Chapter 16: Maria
At nights, Maria dreams of the land to the north. Carlota, her confidant, tells her about the plentiful jobs in Phoenix. Maria remembers when Carlota ran up the dusty road to her house in good leather pumps swinging her matching purse in the air to catch Maria’s attention. “Maria, you must leave this hell hole.” Carlota’s shoes seemed to leave exclamation marks on the dirt road. “With a job in Phoenix, you can afford rent for a room in a nice house for you, Lupe and Pablo.”
Carlota continued, “Phoenix is an organized city with paved streets and avenues laid out in an orderly grid. Not like AP. There are big houses that line every street. Everyone has new cars and Americans need maids.”
Carlota paused while Maria was looking down. She then continued her attempt to convince Maria, “Besides, Lupe and Pablo can get a good education at an American school.”
Maria pulled her her rosary from her pocket and began rolling the individual beads.
“I just can’t.” She shook her head. “My parents. What do I do with them?” Maria seemed to be astonished of her consideration about her parents. Pulling back from the thought, she continued “I must stay to take care of them.” Maria looked down and started rolling the rosary beads between her finger and thumb again.
At night, Maria reflects on her days as a factory worker, a mother, and an occasional wife. A week before, she gingerly alluded to crossing into el Norte to Raul when he was home. He tightened his jaw and lifted both clenched fists to his chest, as if forming a shield. He peered at her with squinted eyes and sternly said, “We will not go.” Her husband moved his mouth carefully, but she could only see his clenched teeth. The muscles in his face flexed as if he were chewing gristle from a tough steak. “I provide you with everything that you need. We stay here.” He fisted his index finger toward the dirt floor, snorted and stomped away, got in his van, and drove down the long road. Raul snarls at any contention and will always scuttle away.
The dark nights and desert chill are interrupted by an intermittent coyote yowl. Maria stared at the broken chair left on the ground that Raul smashed on the back of Carlos Garcia, their former friend, two weeks ago. She surrendered a long time ago to Raul’s rage. She stopped asking about his job that took him away from the home for long periods of time. She prefers the quiet when he is gone. She would rather starve the illusion to avoid a counterrevolution.
Most nights, she cuddles the back of her sleeping daughter, Lupe, the large tee-shirt top twisted off her daughter’s shoulders. Her rhythmic breath provides a simple cadence for a sound sleep. Maria wonders if Lupe will meet an honest man, become a mother, and will be happy.
Her son, Pablo, sleeps on the hard-packed ground. She sees him at night laying on his side before he falls asleep. She will see him lift his head to peer out of a gap between wood slats that shape the wall. She wonders what he was thinking about. Will he be like his father when he grows older? Although, Pablo is kind and thoughtful, she hates how he bets the visiting American tourists for quarters on Avenue Cartera or Calle Novena in the afternoons. She worries about the drug or sex trade that traps so many children.
Daylight splinters the far end of the sky. Before leaving home for her factory job, she prepares her noon meal. It will sustain her for the usual 12-hour shift. She scoops a good portion of cold beans from last night’s pot into a hardened tortilla. The remaining wetness left by the cold beans provides just enough moisture to carefully shape the hardened tortilla into a burrito. She stands barefoot on the dirt floor and wraps the burrito in a small sheet of newspaper grabbed from the stack placed by the cast iron stove used for family meals and warmth.
Carlota arrives earlier than usual that day. Her trip from the edge of town takes her 30 minutes. She walks the meandering streets through the dark shantytown pathways and onto the dusty and gravel packed streets of AP. As she nears the border, she could see halos of glowing light beaming down over the maquiladoras. Carlota heads to the factory and approaches the rear of the growing line that forms by the small brown door.
In the early morning before full daybreak, dust suffuses the dim lights that demark la zona economica de Estados Unidos y Mexicano. Sand escapes over the hard-packed streets and scurries about. That day, the wind was especially harsh. It whips the land and whistles through splits in the large building where Maria works. Dust devils sprout funnels upward into the darkened sky. Tumble weeds pile against the large corrugated metal structure. The only door, unsymmetrically positioned in the side of the building, is a dark rectangle against the dull grey structure. The waiting men and women wear tattered clothing. Their wages do not reflect the handsome profits made by the company’s owners and the Mexican taxation board. The workers wait in a broken line. They squint and cover their faces with their hands and colorful bandanas to protect their eyes from the blowing sand. The small maquiladora is a warehouse where more than 150 Mexican workers pack into the building for work. It was a place of hope.
He stood at the edge of the parking lot, smiles shyly as if not to disturb her, and stretches out his hand towards her. “Good morning, Maria.” Maria squints her eyes, which sharpens her senses, and reaches out for his hand. A man’s grip tells much about his toil and his place in this world. Unlike Raul’s hand that was hard and rough, Juan’s hands were soft and his grip was gentle, almost boyish. His warm brown eyes were like a soft fire in the kitchen stove – la fonda.
Juan, the plant manager, typically arrived at the AP plant by 9 or 10 a.m. His earlier stop was at the US factory. Final assembly of the garments was completed at the US side. The smaller crew north of the border was paid significantly more for similar work. He’d often arrive in AP with a few bags of candy. He’d hand the treats out to his staff of mostly young women, who worked long hours to stamp patterns from foot-deep stacks of material with the help of large compression machines. The shapes cut from the compression machines were the cookie-cutter pattern pieces for shirts, blouses, and light jackets mostly assembled at the factory. The few men were tasked with neatly packing the partially assembled garments onto wood pallets. The pallets were loaded into one of three 20 foot trucks used to shuttle items from AP to the United States. The final assembly occurred in the smaller facility on the US side. A ‘Made in the USA’ label was placed on the neck of the garment.
It was close to 4:30 a.m. and Maria planned to leave early to be home by 6 p.m. It was unusual for workers to leave early. Juan had let the staff know when he arrived a big order from one of the large men’s shirts companies in the states would be signed in the next day or two providing the workers with extra work hours. Maria’s mother, Tita, was having a small birthday party that night for her father, Maria, and her grandchildren. Maria planned to stop by the Panadaria before heading home where she could buy her mother a pumpkin filled empanada. She saved just enough money over the past few weeks for four empanadas and hoped that she could spit one with her father, so that her mother and her children would each have one each.
Money was particularly tight since the most recent devaluation of the peso. The establishment of the trade-free zones had created opportunities for Mexican industrialists and American Manufacturers. Juan’s father, who lived in Guadalajara, Mexico, had built a small factory in Panama some years earlier that made ball bearings for industrial purposes that were shipped to the Caribbean and some Central American countries. He went into partnership to build the textile maquiladora in Agua Prieta and another matching facility that bordered Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Mexican workers, who were about one-sixth of the cost per hour of their American counterparts, never complained about over time, vacations, or about a 40-hour week, provided an ample profit margin for companies in the trade-free zones established between the U.S. and Mexico. These zones were established for businesses and did not incur the wrath of U.S. Customs nor any additional taxes.
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