Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora: Life Histories of WomenWorkers in Tijuana

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Sun Dec 10 22:11:46 MST 2000


Norma Iglesias Prieto.  _Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora:  Life
Histories of Women Workers in Tijuana_.  Translated by Michael Stone
and Gabrielle Winkler; foreword by Henry Shelby.  Austin:  The
University of Texas Press, 1997.  xv + 115 pages.  Photographs,
notes, bibliography, methodological appendices, and index.  $20.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-292-73868-4; $9.95 (paper), ISBN 0-292-73869-2.

Reviewed for H-LatAm by Maria S. Arbelaez
<marbelae at cwis.unomaha.edu>, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Taking on the name of the all-popular Mexican beauty pageants for its
title, the book by Norma Iglesias Prieto _La Flor mas bella de la
maquiladora_ now appears in its English version.  Originally
published in 1985 by the Secretaria de Educacion Publica and by
today's El Colegio de la Frontera, it soon turned to be one of the
seminal studies on working women of the maquiladora industry in the
border city of Tijuana.  After three years of North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the foreword by Henry Selby provides an
excellent context and a valuable update.  Michael Stone and Gabrielle
Winkler faced--with outstanding success--the most difficult task of
transliterating into English the polyphony of the women's voices
whose testimonies provided the vital gist of the book.

The purpose of the study of Iglesias Prieto "to examine the
significance and meaning of being a female maquiladora worker on the
US-Mexico border"  (p. xix) is addressed in full.  She achieves this
by drawing from in-depth field research and thoughtfully conducted
personal interviews.  All of these materials created an extensive
data bank, collected between 1972 and 1982, which provided a solid
foundation to the study.  The time frame as well is meaningful.  It
is positioned during the period when the maquiladora activity was
taking off as part of the Border Industrialization Program.  The
maquiladoras, or assembly plants, were then primarily conceived to
replace the bracero program terminated in 1965.

In the 1970s, foreign capital entrepreneurs attracted by far-reaching
duty-free incentives, low infrastructure costs, and, above all, cheap
labor--what in the language of government economists is called
competitively priced labor--installed a platform of assembly plants.
The Programa Fronterizo developed swiftly by creating jobs and
stimulating the economy of the borderlands.  Currently, the
maquiladora industry is a vibrant pivot of the Mexican economy and
contributes with well over 35 percent of the total output of the
export sector.  Tijuana is the center of the maquila industry and
houses around thirty percent of the more than 3800 assembly plants
existent in the country.

The present vitality of the maquiladora business apparently eclipses
the characteristics of its inception.  In reality, the process was
very much akin to the seamy side of the Mexican industrialization
process of the 1940s: demographic dislocation, urban and
environmental degradation, labor abuses, and trade union leadership
manipulation.

The maquiladora spin-off was unique in the sense that, unlike most of
the manufactures in central Mexico, the activity introduced a major
gender shift in the labor pool by feminizing its work force.  The
Tijuana maquiladoras and all those on the border, during the decade
studied by the author, had between 80 and 90 percent female workers.
Normally, but not necessarily, women were about 25 years as a median
age, virtually all had completed their elementary schooling, others
had their secondary education or were pursuing it, and the majority
were single.  However, many maquila women had children and either
were heads of their households or the primary contributors to the
economic sustenance of their families.  The women were mainly
migrants, preeminently from the northern and central states of the
country.  Years later, they started coming from the far south.  Of
the women interviewed by Iglesias Prieto, the majority who were
migrants reported that they went to Tijuana in search of better
living conditions, others to "get ahead in life," and the rest with
the hope of obtaining a job in "those industries that were offering
work to women like us" (p. 46).

In the late 1980s, following the 1982 economic crisis, the gender
proportion of the maquiladora labor force started to change.
Currently, women constitute the majority of the workforce,
representing 60 percent of the workers in the activity.  At the same
time, the rate of employment in the assembly plants increased
dramatically with the expansion of the sector, which saw in the first
part of the present decade yearly average growth rates of above 15
percent.  Today it employs more than a million workers.

