Divided Families

Divided Families: Maquiladoras,1515


Cronkite News Service

AGUA PRIETA, Mexico _ Neftali Fuentes left his home, family and everything he knew in Chiapas last fall to seek out the promise of work and opportunity along the U.S.-Mexico border.

After an exhausting three-day bus ride, 18-year-old Neftali arrived in Agua Prieta, Sonora, tired and homesick.

“I was thinking the whole time about what I could do to send money back to my parents and how they were depending on that,” Neftali said.

He settled in with his uncle, aunt and two cousins in a one-bedroom house. Soon after, he began working at Levolor, one of the largest maquiladoras in Agua Prieta.

Neftali is one of the more than 1 million Mexican immigrants who leave their homes in southern Mexico each year for jobs at a maquiladora export assembly plant along the U.S.-Mexico border.

For many immigrants, these factories are meant to be a temporary stop to earn money before crossing into the United States. Even though the wages are much higher than they are in southern Mexico, the high cost of living along the border often cancels out the increase in wages.

The Daily Routine

Working in a maquiladora means long hours, short breaks and little to no vacation time.

Neftali leaves his house for Levolor each morning at 5 a.m. and comes home at 7 p.m. to help his aunt with daily chores and dinner.

The average worker earns a little over $1 an hour working on an assembly line constructing blinds that are sold for hundreds of dollars each at large building supply stores in the United States.

Until six years ago, Levolor was located primarily in the United States.

“Labor’s cheaper here,” said Hugo Franco, Levolor’s quality coordinator. “You can pay people all day for what would be less than an hour’s work in the states.”

Neftali works every day of the week at Levolor and counts on earning overtime on weekends. However, that overtime doesn’t always come since the number of workers needed depends on the number of blinds ordered.

“One day we could do around 4,000 orders and maybe 200 the next,” Franco said. “We return people to their houses and stop working on days with less demand.”

Although the factory can choose their days off, the workers are fired if they miss more than three days of work a month. The only way to get around that policy is going to the maquiladora doctor and getting a doctor’s note.

For Neftali, that means he won’t be able to see his family this Christmas.

“I would lose my job … or just get down to the bus station and have to turn around and come back,” he said.

After one year of working at Levolor, he might be able to get enough time off to visit his family. In the meantime, he will have to watch his cousin, uncle and aunt leave for Chiapas without him  and wait for a telephone call.

The Border’s Reality

Alejandro Sanchez, 18, also works at a maquiladora and has been trying to cross the border for the three months he’s been in Agua Prieta.

“I just don’t make enough money to send home to my family in Oaxaca,” Sanchez said.

Many immigrants come to the border thinking they can cross easily into the United States.

“I never knew that sometimes it takes people 10 or 12 times to cross, if they get across at all,” Sanchez said.

These unsuccessful attempts can lead people to the maquiladoras, according to Alberto Ramos,  coordinator of a migrant resource center at the border.

“Agua Prieta has always been a gateway, but this gateway has bottlenecked, making it harder and harder to get into the U.S.,” Ramos said. “So more people stay here and work.”

However, housing, food, clothing and daily needs are sometimes more than a person can make in a month. The average pay in a maquiladora is $75 to $120 a week, while the cheapest housing is around $80 a month. There is very little money left over for necessities or to send to family.

Even though it is becoming more difficult to cross, some have no intention of giving up.

“I want to go to the U.S. because here money doesn’t stretch out,” said another maquiladora worker, Mary Lou Hidalgo. “I want to get money for my children back in Chiapas, but right now it isn’t enough.”

Hidalgo, 21, hasn’t seen her two sons Josua, 5, and Isaeas, 3, in eight months — ever since she left them with their father in Chiapas.

She has been here for three years, but is considering crossing illegally into the United States, despite the dangers.

“I want better for my two children,” she said. “It’s just way too expensive to go to school in Mexico. People can’t work in minimum-wage jobs at a maquiladora and educate themselves. If I want to be anything more or want better for my children, I have to find another way.”

