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Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora

Beautiful Flowers of the Maquiladora
Life Histories of Women Workers in Tijuana
Translated by Michael Stone with Gabrielle Winkler; foreword by Henry Selby

Stories and testimonials about women who work in assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies University of Texas at Austin
June 1997
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143 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos |

Published originally as La flor mas bella de la maquiladora, this beautifully written book is based on interviews the author conducted with more than fifty Mexican women who work in the assembly plants along the U.S.-Mexico border. A descriptive analytic study conducted in the late 1970s, the book uses compelling testimonials to detail the struggles these women face.

The experiences of women in maquiladoras are attracting increasing attention from scholars, especially in the context of ongoing Mexican migration to the country's northern frontier and in light of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This book is among the earliest accounts of the physical and psychological toll exacted from the women who labor in these plants. Iglesias Prieto captures the idioms of these working women so that they emerge as dynamic individuals, young and articulate personalities, inexorably engaged in the daily struggle to change the fundamental conditions of their exploitation.

  • Foreword
  • Translators' Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Meeting the Demand
  • 2. The Realm of Work
  • 3. We Women Are More Responsible
  • 4. Maquila Muchachas: Pretty Young Maids
  • 5. Who I Am, Where I Come From, and Where I'm Going
  • 6. Most Beautiful Flower of the Maquiladora
  • 7. Solidev: An Embattled Maquiladora
  • 8. By Way of Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Norma Iglesias Prieto teaches at the Centro de Estudios Fronterizos del Norte de México in Tijuana. Translator Michael Stone is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hartwick College in New York. Gabrielle Winkler holds an M.A. from the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


Beginning in the 1970s, with the initiation of the Border Industrialization Program and the end of the bracero program, Mexico's northern frontier underwent considerable socioeconomic change. The industrial expansion effected by the establishment of maquiladoras in the border cities conferred a singular quality to urban life there.


Through the Border Industrialization Program the Mexican government sought to reduce the rising unemployment rate associated with the bracero program's termination. Instead of utilizing unemployed males, however, maquiladoras contracted a new labor force--single women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, with only primary-level education. The firms stood to benefit economically by employing these young women, whose docility, discipline, and good health promised increased productivity.


The hiring of women, while it has generated employment, has failed to offer even a partial solution to the overall problem of unemployment and underemployment in the border region. Throughout the region maquiladoras typically have employed a labor force that is 80 to 90 percent female. This fundamental characteristic has affected the occupational structure and sociocultural character of border cities, as it has the families of female workers.


This study seeks to present and analyze the significance and meaning of being a female maquiladora worker on the U.S.-Mexico border. It draws on data collected from 1972 to February 1982, when the peso was devalued from twenty-seven to thirty-eight pesos to the dollar. It is important to note that by early 1983, many of the practices presented here were being modified conspicuously. That year marks the beginning of a new era for maquiladoras, which clearly are expanding because of the devaluation and the Mexican government's support.


The ten stories presented in this work are typical of the lives of female maquiladora laborers. These stories focus on ten women's perceptions of their lives as workers and the changes they underwent after becoming maquiladora workers. The awareness and knowledge these women gained through involvement in the production process are basic to understanding the process of consciousness raising and the existence or absence of a workers' movement in the maquiladoras.


Utilizing female labor and employing women who previously had been excluded from industrial production--women whose social lives had been circumscribed by domestic responsibilities--has conditioned the form and content of labor organizing along the border. Labor movement experience in the maquiladoras has not been extensive. The youth and inexperience of the women involved in production, the characteristics of the labor force, and the politics and maneuvers of the maquiladoras are among the factors that conditioned the situation in the period under discussion.


This book is divided into seven chapters intended to illustrate a global phenomenon encompassing both the maquiladoras and the life experience of each of the workers. The data were assembled via participant observation and the collection of life histories, methodologies that provide direct and emotive information. While I might have evaluated the data by identifying analytical variables, I have approached the material in a way that retains the thought processes of the women interviewed. Therefore, each chapter presents its own variables and logic, and only those aspects most relevant to my thesis are analyzed.


