m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

I appreciated his frankness. You have only to look at El Paso to see damage caused by economic proximity to Mexico. The city is unkempt and unhappy. Wages are depressed by the availability of cheap Mexican labor. The median family income is at least 20 percent lower than the national level, and a third of the residents live in poverty. Unemployment is 11 percent, "which is not bad for a border town," according to a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce. If not for the Army, which has a large base there called Fort Bliss, the numbers would be worse. El Paso is pervaded with a sad boosterism. Television anchors chatter about the city's improved rank on Money magazine's livability list of 300 American places (El Paso has risen to eighty-sixth place, from No. 261 in 1990). A business leader said to me, "Take tourism: there's a lot we could do there. We've just got to find a way to get the drivers off the interstate."

The crumbs are for El Paso. The same logic that would take a company there takes it one step farther, across the Rio Grande. This is likely to become even more true as Mexico opens to investment. There are exceptions, of course: industrial space in El Paso is less expensive than space in Juárez, so if you are in the warehousing business, you might locate there. But the only reason you would consider the city in the first place is its closeness to Mexico. For El Paso, used to thinking of Juárez as that honkytonk next door, the new symbiosis is bitter.

I discovered picketing steelworkers on the western edge of town. They had walked off the job at a small plant that manufactures sucker rods for oil wells, and had set up a makeshift camp across from the main gate. Seven strikers sat with me in the shade of a tarpaulin. They were picketing around the clock, on the same shifts they had worked inside. They had a small tent, a basketball hoop, and a Porta-John. I asked if they would win. One answered with a defiant V sign, and said they had already shut down the plant. Another seemed less sure. He said, "Every morning the manager drives by, and he just looks at us and laughs." He swore. They were burly men in sloppy clothes. Some had been drinking.

The man who talked most had a drooping moustache and an intense, impatient face. He introduced himself simply as Jorge. He said, "All we're asking for is a seventy-five-cent raise -- cheap bastards. I make six dollars an hour. My wife works too, but we run out of money three days before payday."

"No savings," I said.

"I forgot -- there's a retirement plan. They give you a hundred dollars a year, a U.S. savings bond."

Someone said drunkenly, "That's the goddamned American way."

Jorge watched me carefully, as if I might have taken offense. He continued, "Same company in Houston, right? Guys doing our job are making ten, twelve dollars an hour."

"For how much longer, do you think?"

He looked somber.

I said, "Of course you realize in Juárez people work for six dollars a day. Your seventy-five-cent raise is what they make in an hour."

"That's what management tells us. I mean they threaten us with it. But El Paso is part of the United States, and we want to be part of it too. We want to live like American citizens."

FAR to the East, after hundreds of miles of virtual wilderness, the border once again becomes a place punctuated by urban desperation. This is the sweltering coastal plain known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. On the Mexican side, life is dominated by the presence of large maquiladoras. Reynosa, which lies on the Rio Grande, is a flat industrial city of perhaps three hundred thousand people, about seventy miles from the Gulf of Mexico. To get there from Texas, you cross the Rio Grande, passing a mile of trucks waiting to clear Mexican customs. Colonia Roma is one of the districts where the maquila workers live. It sprawls across a swampy lowland beyond the Pemex refinery -- a large and desolate slum, strewn with trash, where vegetation does not survive. The shacks are made of scraps discarded from the factories. Children wear rags and go barefoot. Here and there a Coke sign is hammered to a wall, indicating a small grocery, a place perhaps with electric power. A paved road passes beside the neighborhood, on higher ground, and crawls with buses blowing smoke. During the shift changes at the maquiladoras, workers stream between the shacks and balance on planks across mud and sewage. The women dress in pressed skirts and blouses; they look like office workers from a better neighborhood in a better city. Many go into debt to achieve this effect. Life is expensive in Mexico, since inflation has outpaced wages. The average maquila worker in Reynosa has to work forty-five minutes for a quart of milk or a pound of chicken, two hours for a bottle of shampoo, three and a half hours for two boxes of cornflakes or a toddler's used sweater, twenty hours for sneakers, 125 hours for a double mattress.

