When I was packing for the big move to Mexico, I must have folded and unfolded the growing mound of clothes about 100 times. I would examine each item while pondering: should I really bring this shirt, or would it be better if I brought that one? At one point, I picked up my favorite jeans and noticed the label for the first time: Made in Mexico.
I was surprised. I expected it to say Indonesia or Vietnam. But Mexico? How funny, I was about to bring my jeans home!
It made me wonder: who made them and what is their life like? Where exactly were they made?
Have you ever wondered things like this?
In reality, I should not have been surprised: NAFTA. The agreement that dramatically changed the economies of the USA and Mexico since 1994, especially the manufacturing and trade industries. I am sure that you are aware of how many factories in the United States shut their doors and moved operations to border towns in Northern Mexico. Maybe you were impacted by it. You probably also know that the changes resulted in tremendous growth of maquiladoras, and you probably watched the formerly ubiquitous Made in the USA labels faded into almost non-existence.
Despite everything that I knew about NAFTA, I was still surprised that my jeans hailed from Mexico. I guess I had assumed that trade relations had shifted in the past decade, favoring Asian countries like China and Bangladesh. As it turns out, even despite China’s many manufacturing advantages, Mexico still holds its weight as a super-manufacturer of US imports. Even today, there remain many advantages in Mexico’s favor. In fact, many companies continue to open new operations in Mexico, especially in aeronautics and automobile manufacturing.
But let us get back to my story.
In August 2012, I crossed the world’s busiest border to live and work where my jeans were made. Even from my first day, I saw the importance of trade in Mexican economy; during Peace Corps training, my house abutted the main train route for manufactured goods headed for the United States. When I wasn’t cursing the noisy disturbance of the train, I was picturing my favorite jeans packed up in a box with identical pants, crated into a train car, and headed north to the USA.
But the real pants-related surprise did not come until I graduated from training and moved to my own house.
My first home out of training was in a town of approximately 1,500 residents. I was curious about my new town: who lived there and what did they do for money. Subsistence agriculture was a big thing and there were many men who commuted to the nearby city on construction contracts. I also heard about remittances from family members working in the United States. But were there other jobs that I did not notice at first glance?
One day, I asked my neighbor how she instructed the public transit drivers to her house because, in my experience saying “a little bit farther, up by the curve” was not always sufficiently clear to the drivers. Her response was “I just tell them to let me out by the big pants factory along the town’s main road.”
Wait wait wait; did you just say pants factory? I have never seen a pants factory, and it is not like this town is that large!
“It is right in front of your house. You did not notice it? Actually, your house is surrounded by pants factories. There are, let me think, about six individual operations touching the fence around your yard.”
Seriously? They look like houses, not factories!
As it turns out, it is highly likely that I brought my pants back home.
A few weeks later, I asked the Secretary of our county, who is also a pants factory owner himself, exactly how many pants factories exist in town. Forty six in the little pueblito of 1,500 residents! Well, that certainly answered my “where are the jobs” question.
Once I was aware that many houses also double as small scale manufacturing operations, I finally noticed the hum of sewing machines among the bahhing of sheep and the braying of donkeys. I saw fabric scraps near the side of the road mixed in with construction rubble and litter that I had been overlooking. I observed the blue tinted runoff from dyes and cleaning products as they leached their way into the local dam and water source for thousands of residents who live farther down the mountain.
Recently, I went to my former neighbor’s house for dinner. I asked the standard opening questions about how she has been and about how things are in the town. She told me that things have been good for her, but that the town is facing a serious economic problem. For the past two weeks, all factories have been closed down. Many families are living without income necessary to support their families.
I asked why the jobs seem to have suddenly dried up and was met with a very dis-empowered look and the response of “who knows. There is just no work right now. We are asking the local government where the jobs went, but they have not yet responded.”
I really hope that they can find more work soon. They need it so badly in that little town.
Making me smile
- Imagining my best friend hacking a tarantula to death with a machete in the middle of the night. This is the same friend who almost doored a horse. Ahh the challenges of living in rural Mexico
- If you ask for water in Mexico, you will inevitably be asked, which flavor? If you want water and not juice, you must specify that you want natural water. My favorite flavors of water include pineapple & alfalfa, tamarind, guava, cucumber & lime, and chilacayote
- Finding fajitas, burritos, nachos, and margaritas on the same menu for the first time outside of the USA. I later realized that it was at a TexMex restaurant! Before that, I had never seen those dishes being sold in Mexico. Normally the menus include things that I had never seen in the USA like huaraches, sopes, tlacoyos, guajalotes, and champurrado
- Realizing that the unofficial economy in Mexico is enormous. Once, some friends and I realized that we were low on gasoline but too far away from any stations to refill. We drove into the nearest small town and asked each person on the street how we could find gasoline. After a bit of a wild-goose chase, we eventually found a young man willing to open up his home-enterprise consisting of a siphon-hose and a few 10 liter containers of gas. Works for me!
- The many dialects and richness of slag in Mexico. For example, for you Spanish speakers, take a listen to this song and tell me if you understand even half of it (if you’re from Mexico City, you are not eligible to play)