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The Real City v. the Virtual City

The Maquiladora Model

by MANUEL ARROYO GALVAN

The late Manuel Arroyo Galván (44) was assassinated in Ciudad Juárez on 29 May 2009. A sociology professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences (ICSA) at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ), Arroyo Galván was also a well-known social activist. His friend and colleague Carlos Murillo G. wrote at the time of his murder that Arroyo Galván was, in the early 1990s, one of the first sociology graduates at the UACJ. He was also a former maquila worker who later obtained a doctorate and entered university teaching, developing a profound commitment to social activism. According to news reports, he was shot in his car when he stopped at a traffic light on Av. Gómez Morin and Manuel Clouthier in Ciudad Juárez at 1700 on a Friday afternoon. The murder of Arroyo Galván has never been explained, and continues in impunity.

The following article published in 2001 – never before translated into English – offers a glimpse of the depth of what Ciudad Juárez lost when Arroyo Galván was murdered. In this article, the reader will observe that Arroyo Galván had already identified what the destruction of Juárez’s social life and alienation meant. In 2001, long before the drug war violence that erupted during Felipe Calderón’s sexenio, Arroyo Galván made a spirited argument in favor of restructuring the city’s “social fabric.” Then, nobody seemed to listen. Today, with many thousands dead, and a city destroyed and him dead because of it, if we choose to ignore his words we do so at our own peril.

Between 2008 and 2010 three UACJ professors were murdered – José Alfonso Martínez Lujan, Gerardo González Guerrero, and Manuel Arroyo Galván – as well as three students at the University: Jaime Alejandro Irigoyen Frías, Juan Gerardo Pérez and Alfredo Portillo Santos. Their murders are included in the 11,451 people murdered in Juárez during the sexenio of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. (The MxJTP gratefully acknowledges that the cumulative murder count for Calderón’s sexenio comes from records provided by Molly Molloy at New Mexico State University.)

This article was published in El Norte de Ciudad Juárez on 30 September 2001. It has been translated without permission by the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).

The translation of this article is dedicated to Dr. Alfredo Limas Hernández, professor at the UACJ.

PT

The Maquiladora Model
By Manuel Arroyo Galván
(El Norte de Ciudad Juárez)

People who reside in this region complain about the accelerated pace of the shifts suffered by the local maquiladora industry – changes that stem from events in the world system. We are quick to reflect on the significance of how the maquila has affected the trajectory of this region. But the speed of changes overturns the routines of people who have come to live in this city. Our capacity for learning and adjustment can be overwhelmed and this weakens our ability to build responses relevant for the new times that are coming.

Sometimes we think that the maquila has rooted itself in this region. And with that thought we wish to dispel the experiences of the “easy-to-flee businesses” of the 1970s. But the local effects of the North American recession and China’s full integration into the world market prove the contrary. The easy exit of the region’s maquila factories and the consequent reduction in employment don’t obey the evil wiles of the factories’ directors, but are a characteristic intrinsic to them: “The businesses belong to people who have invested in them: not to their workers, their suppliers, nor even to the region where they are located.”

During the period of the maquila’s presence in our city, the global dynamics that govern production processes have marked the rhythms of the region’s life. We have not only experienced a sustained migration from different parts of the country but subsequently the factories have developed a process of differentiation for employees: as winners or losers they are assessed and positioned in front of their futures and their own trajectories.

Throughout this time, the life of the city has been divided in two: industrial, business and financial areas that share space with high-income neighborhoods. At the same time there has been a growth of low-income neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts, with large segments without running water and a huge low-income population earning much less than even two minimum wages.

Everything indicates that working does not guarantee a better quality of life. Even though we have the world’s largest concentration of factories, ours is a city that not only appears in national statistics with a high level of well-being but also in international news reports about murders of women and drug trafficking.

The rhythm imposed by the maquila export system has unleashed processes of change and modernity that have overtaken the region’s abilities. These processes have demanded quick self-learning by employees, changed how family members relate to each other, and required forms of social integration which did not exist before the arrival of these changes in the city.

In a short-time period, there has been a deep restructuring in the local system that quickly makes practical experiences and the mental outlook of a great part of the population obsolete. This restructuring amplifies generational fissures. It makes it difficult to build communication between these different points and to shift towards new realities.