Drainage in Colonia Roma is poor. The district flooded the week before I got there, and residents perched with their belongings on their beds while they waited for the water to subside. This seemed hardly noteworthy to the family I went to see. They lived in a single-room plywood house that was just about taken up by two iron beds pushed together. On subsequent visits I counted eight people there; I'm sure more called it home. The oldest was a toothless Indian grandmother who questioned me about my religious beliefs. I was cautious: she wanted to talk about God's grace and the afterlife. The youngest resident was a girl of perhaps five who seemed ill. I talked to a man in his twenties who had been working for three years at Zenith, which employs up to ten thousand workers in Reynosa. He was small, thin, and discouraged.

I asked, "How is the job?"

He answered, "Good." But his eyes were furtive.


"Little good. The problem is there is no money."

"And the union?"

"It can't protect us."

"How long will you stay?" I asked.

"I don't think about it."

The shack smelled of lard and garbage. Chairs hung from nails on the walls because there was no room for them on the floor. A pair of prized cowboy boots stood under one bed, by a stack of clothes. The kitchen consisted of a camp stove, a water jug, and an insulated box. There was a kerosene lantern, and a transistor radio. The buzzing of flies mixed with the shouts of children outside. Smoke from a refuse fire drifted by the open door. The yard was a mess of cinder-block rubble imbedded in mud.

Seen from a distance -- say, in a photograph -- such poverty evokes powerful feelings. Seen close up, however, it can seem unreal. It is bewildering that people whom you can touch, who share the same air with you, can be suffering in conditions so different from your own. I have experienced this before, in Africa, in the midst of starvation.

We carry our own world with us, and it is numbing.

The Organizer

MARÍA Guadalupe Torres Martínez lives in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. I met her in a café to talk about her efforts to organize women workers in the maquiladoras. At forty-eight, Torres has a gentle face thickened by hardship. For most of her adult life she worked on the production lines in Matamoros for a company called Kemet. Now she works for an organization called Comíte Fronterizo de Obreras, or Border Committee of Working Women. The committee has no membership rolls, but it is well known to thousands of maquila workers along the lower Rio Grande. Its approach is low-key: it does not exhort the women to march or strike but, rather, encourages them to meet discreetly in small groups in the shantytowns. They teach themselves about their rights under Mexican federal labor law, and about the dangers in the factories. Torres helps them to learn, as she herself learned. She encourages them to ask for small improvements from the maquila managers, and for better representation from the big Mexican unions. Faced in their offices with delegations of women who are calm and resolute, the men often give in to the demands. Torres has nourished herself with these small victories. She is a strong woman who has grown stronger with age.

Torres was born in 1944 in Cárdenas, a large town in the state of San Luis Potosí, about three hundred miles south of the border. Her father was a railroad laborer who fell off a car and died when she was a few months old. Her mother, with no means of support, went to work as a domestic for other railroad families. They could not afford to pay her, but gave her food and a place for the night. María Guadalupe grew up in their shacks, sleeping in blankets on the floor. When she was seven, she caught typhoid and almost died. She spent a year recovering. At the age of ten, having completed the third grade, she dropped out of school and went to work with her mother, cleaning houses and looking after children.

In 1960, when Torres was sixteen, she and her mother came to the United States. The Bracero guestworker program was still in full swing. Mexicans could cross the bridge into Brownsville without documents; it was thought of as part of the natural border traffic. Nonetheless, moving to the United States was a big step. Mother and daughter hesitated for eight months in Matamoros, working next door to each other in upper-class households.

When they finally ventured into Brownsville, they found live-in jobs within three days. Torres became the nanny in a family of four children, for eight dollars a week. She stayed until she was twenty, saving a little money and going often to dances. Then she and her mother moved to Harlingen, the next town north, where again they found jobs in separate households. Then it was back to Brownsville. In her mid-twenties, Torres moved back to Mexico to look for work in a factory.

It took two months to get a job, at a pottery factory in Matamoros. After the first week she learned she would not be paid, because she was "training." She wondered how she was going to survive. There were twenty workers there, and they told her this was standard. She answered, "If they haven't paid you either, then you should ask for your money."

They told her not to make trouble.

When the owner arrived, she said to him, "I won't work here anymore, but you owe me for the work I've already done." She pointed to the pots she had made. "I did all this, and I'm sure you'll sell it. I won't leave until you pay me."

The owner refused.

Torres raised her voice. She used strong language, and said, "These other women have been here for months, and have never been paid for their training either. You owe them, too."

The owner hushed her, and agreed to pay. He wanted to write her a check, but she had never been to a bank, and she demanded cash. Leaving the factory, she waved the money at the other workers, and cried, "Look! Look!" She heard later that they, too, were paid.

