By Ann Taylor
For a college student, Spring Break is typically full of sandy beaches, wild parties, and mass consumption of alcohol. But for six other students and myself it was an extremely different experience. As members of "Introduction to U.S./Mexican Border Issues", a class offered every spring semester at Heidelberg College, we were able to see Mexico behind the façade we accept as Americans.
Before leaving for the border we had readings and films that attempted to prepare us for the culture we would soon be face to face with. The focus of our trip would be the Maquiladoras and colonias. "The maquiladoras—foreign-owned assembly plants clustered along the Mexico-U.S. border—are one manifestation of a worldwide trend in which industries production is concentrated in areas of the world with an abundant supply of low-wage labor". We would not only be traveling to a different country, but to an entirely different world.
Our first stop is to meet up with Ed Krueger near Brownsville, Texas. He has been working independently with migrant workers since the early 1970’s. He describes his relationship with the workers as "low profile". He simply aids them in developing better communication with their unions, and making them aware of Mexican labor laws and regulations. The goal of his mission is to make the workers self-sufficient. He hopes to achieve this by unifying the workers, and making them aware that they have the ability to change their conditions.
The conditions of some of these foreign owned companies (including familiar names such as Converse, Vtech, and Panasonic) are both unhealthy and provide sub-standard income. "In a 1996 survey of maquiladora employees in Tijuana, the Comite de Apoyo Fronterizo Obrero Regional (CAFOR) found that 70 percent of workers reported excessive mucus formation when working in fume-ridden areas; 58.55 percent suffered from upper airway irritation; 57.65 percent complained of sore throats; and 76.5 percent experienced chest pain. These workers also endured rashes (62.5 percent) and hair loss (66.7 percent)". These are only the most prevalent health risks. There is also risk of severe burns and the severing of fingers or limbs. On top of these health risks, "most maquila workers are earning the equivalent of $25 to $50 a week in an area where a pair of pants cost $15 to $20".
After driving through a Maquiladora Park in Reynosa, Mexico, Ed was our guide in one of the villages, or colonias, where the workers lived. The first thing that catches you off guard is the over abundance of garbage and sewage filling the crude dirt roads. I was already beginning to feel I was not prepared for this portion of the trip. The homes that filled this village were made of scarp metal, with blankets for doors, and were barely the size of my garage at home. They were also lacking electricity and running water. These streets had no names and the houses no addresses, but rather each house had the names of the occupants painted on a post outside. At this point I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. It was the first time in my life that I felt like the minority, and I felt I was imposing and gawking at some sort of exhibit. I realized later my classmates and I were the ones on display.
I was hesitant to interact with the workers, since I spoke little Spanish, but I was also eager to learn of their experiences. Their hospitality and positivity surprised and comforted me. The first thing each family did when we walked up was pull out chairs or anything suitable for us to sit on. Keep in mind they had been on their feet all day in the conditions previously described, and they were worried about us having a place to sit down. I thought they would be depressed and negative, but they were all positive about their futures. This village was made up of squatters, meaning they had no property rights to their land, but they all seemed optimistic that they would soon have a place they could call their own. This was all a brief introduction as to what we would be experiencing in the following week.
After visiting the colonias, we sat in on an informal meeting of maquiladora workers, organized by Ed Krueger. There was an immediate sense of cooperation. Along with Ed, the workers are supported by DODS, an organization dedicated to making the workers aware of their labor rights. But the struggle is long and hard for these workers. One woman said she constantly inhales lead dust because a vent, which is supposed to be directed outside, was broken and now blows the debris back into the factory. As a result she and her coworkers bleed from their noses and mouths. Another woman, who was pregnant, had sores and blisters on her feet from standing for fourteen hours straight. The workers also informed us they were only given a ten-minute break throughout the day. In this time period they were to get their paychecks (if necessary), wash their hands, use the restroom, and eat. This was the only time during the day these activities could take place. The workers are put in a difficult situation when they are not trained properly on certain machinery. They risk their jobs and their lives by performing a task they are not properly trained for, but they also risk their jobs for not doing what they are told. A statement heavily used among the workers was "we are not machines". The only positive thing to come out of the meeting is that they have hope and drive to make a difference, through the motivation of Ed Krueger.
Today begins with Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Port Isabel, Texas. This is a detainment center where illegal aliens are held until they go through hearing to determine if they are allowed to remain in the United States. Half of our class could sit in on immigration hearings, and the other half would tour the facilities. I chose to sit in on the hearings. (I would later find out this was the realer side of the center. The tour turned out to be a diluted propagandistic means of making this whole process seem less cruel).
