Tuesday, October 12, 2010
JUAREZ DOESN'T STOP AT THE BORDER II
Today, I am posting Part II of a lecture I gave at Truman State University. The first draft of this lecture was entitled: "The Mexico Than Haunts My Imagination." That lecture I gave when I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. I took that presentation and used it as the basis for "Juarez Doesn't Stop at the Border."
It wasn’t true to say that the presence of an extreme poverty in Juarez didn’t bother me. In fact, I quickly recognized Juarez to be a culture with extreme class differences. That recognition always haunted me. I was a young man in love with the idea of democracy and naively held on to egalitarian notions of equality. The very fact that “classes” existed bothered me. And there was such a wide chasm between classes in Juarez.
The homes on the hills across from I-10 were visible signs of a truly humble existence. None of the roads were paved at the time. The only swimming pool in that neighborhood was the Rio Grande. As a boy and as a young man I imagined what it might be like to live such an existence. Later, as I began to explore the many facets of life in Juarez, I was to discover that as humble as those visible homes on the hill were, they hardly represented the poorest sections of Juarez.
Most of my life, Mexicans have chastised me, reminding me that my familiarity with Juarez did not amount to much. They insisted that Juarez wasn’t Mexico, that it was a border city that it was an anomaly and not representative of the real Mexico. Yes, I would nod, Juarez wasn’t Mexico. Juarez wasn’t Monterrey and it wasn’t Guanajuato and it wasn’t Oaxaca and Juarez was decidedly not Mexico City.
There are perhaps too many things I would like to say about present day Juarez. But that disdainful tone of voice that I have heard so many Mexicans use when speaking of Juarez has always made me more than a little angry. They were jeers hurled at the poor. Hating the poor has always been something of past-time. We all engage in the sport without even being aware of it.
Juarez may not be a beautiful Mexican colonial city and may not be littered with Aztec or Mayn ruins, but Juarez isn’t Mexico? Juarez, I would argue is decidedly Mexican. Mexican border cities are notoriously infamous for being impure because they have fallen under the influence of American language and culture. Well, perhaps. But I very much doubt that any major Mexican city isn’t influenced by American culture, American English and American politics. This, in fact, is the predicament that Mexico in general and Juarez in particular suffers. American influence is something of a poison that permeates Mexican cultural and political life. I use the word poison deliberately. Poison kills. I have believed for a long time now that one of the reasons that Mexico is slowly dying is that it has never broken free of the influences of its rich neighbor to the North. This has produced a conflicted psychology of admiration, envy and resentment. In part, Mexico suffers from a self-hatred that is produced in America. Always looking at yourself through the eyes of the other is a kind of death.
I think the maquilas are a good example of how an industry is helping to poison the blood of a country. The famed Twin plants that have existed in Juarez even before NAFTA. The maquilas created an economic factory and trade zone whereby products were produced by a cheap Mexican labor force and then shipped to the United States and abroad for final assembly and distribution. The maquilas, in theory, were supposed to provide much needed jobs for Mexicans and thus were supposed to be part of the solution to Mexico’s chronic unemployment. In fact the maquilas created roughly 200,000 jobs for Mexican workers.
Due to the maquila industry, thousands of Mexicans from the interior emigrated to Juarez in search of jobs. But neither the federal government nor the municipal government had the resources to build an infrastructure for the influx of people. I suspect there was not even an attempt. No schools were built. No roads, no housing, no parks, no neighborhoods, no hospitals, no libraries, nothing. It’s anybody’s guess how many hundreds of thousands of people live in substandard housing in Juarez and how many people live off illegally rigged electricity that is not only unreliable but dangerous. I am hardly the first to observe that NAFTA has been a disaster for the Mexican worker. Why do we suppose all those Mexicans are still attempting to enter the United States? The maquilas, far from being part of the solution for Mexico’s economy, have been part of the problem. People simply cannot live on the salaries they are paid and have been forced to live in conditions that can be generously described as primitive.
An article in the El Paso Times about the maquila industry makes the point that the economy of El Paso is very much affected by what happens in Juarez. An industry official is quoted as saying, “For every 10 percent increase in maquila production in Juarez, employment in El Paso grows by 3 percent.” It is perhaps important to re-iterate how the economies of El Paso and Juarez—and by extention—how the economies of the United States and Mexico are tied to one another.
But nowhere in the article about the rebounding maquila industry in the El Paso Times is there a single word about salaries, about what people are actually paid to do this kind of work. Perhaps a mention of the typical wage for a Mexican worker in such an article might have given us pause about the nature of the way we do business with Mexico.
