Maquila: A tale of Two Mexicos (1999) is a film by documentary maker and writer Saul Landau that shines a light on the pre-and-post-NAFTA factors leading to the Maquila labor system, and more broadly the effects of neo-liberalism and trade-globalism on the economy and culture of the indigenous Mexican peoples.
While the documentary opens in the central-Mexican Lacadon Jungle in Chiapas, with Zapatista dissidents clashing with jack-booted Mexican military, the story primarily revolves around the Mexican/american border cities that have been most impacted by the free-trade policies of the 90′s, with an extra emphasis on Juarez, MX. Despite multinational corporations making money hand-over-fist, the abject poverty is evident everywhere the camera points: scores of shanty homes, stray dogs with paper-thin flesh failing to conceal ribs, and toxic waste pools posing as sources of drinking water.
In Colonia Anapra, Ciudad Juarez, we are told of Esperanza- one of millions of central-Mexicans migrating to cities along northern border to work in the Maquilas, or maquiladoras, factories that exist to produce prodigious amounts of products at the lowest possible prices for export to foreign (read- american) markets. Esperanza elaborates that while country life was nice, weather patterns effectively disrupted seasonal farm work that both men and women utilized and pushed her along with millions of others north in hopes of new opportunities.
What isn’t mentioned as much in the documentary is how NAFTA effectively made local agrarian entrepreneurs unable to compete with the hordes of moneyed american corporations who flocked to mexico and monopolized the agro-economy- nor how the disruption in weather that worked to make the fields more arid was probably a result of climate change derivative of american industry. A real one-two punch for a culture who had historically seen itself as intertwined with earth, lands, and seasons.
These setbacks and subsequent relocations were the gateway to a new period of Mexican culture, a mini-market revolution that was effectively the scraps of america’s 90′s era boom. Another female-bodied Maquila worker notes that while the new labor-system (new to mexico, anyways) prompted action, the action it prompted was individualism, and away from family-centric tradition.
In what seems to mirror the Waltham-Lowell labor-mill system of the American market revolution we see mostly women hired, because of their low demands for wages (due to machismo gender roles in mexico), and probably for their presumed docility. This also reminiscent of the 17-18th century sweating shops required to systematically exploit the output of the southern plantation system.
By all accounts Mexico was ripe for people looking to maximize profits by extracting cheap labor from peoples done a disservice by a corrupt government. Jaime Bermudez, billed by the documentary as the ‘father of Maquila industry’, says
“We are promoters- we sell Mexico. Not just here. We have an international partner association and what we do is travel all over the world and try to convince people to come to mexico, and to establish themselves in mexico, it’s a good investment, for the company. And we make our money on construction… by leasing the buildings to the companies.”
NAFTA, The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 which facilitated intercontinental trade with a trilateral trade bloc between Canada, America, and Mexico, is often credited with the creation of the Maquila system- but some say the roots of it go back decades earlier. Victor Quintana, an economist and member of the Left-Liberal Party PRD, notes that the new economic order, as relating to mexico, reaches back to Mexico’s 1930′s-1965 subsidization of corn to promote agrarian industry, which he says didn’t provide sufficient incentive, leading to farmers cultivating other products with prices that failed to rise. This began the first waves of migration from rural to urban locales for workers who found themselves out of work.
In 1965 another key factor leading to the Maquila labor-system is the loss of the Bracero Program, which exported cheap and legal labor to America, the impetus for the mass of undocumented workers without easy means of participating in the american economy. It is in this context that we see the first Maquila open in Juarez mexico, amidst systemic dysfunction and a frenzied need for employment, through the ‘border industrial program’.
While the Maquila labor system may have addressed employment in the urban areas, the rural means of subsistence have not been addressed and indeed seem worsened by globalization of trade. Options for workers are limited to construction or migrant farm work, meaning women who had formerly worked in agriculture are especially effected and are driven to the border-towns in greater numbers.
This mass exodus of female-bodied workers presents new problems. Quick money mixed with rubes/rural workers leads to a carnival atmosphere akin to silver/gold boom towns- attracting sharks who are looking to absorb some of the wages brought by the Maquilas. The neo-boomtowns are rife with dangerous factories and loose security. Women forced under economic pressure to migrate faced new bigger-city dangers they were unaccustomed to in the country, thrown into areas that oversee hundreds of rapes, murders, and abductions of women annually- with little action because of collusion between capitalists and local governments.
Low skill of work and ready availability of labor leads to terrible corporate culture leaving workers overworked and sometimes abused, with hostility between supervisors and unskilled workers which the company has no profit-motive in mediating. Federal work laws, already unfair, are ignored. These are hallmarks indicative of the 1% fleecing the global economy through indentured castes which are forced to wage-labor in order to subsist. While some Maquila workers unionized and struck (striked?), this just prompted the hiring of scabs who relocated with promises of wages which were exaggerated. Compounding the systemic failings was the corrupt Mexican Government not enforcing court-decisions found in favor of labor.
Multinational corporations benefit through the near-indentured servitude via subsidiary-fronts which operate Maquilas manned with workers paid one-quarter that of non-third world workers. Profits from Maquilas don’t improve local economy or infrastructure- and even worsen the environment through toxic waste and clouds of ammonia derivative of factory output.
A masked Zapatista sums it up nicely when he notes that despite what they are designed for, what trade-globalism neo-liberalism do is remove a part of the population, in this case the indigenous. It seems the encomienda or tribute system of New Spain never really went away…
Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.
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