The first person to take the stand was an 18-year-old boy that had been in detainment since July. His bond was $2500, and to have it lowered he would have to have a letter from family or friends in the U.S. This is the typical proceeding of each trial. They must prove they have a reason to be in the U.S. or they are deported back to their home country. Two men then took the stand. One was read all the regulations and paperwork he would have to go through to remain in the U.S., and seemed willing to do so. The other man, after hearing the work ahead of his comrade, chose to simply be deported.
I was personally surprised at the organization of the court hearings. It seemed very casual, and almost nonchalant. I even noticed the judge peering out the window for a good five minutes while the person on trial was presenting his case. Along with all of this I found it strange that the entire proceeding was carried out in English. I couldn’t understand this because the only people in the courtroom who spoke English were myself and my classmates, and the lawyers. To make things even more difficult on those in detainment, paperwork that was to be filled out was printed in English and was to be filled out in English. There was one man who hadn’t even spoken to his own lawyer because of the language barrier. I was aware that this was the United States and they were illegal immigrants, but it seemed like a lost cause for them even to plead their case.
After a frustrating day in court, we then traveled to the Ozanam homeless shelter in Brownsville, Texas. This was a sort of haven for those crossing the border illegally, most of them entering the U.S. with nothing. The shelter, at the time of our visit, housed about 60 residents, but has a capacity for around 80. Residents may remain at the shelter for a maximum of 30 days. They are offered clothing, meals and a place to sleep. There is a male dormitory and a female dormitory, which consist of a large room lined with bunks. They also offered family housing, which was a very small room with 3 bunks and a private bathroom. Those staying at the shelter are responsible for washing their own linens and clothing, as well as helping to prepare daily meals. Along with sleeping quarters, the shelter also had a classroom with two computers. They teach children a typical elementary education, and teach adults computer skills as well as English.
When speaking with these immigrants, we were able to get first hand accounts of their journey to the United States. This was the first time on the trip I realized how little Spanish I knew, and how much I wished to communicate with these people. I would have to settle for Heidelberg’s professor of Spanish translation. Many of the residents spoke of "coyotes", when making their trek across the Rio Grande. These were people who promised immigrants a safe journey across the border for a "small fee" (usually around $1200). On most occasions, the "coyotes" would take the money and direct the travelers right into the arms of La Migra (the border police). La Migra is also a threat at the shelter. The residents are safe within the gates of the shelter, because of its religious affiliation, but the border police patrol the area waiting for someone to step outside the safety of the shelter.
One man, who had just arrived the previous night, discussed his journey from El Salvador. He had lost everything in the recent devastating earthquake, and came to the United States to find a new life for his family. Another man from Columbia was fleeing the violent atmosphere of his country. He said it was difficult for people from his country to come to the United States because Columbia is almost always affiliated with drug cartel. He said he had given up on his own life, but wanted to make a better life for his children. I began to question why we would keep people from fulfilling the same dreams we have for our own families and ourselves.
After hearing these stories it was a little frustrating to then go to a park overlooking the border, to watch La Migra on duty. They drive up and down a dirt road that follows the path of the Rio Grande River, waiting to catch illegal crossers. Two men, on the Mexican side of the river, walked casually along the bank. Perhaps they were plotting their crossing for a later time, or perhaps they were merely antagonizing the border patrol. It was interesting to view the different perspectives of us, on U.S. soil, and them on Mexican soil. I stood there thinking how a narrow river separated to entirely different cultures and lifestyles. And I came to understand the soil that I stood on freely, was exactly what they dreamed of. It was a very humbling experience to say the least.
Today was our day of service in Nuevo Progresso, Mexico. We would be cleaning up a clinic that Sister Evaline Hug, of Tiffin, Ohio, had helped to establish as part of neighboring church, Nuestra Senora de la Merced (Our lady of Mercy Church). Throughout the day we hung insulation and drywall, to help make this small clinic fully functional for the surrounding village. I actually spent more time interacting with the people of the town who had come to watch the renovations take place. This was another instance where I truly wished I knew more Spanish. Here I was face to face with this extraordinary culture, and I could communicate with them on a personal level, although the opportunity was there. However, I learned the international language is a smile and a laugh. I was able to have a few laughs myself while trading tongue twisters, both in English and in Spanish with some children (with the help of our Spanish professor). Although it may seem ignorant to say, it was amazing to see these children play with each other and with us just as I did myself as a child. That was something that didn’t need translation. At the end of the day it felt good to have accomplished something, both cleaning of the clinic and the camaraderie that was made.