When hundreds of thousands of workers are paid a substandard wage, and are forced to live in squalor, then social chaos is sure to follow. We should all be aware of this one thing: Mexico is not as cheap as we imagine. American companies have businesses scattered all over Juarez—everything from McDonalds to Auto Zone to Costco. Certainly, in a city of 1.3 million people, there is inevitably going to be a great deal of wealth. Some kind of middle class will come into being. But the general population simply cannot afford to shop in these places. I know a man who lives and Juarez and comes to El Paso to buy parts to fix his car at the Auto Zone in downtown El Paso. Why? Because the prices are cheaper than the Auto Zone in Juarez. I know a man who hired a woman from Juarez to clean his house. He hired her because she needed a job. He pays her ten dollars an hour. It takes her five hours to clean his house. She makes fifty dollars—which is about the same amount of money a worker makes in one week at a maquila. This is the great irony: the economic arrangement between the man and the woman is illegal. The economic arrangement between the Mexican people who work in the maquilas and the corporations who own them is perfectly legal. That we run a global economy based on such arrangements is a great violence—though we refuse to think of it as violence.
How can nations do business like this and still claim to be great? All of this is an outrage—though apparently no legislator on either side of the border seems to be civilized enough to give a damn. I wrote sardonically in one of my recent poems:
I imagine: Me as a reporter writing an article on the economic situation in Mexico: The cartels are doing their best to address the economic downturn and Mexico’s chronic problem of unemployment. They have hired police. They have hired select members of the federal armed forces. They have hired reporters. They have hired mayors and judges and politicians. They have hired young men off the streets. They have hired gang members. At this rate of new hires, Mexico is heading for full employment.
The governments of Mexico and the United States have aided and abetted the creation of a city that is mired in poverty—and this by design. This is not an accident. Poverty is an economic and political creation. It is not organic. Why should we be surprised by the underground economies that arise when the “legitimate” economies no longer serve the basic needs of the people?
It is hypocritical and duplicitous to stand in moralistic horror in the face of the growth of the Mexican cartels. If Mexico’s economy was functioning, then there would be no vacuum for the Cartels to fill. Drugs are a lucrative business. And it is a business that pays extremely well. In the absence of legitimate businesses, where do we expect the populace to turn? Where do we expect the entrepreneurs to go?
It is simplistic and disingenuous to assert that the current crisis in Mexico is nothing more than a “Drug War.” It is so much more than that. Since 2008, more than 6,400 people have been killed in Juarez alone. This year more than 2,400 have been killed in the border city that sits less than a half a mile from my downtown apartment. The month of October has begun swimmingly: 37 more have been killed. It is not for nothing that we think of Juarez is a murderous and dangerous place. In September alone, over two hundred people have been gunned down and or decapitated and or mutilated in a manner that would have made Jack the Ripper proud. Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists to do their jobs. The cartels are threatening Mexico’s press. Journalists and editors are threatened, kidnapped, or killed. Last week, a first: a journalist from Mexico was granted political asylum in the United States.
Last Wednesday, I attended a press conference where three Mexican journalists sat with their attorney and explained why they were all applying for political asylum. In one instance, the journalist’s sister and nephew had been gunned down as a warning. No functioning democracy can do without a free press. Just as no functioning democracy can do without a functioning judicial system. When 95% of the crimes committed in Mexico are never resolved, then how can there be anything but social chaos? You cannot blame that on the cartels. The people of Juarez are just as afraid of the Federal police that have been sent in as they are of the cartels. Corruption runs deep among law enforcement officials and they often behave like nothing more than thugs. You cannot blame that kind of behavior on the cartels.
Back in February, I attended a march in Juarez. On an almost perfect and sunny day, two thousand people marched through the streets of Juarez—most of them young people. They were angry at their government. They demanded answers and real protection. I read an article that attacked the youth of Juarez, arguing that they should be angry at the cartels and not at their government. But the people of Juarez have no expectation that the cartels will protect them. They do have the expectation that their government should protect them. And rightly so.
But it seems that the government of Mexico is incapable of protecting its own citizens. What does it say about a country when thugs are allowed to decapitate people and leave their bodies displayed on the streets and nothing is done? What does it say about a government that fixes a minimum wage for it’s own people—a minimum wage that starves its own people?
This is the Mexico that haunts my imagination: Millions of people are caught in an economic war between two countries that claim to be friends and allies.