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A Mexican City Transformed

Companies such as Electrolux have set up shop in Juarez, bringing jobs and a chance for a better life and attracting out-of-state workers.

September 10, 2006|Hugo Kugiya | Associated Press Writer

JUAREZ, Mexico — Just a year ago, this was wild, open desert, home to nothing more than scattered shrubs and the occasional funnel clouds that kick up blinding dust storms.

Now, a $100-million factory rises from deep black asphalt. A young tree is planted near the entrance, and Teresa Rios waits anxiously under the sliver of shade it casts.

Rios, 27, is late for a court hearing. She is in the middle of a custody dispute with her ex-husband; for now, she and her two children live in a shelter for battered women.

Still, there is hope. She is two weeks into a job that pays her about $10 a day. Like the tree against the sun, she is rail thin, her life a modest but full effort. And she sees the Electrolux refrigerator factory as a path to a far better future.

"My dream is to be a top executive," said Rios, who did not earn a high school diploma. "I don't know if I'll make it, but this is one of my dreams. Really just to be free."

The Electrolux plant has done many things: It has sucked jobs from Greenville, Mich., where Electrolux closed a plant before moving here. It -- and others like it -- have transformed Juarez and the Chihuahuan desert into a bustling crucible of capitalism.

But more than anything else, the Planta Electrolux has transformed the lives of people such as Teresa Rios and Andres Lozano.

Lozano, 27, was hired in December at Electrolux, employee No. 2319. Already the plant employs slightly more than the Greenville operation and promises to be twice as large. Based on an exchange rate of about 11.5 pesos to the dollar, workers in Juarez make in a day what workers in Greenville made in an hour or less. For corporate numbers crunchers, the math was easy.

Lozano supports his wife, Alma, who does not work outside the home, and two young children, Iban, 4, and Evelyn, 6 months. His pay, which has risen quickly to 100 pesos a day, is enough to support the family. In another month he will earn 130 pesos a day.

In his former job as a meat wholesaler, he made about the same amount but worked twice as long, usually 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Working on commission, he sold and delivered processed meats -- ham, bologna, franks -- mostly to large grocery chains.

Because he works less now, he has fewer problems at home. He has time to shop, see friends, repair things around the house. With his salary, and with help from a government loan program, he was able to purchase a two-bedroom home for about $20,000.

"My kids will have what I didn't have," he said. "They'll have more of everything. They'll go out more. They'll have more things.

"I had the chance to go to college, but I had to work. I want my kids to go to college. I don't want them to be operators."

Electrolux and the other factories, known as maquiladoras, are a magnet for workers. Since 1990, the population of Juarez has grown to 1.3 million from about 800,000, and about a third of its residents came from outside the state of Chihuahua.

With a growth rate that is almost three times the Mexican average, Juarez is now Mexico's fourth-largest city, growing much faster than the American city across the bridge, El Paso.

And there is no reason to believe the growth will end soon. Juarez is bound to the north and east by the U.S. border and to the west by mountains. But the south, where Electrolux lies, presents no barriers, and land there is plentiful. It is expected that Electrolux's many suppliers of foam, plastic and electrical parts will build their plants nearby.

Once, Juarez was a small farming town. The growth of industry began in the 1960s and increased steadily until the turn of the century, when competition from China cost the city tens of thousands of jobs.

Items such as clothing and luggage are made more cheaply in China. But certain goods, refrigerators among them, benefit from being manufactured across the border.

The construction of the Electrolux plant was a landmark economic victory for Juarez, heralding the return of good times and plentiful jobs. The company is building a second factory nearby to assemble washers and dryers. The near-term forecast is a shortage of workers, not jobs.

Angelica Espinoza was one of about 100 people hired by Electrolux in June. She is 33, a single mother of two teenage boys; her hair already graying at the edges. Hers was a difficult and lean childhood spent caring for her frail grandmother and doing chores for neighbors to earn coins to buy milk.

Her job at Electrolux is to wipe clean finished refrigerators coming off the line. By the end of the summer, she expects to make about 100 pesos a day.

As it is, when she gets home from work at 4 p.m., she cooks dinner, takes a 30-minute nap and cleans the house. Her washing machine has been broken for a few months, so every day she does a little laundry by hand in the back of the house, in an outdoor, concrete sink with a built-in washboard. It is a small dirt backyard, strewn with bicycle parts.

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