Gender in the Workplace

By Fabiola Torralba

Note: On June 5-7, the Maquila Social Forum was held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, a workers’ organization that has fought in defense of labor rights for two decades. There was reason for celebration—the coalition has not only managed to survive a downturn marked by economic crisis, unemployment, offenses against labor rights in Mexico, and militarization, it has also overcome internal challenges to face the new developments.

New topics for reflection were opened at the forum. An example of this is the text presented here. For the first time in this rank and file workers’ organization, the subject of sexuality was discussed. The author, a young organizer with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, presented a version of the following text to the participants, who revisited its themes in their conclusions and resolutions (see box).

In the city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, the labor movement took a barely perceivable but very significant step forward—it incorporated the matters of inclusion and gender equality. We hope that this step serves as an example for labor organizations in the whole country toward a new model of solidarity in diverse struggles, so that rather than dividing, we unite for a common and inclusive vision.

“Queer” is a form of describing gender identity and orientation or sexuality for people who love others of the same sex. This term is both within and outside of traditional ways of understanding these experiences.

Among the U.S. citizenry, there are two forms of identity that dominate the popular conversation about sexuality: gay and lesbian. The problem with these terms is that they only speak of sexual identity, not of gender. I believe that it is important to speak of both at the same time. One doesn’t exist without the other. We need a critical term for both that recognizes the relationship between gender and sexuality.

The second problem with these terms is that they promote dualism when comprehending sexuality and gender. The dualism makes us see only black and white, with a minimum of reference to context and situation. “Gay” and “lesbian” are hetero-normative words that mark, assign, and contribute to dualism because they are based in concepts of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man.

However, we know that our forms of understanding sexuality and gender are social constructions, invented concepts that can change. We know that as Americans we are the minority when we examine the many forms of understanding gender and sexuality that exist in different cultures, principally indigenous and non-European communities. For example, there are communities that accept and think about sexuality and gender not as fixed concepts but as identities that they can change over the course of an individual’s life. Queer, then, turns into a form of expressing identity and orientation beyond the concepts of gender and sexuality. It is also a critical method that challenges sexism and patriarchy.

Gender is an instrument used to subordinate and control maquila workers and society in general. For example, the requirement of some bosses that women dress in skirts is an unjustified gender norm. If a woman files a labor complaint against her boss, they can fire her. But for women who are believed to be homosexual because they dress like a man, in pants and shirts, the results can be aggression or sexual assault. For a trans-gendered man, the consequences can even be death.

Vigilance of gender roles and the abuse of terminology is the result of hetero-sexism, which affects us all. In learning to see the world through a queer and feminist lens, we begin a dialogue about oppressive structures, how they control us, and how we can combat them as subjects defined by gender.

In the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, an organization directed by women, principally Mexican-Americans from the working class that identify as lesbian or queer, we have understood the importance of reconstructing concepts of what it means to be a woman; allowing us to live what we are in a holistic way, more than only being housewives or workers, and to consider the realities of our lives or experiences as sources of knowledge and strength.

As women, we have been central figures in the maintenance, survival, and development of our families, communities, and societies in every sense: economic, spiritual, political, and cultural. Because we are women of color and Mexican-American, workers, lesbians or queers, and low in the social hierarchy, and because we give ourselves completely to our communities, we are the first to feel violence, social inequality, and injustice when a change ensues, like an economic crisis, war, immigration, and the deterioration of the environment.

These realities influence us to be creative in our solutions so as not to reproduce the harm that has been done since long before us. But we also understand that these forms of survival are not only the result of the conditions that we confront, but also are the reasons for our existence and resistance. That is, these forms of living are manifest in our bodies, the root of knowledge that comes from our own experiences and with the reaffirmation of the customs of our ancestors.

As women who have traditionally remained outside of the dialogue due to our sexuality, we understand that other forms of family exist, other ways of living. We are the ones who have constructed our own support networks. Some of us have grown up in families where our mothers were the only support for the family or we have lived with aunts or grandmothers in order to share expenses and responsibilities. In Mexico, it is customary for more than one family to live in a home. Living together in this way, constructing forms of family outside the nuclear, is a form of economic survival and a way to save on spending, but it is also a way to maintain the customs of indigenous Mexican cultures.

Although these distinct forms work well—partner with partner, grandmother with granddaughter, sister with sister—hetero-normality doesn’t recognize us. This lack of recognition means that families that are different cannot access the same rights known to families that conform to traditional marriage between a man and woman, along with their children. Among the denied benefits are access to medicines, retirement benefits, insurance, and even the right to obtain migration documents in the United States since the “other side” doesn’t recognize same-sex unions.

This state of affairs equally hurts the two women who love each other and the two sisters who support one another economically in order to survive. It is an attack on working class communities with traditions that differ from the dominant models.

Patriarchy has ensured that to a certain point women depend on men, and on the customs followed by men, in order for their work to be recognized and to obtain access to employment. Many women adopt feminism as an alternative form of construction. But the problem with feminism in the United States is that it concentrates on surviving or obtaining rights equal to those of men, without an analysis or criticism of the methods employed to arrive at the goal, whether it is a better salary, a higher level of education, loans, etc. … That is, it is not taken into consideration that they are adopting the same customs that are prejudiced against women.

What we are really looking for is a form of co-existence that is widely inclusive. These forms exist in the traditions of our contemporary and indigenous communities. Being a woman that loves another woman is a form of creating that space because to totally love another woman, one has to confront oneself in the mirror and deconstruct the sexism and hetero-normality that we have internalized. This way of thinking is useful for men and women, heterosexual or homosexual, in order to recover what society has most neglected to give us by teaching us to devalue and dislike women, mothers, sisters, grandmothers. We have to recover the love of women in order to love ourselves and our partners.

