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Double Standards: Notes for a Border Screenplay

by Debbie NathanTexas Observer
June 6th, 1997

Negative Hallucinations

The case had been settled only minutes ago, and now jurors for Mendoza v. Contico were seated in a room outfitted with movie theater chairs and plugs for devices like VCRs. They were in the "Ceremonial Court" in El Paso, where victorious lawyers often hold post-trial press conferences. In any other place, at any other time, what happened next would have been bad Geraldo. But here it wasn't -- not after the horror that had come out during the past two weeks at trial. "Ladies and gentlemen, some of you may have weak stomachs," lawyer Jim Scherr intoned as reporters poised their pens and tried to look cynical. "If so, close your eyes or leave the room." He popped a videotape into a TV with an outsized screen.

Mexican police had recorded the tape. It opened with nighttime shots of the desert outside Ciudad Juárez -- jumpy, silvery, and spooky, like NASA footage of landings on the moon. Suddenly a wrecked car loomed out of the dark, its chassis blackened by fire and the body work torched to bubbles. The muffled soundtrack was policemen's Spanish: monotonous and forensically throwaway until the tape showed a cop's hand prying the trunk open with a screwdriver. Then you could hear the policemen gasping.

Inside the burned-out trunk was plaintiff Mendoza. Lorena Mendoza -- and an enlarged portrait propped near the TV showed what she had looked like before she ended up in the car. She'd been twenty-seven years old, petite and wiry, fair-skinned for a Mexican, partial to bright red lipstick, possessed of an insouciant smile, and not shy about angling her body to the camera and tossing her hair. That was in life. Now, in the video, a man wearing surgical gloves gingerly lifted a ribcage from the trunk, and a skull. They were charred and compacted like logs on a cold campfire, and when the man picked them up, chunks of Lorena Mendoza thudded to the ground. Jurors began weeping. The press looked tearful too, even reporters from local papers and stations whose editors had ignored the two-week trial proceedings, perhaps so as not to ruffle local industries like Contico International, the defendant.

Contico is based in St. Louis, but it is also owner of Continental Sprayers of El Paso, which has as its subsidiary Continental Sprayers de México. The last is in Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso. Look under your sink at your bottle of window cleaner, or in your garage at the bug killer, and there is a good chance that the trigger gizmo you push to dispense the liquid says "Continental Mfg. Co.–Mexico." Sprayers are what the company makes, and they do it in Juárez because the wages there are $24 a week for forty-eight hours of work.

Up and down the border, more than 2,500 mostly American-owned manufacturers have been taking advantage of similar low wages for a generation. The companies are called maquiladoras, and in the United States lately, much has been written about their effects on the economy and workers of this country. Less has been said about how they affect standards of living in Mexico, and still less about how that country's 800,000 maquiladora laborers are impacted by working conditions and safety standards -- which are often inferior to those in U.S. factories owned by the same companies.

While the $24 weekly wage is technically no secret, Americans confronted with the figure often react with what psychologists call a "negative hallucination" -- they blot it from consciousness or mentally reconfigure it to $24 a day. Safety conditions are more deeply occluded in the U.S. mind. On the border, one constantly hears accounts from poor Mexicans about relatives and friends injured and killed in maquiladoras. But the stories virtually never make the U.S. media or the Mexican press -- in part because negligence suits in Mexico are practically unheard of, and when they are filed, plaintiffs seldom prevail. Meanwhile, international labor rights activists have a hard time monitoring maquila safety conditions because plant managers are notoriously unwilling to open their plants to careful inspection.

On the few occasions they have, gringos like Martha Mimms have spotted egregious double standards. Mimms is a glass worker, at a Ford Motor Company plant in Nashville that makes automotive windshields and windows. In 1994, while on a transborder workers' solidarity tour with the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network she visited Autovidrios, a Ford maquiladora in Juárez that manufactures the same products that her Nashville plant does, and at the time even employed American supervisors who once had given orders at Mimms' workplace. At Autovidrios, Mimms saw conditions that are thoroughly outlawed in U.S. factories: conveyor belts with no guard pieces; tables, where workers were eating snacks and lunch, covered with toxic lead paint waste; workers laboring next to robots slinging sharp glass and which, in U.S. factories, are always separated from humans with bars and gates. Autovidrios is the same factory in which -- four years before Mimms' visit -- a sixteen-year-old worker named Julio César Macias died after get-ting caught in a dangerous conveyor belt. In Nashville, the type of area he was assigned to is deemed so risky that two workers must be present at all times to monitor each other. Julio was by himself at the Autovidrios conveyer belt when he was crushed to death.

The fate of Lorena Mendoza -- the protagonist of Mendoza v. Contico -- was even worse. As a bookkeeper for Continental Sprayers de México, she was charged with transporting cash wages for seventy workers down an eighty-mile, two-lane highway to Palomas, an abject border pueblo where the company had opened yet another plant. The route is desolate and infamous for drug traf-ficking and vehicle hijackings. In its U.S. operations Contico uses Brink's trucks to transport payroll. Such services are readily avail-able in Mexico. Yet Lorena Mendoza and other bookkeepers and unarmed security guards carried money from Juárez to Palomas in a private car every other Friday, always at the same hour. Under such circumstances, Mendoza's survivors and their attorneys said, it was a foregone conclusion that eventually she would be attacked.