Today was supposed to be a day of relaxation, with a trip to the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge and shopping later in Nuevo Progresso. However, I am a very observant and analytical person, so throughout the trip I was constantly absorbing everything this trip had to offer. Mentally…there were no days of relaxation. The trip through the park seemed like any other, until we ventured down a path marked "do not enter" (hey, sometimes you have to take risks to truly experience a different culture). The path ran down along the bank of the Rio Grande River. We approached a clearing and the entire area was filled with deflated innertubes and abandoned clothing. This had apparently been an area where many people had crossed the border illegally. This made all the stories we had heard a harsh reality. Walking back I couldn’t help but wonder how many people had successfully found their way to the U.S. on the very paths we were walking on.
The hardest part of the day was supposed to be the most relaxing. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping the main strip of markets in Nuevo Progresso, Mexico. Crossing the border itself was the hardest part. Instead of driving we would be walking. As soon as we reached the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, we were in an entirely different world. We could see at least a hundred beggars standing beneath the bridge with poles holding milk jugs stretched to our reach. When we finally reached the end of the bridge there was a family standing against the fence. All I saw was a little girl’s hand poking out of the fence and I heard her say "aqui!"(meaning "here!"), but I had already given away all my spare change. I knew from that moment I was unprepared for the rest of the day. The entire street was filled with merchants on both sides. I had heard someone say you could bargain for items in this sort of environment, but it was the merchant who did the bargaining. I would pick up a trinket or piece of jewelry, look at the price, and set it down. They immediately lowered the price, and kept lowering it until I gave in. I felt horrible paying less than their original offer because I knew it was their means of survival. This was a place where cultures clashed; greedy, superficial Americans bargaining the meals off these merchants’ tables. Along with the desperate merchants, there were mothers nursing their babies waiving a plastic cup, and children, only four or five years old, all alone, begging for change while carelessly strumming an out of tune guitar. It was an incredibly overwhelming experience and I felt incredibly out of place. I was beginning to miss home more and more as each day passed.
Day 5: Our final day
Today we would receive hope, despite these desperate situations, that there are people who are making a difference. We visited Project ARISE (A Resource in Serving Equality) in Las Milpas, Texas. This is a nonprofit organization founded by Sister Gerrie Naughton in 1986. These are the foundations of their mission:
- They are not trying to create a perfect system; they are only trying to serve the people
- They strive for personal contact
- ARISE does not do for the people what the people can do for themselves
- They strive to be hospitable
- They first observe, then analyze, take action, and celebrate their achievements
There main focus was on the women and children of the colonias. They offer a wider variety of services in hopes to pull these women out of the depression of their living environment while their husbands are working. Some of their programs include:
- Early childhood program (3-4 years)
- English language development for children and adults
- Literacy in Spanish for adults
- Culture programs: ballet, arts and crafts, and storytelling
- Children youth activities
- Driver’s License coaching
- Transportation for families
- Personal development sessions
One of the largest problems in the colonias is lack of self-esteem. They are raised with the belief that their life in the colonia is there only option. Some of the women who come to ARISE have said even their husbands tell them they will never get out of the colonias, they will never pass their driving tests, they will never get an education, and they will never find a life of their own. Four women proved that belief wrong to us today. They were from the same situations, but they came to ARISE for hope, and are now members of the staff.
They told us their stories of coming to the United States. They all fought the same battles to be where they are today. They explained to us the courage it took for them to break away from their families, who would rather they accept their life in the colonia, to come to ARISE each day. One woman is now fulfilling her dream of being a teacher at ARISE, although it may be on a smaller scale. She hopes to later attend college and get her degree. Just to have these sort of dreams would have been impossible without ARISE. These women now believe they can achieve anything.
The rest of the day was spent traveling to small colonias in the area to deliver coloring books and crayons to children. It was amazing to see how fast word of mouth spread in these villages. Before we knew it, we would be surrounded by 20 or 30 children. The excitement on their faces was something, once again, that needed no translation. I realized how much I take for granted while driving through this village. A man was drilling a well in his front yard, while his daughter clutched her coloring book to her chest. The children were so overjoyed for this everyday American item that costs less than a few dollars. Our last day definitely put a lot of things into perspective.
I would say I learned more on this trip about American culture and myself more than anything. I was more depressed by the behavior and attitude we hold as Americans, than by the desperate situations of the people of the border region. The two biggest things I learned from this trip, and that I would encourage everyone to learn from this article is to never take anything for granted and to always take advantage of the opportunities we have as Americans. The conclusion of our trip is supposed to be spent reflecting. Today I am still absorbing all we experienced, and I’m sure I will be for some time. I know I will be eternally grateful that I was able to take this trip, and have a learning experience of a lifetime. I bet you Spring Breakers can’t make that claim.