La Mujer Obrera

Archive for August, 2010|Monthly archive page

‘Aquí está más chidota’ Community-led Development Initiatives are Key to Long-Term Wellness for Border Youth

In Uncategorized on August 21, 2010 at 7:40 am


During a rehearsal break for their end of summer showcase, youth from the Semillas Youth Program gather in clusters and quietly mouth the nahuatl chant to mother earth, Tonantzin, that they will perform in less than one hour. They are dressed in white t-shirts, jeans, and red bandanas. Thinking no one is watching, a small boy does the moonwalk as he chants – a truly bicultural moment.

Eight large display boards are covered in art. Bright colors and shapes reveal the children’s thoughts. The universal: rainbows, trees, birds, and butterflies. The local and cultural: Mexican flags, Guadalupe virgins, tepees, yarn-woven ojos de dios. And, scattered among these, the painfully real: demands for peace in the notoriously violent sister city across the border, Ciudad Juarez. “Stop the killing,” says one drawing, with an upright machine gun standing in as the first ‘i.’ “Juarez needs peace,” says another.

Killings and kidnappings have become a constant background for an entire generation of youth. A tragic 28,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug war since 2006 – more than 6,000 of these have perished in Juarez. Many children personally know relatives, neighbors, or acquaintances who have been victims of the drug war violence. According to a 2009 report by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, border area children have reported experiencing extensive trauma, anxiety, and insecurity – especially among recent immigrants from Juarez whose parents still have to run errands in Mexico. As if the lives of Hispanic youth on the border were not already hard enough.

For children, pressures of living in immigrant households include being witness to their parents’ struggles: abusive treatment by employers, pressure to work for below market wages, and the constant fear of deportation. Hispanic youth on the border are particularly vulnerable to depression and thoughts of suicide. According a 2009 report by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, unflattering stereotypes about Mexicans can lead to “self-hate” among border youth who are trying to determine their cultural identity, and perceived discrimination increases psychological stress, decreases people’s sense of personal control, and can lead to depression and anxiety in immigrant populations.

In addition, being located in a major drug traffic route and having access to prescription medications such as Rohypnol and Valium through corrupt medical practices in Mexico puts border youth at high risk of developing substance abuse. Already, according to the same report, students from border schools report higher use of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs. Sadly, the mental health needs of Hispanic children are not being addressed. According to 2007 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, 69.7% of Hispanic children living in a Texas households where Spanish was the primary language who needed mental health care did not receive it.

Historically, Hispanic children living in the U.S.-Mexico border have been among the most vulnerable to cycles of poverty and poor health.  According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, over half a million children living in the U.S. Mexico border in 2005 were poor and Hispanic – despite living with families where parent(s) worked. An astonishing 40% of children in the Texas-Mexico border were living in poverty, compared to 17% of children nationwide.


“Tiene juegos?” a boy asks as I observe their rehearsal with my open laptop. He wants to know if my laptop has games he can play. I ask him for an interview instead.

-“What did you learn?” I ask in Spanish. Our entire exchange is in Spanish.

-“Art. We learned how to make ojos de dios, aztec dance, singing, and aztec words.”

-“What was your favorite part?”

-“Getting to play the drum.”

-“What would you have done this summer, if this program had not be here?”

-“I would have stayed at home playing videogames and on the computer all day.”

It is a digital age. A digital age, in the third world that is the border. A third world crammed in the southern outskirts of the first world. Here, children can YouTube singing hamsters one minute and narco violence the next. They can speak about playing ninjas and El Verguillas. They are children, taking it all in.

The Semillas youth program is operated by La Mujer Obrera, a community development organization operating in El Paso’s former Garment District, where many women and their families worked before the loss of 35,000 jobs, mainly in the manufacturing sector of the economy. Already an economically stressed neighborhood, it experienced further economic devastation.

The Chamizal neighborhood, the largest in the garment district, was recently recognized as one of the poorest in the nation by the Federal Reserve Bank. According to the most recent figures available at the Census Tract level, 67% of families living in the neighborhood (Census Tract 21) were living in poverty, compared with 22.6% of people in El Paso County, and 12.4% of people in the U.S. An astonishing 70% of residents in the neighborhood do not have a high school diploma and 26% of households are headed by a single parent. The median income is $11,362. To make matters more dire, almost one in five residents of the Chamizal neighborhood are unemployed. Additionally, the Census reports that approximately 88% of residents in the neighborhood speak Spanish at home.

