David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Life of a Maquiladora Worker
Interview by David Bacon

TIJUANA, BAJA CALIFORNIA (8/9/96) - Tijuana is, in many ways, the dark underside of the economy of San Diego and Southern California. San Diego's industrial workforce lives on the south side of the border - the workers of the maquiladoras. Despite the bitter conditions of their lives, however, they are not simply passive victims of exploitation. They struggle to live, and to change their conditions in their neighborhoods and inthe factories. This is the story of one maquiladora worker, in her own words.

Maria Ibarra is about 40 years old. She works at Maxell of Mexico, one of Tijuana's largest maquiladoras, which manufactures tape cassettes and magnetic disks for computers. She lives in a barrio below Otay Mesa, on a dirt street which turns into impassable mud when it rains. Her home, shared with another family, is made of castoff materials from the factories - a wooden frame salvaged from industrial pallets, with interior walls made of unfolded corrugated boxes.

"My experience as a maquiladora worker is difficult to explain. I've worked in the factory where I am now for three years. Three years is a long time, and what I have to show for this time is very little. You connect all the parts, you do your job and try to keep up with all the things the company demands. But the benefits are very small, especially in terms of money.

"I make 38 pesos a day - 264 pesos a week. Our wages are so low the company gives us a weekly bonus of food coupons worth 55 pesos. [One dollar = 7.50 pesos.]

"I have two sons who live with me. My oldest one is 19. He also works in a maquiladora. The younger one is 16, and works in a small shop. My oldest has been working in a maquiladora for four years, since he was small, just 15 years old. He couldn't continue going to school because we couldn't get by on what I was earning. He had to go to work. The younger one just started in a small shop, where they're teaching him the job. And because he's still very small, and just learning, he's earning enough for his busfare and his food, and that's all.

"As their mother, I felt very bad when they first went to work. Children should be in school. I wanted something so different for them. When they were babies, I thought they were going to study and become something in life. But the economy failed. Because of our economic need, I was forced to send them to work, so that we could survive. I can't say that this really solved anything. It was just so that we could live a little better. And it's not just my children - they're just two of many others.

"So between my oldest son and myself, we bring in about 410 pesos a week. Water is very expensive. Gas [for cooking] is very expensive. Food is very expensive. Better to say that I have to go to all the sales, where everything is the cheapest and on special, so that my paycheck can cover everything. If we want to eat meat, it can't stretch that far. It's more like we eat bones than we eat meat. I have to buy what I can afford - the cheapest things.

"At the beginning of the year there's always a general wage increase, but before the increase takes effect, you see the prices going up on everything. Everything. Last January, sugar went up a peso. Milk, which cost 15 pesos, went up to 17.50. I only make 38 pesos a day, so I work half a day for a gallon of milk. I don't want to gain weight, so I don't drink it. But the kids need it.

"When I talk to my friends at work, everywhere it's the same. When people get married, they both have to work. Young couples leave their small children with a neighbor, or with their parents. The salary of a single person isn't enough to live on - the family can't make it.

"I have hope that things can change, but I see it as very difficult. We tried to change things once in my factory. We had a problem - we didn't have any transportation to work. At first, we talked among ourselves, undercover, because we were afraid. Normally, the majority of the people don't really participate in anything. We always fear we'll be discovered and fired. Everything has to be done undercover.

"But we screwed up our courage, and we said, well, whatever happens, we're going to see what we can do. We got together a group of four or five people, who spoke for the rest. And to show the company we weren't just by ourselves, we put it all in writing, and everyone signed what we wrote. We got people together, and we went to the offices of the company and we said we wanted busses. We made ourselves brave, and we talked, and thank god, we got them.

"Sincerely, I was afraid that something would happen to me. The company doesn't like this kind of people - people like us. Crybabies, they call us here. But winning really lifted our spirits, because even though getting a bus is not a lot, it's something. And we save enough at home to buy another container of water or a kilo of tortillas. So we won something real.

"I talked to an engineer, the assistant manager on our shift. I asked him, why do they pay us so little, why can't they pay a little more? On the other side of the border, people working for the same company earn in an hour what we earn in a day. He told us that we couldn't pressure the owners to pay better. The company came here because we work so cheap. If we pressured them to pay more, he said, they would just take the work somewhere else, and we would be left without jobs. But I think this is really just an excuse, to make us grateful for our jobs.

"Still, it's difficult to think about my own future. While I just make a little bit, three years is a long time to begin again somewhere else. I'm too old to think about changing jobs. When you get to be older, you have to take care not to lose your job. Once you get to a certain age, they don't want you anymore. My future is very uncertain. I don't know what's going to happen to us.

"I've thought about going across the border, but I'm scared to do it. That's the truth. I'm scared. I have my sons. If I went to the other side as a foreigner, I would be afraid for them, to leave them alone. If I'm not with them, there's vagrancy, there's delinquency, there are lots of dangers. If I left them by themselves, what would happen to them? It could be even worse. So leave for the other side, and leave them alone? No.

"But the younger one is desperate, and he says he want to do it. I tell him he has to be 18 years old to go across. But really, he's free. How could I stop him? It's very difficult anyway. Here or there, who knows what could happen? And over there, it's very bad. Because of lack of schooling, he doesn't know English. So what would he be going to? To be humiliated? To work? No, no, I tell him, better here. But he just says, well, maybe later on then."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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