Push, assemble, remove, push, assemble, remove. A line of women are dressed alike in blue smocks that indicate their respective positions in one of Tijuana, Mexico’s 4,000 factories. They are the manufacturing “machines” corporations so desire in the global economy. Silently, they push, assemble, remove, push, assemble, remove.
But as the film continues, the power of Maquilapolis, (City of Factories) is evident — the women come alive, sharing their dilemmas, resistance, and hope. The film follows two former maquiladora workers, Lourdes Lujan and Carmen Duran, as they take on the multinational corporations harming their community and infringing on workers’ rights. The women are promotoras, members of a social justice group organized to educate and empower the thousands of Tijuana maquiladora workers.
Tijuana has a long history of multinational corporations exploiting Mexican women. As the film’s narrator explains: “They said we would make a good workforce because we had agile hands and would be cheap and docile.” A 1960s treaty between the United States and Mexico created some of the first assembly centers and then this model — imported U.S. goods, assembled in Mexico and then exported back to the United States and the world — exploded in 1994 as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
We watched Maquilapolis in my 11th-grade global studies class at Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon, as part of a larger unit on Mexico and the history and current issues impacting the border, based on the Rethinking Schools book The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration. Although a subtitled film — “You mean we have to read while we watch?” — students were totally engrossed. Maquilapolis, in its video diary style, allowed students to travel to Tijuana with Lourdes and Carmen. Many of my students have not traveled any farther south than our state capital, Salem, just an hour down I-5 from Portland, because their own families struggle to make ends meet; but this film allowed them an intimate view of the women’s lives: their neighborhoods, their factories, their homes, watching their children play. Lourdes and Carmen brought the border — and issues of toxic contamination, workers’ rights, and resistance—alive for my students. It was “real” in a way that brought an abstract concept like “Free Trade,” to ground level. They could see and hear the sizzle of the electric wires where residents had tapped into the main lines, laughed in recognition at the scrappy neighborhood dogs, groaned with want as plates of food passed across the screen. Continue reading this review and teaching story in “Our Dignity Can Defeat Anyone” by Julie Treick O’Neill in Rethinking Schools.
Carmen Durán works the graveyard shift in one of Tijuana’s 800 maquiladoras; she is one of six million women around the world who labor for poverty wages in the factories of transnational corporations. After making television components all night, Carmen comes home to a dirt-floor shack she built out of cast-off garage doors from the U.S., in a neighborhood with no sewage lines or electricity. She suffers from on-the-job kidney damage and lead poisoning from her years of exposure to toxic chemicals. She earns six dollars a day on which she must support herself and her three children.
Starting in the 1980s the U.S. and Mexican governments initiated a trade agreement allowing components for everything from batteries, IV tubes, toys to clothes to be imported duty-free into Mexico, assembled there and then exported back duty-free as finished consumer goods for sale in the U.S. Tijuana became known as the television capital of the world, TV-juana.’ Globalization promised jobs, and working class Mexicans uprooted their lives to flock to the northern frontier in search of better paying work. After a decades long boom in 2001, Tijuana suffered a recession as corporations chased after even cheaper labor in Asia.
When the Sanyo plant where Carmen worked for six years moved to Indonesia, they tried to avoid paying the legally mandated severance pay. Carmen became a promotora, or grassroots activist, challenging the usual illegal tactics of the powerful transnationals that are poisoning their workers and the barrios they inhabit. Through sheer persistence, Carmen and her fellow workers won the severance pay to which they were entitled by law.
In making this documentary, the filmmakers worked collaboratively with the factory workers, providing cameras to the women and teaching them how to shoot. For five years the women documented their daily lives and the events in their communities, often giving the film the intimate tone of a video diary.
Lourdes Lujan, another promotora, shows us her home, Chilpancingo, a barrio bisected by a stream which flows down from a bluff occupied by nearly 200 plants that expel hazardous wastes. Chief among these is Metales y Derivados, a long abandoned battery recycling factory whose U.S. owner relocated to San Diego in 1994 to avoid paying fines and clean-up costs, leaving behind 23,000 metric tons of toxic waste. Chilpancingo residents, downstream and downwind of the Metales site, began to suffer skin and respiratory problems and an abnormally high number of children with birth defects
With the backing of the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition, a cross-border group advocating for a safer environment, Lourdes and her neighbors launched complaints with numerous Mexican agencies, including the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency. The government’s apparent collusion with the polluters reminds Jaime Cota, a Tijuana labor leader, of a verse from Sor Juana de la Cruz: “Who is worse: the one who pays for sin or the one who sins for pay.”
Describing themselves ironically as a “collective of busybodies,” and adopting the slogan, Tijuana is no trashcan,’ the Chilpancingo collective in 2004, after ten years of constant struggle, forced both the Mexican and American governments to begin a clean up of the Metales y Derivados site.
While Maquilapolis shows that globalization gives corporations the freedom to move around the world seeking cheaper labor and more lax environmental regulations, it also demonstrates how organized workers can successfully demand that the laws be enforced. Thanks to her persistence in demanding severance pay, Carmen’s house now has concrete floors. And thanks to her new knowledge of labor rights, she has since taken another factory to the labor board for a violation similar to Sanyo’s; she hopes one day to go to school and become a labor lawyer.
Globalization turns workers into a commodity which can be bought anywhere in the world for the lowest price. Yet they are more than a commodity; they are human beings who demand to be treated with dignity. As one of Carmen’s colleagues says, “I make objects and to the factory managers I myself am only an object, a replaceable part of a production process. I don’t want to be an object, I want to be a person, I want to realize my dreams.”
Maquilapolis can be screened in classes on International Studies, Labor Studies, Economics, Latin American Studies, Women’s Studies, Border Studies, Industrial Relations, Sociology, and Anthropology to introduce discussions of globalization’s impact on world labor. It will give a human face to the workers who are forced to find work as corporations seek out the cheapest labor possible. The film is entirely bilingual, with English or Spanish subtitles, as needed, so it can also be used to organize maquiladores workers to struggle for their rights. [Producer’s description.]
Winner of the 2007 Latin American Studies Association CASA Award of Merit in Film.
Distributed by California Newsreel.