THE REAL CITY AGAINST THE VIRTUAL CITY

The urbanization process results from pressure exerted by the pattern of situating the industrial export factory, and land speculation by real estate moguls. This has shaped an urban landscape that privileges the use of the city by productive export processes and business dynamics that revolve around those processes. But it’s forgotten that a city must also be a place where people live.

A resident in this city must travel enormous distances to undertake life’s necessary activities. The absence of public spaces weakens social ties and undercuts feelings of social belonging and social identity. All of these issues produce empty feelings in the activities that are only developed for the “economy” but they don’t construct people, human beings. This situation needs to be contrasted with the experience of what it is like to be inside the maquila, what it is like to be a part of its managerial team. Inside is where one feels the sense of belonging to an elite, belonging to a vanguard that allows people to participate in the world’s most dynamic of production processes, of being in touch with the conditions that shape progress. This contrast of situations accentuates the physical and social polarization lived in the city, provoking an experience of the sense of living in two cities that sometimes correspond to each other but that more often than not and for most people, are actually opposed to each other and compete between themselves: the real city anchored in local, daily dynamics – that of the majority of the population; and the virtual city, globalized, frenetic and changeable, inserted into the world’s productive processes.

Added to these dynamics, the fundamental issue is that people make the local reality – they are not only the base for processes of production but are linked to the desires that brought them here in the first place: the great majority of the city’s residents left the communities we originally came from.

Those desires breathe life into our dreams and allow us to resist the ravages of the individual’s experiences of living here. But at the same time these desires also raise individualism to its extreme.

The result weakens our social support networks and loses sight of shared objectives, straying away from community projects that attempt to recover the social power of being from another place. These projects should be able to channel individual desires in defense of our collectivities, permanently reconstructing our immediate communities.

Along with the advantages that the industrial export maquilas bring to the city – such as the obvious sign of its modernity – there are situations of weakness that foster processes of social marginalization. These reinforce the sense of weakness that stems from an uncertain future. We are okay, but we feel bad. Something is going on.

Everything seems to suggest that we have taken care of how the local economic system works, for interests where its basic functions are enough to create wellbeing for its population. But we are still waiting for the expected spillover effects. The local economy is deficient because it does not cover the whole population and fails to ensure equitable access to services.

THE THREAT OF EXCLUSION

When the market fails to satisfy certain recognizable signs of integration – once covered by the state – exclusion is lived daily, as a threat.

The fear of the criminal – which far outstrips actual rates of criminality – is a symptom of other fears. It reflects “our” weakness. Collective identities have lost their material and symbolic anchors, and their place is occupied by a withdrawal to the home and a “negative individualism.” But individual and familial strategies are no substitute for sociability. Thus, internalizing competition and precariousness as vital experiences sharpens the sense of solitude and absence of contact.

Groundless fear produced by daily experiences — stress, pollution, drug addiction, aggressiveness — reflects the chaos of social life. That experience is sharpened by fear of the future. The lack of a long-term horizon complicates cultivating a sense of order. As customary reference points — family, school, business, nation — lose their strength of meaning, individuals find it difficult to elaborate a “meaning for their lives.”

People perceive that they do not belong to a modernization that seems to support them, nor do they benefit from new opportunities. In this way, a weakened subjectivity endangers the social base of the modernization process.

The challenge, then, is to ensure that functionality converges with economic growth in the sense that it fosters the sociability necessary, and inherent in, human beings. The reconstruction of a “collective” capable of influencing the forward march of various working systems and developed alongside their collective hopes and social capital.

In sum, what’s required is a rebuilding of the region’s social fabric. For this city, having an identity looking out towards the world is a strategic task. It’s an urgent response to the emptying out of the local that has provoked a functional economy turned towards the outside with globalizing agents as its only interlocutors. To live in this city it is necessary to give the local a sense of its own existence.

Promoting the value of social capital proves indispensable to achieve the goals of overcoming poverty, becoming internationally competitive, or retaining the position we have already achieved.

Promoting development cannot continue by forgetting the urgent need of reconciling duality and growing polarization produced by the accelerated development of the maquiladora in this locality. We must make the real  city – rather than the virtual, globalized, and functional – visible. The challenge is to redefine the relationship between the local and its transnational partners. We must optimize what the city has to offer. And what this city has to offer is its people.

Sociologist Manuel Arroyo Galván (44) was a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez. This article first appeared in Spanish under the title, “El modelo maquilador,” and is not available publicly on the web.

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons.