By Alba Jaramillo
I view the law as a tool that I can use to advocate for people who experience oppression. I think that many people, especially my fellow law students, think of me as a "liberal" or an "idealist." Because of theses assumptions, people I meet are often shocked (and perhaps disappointed) when I tell them that I worked with maquiladoras in Mexico.
As an undergraduate student, I interned for the University of Arizona's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology's Ambos Nogales Revegetation Project. I conducted research on maquiladoras, which in English would be called assembly plants or "sweatshops," in the Nogales Mexican-American border. My interest in maquiladoras stemmed from my experiences growing up in Mexico near the Mexican border. As a young girl, I watched my family work endless hours at maquiladoras to create consumer goods to sell in the United States, such as household electronics. I remember seeing the fruit of my family's labor displayed in department stores such as Sears and J.C. Penny's. I understood that my family could not afford to purchase the goods that they helped create. I thought of the maquiladoras as heartless, corporate monsters that exploited my family for their labor.
When I conducted a literature review as an undergraduate working on the Ambos Nogales Revegetation Project, I ran across numerous articles describing the many environmental and labor abuses maquiladoras are responsible for. My fieldwork in Nogales, Mexico confirmed some of the research. In Nogales, I toured assembly plants and saw the dangerous conditions that workers were exposed to. I was told by workers that they earned a maximum of seven dollars a day for a twelve hour shift. I learned that most people over the age of forty could not find employment at a maquiladora because they were thought of as slow and unproductive. I learned that the environmental degradation of Nogales, like other border cities, was caused by the construction of thousands of maquiladoras combined with thirty-years of the internal migration of workers trying to secure employment at the maquiladoras. I personally witnessed maquiladoras shut-down their plants, leaving thousands of workers unemployed, in order to move their plants to Asia for its even cheaper cost of labor. My view of maquiladoras as corporate monsters remained unchanged.
Later in my research I began conducting interviews with the corporate managers of maquiladoras. My goal was to uncover the environmental practices of maquiladoras that led to the environmental degradation of Nogales, specifically deforestation. For the past thirty years, Nogales has suffered environmental degradation on a massive scale. The growth of maquiladoras has led to widespread deforestation due to the industrial parks that were built in built over bellota forests (the bellota is a walnut tree native to the Nogales region). Similarly, the urban sprawl caused by internal migration of workers has contributed to even more deforestation and degradation. Workers have formed squatter developments in the forest region. The City of Nogales has not been able to manage the urban sprawl encouraged by maquiladora work. As a result, most of the city lacks basic infrastructure such as potable water, sewage lines, and trash pickup.
As I interviewed maquiladora managers, contrary to my expectations based on the literature, I learned that many of the managers were already engaged in reforestation efforts. Over the past thirty years, though they are still foreign-owned, the management of many maquiladoras has shifted from being staffed by foreigners to Mexicans who are often from the local community. I was invited to become a member of a coalition composed of such maquiladora managers, who educated themselves about healthy environmental practices. I also began to organize a reforestation project with the maquiladora managers and workers of Weiserlock. The land on which Weiserlock is situated was cleared of its native vegetation for the creation of the industrial park. Weiserlock makes household locks, and uses 20,000 gallon of water a day to create their products. After the water is purified and used, the water is disposed in the city drainage system. I worked with the managers and workers of Weiserlock to revegetate the region and create a drip irrigations system that made better use of the water. We planted over two-hundred trees and created an ecological park that the Nogales community could use. We were very proud of our work. Our work became a model for other maquiladoras that demonstrated how they can engage in sustainable development. I co-authored a chapter in a book describing my research.
I believed that I did a good thing for the community of Nogales. But, when I presented my research at conferences, I was often faced with ethical questions. People to whom I presented my research did not believe that maquiladora mangers could care about the environment. Some people accused me of working for maquiladoras and not with maquiladoras. Other people claimed that Weiserlock used me, to conduct a project and make them look good in the community. I asked myself many times, did I become a sell-out to these corporate monsters? And, what happened to the activist in me that was against the environmental practices of maquiladoras and their labor abuses? Perhaps there is some truth to the accusations made by the academics. Since the creation of the ecological park, Weiserlock ceased working with the Ambos Nogales Revegetation Project and has not engaged in any other reforestation or environmental efforts. I ask myself again, was I used?
As a future lawyer, I expect to be faced with similar ethical dilemmas that involve balancing my political beliefs and my duty to my clients against the needs of my firm. I might one day have to represent a corporation who is not concerned with the rights of their workers, or I might be a criminal defense lawyer having to advocate for people who have committed terrible crimes, such as rape. How could I defend someone who I know committed a rape, after working for a rape crisis center for four years? Should I recuse myself from cases that challenge my political beliefs? Will I even have that option as a junior attorney? I'm not sure that I will know what to do when I faced with these issues. For whatever it's worth, it will not be the first time that I am forced to make a choice regarding ethics and my political beliefs. I will make a choice based on what my ethics tells me. I am convinced that I will only be a successful attorney if I know myself well. And I am convinced that I will only be a happy attorney if I remain true to myself.