My grandmother was born in El Paso in 1937, after her family left Coahuila, Mexico and crossed the Juaréz border into the United States. By 1948 she was in Los Angeles, but ever since I could remember, I had felt a pull to see where she was born. I thought it would help me to understand my Abuelita, the extraordinary woman who raised me and my siblings, who filled our childhood with stories, made the house smell like chorizo and chocolate, and painted watercolor dresses for my paper dolls. My mixed racial identity also called me to the border, assuming that the land between two countries, two cultures and two languages might feel the same sort of identity crisis that I feel.
As fate would have it, I met several women from the non-profit group, La Mujer Obrera, while they were on hunger strike in Washington, DC last year. The strike’s purpose was to call attention to the poverty in El Paso and to call for a border commission that would fund community-lead development. By February, I was on my way to El Paso to learn about immigrant rights and economic justice for workers on the border.
El Paso relied on low-income Spanish-speaking workers to become the Jeans Capital of the World in the 80’s, just as Texas and California relied on the Bracero Program in the 40’s to maintain our agricultural industry. Though these industries are essential to the U.S., workers are too often treated as disposable. El Paso, with its sister city Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, forms the largest borderplex in the world. Despite the rich potential such an international intersection could offer the region and the nation, the borderplex has one of the highest rates of poverty in North America. Women – and by extension, children – have especially borne the brunt of this poverty and lack of opportunity.
While men organized for rights within labor unions, women workers were both bullied and disrespected by the unions and discriminated against by employers. This catalyzed low-income women workers to take their future into their own hands by forming Centro del Obrero Fronterizo, now known as La Mujer Obrera. They work for the improvement of the economic, social, educational, health and living conditions of all low-income families, while helping to revitalize El Paso’s the former Garment District in Central El Paso. An already economically distressed neighborhood, the area experienced further economic devastation after more than 35,000 jobs – mainly in the manufacturing sector – moved out of the country with the implementation of NAFTA. In 2010, according to the most recent Census figures, 67% of the families in the Central El Paso were living in poverty.
After NAFTA forced them out of work, these displaced garment workers organized to establish a foothold in the struggling El Paso economy. Through piecemeal funding and sweat equity, the workers are building what they call Centro Mayapán, with an apartment complex and four social purpose businesses: Rayito de Sol Daycare and Learning Center, Lummetik Trading Company, Uxmal Apartments and Mercado Mayapán – a traditional Mexican market with fresh foods, artisan goods, a cultural events plaza and museum. Social purpose businesses are businesses that give back to the community and that do not place value solely on profits. Instead, the priorities are stable and meaningful jobs, family, community, health and culture. La Mujer Obrera’s economic development model is ecological, community-led, and has the potential to be fully self-sustaining.
And now, just as they approach self-sufficiency, they stand to lose everything. We are facing foreclosure on our main building, housing Mercado Mayapán. It is impossible for me to understand how the years of dedication and endless hours of work to create this beautiful community space could disappear with a banker’s signature. This is a truly visionary model for neighborhood revitalization; employment and community building that could be used to put people back to work and rejuvenate cities across the nation, from Detroit, MI to Oakland, CA.
To be at Mercado Mayapán is to be surrounded by incredible women with more determination, intelligence, and discipline than I have ever seen housed under one roof. They’ve put all the missing pieces of the puzzle together to create a pathway out of poverty and unemployment. All we need now is the capital for long-term investment in inventory and establishing a customer base that will make Centro Mayapán financially independent.
As the country deals with high unemployment across every sector, President Obama is, for the second year in a row, pushing a jobs plan that leaves women workers out. His new $450 billion investment in construction projects, schools and services, and tax cuts to workers and small businesses will not help the chronic unemployment of low-wage Spanish-speaking workers. In addition, according to the US Dept. of Labor Statistics, the “recovery” over the last two years has created 984,000 jobs for men while women have actually lost 345,000 jobs. Prioritizing job gains in the service sector and in community-lead development like LMO has done is the key to putting low-income women back to work.
La Mujer Obrera understands that real security means job security. Paying people a fair wage at a permanent job that doesn’t exploit them creates stable families that don’t need to be split up between two countries in order to survive. Children see that they have a future, they can afford to go to school and each generation has the opportunity to do better than the next. Our work gets people out of the welfare system and gives El Paso the positive and inspiring model for empowerment and self-determination that it so desperately needs.
The pundits and politicians say that the El Paso/Juárez area is dangerous because of the border. But the danger is a result of years of poverty, neglect and militarization on both sides. When people have no employment or education opportunities, they will develop survival strategies in order to live. Imagine yourself hungry, desperate and without a future – how long would you watch your children starve before you found a way to get them food? It is very simple economics. If you destroy a region’s industries as NAFTA did to Mexico and parts of the U.S., if you create thousands of unemployed households, if you systematically exclude people from education through refusals to implement bilingual programs and if hiring practices are discriminatory – then you have created a population in crisis.
Focusing solely on the population on the U.S. side of the border, a female worker, on average, still makes only 77 cents for each dollar earned by a comparable male worker, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers are even more distressing for American women when race is taken into account: compared to each dollar earned by the average white male, a white woman makes 77.6 cents, a black woman makes 62.3 cents, and a Hispanic woman makes 54 cents. Though unemployment nationwide is at 9.1%, Hispanic women’s unemployment is 11.4%. And while the number of Americans living in poverty (an income of less than $11,139 for a single person or $22,314 for a family of four) rose to a record 15.1% of the population, poverty among Hispanic women rose to 25% in 2010, up from 23.8% in 2009. Single mothers’ poverty also increased to a staggering 40.7%. 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.
But these are not just statistics – this is our everyday reality. Centro Mayapán is working to reverse these trends, but in this critical time, we humbly reach outside of our community to seek the funding to put us back on solid ground. Centro Mayapán has the infrastructure, the equipment and the experience to put many low-income women back to work. It is “shovel-ready,” as President Obama says. And we’ve told him as much in an open letter to the White House. We’ve gone on a hunger strike. We’re circulating petitions. We’re writing to our representatives. We’re not asking for a bailout like Wall Street did so they could proceed with business as usual while people continue to lose their jobs, their homes and their futures. What we are asking for is investment in community-lead development for El Paso, one of the largest and poorest cities in the nation. When Centro Mayapán creates jobs in El Paso, we put money into the local economy. And since we keep the jobs in El Paso, we stabilize struggling families and create something concrete for future generations. If this country is serious about wanting a secure border, it is time to invest in the people, not the fences.
Please send inquiries and donations to La Mujer Obrera, 2120 Texas Ave., El Paso TX 79901. LMO is a 501(c)3 tax-deductible organization.