In September Illygrl, an interventionist collective, touched down in Guatemala City, inspired by the need to connect– to render the invisible and hear their stories, their voices that had been filtered out of our culture of consumption. We came with questions that could only be answered by women maquila workers. With the help of MADRE we made contact with Sandra, head of the Women Workers Committee. For the next ten days Illygrl ventured to Barcenas, a community found between the town of Antigua and some 25 textile factories, between ruins and reality.
Something is wrong with our society when over one thousand people die in a sweatshop collapse in Bangladesh the same week thousands of people buy from the very companies that neglected those workers. The New York Times reports the engineer of the building was recently arrested, and the factory managers will also be prosecuted. But we seem to be missing that puzzle piece, the link to understanding that our daily lives and daily buys are intrinsically connected with the millions of working women and men that sweat, slave, and sometimes die while making our stuff. The threads we wear pass through many hands and cross many borders. These are the ties that bind us.
While corporations wish to make these ties seamless Illygrl is dedicated to tracing their threads; we are speaking to those that have been rendered silent and bringing their voice to the masses who have been misinformed.
“Uno se pone un pantalón, una camisa pero no se pone a pensar cuantos han sufrido para hacer un pantalón o una camisa. Cuantas lágrimas han llorado, muchos…cuantos gritos a recibido uno, cuántas humillaciones por un pantalón”
“Someone puts on a pair of pants or a shirt but they don’t stop to think how many have suffered to make a pair of pants or a shirt…how many tears they’ve cried…how many times they’ve been yelled at, how many humiliations for a pair of pants.”
~Rita: Mother, fighter, sweatshop worker
Sandra guided our search and made it possible for IllyGrl to interview nine women who have previously worked in maquilas, making clothing for large corporations like GAP, Walmart, POLO and American Eagle.
“Yo practicamente pedí favor al jefe que me despidiera porque estaba demasiado enferma de los nervios porque había mucha presión del trabajo. Porque como ellos va ellos nos ponían a nosotros una cierta cantidad, entonces ellos hacen un contrato verda con el cliente de que mes a que mes van a entregar el producto. Entonces nosotros tenemos que sacar una cierta cantidad al dia para la hora de que la fecha de exportación se llegara, sacar un dia antes o unas horas antes el producto verda pa que se fuera la exportación…a mi me pedian 1,800 piezas diarias si yo no sacaba esa cantidad…pero fue por eso que yo estaba demasiado, estaba demasiado alterada de los nervios.”
I practically asked as a favor that the boss fire me because I was so sick with anxiety because there was so much pressure from work. Because they, lets say they gave us a certain quantity, then they make a contract right with the client from what month till what month they will need the product to be turned in. So then we have to make a certain quantity per day for the time of whatever day the date of exportation was set, to get it out one day before or a few hours before, right, so that it would be exported…they had me make 1,800 pieces a day if I didn’t meet that quantity…but it was because of that that I was so, I was so sick with anxiety.
Carmen was the first woman we spoke to. A cousin of Sandra’s, she had left the factory three months prior to meeting us. What was clear from Carmen’s story was that the daily dehumanization of being constantly rushed to produce takes its toll, to the point she asked to be let go. Carmen worked thirteen years in garment factories, making fast fashion clothes for companies like GAP, Polo, Kohl’s and Walmart. While here in the U.S. people relish in the newest $10.00 trends we are ignorant to the 25-hour shifts- blood, sweat and tears imposed to produce – like machines – for the clothing companies’ bottom line.
The regular anxiety workers face carry a deep, psychological and physical trauma akin to war conditions. Most of the women we spoke to described regular nightmares about the factory, one even suffered insomnia for 15 days straight. They all describe an inability to relax even on their single day off, being ON became part of the job.
When we asked the women if they felt like people or machines, nine voices echoed maquila.