And this is where the cycle of poverty suddenly enwraps you. You are born in a poor household. Your mother does her best to be there for you, but to provide she must work and you are home alone while she works. As an adolescent, when you need her advice the most, she is still working. And you are alone, and you welcome the attention of equally alone youth with equally hard working parents who are not around. And you find comfort in each other for a brief period of time.

The border region had more teenage mothers than the nation, with El Paso County reporting 17% of its births to teens; in the United States, 12% of births were to teenage mothers. Latino youth in the border region are three times more likely to drop out of school than their non-Latino counterparts (Border Kids Count, 2006). In the 2005-2006 academic year, Bowie High School, where many of the children at this youth program will attend, had a drop-out rate of 25%. Limited education limits employment opportunities, often to service or factory work, which lands a single parent well into poverty.

And then, you are alone. Looking for work, raising your kids. Doing the best you possibly can.


Single motherhood, being Hispanic, and being poor are all tied to vulnerabilities. Food access and hunger studies conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture report that members of such households often lack food and go hungry. Children in single mother households are also less likely to participate in after school programs such as Semillas. In Texas, 36% of children living with a single mother did not participate in after school activities, compared to 22.6% of children in two parent households. Even more troubling, 58% of Hispanic children 6 to 17 years of age in households where Spanish is the primary language did not participate in after school activities, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health, 2007 figures.

This is why community based efforts that build on the cultural strengths of border youth are exceptionally critical. Language and cultural competence are key factors in mental health services, according to National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The same is true for public health prevention efforts. And who knows the community best? The community itself.

La Mujer Obrera’s members, primarily Spanish-speaking displaced women workers, took on the mission to revitalize and improve the economic, social, educational, health and living conditions of the neighborhood and its residents. In the last 29 years, displaced garment workers of La Mujer Obrera have steadfastly organized to establish education and workforce training opportunities including a workers’ training center, an apartment complex, and three social purpose businesses: Rayito de Sol Daycare and Learning Center, Café Mayapán, and most recently, Mercado Mayapan, a traditional Mexican market with fresh foods, artisan goods, an active cultural events plaza, and museum.

The Semillas program is composed of eighteen youth divided in two groups. The younger group consists of children ages 6 to 14. The older youth, ages 17 to 24, are participating through a summer job program; they are charged with mentoring the younger kids. Most of these youth speak Spanish at home; many come from single mother households. Semillas is a community-operated youth program, part of a larger community development strategy being implemented by La Mujer Obrera in the El Paso’s former Garment District. Today they will perform at the community-operated market where their mothers work.

Both the border violence and the lack of meaningful and self-sustaining economic opportunities for Hispanic women living in the U.S. Mexico border are direct results of American trade policies that cater to international corporate interests. By increasing the free trade of goods but not people, North American Free Trade Agreement created an advantageous playing field for subsidized American farmers and undermined efforts of unsubsidized Mexican farmers. Suddenly, an apple farmer in Chihuahua was unable to compete with Red Delicious apples grown in Washington state. The loss of Mexican farms translated into an entire population looking for sustenance, resulting on the one hand in increased migration to the United States and on the other, in families searching for ways to make money… even if it meant drug trafficking.

The University of Texas Pan-Am estimates that the North American Free Trade Agreement led to the loss of approximately $78,000 for every job lost. An entire cohort of Hispanic women was suddenly abandoned. Left to fend for themselves, without warning, without workforce training, the largely monolingual Spanish speaking women with limited education had to figure a way out.


La Mujer Obrera’s community development model is ecological, community-led, and leading to full community empowerment and self-sufficiency. It creates safe spaces in which children can reconnect with their culture, countering the negative stereotypes leading to that ‘self-hate.’ Here, they become inspired not in spite of who they are but as a result of who they are.

“What did you learn here?” I ask 16-year-old Amberly.

“I learned about my ancestors, what they ate, what they did, their traditions, the danza azteca [Aztec dance]. I had the opportunity to work with the kids and other teenagers my age. I had the opportunity to learn where I came from.”

