Seeking dialogue for change

Economic divide spawns different worlds on either side of the border
May 31, 2004

ACROSS THE STREET from the Burger King, the scene changes quickly. On the Arizona side, American prosperity reigns. In just a short walk, however, a far different world and way of life emerge.

Nogales, Ariz., on the Mexican border about 65 miles south of Tucson, bristles with sensors, cameras, X-ray devices and a tall, meandering wall constructed from steel panels once used to build desert runways during the 1991 Gulf War. Here, the Third World collides head-on with the first.

On the steep, rolling hills that rise everywhere in Nogales, Mexico -- a booming, impoverished city of more than 400,000 people -- row upon row of what only can be described as shacks cling next to unpaved streets.

Perhaps most astonishing is that many of Nogales’ residents see this way of life as an improvement, even a godsend.

“The bittersweet reality is that we’re tied to an unjust economy,” said Thomas Brenneman, who works on both sides of the border to build awareness and inspire productive, peace-building dialogues among those who can do something about the inequities that dominate here.

Brenneman, of Tucson, works with BorderLinks, a binational group that seeks to bridge the two disparate cultures that meet at the border, and offers educational seminars and interactive programs with border residents.

He partners in much of this work with Cecilia Guzman, a native of Nogales who runs the BorderLinks-sponsored Casa de la Misericordia, or House of Mercy, a community center in Nogales’ Colonia Bella Vista neighborhood.

There, Guzman serves local children, offering a hot-lunch program and other services and accommodating people from north of the border who wish to learn more about the challenges facing the city and its people.

Major players in Nogales
On a morning last January, Guzman maneuvered her van among the steep, winding roads of Nogales, dodging the often manic traffic, pointing out the major players in the Nogales economy. Ever since the emergence of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, American commerce has dug deep into Nogales’ barren hills.

Today, U.S.-owned maquiladoras, or factories, offer the jobs and higher wages that have drawn tens of thousands of migrant workers from Mexico’s impoverished southern reaches.

Workers from Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca and other parts of the country have flocked to Nogales, where the 50 pesos, or $5, they can make in a day was once what they made in a week back home.

In one of Nogales’ newer industrial parks, large, state-of-the-art maquilas have cropped up.

Master Lock, Weiser, Otis Elevator, Molex and ACCO are a few of the large American firms represented in the city. Motorola, Samsonite and ITT, a military contractor, also have maquilas in Nogales.

To many observers, the economic disparity in Nogales is the dark result of American greed, but Guzman and Brenneman say the issue is not that simple.

The maquilas, Brenneman said, “are a necessary but regrettable evil,” if only because they offer workers a chance to earn higher wages and escape even worse economic conditions elsewhere in the country.

Still, the explosion of Nogales’ economy has had a dismal fallout as the city’s services and infrastructure crumble beneath the demands made by the surging population.

Just a short walk from the industrial parks, entire hillsides are covered in squatters’ shacks, the homes of many of the maquila workers who cannot afford better housing.

Along these streetless slopes, children scamper along dry rain sluices. Stacks of old tires are fashioned into crude retaining walls -- a hallmark of Nogales architecture.

Water, sewer and electrical service are rare in these slums. The quality of construction is often rudimentary at best.

Not far away, higher-quality housing is available for families who can afford it. The government-sponsored program requires a family to earn the equivalent of three maquila salaries before qualifying, Guzman said, keeping such housing out of reach for most workers.

Border trafficking
These factories are not the only economic catalyst in Nogales. Because it is a major port of entry into the United States, Nogales sees its share of illegal border trade, including that of drug traffickers and smugglers. Subterranean water channels near the border have become catacombs filled with drugs and other perils, Guzman said.

Ever since NAFTA eased trade with Mexico 10 years ago, migration from the south has increased, leading to stronger interdiction and deportation measures by U.S. authorities.

These efforts have created a bottleneck, forcing most migrants today to enter primarily along the Arizona border. There, they must cross the Sonoran desert, an often fatal gambit that has claimed more than 2,500 lives in recent years.

Stories of harrowing desert passages are common in the region. One woman reportedly died because she gave the last of her water to a child. Other migrant families have been slit apart and subjected to extortion by corrupt smugglers who promised to escort them across.

Though the region’s problems are many, Guzman and Brenneman say building dialogue and mutual understanding about the borderlands is essential to their recovery.

The importance of a series of seminars and dialogues instituted by Mennonites, with participation by BorderLinks, Catholic Relief Services and other churches over the past two years, cannot be underestimated, Brenneman said.

“People on the border are living global realities,” he said. Fashioning structured dialogues about change management in the region, he said, is the major task he faces.

Slowly, support for such efforts is growing on both sides of the frontera, and gradual improvements are being made. Still, the grim faces of need and uncertainty about the future remain.

“Problem-solving comes down to information,” Brenneman said. “There is hope in Nogales because of a generation of people who are willing to take these challenges on.”