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Capitalism's Bottom Rung Is Cardboard City

Slums: Migrants from other parts of Mexico are swelling Juarez's shantytowns. There's plenty of work, but not much of anything else.


CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Eight years ago, Maria Santos traveled 600 miles north from the bone-dry state of Zacatecas looking for "mas modo"--some way to get by.

She landed among the packing-crate shacks of Colonia Anapra, where she lives with her eight children in a two-room hovel with no plumbing.

She no longer fears going hungry because she earns $35 a week trimming electrical wires on an assembly line. The plant is one of the hundreds of maquiladoras, or factories owned by U.S. companies and operated on cheap labor.

Santos' salary isn't enough to care for her family. "It's really very little," she says.

But it's cash--something hard to come by in rural Mexico, where subsistence farming is being devastated by free trade and cheap imported grain. "In Zacatecas, sometimes it rained and we had harvests," Santos recalls. "Sometimes it didn't."

Life in Anapra, on the forgotten west side of Ciudad Juarez, is capitalism at its most basic: few stores, no government services. Roving entrepreneurs hawk $6 pieces of roofing tin and 60-cent packages of tortillas. A water truck comes once a week, charging $1.50 to fill the discarded 50-gallon industrial drums most people here use for cisterns.

Only solidarity keeps such a place, known as Cartolandia--Cardboard City--moderately livable. "We look out for each other," Santos says. "Sometimes the water runs out at the end of the week, and my neighbors lend me some."

Santos' day starts at 4 a.m. She gets her children ready for school and begins work at 6:30.

The 33-year-old Santos is lucky. Her husband, Jesus Lopez, works dirtier construction jobs that pay a bit better. Her daughter, Marta, helps at home. At 15, she is old enough to look after her siblings, ages 4 to 13.

Life in Anapra is tougher for other women. "There are a lot of single mothers here, and there's no day care," says Santos' neighbor, Juana Picaso. Like many women here, she had to quit her maquiladora job last year to take care of her two youngsters.

Picaso misses the home she left in the impoverished central state of Durango, even though she says "the soil is all worn out." Most of all, she misses relatives who kept her company and helped the family.

Now child care is a major problem. Only 10 public centers serve Ciudad Juarez's 1.3 million residents.

Shantytowns like Anapra multiply along with the number of migrants to border towns. So many people come to Ciudad Juarez--40,000 per year, according to city spokesman Javier De Anda--that the city doubles in population every two decades. So many come, in fact, that the mayor of Ciudad Juarez recently petitioned the governor of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz to discourage migration.

Certainly there's no shortage of work. At the current rate of Anapra's growth, just paving the dirt paths would take another 30 years. "Help wanted" signs are permanent at plants.

Santos stayed home one day in August to take her son Jaime to the doctor. Although she hoped her bosses would forgive her unapproved absence, she wasn't terribly worried because jobs are so plentiful.

There are few complainers in Anapra, where the United States is visible through a chain-link fence. There's nobody to listen: no real unions, or "none that I ever knew about," Picaso says. The union battles were lost long ago, between 1966 and 1974.

"The defeat of the union movements demonstrated that the maquiladoras were not willing to accept strong and combative unions," writes Cirilia Quintero of the Mexican Labor University in Mexico City.

Tim Beatty, director of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Mexico City, describes how "employers work together to keep wages down by keeping unions weak" in major border cities.

Occasional efforts by local government to improve conditions in areas like Anapra have been almost comical. Representatives sent heavy equipment to level dirt streets, but the earthmovers piled dirt in a dry stream bed, blocking natural drainage and opening the settlement to floods.

Only ingenuity--the genius of the poor--seems effective.

Fences and walls rise everywhere, from everything: discarded campaign placards, trunk lids of old cars, plastic trays for parts from the maquiladoras. Barbed wire is occasionally used for electricity hookups.

And the strong-willed women of Anapra have learned to band together--an accomplishment in itself, though results have been meager. They tried, without success, to get money to buy utility poles for the illegal wires. They tried, without success, to get running water.

"They called a meeting of the neighbors and asked everybody to contribute 600 pesos [$60] to drill a well," says Juana Picaso. "But a lot of people couldn't get that much money."

So Anapra looks to the U.S. Despite the tantalizing sight of prosperity in El Paso, people here aren't particularly resentful of the wealth that's so close yet so far. Picaso speaks fondly of Don Ricardo, a U.S. railroad worker she knows through chain links.

"Every time he works in this section," she says, "he passes us a few gallons of drinking water over the fence."

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