March 15, 2011

The Lost Maquiladora Workers

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Of course you’ve heard of MAC Cosmetics before. You wear it, or your mom does, or your sister does, or a friend does. It’s definitely not bad makeup. So when they decided to use the femicides in Ciudad Juarez as their theme for their makeup line this summer, there was outrage. Did you ever hear about that? About the “impoverished factory town in Mexico, famous for its high rape and murder rates” that Vogue was talking about in their July issue as the inspiration for MAC’s pretty, grotesque shades?

Hey, I even liked the shades, which made me angrier.

But back to Cd. Juarez. First, I find it almost painful to my national pride that anyone would call Cd. Juarez an impoverished town. Its population is 2.5 million. It experienced higher economic and population growth last decade than the entirety of Mexico (5.3 percent from 1990 to 2000). The maquiladoras — export assembly plants — there are huge; and I mean huge when I say huge. There are work benefits in maquiladoras, like free health care or 24-hour-a-day childcare, that many of the American low-to-middle class cannot even dream of. It’s in the top five states for foreign investment in Mexico; Cd. Juarez is the main manufacturer for Boeing and Lear, for example, amongst countless others. It’s the place with the most televisions in the world (as a hilarious cartoon in my newsfeed pointed out yesterday).

So it’s not a town, it’s a city. And its impoverishment is relative, like in most cities. No one can argue there’s a lot of money there. Socioeconomic disparities like the ones seen in Cd. Juarez are not necessarily worse than any other part of Mexico, or a lot of parts of the U.S.

In a similar fashion, just as sweatshops are criticized all over the world for their inhumane treatment of workers, cases abound where maquiladora workers, mostly women, are mistreated (Women who travel to Cd. Juarez to find work and help their families down south, by the way. Who said only men did that?). Because there’s always someone behind to take their place if they stand up for themselves, because one cannot refuse an extra shift and lose out on the money, because the faster I work the more money I can send home and the better off my family will be.

The situation is not unlike that of the African construction workers that I’d see sleeping on the construction sites in Madrid: Working for a family far away, the single, young worker will endure it all. It holds an interesting parallelism with farm workers who work in the U.S. without documentation, too. Migrants with no rights. In the Cd. Juarez case, it is women, national and foreign, who, lost in the monotony of the industrial chain, can easily go missing and are easily forgotten.

The femicides are to be taken seriously, and not with the tactless approach MAC used. Roberto Bolano’s novel, 2666, fictionalizes Cd. Juarez as something pretty close to the apocalypse. And when you glance (because you can’t stare) at the photographs of the bodies of these women online — bodies of women and girls as young as 10 years old — one tends to agree. Raped, tortured, their breasts cut off, stab marks everywhere. And that’s not including the amounts of burned bones, or the corpses that have not been found yet.

The weird and difficult thing about the femicides in Cd. Juarez is that no one really knows what’s going on. Or at least no one has really told us. There are countless hypotheses. The timelines do not conclude that drug trafficking is a direct cause, and many argue it is with government officials themselves that the blame lies. Some people argue (and rightfully so) that male homicides are of similar magnitude, and that the homicides in Cd. Juarez just happen to be more frequent with women because of the higher female concentration of maquiladora workers in the city. My take would be that the gruesomeness of the femicides is what makes this topic particularly difficult; it is not only that women are being killed, but how they are killed, how young they are and how no one is being prosecuted for their deaths.

Whenever the argument comes around about no one doing anything, I stop, stupefied, trying to understand where exactly the chain goes wrong. Raising awareness? Strongly; and for the past 13 years. The list of books, newscasts, journal articles, T.V. shows and art displays is impressive. The Human Rights Commission has been there a couple times, as has Amnesty International and the FBI. Yet 77 percent of cases go unpunished. And people are leaving because it’s getting worse, because last year alone over 3,000 women were murdered and over 100 thousand homes were abandoned within nine months, the 100,000 homes of the people who, of course, could afford to leave, creating an even harsher consumer profile for the city. Impunity reigns.

One of those acts to raise awareness is a play written by Cristina Michaus, Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez. Maybe you’ve seen the flyers around on campus. The play itself is mesmerizing. Brechtian to a point I had not encountered yet (though I have to say, Cornell does not really leave me a lot of time to act, or to see theatre nearly as much as I’d like), the imagery is rich, colorful and original; it manages to be artistic without losing its potency, graceful and beautifully grotesque. The path from reading the play to performing it onstage, with all its intricacies and controversial scenes, reminded me why activist art still exists, why it keeps on happening and why it needs to keep on happening. A week after International Women’s Day, Mujeres is a living testimony of how long a path there is still to follow regarding women’s rights not only in Ciudad Juarez, but probably in many other parts of the world as well.

So if you’re free Wednesday night, come help us spread the word. 8 p.m. at the Schwartz. We all need a study break anyway, and life certainly seems less daunting after a play like this. Pinky swear.

Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at [email protected]. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Florencia Ulloa