Three Dollars an Hour

Posted on June 11, 2014


After Ken Light photographed living conditions in Oaxaca in the 1980s he commented, “People literally have the clothes on their backs and a wooden shack, a bucket of corn and that’s it….so the idea that someone can come here and make that [$3] in an hour is an incredible draw. All you need is for one person who has gone north to return. He’ll tell people that in California they can earn a lot of money—enough to buy a car, or a house with a flush toilet. Who wouldn’t want to come here after hearing that?”

“Back in our town in Mexico, there are nothing but women,” Guadalupe Hernandez, who migrated back and forth from Mexico to California for over 17 years, told the Sacramento Bee in 1991, “All the men are here [in the U. S.]. Women or old people are back in our towns…The only time Mexican men go back to their country is when they are no good for anything anymore. They are either old or hurt or both. There is nothing left for them. That’s when they stop.”

Like the braceros and the undocumented farm laborers, women migrated in greater and greater numbers because a need existed for what they could provide. U. S. involvement in Vietnam pulled thousands of young men out of the work force. Integration and the feminist movement opened employment in business and industry to many African-Americans and women. In addition, high production costs in the northern and northeastern United States triggered a southward and southwestern shift of many businesses and industries. The economies of San Diego, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas boomed and the boom created needs for all kinds of domestic, food service, childcare and sweatshop workers.

Typically women entered this workforce through a series of intermediate steps. The oldest daughter in a family of seven children would marry and go with her husband to Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana. A younger sister would visit, or move north to take care of her sister’s children while the sister worked. An aunt or sister-in-law would join them. One or another would find out about work on The Other Side, usually as a domestic servant. Over the years each one of them would move back and forth, working on one side of the border then the other, their permanency dictated by family attachments, boy friends, health, homesickness. Many of these women never had finished primary school and most had started working before they hit their teens.

In 1965, the same year that the bracero program officially was terminated, the first maquiladora opened in Tijuana. Stimulated by Mexican government tax and property concessions underwritten by the Programa de Industrialización de la Frontera, and by the availability of hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers for whom the minimum wage was one-eighth of what it was in the United States, the maquiladoras—assembly plants that specialized in electronics components, music cassettes, toys and textiles—spread from Tijuana to Reynosa. Although designed to help ease unemployment in the border cities, the maquiladoras almost exclusively hired women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Many assembly plant managers refused to hire women with children and immediately terminated the employment of any who tested positive after required pregnancy tests.

“It was all repetitious hand labor—eight to ten hours of performing the same little task over and over again,” Maríbel Diaz described the assembly line conditions. Many women worked only a few days or weeks before quitting or being fired. Others mollified the monotony by anticipating how they would spend their salaries. To be paid $19 or more a week was a fortune for minimally educated women who’d never earned more than a few pesos a day before. Not only could they buy clothes and bijouterie, they could send money home, they could improve their living conditions, they could help support lovers, husbands, children, family members.

Few of the maquiladoras provided any employee benefits. Some did offer training courses for employees but all operated on distinct production standards: each woman installed so many zippers per hour, assembled a minimum number of so many cassettes, soldered together so many wires. Women could get laid off or fired without explanation and any health problems incurred while working were discounted.

“There [in a textile maquiladora] I left part of my kidneys and my eyes,” Norma Iglesias quoted a Tijuana resident. “I never earned a fixed salary, they paid me by the piece…[but] the dresses we made were precious! They sold them in the most exclusive shops in the United States and they cost $200 to $300 dollars. And us? We earned forty-five pesos [about $4.00) for each dress we made. Incredible!”


Posted in: Life in Mexico