Chapter I shows the different productive processes of the maquiladoras. It illustrates the fragmented nature of the production process, its suppression of creativity, its alienating character, and how this constrains human intellectual development. The fragmentation of the work process is not exclusive to the maquiladoras, but the first chapter makes evident the alienation that proceeds from the accelerated rhythms of production and the overall work routine.


The second chapter describes work conditions, the frequent dangers facing maquiladora laborers in the workplace, and the inattention to accident and occupational ailment prevention. It underscores the dehumanization that results from giving priority to production values rather than workers' health. It also reflects the hierarchical structure of the division of labor and how that hierarchy facilitates obtaining the maximum yield from production.


The third chapter clearly illustrates why maquiladoras employ female laborers on Mexico's northern frontier and, more generally, in all those countries where this type of industry exists. It also addresses the specific difficulties facing women as they enter the labor market.


Chapter 4 describes the characteristics of the labor force employed in the maquiladoras and the advantages the firms obtain by pursuing their employment policies.


Chapter 5 offers accounts of the place of origin of some of the workers we interviewed, their experiences during the migratory process, and the advantages, disadvantages, and changes they encountered in acclimating to working in a maquiladora.


The sixth chapter registers the countless ideological and political control mechanisms designed by the enterprises to maximize production and to avoid, or at least to retard, the workers' consciousnessraising, and thus to impede their organization and struggle. It shows how control mechanisms were designed specifically to control young women, as they constituted the vast majority of workers in maquiladoras.


The seventh chapter deals with the experiences of a female member of one of the two independent labor unions that arose in the maquiladoras. It is the account of a workers' movement of considerable significance to workers' struggles on the U.S.-Mexico border. This chapter also summarizes a number of the points outlined in the preceding chapters.


To conclude, the factors most relevant to the analysis of the role of working women in Tijuana's maquiladoras are reviewed. A methodological appendix includes the questionnaire utilized in the research and a thematic protocol for recording the life histories.


Case Selection


A variety of considerations influenced the selection of the ten cases presented here. Within the maquiladoras there are distinct hiring patterns, depending on the sector involved and the importance of the firm. In the electronics industry, work is preferentially offered to single women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, migrants who have resided for at least six months in the city, and nonstudents. The work experience of the job seeker is of little importance, because the learning period is quite brief, a matter of hours or, at most, one or two days.


In the textile industry, work is offered preferentially to women who are already skilled seamstresses; their experience enables them to work more rapidly and precisely. According to Mexico's secretary of labor, this is a skilled occupation; maquiladora seamstresses at times do not earn even the minimum wage, however, because they do piece work. Older women with work experience are more likely to be employed in the textile-related maquiladoras than in the electronics plants. The majority of textile workers have children, and many of the women are the sole household providers, which makes them more dependent on their employers.


Most cases presented here describe women who became wage workers at a young age and who "grew old" in the maquiladoras. Hence, they harbored distinct impressions of the maquiladora work experience, and their interpretation of the situation differed considerably from that of younger women. The ten cases presented here exemplify aspects of the core maquiladora work force. The principal variables considered in our selection were age, marital status, and number of children; place of origin and (for migrants) motivations for migrating to Tijuana; employment sector and the magnitude of the salary's contribution to the family economy. Following are the ten selected cases:


