Such a wellspring of emotions is involved when one listens to Margarita Ávalos’ story that it is difficult to close one’s eyes to empathy. I have experienced violence for as long as I can remember, different types of violence. Her story is as honest as her birth. My parents were alcoholics. We lived in a small village on the outskirts of Candelaria Portezuelo, Puebla, where, if you ask me, neither God nor the government exists.. Her childhood sufficed for all kinds of things to happen to her: along with her sister and parents, Margarita collected lumber to make coal, gathered earth for plants and grew corn, beans and nopal cactus but my parents would spend what little we had earned on pulque.
Margarita wanted to go to school and neither she nor her sister understood time, the passing of hours. They would suddenly say, let’s go to school, and it turned out that it was Sunday or past midday. They would go on their own, barefoot, dirty, without a notebook or pencil. And, once there, they would have to impose themselves in order to be accepted in class or teachers would grab them by their hair and throw them out. We weren’t enrolled. My parents never set foot in the school.
Up to this point, Margarita’s story might be seen as one defined by structural poverty. But there is more: When my parents died I moved in with an uncle and aunt who thought they could do anything they wanted with me. My uncle kept a strip of leather soaking in the well; ready to hit me whenever he thought necessary.
Her daily life: hours of work from sunrise to sunset. On their way back from the fields, men and women rode construction trucks. Men would harass women. Rape was not uncommon. Aggression was everywhere. More violence. For a period of time, she worked with a sister of her aunt’s and that lady’s husband tried to rape her.
At 14 she had a boyfriend who told her what she could and could not do, who she could and could not greet. Why did things have to be this way? When she was 15 she decided to move to Puebla and clean houses. One day on her way to work, once again, somebody tried to rape her. She defended herself. When she told her aunt, she hit her and told her it had been her own fault. Nobody gave her any advice. Nobody taught her anything positive.
That was why when somebody invited her to work in the maquila (factory) industry in Tijuana I packed a suitcase brimming with dreams: to meet new people, study, have a house. I no longer wanted violence. I didn’t want other people to decide for me..
Because she was young and childless, she would not complain, and did as she was told, Margarita got promoted. A new craze arrived: seamless clothing. I was in charge of this department during the night shift. Sadly, the sexual harassment began soon after, along with exploitation, insults, and work accidents.
One day, a friend invited Margarita to a workshop and she agreed only as a token of support and nothing more. There, she finally found out that women have rights and learned about terms such as “profit sharing” for the first time. Excited, she quickly returned to the maquila and shared her newly acquired knowledge, thinking it could bring about change. It did not happen; she was fired along with the other leaders. However, a seed had been planted.
There was a strike. In the meantime, Margarita attended workshops, studied during the weekends ((…I had forgotten everything I’d studied in elementary school. I was terrified of computers…) and, by 2012, she was the coordinator of the “Alliance of Men and Women Maquila Workers along the Border”. This was how a real workers strike came about, one that became an example of international solidarity involving people from California and Tijuana.
I started to share my opinion thinking nobody would listen to me. I talked and talked and, before I knew it, I stood at the center of four hundred workers who were all listening to me.
Without her meaning it to happen, Margarita became a leader. She received invitations and reporters got in touch with her because it was very meaningful that a young lady who knew about the law was so committed to the cause.
The strike ended after seven years of trials and appeals. From the strike she learned that when workers get organized they have to face a four-headed monster: the labor union, the employer, the government apparatus, and the drug dealers. . Moreover, thanks to this strike she graduated, for she studied law.
After litigating in favor of women workers’ rights, Margarita established contacts with workers, promoters, and feminist activists and together they formed Ollin Calli, a collective that opposes exploitation and grants advice on labor rights. They started off without funds or salaries, so they organized a cooperative which not only helped them obtain resources but also offered to teach fellow maquila women workers, who had worked at the factory all their lives and had no other skills, to do jewelry, embroidery, recycled products, and cook. Later on, they were able to continue their work thanks to the support of Fondo Semillas, of the The Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute (ILSB) and the program “Building Advocacy Skills to Support Women’s Rights in Mexico”, financed by the European Commission.
Like many activists, life has shaped me. Everything I do relates to what I’ve gone through ever since I was a child. Today, Margarita Ávalos is 35 years old and her work at Ollin Calli continues and is more necessary than ever before, in order for the same stories of violence not to repeat themselves, I want this to be useful to other women, to other people.
Some facts about women working in the maquila industry
Algunos datos sobre las mujeres en las maquiladoras
Women who work at maquilas face diverse problems, such as low salaries, insecure working conditions, health hazards due to being exposed to toxic substances, lack of daycare for their children, and sexual harassment, among others. In general, power dynamics, in economic and political structures as much as within the family structure, place female workers in a disadvantaged position and expose them to abuse.
- The maquila is the most important industry along Mexico’s northern border and employs over three million people.
- About 42% of women working in Mexican maquilas have experienced violence from their employers according to the National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women (CONAVIM).
- The average age of women workers is 22, in other words, they are in their reproductive prime. Many of them have children.
- Maquila workers come from the most disadvantaged sectors of society and live in poor neighborhoods where public services are often scarce or absent.
– Comprehensive statistics from the Program for the The Manufacturing, Maquila and Export Services Industry (IMMEX) – INEGI
– National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women (CONAVIM)
– Bolio, Gabriel (2016). Sufre violencia 42% de las trabajadoras en maquilas, Milenio (2016), accessed December 16, 2016, http://www.milenio.com/negocios/trabajadoras_en_maquilas-violencia_trabajadoras-cemefi-responsabilidad_social_0_761323965.html.
– De la O, María Eugenia, Nora Elizabeth Medina (2008). La precariedad como trayectoria laboral. Las mujeres de la industria maquiladora en México. Carta Económica Regional. Núm. 100, año 20. Pp. 49-74.