The next factory was a clandestine operation making knitted handbags. There were twelve workers. They had no chairs or tables, but sat on newspapers on the floor. One day a union man arrived and got into a shouting match with the owner, who was Italian. The union man took out a pistol and made the owner pay the workers then and there. He said, "Any who want to work in an electronics factory, come with me in my car." It was a black Buick. Torres was the first one in. The others crowded in after her, filling the car so completely that the union man barely had room to steer. Somehow he drove them to his office.

The electronics factory was an American maquiladora, set up by the Electronic Control Corporation to manufacture electrical coils. There were two hundred workers. Torres was given a three-month probationary contract, with a promise of permanent employment if she performed well. At the café in Matamoros she showed me what the job entailed: she folded a paper napkin and with deft and reflexive fingers simulated wrapping wire around a spool. The company required the women to produce 400 coils a day, six days a week, for about eighteen cents an hour. Despite swollen and bloody hands, Torres worked quickly, and by her second week was producing 800 coils a day. The supervisors were pleased, but after eight months they still had not given her a permanent position. Then, just before Christmas and a mandatory two-week bonus, the company fired all two hundred workers.

Torres was in trouble. Her savings were gone, and her clothes, which she had been given while working as a nanny, were wearing out. To help with the rent on her small room in central Matamoros, Torres's mother moved in, and both women took occasional day jobs in Brownsville. Every morning Torres went to the union hall. Another eight months went by. She knew already about the conditions at Kemet, the maquiladora where she was to work for eighteen years. She took a job there because she felt she had no choice. It was 1969, and she was twenty-five.

KEMET was as bad as they said. She worked in the department of injection molding, forming capacitor bodies from hardening epoxy. She washed the bodies bare-handed in methylene chloride, a volatile solvent that turned her hands papery and white. Methylene chloride is a chlorinated hydrocarbon, linked to liver damage, birth defects, and cancer. It is in the same chemical family as chloroform, and it can have similar soporific effects. The warning labels cautioned in English against breathing the fumes, and mentioned narcosis, respiratory faiilure, and death. The workers did not understand the dangers; probably their supervisors did not either.

Over the years Torres grew more angry. "I felt they were constantly loading more work on us. I began to ask the others, 'Don't we have any rights?' One day my friend Ludivina told me that her brother, who was a law student, had mentioned a federal labor law to her. This was the first I heard of it."

Torres had put in eleven years at Kemet. The idea of a comprehensive labor law, its mere existence, strengthened her resistance to the supervisors. But she did not know where to find this law, or how to use it. She kept asking questions. Eventually she discovered that an American was holding meetings in a church, teaching Mexican workers about their rights. The American was Ed Krueger, then fifty, a soft-spoken man who had spent years helping the migrant farm laborers of Oklahoma and Texas. In February of 1981 Torres went to her first meeting and took fifteen Kemet women with her.

The rest of Torres's story -- her success as an organizer -- I knew already. I asked her about the American managers at Kemet, and their attitudes toward safety. She was reasonable. "One day they announced everyone would have to wear safety glasses. That was it -- no explanation. The girls complained about having to wear something that wasn't natural to them. The glasses didn't fit, and they gave a magnification even for girls who didn't need it. The managers answered, 'Just wear them.' By then I was on the health-and-safety committee. After the first month we asked for more educational material. The managers finally brought in a movie that showed a wire in a woman's eye. It was dramatic, because the eye was bleeding. When the workers saw that, they finally accepted the safety glasses. But words alone didn't do it."

I asked her to generalize. "Do you think the managers are reckless?"

"They worry most about losing time. They don't pressure the supervisors to enforce the safety procedures, because everyone knows the procedures slow the production line. It's ridiculous, but that's how it is. The businessmen, the ones at the top, discard their noble feelings in order to be powerful."

We had been sitting in the café for most of the day. I asked Torres if she still lived in the same rented room in central Matamoros. She smiled. "It was unlivable. My mother and I had a room on the ground floor. The house was so rotten that a man upstairs fell through the floor and landed in the bed of a woman below. He was walking from one room to another. Luckily, she had just rolled over. In the rain we had to put our furniture on blocks; in hurricanes we had to leave altogether. I went to the union and the federal housing authority, but no one would help. This went on for years, and our situation kept getting worse."