Of the interviews with maquiladoras, Iglesias Prieto selected ten
cases to illustrate working conditions, family backgrounds,
perceptions and consciousness of women workers.  With an adroit use
of the personal accounts, the author weaves the vital edge into her
analysis.  From the women's life stories, we learn the internal
operations of the maquiladoras and what was, and to a certain extent
still is today, the life of a maquiladora worker.  In effect, and in
spite of the sweeping changes ascertained in the wake of the
free-market policies of Carlos Salinas de Gortari's administration
and the NAFTA agreement, many of the variables which characterized
female labor in the maquiladora industry, as stated by the author's
interviewees, have remained with impressive resilience.

 From the early beginnings of the maquiladora business, women were
preferred as workers since they were perceived by the then mostly
North American-dominated assembly "empresarios" to be pliable nimble
fingers readily available to perform repetitive alienating chores
without raising their voices.  They were also willing to accept wages
below those demanded across the border or by male laborers,
unfettered by the swift pace of the labor turnover, and above all
were thought incapable of organizing and developing unions to protect
their rights.  Years later and with the help of accumulated labor
experience, as amply reported by Iglesias Prieto, the maquila women
started to modify those perceptions.  They organized and mobilized,
confronting harassment, threats, and dismissals by the maquila
management with strikes and unions.  Furthering their demands for
respect and better wages and benefits was their struggle to make
themselves more visible among the working class.

The author accurately detects signs of change in the cultural
behavioral patterns of the maquila workers.  As the women started to
gain economic independence, they slowly but surely began to
demonstrate assertiveness at the workplace, at home, and in the
gender relations within their social sphere.  This is not to say that
the patriarchal relations inside or outside the maquiladora have
vanished.  Sexual harassment, mandatory pregnancy tests, illegal
closings, and unwarranted lay-offs are today daily occurrences in the
maquila.  Many of those attributes are pervasive in the industry
itself and in the society that supports them.  However, the
acknowledgment, broadcasting of, and will to confront unacceptable
working conditions were and are the objective of several maquila
organizations and unions that exist today on the border regions and
across the frontier line.  There is evidence that the organizations
have been making inroads in altering those relations and traits.

Scholars interested in tracing the early stages of unionization
efforts or reasons for the absence thereof, as well as those looking
into women's actions to defend their labor rights or anyone who is
eager to perform comparative analysis, _Beautiful Flowers of the
Maquiladora_ is a most valuable source.

There are also unforeseen consequences taking place on the border
which can be attributed to the three generations of women in the
maquila.  These refer to changes in cultural mores related to gender
relations, which, as can be read in the testimonies included in the
book, were already in motion at the time of the author's study.
Labor mobilization, networking and assertiveness contributed to the
women's behavioral changes.  In all, these actions refurbished the
sense of self-worth and autonomy gained by women with economic
independence.

Another theme, central to Iglesias Prieto's overview, is her critical
appreciation of the "ideal muchacha maquiladora: single, young,
quiet, apolitical, dexterous and productive," which emerged as a
rather popular paradigm of the maquiladora worker during the early
stages of the assembly industry.  Especially important is Iglesias
Prieto's assessment of how plant management earnestly sought to
recruit young, unattached and childless women.  The author went to
great lengths to find out for herself how the hiring process worked,
applying for a job in a maquiladora in Ciudad Juarez.  As it
happened, because of the great variability of the assembly plants,
women were not all single or childless.  In fact, a great number had
more than one child and cared for parents and siblings.  Still,
relentless managerial pursuit for the ideal muchacha maquiladora
persisted until fairly recently.  According to more current studies,
in particular that of Susan Tiano, the model has significantly
changed.[1]  Now the ideal maquiladora is the married, sensible, and
stable mother, but still nimble, silent and non-demanding.

_Beautiful Flowers_ is divided into seven chapters.  In all of them,
the author uses the women's accounts to structure the narrative.  The
first chapter illustrates the production process of the maquiladoras,
the daily routines, and the pace of the labor.  The women described
their work in detail as repetitive activity which was expected to be
fast and became wearisome from many hours of performing the same
movements in front of conveyor belts or machines.  Iglesias Prieto
provides her own version as she saw the women labor in their work
stations.  Seen from the outside, it appeared accurate, simple, and
almost "the prestidigitation of a magician" (p. 4).  However, in
those acts there was more than simply dexterity.  The author found
the existence of a quota system which coerced workers to raise their
productivity with no wage or benefit gain other than keeping the job.
At the same time, as the examples abound in the book, maquiladora
work is extraordinarily fragmented and alienating.  In several cases,
particularly in high-tech electronics, many of the women did not know
what it exactly was that they were assembling, thus adding to the
sense of strangeness they felt in relation to their work.

