David Bacon Stories & Photographs
My Youth Has Passed Me By: Interview with Omar Gil
by David Bacon


I come from Mexico City.

My father had a business there, a small bookstore, until I was 11 years old. Then, because of the devaluation of the peso, his store went broke. My parents looked for work in Mexico City, but they couldn't find any, so they decided to come here to the border, to Nuevo Laredo.

We came here looking for a way to subsist.

So I went to school on the border. When I finished preparatory school, my plan was to go back to Mexico City to the university, to study physics and mathematics or law. But I couldn't continue my studies because we didn't have the money. I had to go to work.

At first I began taking classes in air conditioning, so that I could get some training for a better job. It wasn't my intention to work full time, but to study and work at the same time.

But working in the maquiladoras, it's not really possible to go to school, mainly because of time. Also, the pay is low, and my job is very insecure. Despite all this, I haven't lost hope yet that I'll be able to go back. It's just that I'm not 100% sure anymore. Now there are other factors as well. I don't have any time to rest, and I'm getting physically exhausted. It's very hard.

I've been in these factories since I was 19 years old, and now I'm 26. I've gotten more and more worried, because I don't have time for any kind of personal life. I leave work so tired that on the weekends I don't want to even leave the house to go anywhere. I just want to rest. All my personal development has been put on hold so that I can just rest, just so I'll be able to work. I feel like my youth has passed me by.

Back in 1993 I got my first job in a maquiladora, at Delphi Auto Parts. They paid 360 pesos a week (about $40). There was a lot of pressure from the foremen on the assembly lines to work hard and produce, and a lot of accidents because of the bad design of the lines. The company didn't give us adequate protective equipment to deal with the chemicals -- we didn't really have any idea of the dangers, or how we should protect ourselves.

The union there did nothing to protect us.

From Delphi I went to another company, National Auto Parts. In that plant we made car radiators for Cadillacs and Camaros, and there was a lot of sickness and accidents there too. I worked in the area with the metal presses. There were no ventilators to take the fumes out of the plant, and they didn't give us any gloves. We had to handle the parts with our bare hands, and people got cut up a lot.

I worked in an area with a lot of lead. If you work with lead, you're supposed to have special clothing and your clothes should be washed separately. But the company didn't give us any of that. We had to work in our street clothes.

For all that they paid 400 pesos a week (about $43). We had no union, and there was the same pressure for production from the foremen and the group leaders as I saw at Delphi.

Now I work at TRW, where I've been for about a month and a half. There's really no difference in the conditions in any of these plants - if anything, my situation now is even worse. You could say it's forced labor, considering how the foremen talk to the workers, and how much psychological pressure they put on people.

We work an average of 14-15 hours a day. There's no transport service to and from work, and we get off shift at 4 o'clock in the morning. Usually we have to wait until 7 AM before we can catch a public bus. And when a bus does come, getting home costs 20 pesos. That makes a very big dent in your take-home pay - 380 to 400 pesos a week ($40-43).

My job is bending steel cables for seatbelts for GM, Ford and some European car models. The cable is about a centimeter thick, and I have to bend about 3500 a day. Because of what's passing through my hands every day, I can hardly sleep at night - the pain is so bad. Then I have to get up in the morning to do it again. In the future, I know that I can get carpal tunnel problems, which is a very scary idea. I've asked to change to another position, but no one wants to change because whoever works in this job gets a lot of pain in their wrists.

I feel that in three or four years my hands are going to be useless. I've been thinking that I'll have to get another job. What else can I do?

They say work in the maquiladoras is the best paid work here in the city. But there's not much difference from one factory to another. This is all just normal - the standard. Really, I'm leaving my whole life in the factory. Because of the time and money pressure, I have no ability to develop myself even as a worker, much less as a human being.

After I had been working in Delphi for a year, I was invited to join a group that was trying to learn about workers' rights. People in this group said that things needed to be changed and better protections given to us, but that the companies didn't want to do it. At first I was undecided, because I thought that I could get into a lot of trouble if I got involved. I thought I would get fired, or other bad things would happen to me.

I heard about the movement in 1994, when Martha Ojeda [currently director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras - ed.] and others tried to democratize the union at Sony, to make it one which represented the workers and fought for their rights. For many years, Martha was a union leader in Nuevo Laredo, and during that time, she tried to democratize the unions here. But the union leaders in Mexico City refused to recognize her.

In 1994 the union general secretary here called her an agitator and a Communist, and she was forced to leave. But she became well-known among the workers because she tried to help them at other plants too. Then it seemed the whole world painted Martha Ojeda as a ghost to scare people, and used her as example of what could happen if you got into these problems.

But a couple of years later, when I was invited to join one of the groups again, I went.

They invited me to a workshop about health and safety - the problems you could suffer because of repetitive motion. I realized that it was ridiculous to believe that it was bad to show workers the dangers in their jobs. The companies and the newspapers say we're putting the maquiladoras in danger, but we're just showing workers what's wrong with the way the work is organized.

When I understood that, I decided to become a voluntary organizer, and we've been working together ever since. Everything I learn I try to pass on, so that it will help everyone else.

Every movement starts with just a small group, but they evolve and get bigger and bigger. Lots of people say you're just wasting your time because you'll never be able to change anything. But I say no. Nothing will ever change if we just sit on our hands. You have to keep trying and trying. And the little that we're able to achieve will grow, step by step.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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