rental car company to pad Contico’s bill and split the proceeds. This implication, with its pesos and dollars and whispers of sleaze, is a cheap souvenir from the culture of business in Mexico: a culture based on grotesque inequality between owners and laborers, on exploitation, intimidation, corruption, and on endemic larceny, from petit to grand. An American company that “respects” this cultureas Contico’ s lawyers put itpartakes of things far more sinister than mariachi music and homemade corn tortillas. This fact is not lost on the jury, especially when the Mendoza lawyers mention the Mexican police investigator who found the car-thief gang and got one member to confess that his friends torched Mendoza and her coworker. The man has since retracted his statement, and the rest of the gang has disappeared into Mexico’s interior. Meanwhile, the Mexican police investigator is no longer a police investigator. Now he is working for Contico as a consultant. This means that the official who knows most about what happened to Lorena Mendoza cannot be subpoenaed to testify regarding anything he has learned since he took his new “job.” WHAT WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT After days of such testimony, anti-Contico sentiment is starting to show on the jury’s faces. It gets more intense when Mendoza family members take the stand. A sister, San Juana \(who once invited courtroom as she talks of visiting the morgueshe wanted to examine the body to prove that it wasn’t really Lorena’s. On arriving, she was petrified to find that there was no body, only a plastic bag of bones and ashes, from which she extracted a womb, an ovary, and some molars whose fillings she ascertained were her sister’s. Afterwards she closed the bag, returned home and assured her mother that yes, she combed Lorena’s hair, and yes, bought a lovely dress to bury her in. The mother is sworn in, downcast; and her old husband, half deaf, with a hearing aid like a wad of bubble gum in his ear. After seven years both clearly are still in mourning for their youngest daughter’s cheery disposition, her beauty, her dreams of life in the United States; and they stolidly describe how they haven’t eaten right since she died, or slept, or been able to maintain normal blood pressure. When they finish, the jury glares at everybody and everything related to Contico. The panel’s growing animus is obvious to the company’s lawyers, and just before closing arguments, they offer the Mendozas $1.75 million to settle out of court. The family’s lawyers approve the deal, because although the jury will later tell the judge that they unanimously wanted to convict Contico and award the Mendozas up to $27 million, Contico has vowed to appeal. The Mendoza attorneys know that higher Texas courts have turned markedly pro-business since the early 1990s. Not only would they probably overturn an anti-Contico verdict, they would also nullify local Judge Ferguson’s 1994 ruling allowing a Texas company’s wrongdoing in Mexico to be tried in this state. If they were to make that ruling, no international cases like Mendoza v. Contico would ever get into court in Texas. So the Mendozas take Contico’s offer, along with the company’s promise to build a statue of Lorena in Juarez dedicated to employee safety, and to establish a maquiladora worker scholarship fund in her name. Then everyone troops to Ceremonial Court for the press conference and its chilling videotape. Lawyer Scherr tells the jurors to teach their friends and family the lesson of Mendoza v. Contico: that when it comes to workers’ safety, double standards between the United States and Mexico are intolerable. “Of course, we’re not talking about wages,” Scherr repeats, which is ironic given the post-trial comments of jurors. Donna Ricci is one; she is middle-aged and a longtime El Pasoan. Yet, Ricci tells me, until she sat through Mendoza v. Contico, she had no idea how meager maquiladora pay is \(and the figures used at trial were from seven years ago: since the 1994 peso devaluation, Vanessa Rodarte has lived here all her life but until the trial she had never heard of maquiladorasperiodmuch less what they pay. When she and the other jurors went out for lunch, Rodarte says, they would talk about “how we were getting paid $6 a day for jury dutya total jokeand we’d go to a restaurant and blow it all on a meal, and maquiladora workers don’t make $6 in a whole day!” Wages are what Mendoza v. Contico was about. These days it hardly takes Karl Marx to understand that the global stampede for bargain-basement Third World labor is what leads to discounted safety standards and the kind of fire-sale ethics that put Lorena Mendoza on a highway to her death. Susan Mika, the San Antoniobased coordinator of Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, refuses to concede the question of wages, as she makes a short but eloquent speech at the Ceremonial Court press conference. When she finishes, the audience breaks into applause. Mika has just spent the past two weeks in court, furiously typing testimony into a laptop. Now she prepares to leave the border with her hard drive, but because the case was settled, without the official transcripts she’d hoped to distribute to the world. The Mendozas return to Juarez and are immediately terrorized by unknown men who torch a family car. On the front seat they leave a burned coin, apparently part of the evidence collected seven years ago when Lorena’ s body was retrieved. The family goes to the Juarez police station for help. When they arrive, they see the same men who’d burned their carwalking around the office as though they work there. Afraid for their lives, the Mendozas petition the U.S. government for refugee status. It remains to be seen whether they will win asylum, and if they do, whether they will ever see a statue of their daughter in Juarez. As for their case, perhaps it will go down as a footnote to later trials that raise the same issues of maquiladora double standards, but succeed in producing a verdict and a written record. For now, Mendoza v. Contico is nothing more than potential: notes for a screenplay; a sheaf of grim scenes; glimmerings of worker consciousness; a primer on maquiladoras for norteamericanos. Modest hope for the future. Debbie Nathan is a freelance writer based in El Paso. Her article, “The Death of Jane Roe,” published in the Village Voice, recently won the Texas Institute of Letters 0 ‘Henry Award for magazine journalism. 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 6, 1997
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