This different form of thinking is found rooted in indigenous customs, where one learns to see others as one sees oneself. They are variations of the customs that exist in collective cultures, much less individualistic than contemporary American culture. They form a part of our intuitive knowledge; what is missing is the creation of spaces for practicing it.

In the community that is the Center of Hope for Peace and Justice, reflection has brought us to work in distinct ways. When we mobilize the community, we communicate directly, face to face, and we prioritize this medium above the use of the telephone or email. When we work in the community, each person is understood to be knowledgeable and also a student, without differences of age, gender, class, or sexuality, and that learning that one both gives and receives comes out of our experiences. Through a consensual process we take account of all the opinions for and against a decision as an opportunity to learn and strengthen the movement.

This process is intensive and prolonged, but necessary. We have a firm conviction that these forms of creating new processes from a queer and feminist point of view are the best methods of being truly inclusive; that they empower our communities and they are a direct way to combat the neo-liberalism that is violating our communities, Mother Earth, culture, and our own knowledge of everything that is part of being a woman and, in the end, all that it is to be a human.

Fabiola Torralba is an organizer with the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program.

Declaration of the Maquila Social Forum


That the current crisis of capitalism, deepened by the neo-liberal project, is not only an economic crisis but also systemic; that is, of values, environment, food, energy, and of patriarchy.

That this crisis has very negative impacts on the lives of the majority and their expectations, above all affecting the poor and dependent countries, and affecting women fundamentally by generating unemployment, loss of purchasing power, less access to education and healthcare, and attempts against constitutional guarantees and human rights.

That, in the countries of North America, the crisis has generated higher unemployment levels due in part to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which subordinates the interests of the people to those of transnational corporations.

That NAFTA and the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America are part of a strategy of regional integration and national security for the United States that looks to control strategic resources and labor power in this region, through laws of social control and militarization, under the pretext of a struggle against narco-trafficking and undocumented migration.

That these and other aspects related to the struggle of workers, from the maquilas, from the countryside, from the city and mountains, and migrants, were thoroughly discussed in the panels, roundtables, and plenaries undertaken at the Maquila Social Forum, an activity organized by the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras to mark their 20th anniversary, which took place in the city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on June 5-7, 2009.

We resolve:

I. That in order to generate and protect sources of employment we:

Will instigate campaigns to promote the consumption of Mexican products; to not buy products stained by blood and injustice; establish alternative production processes using remittances; confront the privatization of production; create productive workshops in communities; exchange experiences, capacity-building, and the transmission of knowledge among sending communities as well as new projects; access communal microcredit in order to change the economic, political, and social regime.

II. That in order to construct new values, gender equity, and alternative forms of organization we:

  1. Will instigate campaigns to recuperate ancestral values and the creation of new values that translate into equal, free, and democratic relationships that permit more rational and humane forms of production attached to human rights, with fair trade and environmental care.
  2. Will keep the specific situation of women in mind, steadfast against all forms of discrimination against women and the oppression and abuse of power brought about by patriarchy, including the perspective of gender in all matters and actions.
  3. Will promote respect and recognition of sexual diversity and the options of gender, exercising human rights for everyone, including people that identify as part of a community that allows choice of sexuality, whether homosexual, queer, lesbian, bi-sexual, trans-gendered, transsexual, two-spirited, or heterosexual.
  4. Will promote the celebration of March 8, International Women’s Day, in the maquiladoras, as well as November 25, the International Day of Non-violence against Women.
  5. Will undertake workshops about migration and the maquilas, and the impact of sending and receiving on communities of origin.
  6. Will defend and systematize the experiences of struggle among workers from the countryside, the city, the mountains, in industry, agriculture, services, informal commerce, domestic work, housework, as well as among sex workers.
  7. Will establish permanent alliances with different expressions of the struggle, as part of movements of solidarity at the local, national, and international levels.
  8. Will strengthen new forms of organization in our families, communities, unions, organizations, and collectives, as well as in society in general, based on equality, liberty, and democracy.
  9. Will construct, connect, and instigate social forces that sustain the democratic border movement.
  10. Will form security and solidarity committees, renouncing violations of human rights of the women and men of towns and communities.
  11. Will defend the successful experiences of the people of Latin America, such as in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, etc. …

We declare ourselves against militarization and the criminalization of social protest.

We declare ourselves for an independent and participatory evaluation of NAFTA, and the establishment of labor laws in place of parallel accords, finding benefits for the large majority of people expressed in a better distribution of income, and therefore, better internal markets and economic growth, as well as adequate care for the environment, with sights on the renegotiation or repeal of NAFTA, taking into account the demand to remove the agricultural clause of NAFTA, above all for corn, beans, and milk.

We declare ourselves for food sovereignty and the redevelopment of the Mexican countryside.

We declare ourselves for the rejection of privatization of communal indigenous and campesino lands, and that of national territories.

We declare ourselves for participatory democracy, for community promotion, for the development of the people, for economic justice and freedom from abuse, for the defense of ecology and the environment.

We declare ourselves for the care of the planet as a fundamental part of the agenda of our movements, promoting new technologies that support the conservation of the environment.

We declare ourselves for the freedom of the press and political prisoners in Mexico and around the world.

We declare ourselves against the war being waged against the communities and people of Mexico and the world.

We declare ourselves in favor of freedom of expression, of organization, and of thought.

We declare ourselves for solidarity among the peoples of the world.



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