In the second chapter, Iglesias Prieto focuses on the working
conditions of the assembly plants.  In it, the reader is able to
understand the reasons for the upbraided condemnation the industry
has received from environmentalists, workers' organizations, and
policy makers on both sides of the border.  In effect, what
characterized many maquila plants was the constant existence of
unsanitary conditions.  Endemic was the absence of health concerns by
the management, the lack of safety and security measures or
enforcement of regulations concerning toxic and hazardous materials.
Women expressed their persistent fears about accidents waiting to
happen or the real possibility of developing a job-related illness
lurking in the polluted environment of the work place.  The author
notes the oppressive atmosphere of the plants and how women responded
either by leaving for other jobs in the industry with hopes of
bettering the work conditions or simply felt terrorized by
unemployment and weathered the situation.

The hiring practices on the part of the industries which targeted
young women plus the individual and overall characteristics of this
particular labor pool are central to the study.  These are the themes
of chapters three and four.  In them, the author takes a close look
at deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about gender.  These
perceptions, Iglesias Prieto asserts, cross social classes and
national identities and imagines the existence of a female nature.
According to it, women are more responsible, patient, and skilled
when dealing with meticulous and fine chores.  In fact, all those
perceptions are double-edged ideological constructs.  On one side,
they worked to the benefit of the industrialists as they convinced
women of their biological advantages.  On the other, it hindered in
women the realization of their status and capabilities as workers
inhibiting recognition of their labor rights.

In the following two chapters, the study features workers'
backgrounds, reflects on the impact of changes in the lifestyles of
the women, and deals in detail with the mechanisms of control devised
by maquila management to control female labor.  The testimonies in
this section are substantial.  Regarding origin, all of the women
came from impoverished conditions and a dismal lack of economic
opportunities.  Hence, the reasons the women were willing to risk it
all in the migratory move.

Of the interviewees, the majority shared not only a migratory
history, but also the conviction of having achieved definite
improvements in their life after they became maquila workers.  They
possessed as well a unique sense of achievement by being able to
enter the labor market regardless of the severe conditions of their
working environment.  They also experienced a sense of accomplishment
by being capable of purchasing a wider variety of goods and, in
general, by enjoying the services and amenities of a big city such as
Tijuana.  Moreover, they jointly thought optimistically of the
possibilities they opened for their children and families by
resettling and entering the world of the maquiladoras.  Regretfully,
the women's testimonies were not set forth within a more
comprehensive historical context.  This certainly would have been
useful in understanding the extraordinary social plurality and
complexity of the border area.

The last chapter recounts the high profile case of the labor struggle
of Solidev Mexicana in late 1970s and early 1980s.  The episode, as
narrated by Gabriela, one of the workers, achieved notoriety not only
because of the activities of unionizing and attaining benefits and
salary advantages, but also because it acquired international
dimensions as it involved workers and labor issues across the border.
This account is rich and informative.  It is particularly significant
as a harbinger of the labor struggles that ensued throughout the
border area in later years.  In her conclusion, Iglesias Prieto
emphasizes the characteristic variability of the maquiladora industry
with regard to production, organization, working conditions, and the
labor pool.  It is remarkable to read, retrospectively after more
than ten years, the major gender shifts and accommodations of the
Mexican labor market which were inaugurated by these maquiladoras.

This book is very well written in a most enjoying narrative style.
The simple and colloquial language of the testimonies runs smoothly
and the author did well in maintaining the easy flow of the women's
discourses.  It is insightful and provides useful information for
scholars and students interested in gender studies, labor, and social
issues of the Mexican borderlands.  Historians will certainly
appreciate this book as a reference tool.  Given its solid data and
spirited use of life stories, _Beautiful Flowers_ could be a
magnificent book to add to any of the reading lists for Mexican or
Latin American classes.

Note

[1].  Susan Tiano. _Patriarchy on the Line:  Labor, Gender, and
Ideology in the Mexican Maquila Industry_.  Philadelphia:  Temple
University Press, 1994.

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