Our Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera delegation visited Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña.
AUSTIN — Nine of us associated with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ATCF) bundled into a van and sped off toward the border to show solidarity mainly with the progressive CFO — the women-led grassroots Mexican workers organization (Comité Fronterizo de Obreras/os) bonded to ATCF for some 17 years. Timing was vital as this was the last delegtion prior to Trump’s inauguration.
(According to its mission statement, Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera “raises awareness about conditions of social and economic injustice along the Texas/Mexico border particularly as they affect women workers and supports community-driven alternatives through transnational solidarity and fair trade.”)
First stop? The bustling Fuerza Unida collective in San Antonio, familiar to us from ATCF’s recent Women and Fair Trade event in Austin. Founder activists Petra Amata and Juanita Reyna told us how they helped create the collective for women who lost jobs when Levi Strauss closed shop in 1990. Fuerza Unida’s textile, handcraft, and alteration hub also evolved into a community, advice, and food distribution center with a summer internship program for at-risk teens. “Kids talk to us in a way they can’t talk to their families,“ Petra told us over coffee and cookies before we left for the border.
Delegates included fellow human rights activists Gus “Gustavo” Bova (our main interpreter), Drew Messamore, Ruthie Powers, group leader/ATCF Education Coordinator Cristina Gonzalez, and activists well acquainted with the journey from prior delegations — Ashely “Flashe” Gordon and Acupuncturists Suzanne Rittenberry and Janet Cook. Our Palestinian driver Haitham-El-Zabri felt a kinship between Palestinian and Mexican struggles.
Freezing days were balanced by the warmest of welcomes. Steaming plates of tamales and pots of rice, or chicken tossed on a sidewalk grill, greeted us as we hopped on-and-off the van, in-and-out of one office or home through the weekend. We also visited Luz y Esperanza drug rehab center.
CFO in Piedras Negras
When we gathered at the CFO offices in Piedras Negras on Friday afternoon, Isabel Santiago, Velia Marrujo. Julia Quiñones, and Esmerelda Castañeda invited us to share personal hopes and dreams in a solidarity exercise. Paper and pens were passed around. The women requested a song for Saturday night. Suzanne Rittenberry’s creativity summed up the urgency and collective spirit with lines like, “Yo soy mujer para justicia” (“I am a woman for justice”), “Sueňo de paz en mi vida” (“I dream of peace in my lifetime”), “Veo el mundo sin fronteras” (“I see the world without borders”) and the refrain, “Hermanas, organizemos” (“Sisters, Organize”).
All vital messages after the women told us about campaigns against sexual harassment at work used by foremen to intimidate and control. Equally disturbing was the case of pregnant women who lost jobs so companies could avoid paying maternity benefits.
Later, and in whispers, the women confirmed recent femicides in Ciudad Acuña, similar to those in Juarez. “But no one talks about this.”
CFO plus Miners’ Union
On Saturday we bounced over to the Mexican Miners’ Union Local 307 in Acuña. CFO helped form this local branch of the powerful El Sindicato Minero Nacional. We hear about the victory union lawyers achieved over some illegal firings. But no one knew if the men would be reinstated. We’re told about the companies’ blacklisting of so-called “troublemakers” in the union, some of whom have to work in different towns, or create their own jobs making tacos or selling items.
Beyond fighting for basic rights, both Los Mineros and CFO strive to be a counterforce to the companies’ own sham or “charro” union, the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers), that dupes and cheats workers. The CTM is also closely involved — allegedly — with local government officials and with the narcos. Worst case scenario — the active union leader whose son was kidnapped to silence him after being denounced by a CTM member with narco links. Not an isolated case.
The van hurtles us through the sprawling industrial parks in both Piedras Negras and Ciudad Acuña for an eyeful of the palm-tree-fringed-and-barbed-wire-enclosed sites of the maquiladoras. Especially those with the worst records like the Finnish-based multinational PKC group (manufacturing electrical harnesses for Ford, GM, Chevrolet, Subaru, and others). It’s heartening to hear Finnish unions support Los Mineros and CFO.
Buses rumble to-and-fro, transporting workers between the industrial parks and a variety of sprawling colonias, ranging from government-funded and costly units painted candy colors, to those spontaneous clusters of homes built by the workers themselves out of salvaged corrugated metal and wood. We’re told most of the workers are from Central and South Mexico (many families from Veracruz) where they could grow their own food.
An impossibility at the bleak border. Adding to the urgency of a situation where basic living costs — especially for food — soared because of a recent hike in gasoline prices, with no sign of an increase in wages.
All tabulated for us in graphic detail on Saturday afternoon. Being epiphany, we shared slices of the Rosca de Reyes (Kings’ Day Bread) and hot coffee while we heard about the ongoing CFO effort to achieve livable wages beyond the average $50-$55 basic weekly income, Which requires overtime hours at 3 times the pay, and the employment of both husband and wife just to cover basic living costs for a family of four. Hobbies? Downtime? Forget it
On Sunday during our “wrap-up” circle, the women who were with us through most of the weekend were fired up, with comments like, “We can’t be quiet about the level of oppression — we’re going to talk collectively to figure out new measures.” Including demonstrations at the border. And a request to join workshops in the North instead of supporters coming south.
Trump’s name prompts disgust. Alicia Gonzales: “Without knowing me, Trump paints me as an enemy.”
Finally, aware of those in our group involved with the Sanctuary Movement, the women ask us to let them know when someone is deported, so they can prepare help and shelter. As Yohana Esparza confirms, “we are all family for one another.” Later, we cross the border into Eagles Pass with ease. For how long, I wonder?
On Thursday, January 26, ATCF VP Monica Teresa Ortiz condemned Trump’s plan to build a wall. “Given… his racist attitude toward immigrants and especially Mexicans, it is no surprise that we are seeing increased tensions between the U.S. and Mexico.”
[Pam Ferguson is an Austin-based writer and teacher.]