In frustration she wrote a letter to the President, Miguel de la Madrid, complaining that the government did not care about the people. Three months later she got a letter back. She took it to the chief housing official, who was surprised, and asked her to wait. She did, nervously, thinking he would trick her. But the man returned and said, "For me, this is an order." He took out a map that showed new houses, and invited her to choose one. Torres by then was deeply involved in the workers'-rights movement, and she knew how to handle herself. She said. "Look, I want a good house with good plumbing. And I don't want a lot of neighbors -- I need a sense of privacy. And I want to live close to a school, so when I get old, I can at least sell gum."

She chose a cinder-block house toward the edge of town. It had a living room, a kitchen, and two small bedrooms -- just right for a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother. After the years of difficulty, the leaking roof seemed like the smallest inconvenience.

MATAMOROS is a raw industrial landscape. As I drove through it one day with Torres, she said, "I see a black panorama for the Mexican worker." She might have been talking about the environment outside the car.

I said, "But isn't this better than unemployment?"

She flared. "Americans say they save us from starvation. But all of us who have come to the north, if we had stayed where we were, we would not be dying of hunger. Here on the border we are just slaves."

That word "slave" kept reappearing. Upriver I had seen graffiti scrawled defiantly across a bridge: "¡No somos esclavos!" "We are not slaves!" And in Colonia Roma, I had talked to a man whose greatest wish was for his children to work in the maquiladoras. He said, "In the past we were nothing but the slaves of the rich. And if we are still slaves today, at least the maquiladoras pay us more."

I quoted him to Torres. She became calmer and said, "No one is against the plants. No one wants to close them down. We ask only for better conditions, and we are willing to compromise." We drove in silence for a few blocks. Then she said, "But we refuse absolutely to be used as a dumping ground for industrial wastes. The President of Mexico claims he won't allow contamination. He claims environmental enforcement will be part of free trade. But why should we believe him? We've seen what they do: they close down the companies who contaminate the least, and they leave the big polluters alone." She named them for me, and said, "There are strong interests involved. The neighborhoods around the plants have denounced them, but nothing is done."

Torres wanted me to see for myself. I knew this much already: the border is a chemical mess. The ground, the water, and sometimes the air have been poisoned. Miscarriage, birth-defect, and cancer rates are high. The situation is worse on the Mexican side, where dangerous wastes are dumped haphazardly. But pollution travels, and affects the U.S. side, too.

The dumping is not necessarily intentional: at a General Motors plant in Matamoros which makes bumpers, workers are provided with tanks into which to purge their paint guns. But to save time and effort they simply purge the guns into the drains, which empty into a nearby canal. Samples of water flowing from that plant have shown staggering levels of xylenes, ethyl benzene, acetone, toluene, and methylene chloride. Similar spills occur daily at other plants all along the border. Despite treaties and promises, conditions have not improved.

In Matamoros, residential neighborhoods crowd tightly around chemical plants. Industrial accidents have sent hundreds of people to the hospital and forced thousands of others to evacuate their houses. On the night of December 6, 1990, a tank overheated and leaked a cloud of toxic vapor. The vapor entered the ventilation system of another maquiladora, a manufacturer of electric blankets, about three blocks away, and sent fifty women to the hospital. Slowly dissipating, it drifted over the Rio Grande into Brownsville, where the stench caused terror in the streets. The citizens of Brownsville know very well what goes on across the river. They talk about the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide leak in Bhopal, India, which within a few days killed twenty-one hundred people.

Torres took me to a neighborhood sandwiched between two chemical plants: one brewed pesticides, the other detergents. By the standards of Matamoros the neighborhood was middle-class. The houses were made of rough, unpainted wood, but they had electricity, running water, and even small yards. Most of the families had moved there in the 1930s, when cotton dust was a nuisance. The factories came later.

A chemical smell wafted through the air and burned in my throat. The day was hot, and I had a headache. A stout woman with crooked teeth, a friend of Torres's, invited us in. The woman offered me water, and I declined. I asked her if she worried about the chemicals next door. She said yes, ever since the explosion of 1983: a pipe had burst at the pesticide plant and sprayed poisonous foam over the houses. I asked her to describe it. She said, "It snowed foam. We were afraid, and ran with the children, thinking only of saving ourselves. Where we touched the foam, we got sores on our feet. The next day it rained, and the poison spread through the neighborhood. We were kept out for eight days. Our clothes were contaminated and destroyed. We had to kill our animals. Pigs, chickens, dogs, cats. We had seven ducks. They were all buried in a trench in the company compound."

