too.
In the words of Nelson Mandela: we need to know with a fresh conviction that we all share a common humanity and that our diversity in the world is the strength for our future together. I will take action against free trade agreements that take advantage of vulnerable populations, promote fair trade, and do my part to ensure everyone enjoys the right to live a dignified life.
Austin, TX (2017)
Women on the Border provided scholarships to two persons so that they could cross the border on a delegation produced by our allies in Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera in collaboration with the activists workers of Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO). BELOW are reflective thank you notes from Cristina Gonzalez and Priscilla Luera:
Cristina Gonzalez (October Delegation, 2016):
My name is Cristina Gonzalez & I am one of the ten delegates who attended Austin Tan Cerca’s 62nd delegation to the Mexican border cities this past October. Attending this delegation definitely provided me with a new perspective on the differences in the way the U.S. & our local communities respond & operate around forms of trade.
I am deeply grateful for being able to meet all those women of the CFO who are achieving real changes in the workplace through their commitment to the dignified rights of Mexican workers. The CFO in Piedras Negras, the union group Los Mineros in Ciudad Acuña, & the maquiladora laborers that I had the opportunity to meet, are genuine inspirations to the work that I do as a coordinator at ATCF (www.atcf.org) and the work that I hope to achieve in my future careers.
After this visit to our friends, I am moved to take action by attending a discussion to negate the affects that the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal is supposedly providing for the wage worker in the partnering countries. This is one of many solidarity projects I plan on participating in as a result of ATCFs delegation and WOB’s financial support to help me and others make changes in their lives through such experiences.
Going on this delegation was truly something I believe everyone needs to attend whether they want to pursue business, governmental policies, or simply want to stand in solidarity with people who hold the dignity of human beings above profit. Again, I extend my deepest gratitude for your contribution to this cause & I hope that I will one day be able to pass on the power of sparking a change to others just as you have for me. I wish you well on all of your future endeavors.
Cristina Gonzalez (ATCF Volunteer)
PRISCILLA LUERA (October Delegation, 2016)
“We just got back from our 62nd delegation to Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña in Mexico! I would like to personally thank you for making this life-changing experience possible. It was an amazing trip where all of the delegates bonded with each other, and took immediate action by attending the Texas Tribune to put pressure on Congressman O’Rourke to vote “NO” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which will effect laborers worldwide. As for the delegation, the best way for me to express my feelings is through a poem I wrote on the way back to the U.S.
I’ve crossed American soil
The fine line that divides poverty between the land of opportunity
I’ll always remember my Mexican sisters across the border, but will I practice what they preach?
Or pretend I’m someone I’m not cut out to be?
Forget my identity and sell my culture
For more money, more power
Y todo para qué?
For white recognition and my goals met
Because when I cross the border all anyone sees is a nopal on my forehead
And when I’m in Mexico all they see is proud to be an American
Because they’ve oppressed my ancestors and this is why they fight
For their children to have a better life
Yet, I’m already living the American Dream and still don’t feel white
A Xicana girl living in a “i’m not good enough” world
Lost in my own identity with a foot in each door
But, this is why solidarity exists
To break down power structures
And stand together, in justice and peace
For a better world to exist
I am Mexican American
And no one can take this from me
Born into a cruel world, but we are all human beings
This is our commonality that lets us stand in solidarity.
I believe everyone should be able to personally experience a border delegation.
In Solidarity, Priscilla Luera
Delegates’ reflections from the Journey of an Immigrant Delegation (May 16-18, 2014)
Pamela Brouker’s Reflection following a delegation to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, March 12-14, 2010 across from McAllen, Texas. “My name is Pamela Marie Brouker. I enjoy poetry, nature, art, film and travel. Journaling, writing, drawing and taking pictures are personal life giving activities. Massachusetts is my home state, however, I find joy in all parts of the world. Perhaps because my ancestors traveled. I have visited, Greece, France, Italy, Palestine/Israel, Guatemala, the borders of Mexico and Canada, the states of CA, Hawaii, New York, Illinois, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Colorado, Texas, Florida and states, in between, getting there. Travel is a human occupation and I’m glad to say everyone needs to engage in this line of work. I hope to be finished with my first film, “Mourning of the Eye” by September, 2010. It’s about life, after Ike. I am an ordained Lutheran minister and certified special education teacher. I was in Mexico, Reynosa, when the time changed. . . Read more.
Cynthia N. Edwards (J.D. NIU 2009) Reflection “Life at the Border” from the October 13-15, 2006 delegation to Reynosa, Tamaulipas. “In October 2006, I participated in a delegation to the U.S.-Mexico border. As part of the 12 person delegation, which was partly organized by a professor at Northern Illinois University’s College of Law I traveled to Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico, a town on the U.S.-Mexico border that is next to McAllen, Texas. The group was comprised of the professor, three other students at my law school, and National Lawyers’ Guild lawyers and staff…” Read more.
Yvonne Lapp Cryns; Reflection Delegation to Piedras Negras in 2005 “Have you ever given any thought to who sews the pants and shirts you wear? Who makes your Nike shoes? Who put the electrical system together for your car? Five NIU College of Law students had the opportunity to travel to Mexico and meet some of the people who work in factories that make those consumer goods and learn about the effects of globalization on these people who live so close to our U.S. border…” Read more.
Judith “Hoodeet” Rosenberg’s Reflection following the delegation to Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Oct. 12-14, 2001. “Dear All, 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…” Read more.
Christina Murray’s Reflection Photographer & Delegation Leader, Fall 2006
“Dear friends and family, So I have been wanting to write for days now, but there is never enough time. As many of you know, but not all, I’m here on the Mexican side of the Texas/ Mexico border, in Piedras Negras, sister city to Eagle Pass. I’m here for just a month, not very long really, and already two weeks have passed. But the two weeks have been filled with so many new experiences, faces and stories, that if you saw me now, I’d be in a hand stand position, the blood rushing to my face, trying to sort out the curiosities, peculiarities and small wonders of this place while turned upside down, inside out. I sleep in a maquiladora, which, by definition, is a processing plant…” Read more.