But these programs cannot continue without a meaningful economic investment from the Obama administration. Although the administration has invested billions of dollars into ‘community development,’ beneficiaries of these moneys have been traditional institutions including local governments and non-profits with a national base. Local non-profits, particularly on the border, have not been included in this infusion of funds.

When asked what they would have done this summer, had they not attended the Semillas program, they invariably respond, “at home.” “Playing video games.” “Watching TV.” “On the computer all day.”

Said a 6-year-old boy in classic Chuco parlance, “Aquí esta mas chidota, aquí en el programa.”  [It’s cooler here, here in this program.]

-Rubi Orozco



In Uncategorized on August 21, 2010 at 5:14 am

ResponseThis article focuses on the exodus of businesses and the vacancies/closures of companies.  But what about the workers, especially the women, on both sides of the border?  What has been the impact of this economic restructuring on the women and their families?  Of the 100,000+ people who have fled Ciudad Juarez and sought political asylum in the US, how many are women workers? My guess, very few. Not because they want to stay, but because they have no options, no choices.

And in El Paso and  the US, there is growing support and encouragement for Mexican business owners to bring their capital and operations across the border.  But where is the support and plan for the women workers who helped build El Paso through the garment industry’s heyday, but are now written off as “unfortunate casualities”?

Through La Mujer Obrera, these women and their families are creating their own development plan, with businesses, jobs and vitally needed community services.  Yet, their efforts are dismissed as some sort of “welfare strategy”.  Why are Mexican business men greeted with open arms by the political and economic powers that be, yet women workers and their families, striving to create opportunity for themselves, dismissed?  There needs to be just and equitable investment in development for women workers; not just business men.

Exodus from Ciudad Juárez impacts El Paso economy By Randy Anaya on August 20, 2010

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, México — Roaming the city is not what it used to be; the once busy and bustling city is losing money and residents very quickly. Recent provisional data from the INEGI show that Juárez has lost about 24% of its population. A city of 1.3 million has shrunk to one million, and 60 thousand families have migrated to other areas of Mexico or to the U.S.

As a result of this people flight, statistics from the Colegio de la FronteraNorte reveal that 116,000 houses have been abandoned, leaving 24% of the city’s homes empty. Yet those statistics may be erroneous because a study form the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez reveals that the sum might be closer to 100 thousand families leaving the city, leaving half a million (or about 40%) less inhabitants. These latter numbers do coincide; an article posted by the Diario de Juarez states that since 2006 nearly 110 thousand Mexican citizens asked for political asylum in the U.S., but only 183 obtained the asylum, less that 2% of the total. This has left many families no choice but to reside illegally in the neighboring city of El Paso.

Mar Patricia Gutierrez, a manager for a Juarez real estate company also verifies the exodus: “the sales have plummeted to the floor, a few years ago we would sell at least five or six houses every week, now we sell about two to four a month”.

In an associated story published by El Diario, a Juarez daily newspaper, Pablo Hernandez from the Asociación Mexicana de Profesionales Inmobiliarios de Ciudad Juárez (AMPI) says that 116,000 houses are empty, 14% of the industrial space is empty and about 40% of local businesses are closing; the Servicio de Administracion Tributaria or SAT, states that since 2008, 10,670 businesses have closed, both for the economic crisis and the insecurity issues.

Likewise in El Paso, Kandice Diaz from the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, notes that their stats from 2009 show that 202 clients have asked for information to expand or transfer their business to El Paso.

This is a significant 40% hike compared to 2008.

Out of those 202 clients, 20 business owners asked for financial assistance and the majority of trades that those clients are involved in are food services, construction, retail trade, manufacturing, public administration, arts and recreation, professional science and technology, healthcare, wholesale trade and transportation and warehousing.

Clearly, many Mexican nationals have moved their businesses to El Paso, which has added to the already growing population due to the expanding military base at Fort Bliss.

Experts predict that the city will see an economic growth in the future. “Even though the times are tough, sales have been steady or at least have not decreased drastically,” said Paul Tarango, owner of the Tortuga Sports Lounge in El Paso. This is partly due to hardship; people still want to go out and relax, have dinner or a beer and have a good time. This added to the fact that a lot of people from Juarez are now starting to party in El Paso because clubbing in Juarez is a gamble.