I wandered across the street and talked to an old man who told me of digging holes and smelling chemicals in the groundwater a few feet below the surface. The detergent factory had built evaporation ponds next to his house. When they overflowed, his chickens picked at the water and died.

Later, Torres took me for a walk along a ditch where discharges from neighboring factories sink into the ground. The water was black, and it turned milky when I tossed rocks into it. I did not want to touch it, or even get close. Families live there along the railroad tracks, in a district called Chorizo because it is long and narrow, like a sausage. They drink from tainted wells, and hang their clothes to dry on the fences that separate them from industry. The border is full of these fences without effect.


BROWNSVILLE is the easternmost city on the U.S.-Mexican border. Downstream the Rio Grande flows sluggishly thirty miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Burdened with sewage and industrial runoff, it meanders across a coastal flat. There are a few colonias, which on the U.S. side means the poorest developments, where people buy plots on installment and put in shacks and trailer houses without plumbing. Elsewhere the land is unwanted and mostly unused. The bay to the north hems it in, making this lowest stretch of river unattractive to immigrants and smugglers. A paved road dwindles as it approaches the coast at a beach called Boca Chica. To the north, across the bay, the condominiums of Padre Island rise against the horizon. Developers have dreamed of a Boca Chica resort, too, but Padre Island itself is overbuilt. The beach at Boca Chica is narrow and littered. The Rio Grande empties into the surf about a mile to the south. Where the pavement turns to sand, the state has erected a STOP sign. Twelve miles offshore, the border officially ends.

But the real end of the border is a fenced compound back in Brownsville. It lies on the eastern edge of town, by the airport, and looks like a grammar school: a cluster of low buildings and verandas, people, some grass and trees. It is a refugee camp for Central Americans, run by the Catholic diocese, and named Casa Oscar Romero, after the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated in 1980. The camp accommodates two hundred people. Having swum the Rio Grande and evaded the Border Patrol, Central Americans can rest safely there for a week or two. The Border Patrol cruises by but does not enter the grounds.

There are as many women as men. Some use the time to file for political asylum; while their requests are being processed, they cannot be deported. Others simply eat and sleep before hiding again and traveling north. They hear about the camp from fellow travelers, or from taxi drivers in Brownsville. This is peculiar: though the Border Patrol cannot find them in the bushes, apparently the taxi drivers can. Throughout the day I spent at the camp, taxis pulled up and discharged people, sometimes entire families. The drivers went the other way, too: a Honduran hired a cab to take him back to the river, to find his sisters, whom he had left hiding. I do not know what became of them; the border is a dangerous place for undocumented immigrants, and hours later the Hondurans had not returned.

I talked to a Guatemalan who had been to the United States five years before but had gotten drunk and been arrested and deported. Back in Guatemala he returned to his village and his family of eight sisters and a brother. When his father was shot by the army, he decided to go north again to find another sister, who had married and was living in Miami. It took him three weeks to come through Mexico. Crossing the Rio Grande at Laredo he was caught and thrown back four times. He avoided repatriation to Guatemala by claiming to be a Mexican. On the fifth attempt, here at Brownsville, he slipped by the Border Patrol. I asked him how he planned to get to Miami. He was not sure. I asked him how he would find his sister, and he admitted that he did not know her address or her married name. The camp was full of similar problems: a brother somewhere in Chicago, a cousin last heard of in Houston, obsolete addresses, disconnected telephones, people lost in the mass of human migration.

The white-haired nun in the camp office was a Spaniard, and she was angry. She said, "You preach that here in the U.S. is paradise, and people believe you." A business jet, no doubt on a mission for the maquilas, screamed overhead. She said, "The big companies, they are miserable people with unlimited ambition. The suffering you see around you is the result of their greed. The border is a sore -- the sickness is within us."

She was an ideologue, and she packaged the world too simply. But she was right about this: The border is a reflection of us all.

  • Read the first installment of Langewiesche's two-part article on the U.S.-Mexican border, from the May, 1992, issue of The Atlantic.

    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part two. Click here to go to part three.

    Copyright © 1992 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1992; The Border; Volume 269, No. 6; pages 91 - 108.

  • m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture