Workers at a CFO meeting ALAN POGUE load. Last year when it flooded, the family lost everything and what they now own was provided by American Christian charity groups, said Guadalupe Rivera, the matriarch who holds an extended family, now nine, together. Five family members work for Erika, a North American-owned maquiladora that assembles clear-plastic intravenous bags and other disposable medical supplies for export to the U.S. Mr. Rivera, like many men past middle age, is almost unemployable. The labor force here is predominantly young women, most between 16 and 21 years of age. Of the other Rivera children who were living here three years ago, two are unemployed, two are living with their spouses, and one has married and returned to the small village the family left five years ago. The family lives on five Erika salaries, and the money, according to Ms. Rivera, is barely enough. “No alcance.” It doesn’t reach, is what Ms. Rivera, and a number of other housekeepers, said. What was once the Rivera house is now the family kitchen and dining room, sitting on an extension of “their” property, 20 feet lower than the new bedroom/living room. The kitchen is also situated six feet from the receding water in the lagoon and 15 feet from an outhouse that is partially under water. “There is a real fear of cholera here,” said Phoebe McKinney, who directs the American Friends Service Committee Maquiladora Project. McKinney, who works out of Philadelphia, said public health officials are concerned because of the large population surrounded by a lagoon contaminated with human waste. “We’ll buy more dirt when we can,” said Ms. Rivera, who said she intended to raise the level of the entire piece of land the family now occupies. “The good news,” she said, “is that we now have water.” The government has installed a small water main and there is now a communal faucet that provides potable water. In squatters’ settlements like colonia Roma, when the government begins providing utilities, the normalization of titles usually follows. Residents, Ms. Rivera said, were billed for the installation. They also pay a monthly fee for water. She worries, she said, about the kitchen’s close proximity to the standing water, which has now been there for so long that it is alive with small fish and tadpoles. FIFTEEN MILES SOUTH of Brownsville lies the town of Rio Bravo, another border community whose growth has been fueled by the maquiladora explosion. Many in Rio Bravo work for Zenith, the largest single employer in the Rio Grande Valley. Ed Krueger, who for 15 years has worked on the border for the Friends through a rough street in a colonia on the outskirts of Rio Bravo. He stops by a canal and points out a sewer main. A huge volume of untreated sewage flows from the pipe into the canal that defines one border of the colonia. “The sewage is not from the colonia,” he says. “There is not much indoor plumbing here.” It comes from the town and is piped under the colonia. The canal does not flow into the Rio Grande, Krueger says. It empties in the Laguna Madre, the coastal estuary that divides the mainland from the barrier island. Two blocks from the canal is a Zenith \(here two women, and two children live in two small, impeccable rooms with cement floors. By day, the women’s and children’s room serves as the family living area. The men sleep in the room next door. There is running water in the courtyard and a communal shower and toilet shared with the three other families living in the cluster of cinder-block buildings. Four of the five family members work at Zenith, which at Reynosa employs 9,000. Rent for the two rooms is $150 a month. One of the women stays home to cook and care for the children of the two married couples. “A worker here, novices like us, earns 129 member of the extended family. Asked if he can live on that salary, he says yes: “Si vivimos en bolita.” Literally, “If we live in a little ball,” a cluster of family members. Everyone here lives “en bolita.” There are no nuclear families. IN THE FAMILY ROOM, Krueger hands out copies of a small red book, the Mexican Labor Code, and this Zenith family of seven begins to read aloud, one by one, first reading then explicating the text. Mexican labor law is very progressive, Krueger explains to us, but unenforced. Unions are compromised and corruption among the leaders of organized labor is common. The corruption is often complemented by government pressure. Many here believe that the relatively high wages in Matamoros, 45 miles south of Reynosa, are largely the result of the work of one man, Agapito Gonzalez, the veteran director of the Matamoros CTM, the Mexican equivalent of the AFL-CIO. Last year, Gonzalez was arrested on what one worker here described as contrived charges of corruption. After being held for nine months in Mexico City, he was released and allowed to resume his position with the CTM in Matamoros. “In Mexico [City], Agapito got an education,” a Zenith Matamoros employee said, adding that the elderly labor leader is probably finished as an advocate of higher wages. To fill the void created by the absence of true labor unions, groups like the Coinite Fronterizo de Obreras, the Border Committee for Working Women, have been organized, with the assistance of institutions like the American Friends Service Committee. Last year, the CFO worked with 1,200 women in more than 100 colonias. With money raised through grants, and funding from the AFSC, the CFO has hired four promotoras promoters or organizers. All are women and all former maquiladora employees. The philosophy that underlies the organizing effort, according to Krueger, is based on education and empowerment, which will lead to the creation of a self-sustaining, self-governing labor committee. Until the CFO is entirely on its own, Krueger continues to fill in the gaps, meeting THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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