Her death, the lawyers said, was an American company's fault, and therefore the company should be subject to U.S. tort laws. The principle might sound elementary, but when El Paso Judge Jack Ferguson ruled three years ago that Mendoza's family could have its day in a Texas court, he helped set a national and international precedent. Since 1993, when the Legislature closed the door on foreign plaintiffs after a group of Costa Rican farmworkers sued a Texas chemical company whose product had rendered them sterile, it has been extremely rare for foreign plaintiffs to be allowed standing in Texas courts. When the case against Contico opened in El Paso in late March of this year, it was the first time a maquiladora had ever been put on trial in America for negligence in Mexico. That made it the first time that the day-to-day details of maquiladora exploitation were described in sworn, on-the-record testimony that anyone could hear, simply by going down to the courthouse and walking past the shoeshine boys... .

What We're Not Talking About

After days of such testimony, anti-Contico sentiment is starting to show on the jury's faces. It gets more intense when Mendoza family members take the stand. A sister, San Juana (who once invited Lorena to the movies), is a doctor, and she sends shivers through the courtroom as she talks of visiting the morgue -- she wanted to examine the body to prove that it wasn't really Lorena's. On arriving, she was petrified to find that there was no body, only a plastic bag of bones and ashes, from which she extracted a womb, an ovary, and some molars whose fillings she ascertained were her sister's. Afterwards she closed the bag, returned home and assured her mother that yes, she combed Lorena's hair, and yes, bought a lovely dress to bury her in.

The mother is sworn in, downcast; and her old husband, half deaf, with a hearing aid like a wad of bubble gum in his ear. After seven years both clearly are still in mourning for their youngest daughter's cheery disposition, her beauty, her dreams of life in the United States; and they stolidly describe how they haven't eaten right since she died, or slept, or been able to maintain normal blood pressure. When they finish, the jury glares at everybody and everything related to Contico. The panel's growing animus is obvious to the company's lawyers, and just before closing arguments, they offer the Mendozas $1.75 million to settle out of court. The family's lawyers approve the deal, because although the jury will later tell the judge that they unanimously wanted to convict Contico and award the Mendozas up to $27 million, Contico has vowed to appeal. The Mendoza attorneys know that higher Texas courts have turned markedly pro-business since the early 1990s. Not only would they probably overturn an anti-Contico verdict, they would also nullify local Judge Ferguson's 1994 ruling allowing a Texas company's wrongdoing in Mexico to be tried in this state. If they were to make that ruling, no international cases like Mendoza v. Contico would ever get into court in Texas.

So the Mendozas take Contico's offer, along with the company's promise to build a statue of Lorena in Juárez dedicated to employee safety, and to establish a maquiladora worker scholarship fund her name. Then everyone troops to Ceremonial Court for the press conference and its chilling videotape. Lawyer Scherr tells the jurors to teach their friends and family the lesson of Mendoza v. Contico: that when it comes to workers' safety, double standards between the United States and Mexico are intolerable. "Of course, we're not talking about wages," Scherr repeated, which is ironic given the post-trial comments of jurors. Donna Ricci is one; she is middle-aged and a longtime El Pasoan. Yet Ricci tells me, until she sat through Mendoza v. Contico, she had no idea how meager maquiladora pay is (and the figures used for trial were from seven years ago: since the 1994 peso devaluation, they're down from $35 to $25 per week). Twenty-year-old Vanessa Rodarte has lived here all her life but until the trial she had never heard of maquiladoras -- period -- much less what they pay. When she and the other jurors went out for lunch, Rodarte says, they would talk about "how we were getting paid $6 a day for jury duty -- a total joke -- and we'd go to a restaurant and blow it all on a meal, and maquiladora workers don't make $6 in a whole day!"

Wages are what Mendoza v. Contico was about. These days it hardly takes Karl Marx to understand that the global stampede to bargain-basement Third World labor is what leads to discounted safety standards and the kind of fire-sale ethics that put Lorena Mendoza on a highway to her death. Susan Mika, the San Antonio–based coordinator of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, refuses to concede the question of wages, as she makes a short but eloquent speech at the Ceremonial Court press conference. When she finishes, the audience breaks into applause.

Mika has just spent the past two weeks in court, furiously typing testimony into a laptop. Now she prepares to leave the border with her hard drive, but, because the case was settled, without the official transcripts she'd hoped to distribute to the world. The Mendozas return to Juárez and are immediately terrorized by unknown men who torch a family car. On the front seat they leave a burned coin -- apparently part of the evidence collected seven years ago when Lorena's body was retrieved. The family goes to the Juárez police station for help. When they arrive, they see the same men who burned their car -- walking around the office as though they work there. Afraid for their lives, the Mendozas petition the U.S. government for refugee status.

It remains to be seen whether they will win asylum, and if they do, whether they will ever see a statue of their daughter in Juárez. As for their case, perhaps it will go down as a footnote to later trials that raise the same issues of maquiladora double standards, by succeeding in producing a verdict and a written record.

For now, Mendoza v. Contico is nothing more than potential: notes for a screenplay; a sheaf of grim scenes; glimmerings of worker consciousness; a primer on maquiladoras for norteamericanos. Modest hope for the future.

Excerpts from an article originally printed in the Texas Observer, June 6, 1997. The edited version appears in the Maquiladora Reader. Reprinted by permission.





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