  • Alma migrated as a young married woman with her six-member family to the United States to work as a seamstress in a textile factory. She lived here for two years as an undocumented worker before relocating to Tijuana, where she works as a maquiladora seamstress. Her spouse is underemployed, so her salary is fundamental to the household economy.
  • Amelia is a single mother, thirty years old, with four children. She migrated to Tijuana in search of employment and is an electronics worker and the sole household supporter.
  • Angela, a forty-two-year-old woman with four children, came to Tijuana when she separated from her spouse. She has worked for thirteen years in the same electronics plant and is the sole support of her household.
  • Concha, a thirty-five-year-old married woman and a migrant, had to stop working three years before we interviewed her because she had no one to care for her children. She has never been the sole economic support of her family, but her income has been very important in meeting household expenses.
  • Elena, twenty-five years old and a migrant, is married and has children. She has abandoned maquiladora employment for extended periods, but has returned on at least five occasions. Her salary is considered supplementary to meeting household expenses.
  • Gabriela, a twenty-six-year-old migrant, has worked approximately eight years in the same electronics plant. She has labor union experience and has been involved in various labor struggles. She lives alone and, apart from supporting herself, has to send money to her family in Acaponeta, Nayarit.
  • María Cristina, eighteen years old, arrived in Tijuana as a teenager with her family in search of better living conditions. She has worked for a year in a textile maquiladora, her only work experience. Her earnings go principally toward her personal expenses.
  • María Luisa, thirty-one years old, is married. She is a migrant with twelve years' experience in eight maquiladoras. Her salary is considered supplementary to meeting household expenses.
  • Marta, a sixteen-year-old girl living with her family, was born in Tijuana. She had been working for only one week in the maquiladora when she was interviewed. Her earnings go toward personal expenses.
  • Obdulia, seventeen years old, recently married and with one child, was born in Tijuana. Her salary. is essential to meeting household expenses, although her spouse also contributes a fixed monthly amount.




Maquiladoras are those manufacturing plants established in Mexico that


  1. are U.S. subsidiaries or contract affiliates under Mexican or foreign ownership;
  2. are dedicated to the assembly of components, the processing of primary materials, or both, producing either intermediate or final products;
  3. import most or all primary materials and components from the United States, and re-export the end products of the manufacturing process to the United States;
  4. are labor-intensive. (Carrillo and Hernández 1982a: 1)


The introduction of maquiladoras in Mexican territory was initiated officially in 1965 under the Border Industrialization Program. Since then, foreign enterprises dedicated to the processing, assembly, and finishing of raw materials and intermediate goods have brought plants from the United States to the principal cities of Mexico's northern border with the objective of reducing production costs by capitalizing on the extremely low cost of local labor.


The establishment of maquiladoras in Mexico reflects a capitalist tendency that has developed since the 1960s and that has facilitated the geographic relocation of productive processes to the underdeveloped countries. This tendency had become evident by 1975, as thousands of firms from highly developed countries had transferred their operations partially or wholly to no fewer than thirty-nine countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.


Since their introduction into Mexico, the maquiladora export plants have maintained high rates of growth. By early 1982 there were six hundred plants employing 122,799 persons, and by September 1996, 2,490 plants employed 788,205 persons (INEGI 1996).


Although maquiladoras have generated a considerable number of jobs and since 1972 have maintained high rates of job growth, these jobs have gone to young single women without work experience, that is, to a sector with no prior experience in the labor force. Their employment expands the economically active population and the availability of jobs, but maquiladora expansion has also fostered border population growth by attracting migrants to these industries, which elevates unemployment.


The establishment of maquiladoras in the northern border zone was not primarily intended to reduce unemployment, but, rather, to reduce production costs. The labor force of choice, therefore, was abundant but located at some distance from the sphere of productive economic activity. Young women represented, as they did during the nineteenth century, a great discovery for capital. In 1979, in the underdeveloped countries, some one million women worked in export assembly operations. This represented half of the total number of women working in industrial manufacturing (Carrillo and Hernández 1982: 24).


Mexico's maquiladora labor force is approximately 80 percent female (SPP 1980). Female labor is abundant in the underdeveloped countries, cheaper than its male counterpart, and endowed with social attributes that permit the exercise of a greater degree of control. In Mexico, as in other underdeveloped countries, the mean duration of employment is about three years, while in modern industries with advanced technology, where female labor predominates, employment duration has averaged between four and five years. Mexico's maquiladoras are also characterized by high turnover, which results as much from the abundance of labor as from demand for that labor.