When she started the Comité de Mujeres Trabajadoras in Guatemala, Sandra committed to educating women in her community: to make them literate and better understand their labor and human rights. With the help of MADRE, her Comité has provided sex health information and contraceptives to working women. Fearlessly fighting against a broken system, we followed Sandra as she distributed condoms outside a sweatshop one afternoon, as the workers streamed out of the factories. Sandra and the Comité are an active part of the Barcenas community, which they live in.
Recognizing the systematically abusive conditions of the factories, Sandra serves as a resource when women are facing abusive bosses. She has archived each of the many cases women have filed against maquilas, seeking justice for her community. Sandra would love to build a library for the women to read more, to expand her classes and always keep the women empowered. She is a fearless leader.
Our final day in Guatemala we drove past many maquilas. Most looked like prisons, with seven foot walls laced with barbed wire. We filmed the factories, but what remained elusive was the history of how they got there. As Americans, we learn that some countries are underdeveloped “third world” nations, and what is left untold is how many countries were sabotaged by the U.S. for capital interests.
“Yo creo que Estados Unidos es el principal responsable de la guerra en Guatemala. No se permitió que Guatemala lograra una reforma agraria que estaba indicada para mejorar la situación económica de toda la nación. Estados Unidos derrocó al presidente Jacobo Arbenz porque él había iniciado una expropiación de fincas de la United Fruit Company. Pues entonces, tocó intereses norteamericanos que no le convenía a los Estados Unidos. A través de la participación de la CIA se derroca al presidente y se le roba a Guatemala la oportunidad de desarrollarse… Guatemala se convierte en escenario de la guerra fría.”
I believe that the United States is the main one responsible for the war in Guatemala. Guatemala was not permitted to achieve the agrarian reform that was proven would improve the economic situation of the whole nation. The United States overthrew president Jacobo Arbenz because he had initiated the expropriation of the factories of the United Fruit Company. It affected North American interests and was not convenient for the United States. Due to the participation of the CIA the president was overthrown and Guatemala was robbed of its opportunity to develop… Guatemala became a stage for the Cold War.
~Representante del Ministerio de Educación
Through Sandra, we met with a representative from the Ministry of Education in Guatemala, who did not wish to be identified. The representative and her/his family lived through the violent repression of Rios Montt. S/he recognized how different Guatemala could have been without the interference of the CIA’s support of Efrain Rios Montt. Underlying the unjust conditions women endure daily at the maquilas is the truth that Guatemala still writhes from the pains of dictatorships.
Montt was recently tried for Genocide and convicted, though the conviction has been overturned. We hope the pueblo of Guatemala stands firm on seeking justice but we in the states shouldn’t forget our government is also guilty. Montt was backed by the Reagan administration, supplied with close to $10 million in military hardware. The genocide of thousands would not have been possible without it. We will likely never see the C.I.A stand trial for crimes against humanity.
In trying to become “objective,” western culture made “objects” of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing “touch” with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence.
Bangladesh and Guatemala seem worlds apart, but they are not. They are in your closet if you look. We are connected: Our dollars, Their blood, sweat and ashes. In light of the lives lost in Rana Plaza many companies are finally agreeing to support the Bangladesh Safety Pact. Companies will be legally bound to financially support unions to do regular inspections. This is largely because activists on the ground have not rested since Rana Plaza. Still, several U.S. companies like Walmart and GAP have refused.
We must remember Rana and also beyond it. Everything has its source, everything has its history. For those that live in the underbelly of globalization, democracy is a myth and their reality relics of war. We must extend ourselves beyond this notion of “American exceptionalism” and attempt to understand- to imagine- who it is at the nadir of this system, who bears its immense weight everyday.
We must see ourselves as citizens of this world. Bangladesh is a beacon, a possible beginning, beyond its borders reaching Barcenas; but we must do our part. Illygrl is an interventionist collective and we believe consciousness begins with sight, touch, memory. We believe now is the time to push back on these companies who seemingly have no heart. It is time to boycott.