West Chester University in coalition with Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ATCF) and the Comité Fronterizo de Obreras (CFO) sponsored a trip to Peidras Negras, Mexico for WCU Students Brian Jones, Lisa A. Gentile, Alejandro Carrillo, and Yvelisse Pelotte. This educational journey took place during fall break and its purpose was to make students more aware about injustice of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) toward the working class citizens of our bordering nation, Mexico. These WCU students were privileged enough to be invited on this trip to learn about the work of the American based non-profit organization, ATCF located in Austin, Texas. The ATCF sponsors these trips a couple times a year to enable college students to meet with the CFO located in Piedras Negras, Mexico just outside of Texas. The CFO is an organization that helps empower the workers in maquilladoras (sweat shops) to unite for better conditions, benefits, wages, and dignity that every human being should be entitled to.
When they arrived in Piedras Negras, Mexico, Julia Quinonez, the founder of the CFO told them about their accomplishments since its creation in 1986. They have started their own clothing factory with workers who have the ideal and fair working conditions everyone deserves. Some employees are women who have been discriminated against because of ageism since most maquilladoras desire young women workers. Some of these women have been black listed from all maquilladoras because they have spoken up against the culpable treatment of their supervisors which resulted in their immediate termination.
The CFO carry around the book containing the Labor Laws of Mexico like a radical priest wielding a Bible with the pages curled, preaching to underpaid workers who were never told the law. They arrange meetings every week, debating what is the best way to fight against their oppressors. Their walls are papered in notes detailing plans of action that have failed or succeeded. They say they are proud of just the mere act of educating exploited workers and uniting them to take a stand.
Their plight was unfathomable to any average American. The sight of the lamentable homes haphazardly constructed outside the maquilladoras was enough to realize the need for the CFO and the ATCF, but their problems did not end there. The employee’s supervisors usually will not allow a stop in production for any breaks, including bathroom breaks. The workers at times handle poisonous materials that cause health problems, such as infertility. They also work very quickly without safety gear with dangerous machines and often times get injured, but do not recieve medical treatment from employers unless they continuously demand it.
At the end of their week, the paycheck they receive for the strenuous work that they do is not even enough to buy the necessities for their family. The students were shown a chart that entailed the prices of food and rent for an average family that equaled out to about $1,500 pesos (about $150 dollars) a week. Afterwards, we were shown a weekly paycheck that included a punctuality bonus & a weekend work bonus with overtime hours that totaled to 67 hours of work and he received $1,000 pesos (about $100). The father of this family could not alone provide for the bare essentials for his family.
The West Chester students were shocked to realize how much they took for granted the laws so many in America have fought for to protect them from this same predicament. It disturbed them how often they purchased clothing that was made millions of miles away by a hardworking woman who probably got paid about 10 cents to make it. They never put a face to the products they have purchased before, but after this experience, these students cannot ignore the desire to stop this injustice. The entire time they were there, they tried to tell them to unite and strike against this poor treatment. However, the students realized that they are afraid to do so, because they need the money to support their families and the workers feel they can not risk losing a steady paycheck.
Despite all of this, the workers were happy to invite them into their homes and feed the students their food. They showed the students their city while driving them around in their family car. They sat on their couches in their living rooms and tried to communicate with them on a personal level. Through their unperfect Spanish, they learned a lot about their hosts. The students shared a lot of laughs and good times with their hosts. The students realized that we are all citizens of one country and that is, humanity. As human beings, we are all very much the same, and we should help our fellow citizens when they are in need.
Each one of the students from WCU claimed that this trip was one of the most influential experiences they have ever had. They believe by sharing their experience with the university, that they can help with the CFO’s and the ATCF’s mission. They believe that we can help the people who provide us the products we purchase every day by spreading awareness. It is easy to go through life with our eyes closed to the injustice of the world. However, if we all opened our eyes and fought for others like we have fought for ourselves in America; we could accomplish so much for humankind.
Lisa Gentile is a fourth- year student majoring in literature. She can be reached at LG594208@wcupa.edu.