The great benefit of maquiladoras to foreign investors involves the possibility of reducing production costs while expanding markets, both of which mean higher productivity. For government and private enterprise, the establishment of these plants partially resolved the problem of unemployment and thereby thwarted the political consequences that would have ensued had no measures been taken. Hence, the Mexican government sought to create the material, economic, and communications infrastructure needed to attract foreign capital. Places like Tijuana, located as they are in the designated zona libre, or duty-free zone, insulated from the national economy, enjoying tax-free status, and situated close to the United States, represent paradise for these transnational enterprises. They are advantageous in terms of cost and access to communications, transportation, industrial parks, and customs facilities. The combination offers local financing viability, low administrative salaries, low production-factor costs (electricity, telephone, maintenance, and labor), minimal training requirements, little regulation of labor conditions and environmental pollution, and effective exemption from federal labor law requirements. The firms can likewise count on political stability, labor discipline, and the weakness or near-absence of labor unions.


The Problematic of the Female Laborer


Female workers in the maquiladoras, like most female workers, are subject to a double workday. This characteristic makes the task of analyzing the situation of female workers more complex than analyzing that of their male counterparts. The female worker, apart from her exploitation as a worker, is oppressed as a woman:


for men and women alike, exploitation has to do with the economic reality of capitalist class relations, whereas oppression refers to women and minorities as they are situated within the structure of patriarchal, racial, and capitalist relations. Exploitation is what male and female workers experience in the labor force. The oppression of women proceeds from their exploitation as salaried workers; it is compounded by those relations that determine women's existence within a patriarchal and sexual hierarchy as both domestic workers and consumers. Racial oppression-the enforcement of the society's racial divisions-compounds the effects of economic exploitation, making the reality of minority women even more complex. Power--or its inverse, oppression--derives from sex, race, and class, all of which manifest through the material and ideological dimensions of patriarchy, racism, and capitalist relations of production. Oppression reflects the hierarchical relations of sexual and racial divisions at work and within the larger society. (Eisenstein 1980: 34)


Patriarchal relations inhibit the development of human potential. As long as these patriarchal relations exist, the perception and experience of life are quite different for women and men. The sexual division of labor and the division of labor in society at large determine people's activities, their worldview, their desires, and their aspirations. Patriarchy divides men, and women and consigns each of them to their respective roles within a gender hierarchy while structuring their obligations in relation to the distinctive domain of the family, and within the political economy (Eisenstein 1980: 34).


The role of women within the capitalist system is to physically and socially reproduce the workforce, whether working in or outside of the home--that is to say, to produce men and women capable of serving as a productive labor force. In this manner, female maquiladora workers engage in production, reproduction, and consumption.


Yet it is apparent that the socialization involved in the work experience favors a widening of female horizons previously focused on the routine problems of the family. The social experience of work facilitates the possibility that the feminine condition no longer assumes the appearance of being


an inevitable consequence of an inhumane form of social organization that transforms men into machines of production ... [and women] into the "attendants" of those machines. As part of the social organization of capitalist production, women have discovered who has been responsible for their oppression, and whose interests have truly been served by their domestic slavery. This is a lesson that cannot be forgotten. (Broyelle 1975: 78)


Hence, all the women represented here were disposed, and perhaps felt it necessary, to speak, to relate what it means to be a worker, a mother, a partner, a migrant, and a woman. All had something in common, and all had assimilated the fundamental vocabulary of industrial workers: enter, leave, move, haul, tighten, pull the lever, push the button, produce, don't smoke or chat on the job, don't get tired. And still, they never forgot the "magic" words of womanhood: buy, cook, sweep, iron, care for the children, don't sit down, educate, make love, go away, shut up. Because of all this, their speech assumes definition, purpose, and meaning.




“Poignant and powerful, this work is a tribute to the dignity of the human spirit. It should be required reading for policymakers on both sides of the political border separating Mexico and the United States.”
Vicki L. Ruiz, Professor of History and Women's Studies, Arizona State University


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