Will this boost really help the city? Or is it a high tide phase that will eventually drag the economy down once the situation in Juárez goes back to normal and the businesses go back? Time and patience will be the only means to find out, yet to many time is a commodity they cannot afford.

NAFTA’s Violence

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Commentary on “Inside the World’s Deadliest City

Juarez’s anarchy cannot be separated from American policy and addictions, says

journalist Charles Bowden”  By Jeremy Gantz August 30, 2010

The public and political discussion about the violence in Ciudad Juarez has focused on its being the result of “the war on drugs”.  However, this interview focuses on the underlying connections to free trade, and in particular NAFTA.  Regardless of one’s opinion about Bowden’s conclusions that the solution is the legalization of all drugs, his analysis about the linkages to NAFTA are very cogent.  The article writes,

“ What is NAFTA’s relationship to Juárez’s descent into violence?

In the late ’60s the Border Industrialization Program (also known as the Twin Plant Program), the prototype of what became NAFTA, was established in Juárez. At the beginning, wages were higher than the people of Juárez had experienced, but after 40 years, they have  steadily declined..  NAFTA produced enormous squatter barrios of people who are fully employed by American factories and couldn’t make a living wage. NAFTA destroyed light and middle industry in Mexico, and it destroyed peasant agriculture.

But NAFTA is a disaster that cannot be recognized as a disaster because what we call “free trade” is not an empirical policy tested by fact; it is a theology. NAFTA is a failure. It doesn’t solve poverty, it expands it. And the people burn out because it suddenly dawns on them that they’re like hamsters on a wheel, and they’re going backward instead of forward.”

La Mujer Obrera has for years argued that NAFTA’s impact on women workers is the equivalent of a natural disaster.  A University of Texas at Pan Am study in 2002 documented that each job lost on the US side of the border related to free trade displacement cost the community an average of $78,000.  In El Paso, 35,000 people, principally women, have lost their jobs as a result of NAFTA. That’s a loss of more than $2.7 BILLION from the local economy, and in particular from the women’s lives.   On the scale of the impact of Hurricane Katrina or the Gulf oil spill.

Yet, for the local, state and federal governments, this disaster, that has destroyed the livelihoods and futures of thousands of women workers, has gone unseen, unnamed, unresolved.  The women’s loss is ignored and/or denied.  And where there is no acknowledgement of a problem, there can also be no real support for a solution.

For these reasons, the women’s self-help efforts, over the past ten years, to forge their own future, to rebuild their community whose economic base was destroyed by NAFTA, have received little serious investment and/or support from the public sector.

Now some critics argue that government has been strongly supportive and that the women just  want “to be maintained, on the public dole”.  But when the amount of government dollars that have gone into genuine development efforts with the women (which is not funding for dead end English classes or mediocre bilingual vocational training for non existent jobs where the real beneficiaries are the public and private vocational schools charging the government and in some cases the women exorbident  tuition) is compared to the $2.7 billion lost, then it is clear.  The public sector refuses to acknowledge the devastation that free trade has wrought, and the cost of that refusal has been the lives and livelihoods of women workers on both sides of the border.

But the women workers and La Mujer Obrera refuse to accept government’s attempts to relegate them to the  category of “unfortunate casualties”.  For this reason, La Mujer Obrera has launched a grassroots campaign.   The campaign is dedicate to increasing public and political awareness and support for the vital efforts by low-income women workers in El Paso to create a development strategy for their families and community, in the face of growing violence and discrimination on the border.

You can help.  Please provide us with your contact information, particularly your email address, or “friend” us on Facebook.  Then encourage your friends, family and colleagues, via email and facebook, to also join our campaign, and link to us via email or facebook.

And contribute to our campaign.  $1, $5, $10, or whatever you provide will be a invaluable investment in the women’s efforts to bridge the “development abyss” that globalization has plunged them into.

For more information on our campaign, check out our facebook page and web site.

Thank you for your commitment to challenging the government’s refusal to acknowledge the disaster than NAFTA is for women workers on both sides of the border.  And thank you for  standing with the women’s efforts to create justice and equitable development in the face of the spiraling violence on the border.

La Mujer Obrera