Reshma and Nicole C. here to report on our first full day with Borderlinks. It was a jam-packed day with a lot of amazing experiences; it’s hard to imagine how the next few days will even compare.
After a healthy breakfast, we set out for Nogales at around 8:15 am. We first met with the General Manager of Denticon to learn more about the maquiladoras (manufacturing plants usually created under the Border Industrialization or NAFTA program) that provide much of the employment opportunities on the Mexican side of Nogales. The General Manager told us a bit about the work they do at Denticon, which employs about 88 men and women and produces dental equipment that is shipped to various dentists in the states, including dentures, retainers, and false teeth. We were given a tour of the plant, shown how the products are crafted, and introduced to some longtime employees who seemed to take genuine pride in their work. The General Manager seemed very proud of the employment opportunities and benefits that his company provides. He spoke out against the unionization movements in Nogales, citing the recent arrest of a teacher’s union organizer for corrupt practices, and alleging that unionization creates more problems for local industry than it solves.
We next headed over to Grupos Beta Nogales, one of 17 federally funded agencies scattered along the northern border with the U.S. and southern border with Guatemala. Some of the individuals staying there, most of whom had just been arrested crossing the border and returned to Mexico, agreed to speak with us in small groups and share their stories. One of the boys we spoke with was only 17 years old and had tried several times to cross the border. Each time, he had been arrested in placed in detention centers for anywhere from three days to a week or more, before being released in Nogales. It was clear that outside of his experience migrating from the Oaxaca region, working odd jobs to make a living, and trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally, he was just another 17-year-old kid who wanted to find a girlfriend and watch action movies with his friends. The youngest in his family with five older sisters, he wanted to come to the States to obtain higher education and pursue a career in Business Administration or a related field. His reluctance to speak in detail about getting caught crossing the border spoke volumes. Another woman spoke about her desire to be reunited with her 8-year old, U.S. citizen daughter who was living with relatives in Florida to obtain a better education, and an 18-year-old who had been detained in Florence, Arizona during his first journey across the border described his siblings and interest in veterinary school.
Grupos Beta operates a free medical clinic that is open three hours a day and offers basic services to immigrants. The nurse in charge, Norma, said the most common ailment she treated was severe blisters. Meanwhile, a dejected-looking man soaked his feet, which were covered in cuts and lesions, in water. Two student volunteers from Tucson provided Norma with support. Together, the three told us about migrants who were released by U.S. border patrol agencies immediately following surgical procedures with no chance at being able to pay for follow-up care, or while suffering from pneumonia. She highlighted her slogan, “Faith, Care, Service,” as her number-one message to our readers back home.
Next, we drove over to a colonia (neighborhood) to have lunch at the home of a maquila worker, driving past the Technological Institute of Nogales, College of Civil Engineering, and other area schools that were just ending their day. The students seemed upbeat and happy as they waited for their buses or walked home. We passed lines of day laborers waiting for work near the highway.
We arrived at Johanna’s home with empty stomachs, which was a good thing because she fed us heaps of delicious authentic Mexican food, including chile rellenos with homemade salsa, queso fresco with corn and peppers, hot homemade tortillas, rice with corn, and beans. Johanna and her dog Charlie were incredibly warm and welcoming. After we had filled our bellies, Johanna proceeded to tell us the story of her struggle to promote worker’s rights. She was so passionate about helping her companeros and unionizing to protect workers’ rights. She spoke particularly about the struggles of pregnant women who were employed by the maquiladoras and forced to keep up with the same hours (typically 12-hour shifts) and quotas as the others, denied healthcare, and afforded little break time or vacation. We began to realize gradually how expansive the unemployment problem is, and how resultant salary depreciation is touching the lives of everyone in the Nogales community. Johanna had struggled at her previous job to unionize the workers and encourage them to voice to their concerns about working conditions, pay, and benefits, but had failed to get them to stand up to their employers after seven years and some failed negotiations. After being “blacklisted” or “burned” by area employers for her involvement in advocating for workers, she went unemployed for some time before finding work again by a random stroke of luck. At her next employer, she worked her way up, was named one of the company’s top workers, and offered a permanent contract that finally allowed her to organize and inform the workers without fear of losing her job. Johanna, along with lawyers and other community members, negotiated for fixed salaries on a merit-based scale, three hours per month leave to visit a doctor, several days’ paternity leave, larger work spaces, and more, changing the lives of hundreds of maquilladera workers and setting a courageous example. She also continues to organize workshops to pass on her self-learned knowledge about employer obligations under Mexican employment law, and concepts such as minimum benefits, wrongful termination, etc. The pamphlets she showed us, designed to teach workers about their rights and obligations, seemed to be a simple yet highly effective teaching tool.
Although we could have listened to Johanna for hours, it was time to head over to HEPAC (Hogar de Esperanza y Paz= the Home of Hope and Peace), a partner of Borderlinks in Tucson that offers adult education classes to over 250 people, a food security program that feeds about 120 children daily, and family education on nutrition and gardening, and serves as a home base for a Women’s Cooperative business venture. There, Jeanette offered a stirring presentation that provided a broad overview of the issues facing the Nogales community, including unemployment, depressed wages and high cost of living, an enormous wealth gap, squatting and difficulty of acquiring property rights, lack of access to water, electricity, health services and basic nutrition, extreme weather conditions, border violence, domestic violence and sexual abuse. Scott Nicholson of United Ministries was kind enough to translate on her behalf. We were moved by her stories about Jose Antonio, an unarmed teenager across the border, who was shot and killed a few months ago by Border Patrol agents, and Antonia, whose face is featured on the pendant that HEPAC’s Women’s Cooperative sells to raise money to keep the operation going. It was clear that HEPAC makes a huge difference within the community in providing vulnerable children with a safe place to go when their parents are at work, and empowering people to stand up to border violence and adopt a “culture of peace.” Jeanette drew much of her ideas regarding effective education from the philosophy of Pablo Freire.
Lastly, after waiting 90 minutes in a queue of cars to return to Arizona, our group toured the border wall, pictured in our below post. Many of us were struck by the stark separation between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora. Having spent the day in Mexico, we were well aware that we had much in common with the individuals we met hoping to cross the border in search of a better life. This blunt boundary between the two territories seemed at odds with our experience in Sonora and reminded us that much work remains to be done in the field of immigration law.
We drew some diverse perspectives today from a maquilladora manager, migrants, social workers, and a maquilla worker, and we look forward to supplementing these perspectives with those of detainees, other community organizations, lawyers, and U.S. Customs & Border Protection in the days to come.