It Must be Better

Neftali left his brother and sister Ediel, 22, and Anahi, 25, his mother, father and countless friends and relatives in his hometown of Salvador Urbina in Chiapas.

Although his family didn’t want Neftali to go, they knew that the money he sent back would be a tremendous help. “They were worried about how young I was, especially to go alone. And of course they were going to miss me a lot,” he said with a smile.

Neftali said he had no choice but to come north. In small pueblos like his, workers earn less than 50 cents an hour. The towns depend on agriculture, but these are hard times for farmers in southern Mexico.

Salvador Urbina is known for coffee production, and a long and wet rainy season has severely hurt the coffee-drying process. With the loss of crop money, Neftali’s paychecks have become even more crucial to his family.

In addition, the farmers in Chiapas have been hurt by trade agreements and middle-men, according to Daniel C. Fuentes, Neftali’s uncle and head of Café Justo, a fair trade cooperative based in Chiapas and Agua Prieta.

These middlemen, or the direct buyers of the coffee from the farmers, buy the coffee for very little and sell it for much more.

“Farmers don’t keep the money from growing crops; the middlemen keep all the profits,” Fuentes said.

Thousands of Mexicans from Chiapas and other small agricultural towns have come to the border to cross or work in the maquiladoras.

More than 1,000 young people from the area around Neftali’s hometown have left to find work along the border or in the United States.

About half of the workers at Levolor are from the south, according to Levolor officials.

A New Way of Thinking

More migrants have decided to stay in Mexico and work in the maquiladoras because of increasing border regulations and hazardous crossing conditions.

“Here we can still have our language, culture and lifestyle,” Neftali said. “I wish I could tell the people that cross that the Mexican life is good and joyful.”

Alejandro Laureno, a teacher and veterinarian from Agua Prieta, understands the conflict between wanting to stay in one’s homeland and wanting a better life. His wife is from a small town in Mexico and came to the border to work in a maquiladora. The wages were so low that she illegally crossed into the United States, where they met.

Laureno worked in a slaughterhouse in Kansas while his wife waited tables. “I guess it says something that working in a slaughterhouse in America was better than working in a factory in Mexico,” he said.

But Laureno and his wife wanted to return to Mexico.

“Most Mexicans don’t want to leave Mexico,” Laureno said. “They would much rather stay where the culture, language and values are familiar and their own. But the economic and working structure in Mexico doesn’t give them a chance to stay; they can’t live with dignity here.”

Neftali said he has never considered crossing illegally, despite watching many of his friends cross and knowing the difficulties in Mexico first-hand.

“I don’t want to risk my life. I would rather do it legally. There are too many dangers that hold me back,” Neftali said. “I have a very different way of thinking than many of my friends. I watched the television a lot and saw all of the awful things that were happening along the border. I thought about my family and how I would hurt them if something happened to me.”

He hopes to move to the United States legally one day and send more money back to his family. To do that, he will need to keep a job in Agua Prieta for at least a year,  live and pay bills in Agua Prieta for a year and maintain a clean record to establish residency.

Neftali worries that although it sounds relatively easy, he won’t be able to get a visa.

“There are a lot of hidden loopholes,” Neftali said.” I don’t know if I can last here a year working in the maquiladora and away from everything I know.”


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

Neftali Fuentes enjoys some time off work at park in Agua Prieta, Mexico, where he lives with an aunt, uncle and two cousins in a one-bedroom house. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)

Neftali Fuentes tickles his 4-year-old cousin Danielito Fuentes at their home in Agua Prieta, Mexico. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)

Workers file in and out of the maquiladora Levolor, where Neftali Fuentes works. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)

Neftali Fuentes’s cousin Hugo pours raw coffee beans into one of two roasters they have in their home in Agua Prieta, Mexico. The family runs the fair trade coffee company Cafe Justo to supplement its income. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Courtney Sargent)