Sunday, February 12, 2006

Moral Crossings

[This is part one of a series of posts on Tijuana. I hope to finish it up in a week or so.]

“One can argue that crossing the border is illegal for some, but one cannot say that it is immoral.” When my colleague spoke those words, I felt some of my vague thoughts take a concrete form. I had been in Tijuana for three straight days and two nights, and my perspective on the trip was blurred by emotion, fatigue, and the energy that comes from observing inhumanity and obscene wealth when they back up against each other the way they do in Tijuana.

What else could he say, what could anyone say who had been there? The poverty is as crushing and unavoidable as the flow of people through the city. One young woman we met was waiting to cross the border. It wasn’t her first attempt. The first time she was traveling north from Honduras. She tried to jump a train but no one would help her, she fumbled and fell by the moving train, hurting her leg badly. Some people threw her into the bushes and left her to bleed and die. Luck was on her side, though. Someone came along and found her, after she had crawled some distance. Meanwhile, she had applied a tourniquet to her broken and bleeding leg. Though that didn’t save it and it was amputated at about six inches above her knee in a Mexican hospital, the Mexican health system did pay the bill without much complaint. Now she has a second-rate prosthesis that she hopes will carry her across the border and to her friend in Boston. She is fiesty, determined and even a bit delusional about her chances. I wish her luck and don’t count her out; she has already made it back to Tijuana from Honduras.

It doesn’t surpise me that this crippled woman (who could no longer get a job in her home country because she was “fucked up”) seems delusional. It takes a lot of hope to think you’re going to make it in a place where no one wants you except for a few members of the National Restaurant Association and a handful of meat-packing corporations--and they will only want you for a while. It strikes me, though, that this delusional hope beyond hope that life must somehow be better on the other side is eerily similar to our own delusional myths about our country. You know the ones: that the West was built by tough cowboys and entrepreneurs, even though it mostly flourished from government subsidies (think Hoover Dam) and government-subsidized industry (think aerospace); that our country has good intentions for all its citizens and the world (think about how congress uses unnecessary war to gut healthcare and education in the U.S.); that with hard work everyone should succeed. It strikes me that many poor immigrants thought the same thing before they got here, and they still do, even though they are fifth-generation, hard-working miners whose safety and economic livelihoods are increasingly threatened by U.S. corporations and their government cronies. I mean no disrespect, but that is delusional.

The border would be a funny thing if were not for all the harm it engenders.

The border with the U.S. is a rather selective strainer. Housemaids and some day-workers, as well as middle and upper-middle class Mexicans working in the U.S. pass through with little friction. U.S. citizens, The Rich and their money, and of course goods find no hindrances. Unskilled labor, however, stares at the wall, with anger and envy, and also with some disdain for it, for it is a symbol of the U.S. and its cruel and, yes, ignorant policies. How is it that money and goods move back and forth without impediment while they cannot? Do things have more of a right than people? Those questions were on my mind, and no doubt on other’s as well.
A maquiladora is a factory. The concept is simple: bring unfinished goods from the U.S., finish their production in Mexico at the going rate (about 1.80 an hour average including taxes, social security, etc.), and ship those goods back to the U.S. for sale. The concept of a maquiladora, as two members of the Tijuana Economic Development Council (TEDC) pointed out, is for U.S. companies to save money on labor. (I will also assume, since these men were wearing suits and working out of an office in the Tijuana City Hall, though not technically government officials, that certain Mexicans make a good deal more than the laborers through this arrangement. More on this later.)

The TEDC noted that there were some 180 thousand workers employed in maquiladoras. Many of them, they said, were not actually from Tijuana, but people moving from the poorest regions of Mexico and Central America. They mostly live in, well, “unconventional housing.” These are the hillsides where shantytowns overflow with squatters. Though some in the U.S. wouldn’t believe it (since Tijuana for them only contains the Great Unwashed), there are some other hills, covered in mansions that cost millions. Tijuana is a mine for those that can extract its riches.

The human ore of Tijuana has increased in market value as its human value has declined. I’m not speaking here of workers who lose limbs because safety equipment is removed from machines in order to increase the pace of production; nor am I speaking of workers sickened from toxic fumes in the workplace. I am referring only to the value of the worker as a production unit. As Tito, a sociologist pointed out, Tijuana’s growth is inversely related to growth elsewhere in Mexico. In other words, as other regions of Mexico get poorer, Tijuana grows, making a few rich, bringing a few others to the middle class, and spawning the giant population of displaced workers earning, if they are lucky, the minimum wage. But all this is threatened by China. “China is of great concern,” said one member of the TEDC.

Indeed, labor is much cheaper in China and (fear of) this country is on the lips of the Businesspeople and the pro-business Academics that have codified Tijuana’s status as a legal production site. The race to the lowest wage and therefore most exploitative working conditions is a never-ending one. The question is thus: how will Tijuana continue to benefit from a World economy in which all foreign countries are allowed “maquiladora” status? Why send work to Tijuana, Guadelajara or the Marianas (a U.S. territory) if labor can be had so much more cheaply in China?

A textile maquiladora I visited was suffering precisely from the problem of U.S.-China trade.. The owner, a friendly middle-aged woman with a stopwatch hanging from her neck, said that in just the last year, her workers have gone from producing high-end garments to sewing cheap nurse’s uniforms. When I asked her how her workers could be competitive and make more money, she said: “Sew faster.” At this point I remind myself that she is part of a system.

Luckily for these workers, Tijuana has one things going for it: proximity. It is cheaper to ship a flat screen TV from Tijuana to the U.S. than from China.

End of part I.
Andy W.