May Day is a transnational event in the Paso del Norte borderlands of El Paso-Ciudad Juarez-southern New Mexico. At this year’s demonstrations, U.S. and Mexican activists joined together to denounce Trump administration immigration policies, current and looming wars, Peña Nieto administration economic and labor reforms, femicides, the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa college students, attacks on workers, and Mexico’s pending internal security law.
“If history teaches us anything, it is to defend our rights,” Ana Morales, spokesperson for the Ciudad Juarez Resssite teacher organization, told May Day demonstrators from both Mexico and the U.S. who gathered at the international line on the Santa Fe Bridge linking El Paso and Juarez. “History is important. I say that as a teacher.”
The binational protest brought traffic to a crawl, as rappers churned out politically charged lyrics and a man in a wheelchair strummed a guitar and tooted kazoo-like sounds from a plastic bottle. He sang “Goodbye, my love” in Spanish, in a musical allusion to a banner held by demonstrators in front of him honoring the Mexican bracero guestworkers who left behind family and friends as they embarked on long journeys to El Norte to fill the gap of U.S. labor shortages during World War Two.
Julian Contreras, son of a Juarez factory worker, reviewed the history of International Workers Day and its relevance to today’s movements. Although May Day arose from the struggle of Chicago workers for the eight-hour day, U.S. rulers suppressed the commemoration from the national consciousness and, as evidenced to this day , pitted white workers against workers of color, Contreras said.
“Trump’s discourse is to blame the unemployment of white workers on other workers,” he continued. “Immigrants aren’t criminals. They are international workers… workers don’t have a country; they’re citizens of the world.”
The demonstrations also demanded justice for the forcibly disappeared. In Juarez alone, hundreds of women and men remain missing from as far back as the 1970s.
“Women are the ones who give us life. We’re in May, the month of mothers, and many are crying,” said Jose Luis Castillo, father of Esmeralda Castillo, a 14-year-old student who vanished in 2009 and could be among the young female victims discovered at a secret mass grave in the Navajo Arroyo near Ciudad Juarez since 2011. “We don’t need a safe corridor in the city as the government proposes. We need a safe city.”
Castillo added that relatives and their supporters will resume searches of the rural Navajo Arroyo, where previous citizen-led expeditions yielded suspected remains and evidence whose authenticity and identities have still not been publicly disclosed by authorities.
In the shadows of deporters, developers, banksters and offshorers
As the action unfolded on the Santa Fe Bridge, a second group of demonstrators began a May Day march from the Border Agricultural Workers Center on the El Paso side of the border. Opened in 1995 as a shelter for the predominantly Mexican farmworkers who labor in the chili pepper and onion fields of far west Texas and southern New Mexico, the center is ironically located across the street from a U.S. government processing facility for detained migrants.
Chants of “Work, Justice and Dignity” captured the spirit of the crowd. The El Paso demonstration culminated at San Jacinto Plaza, or Plaza Lagartos as it is fondly called because of an old alligator statue. The downtown square is a popular gathering spot that recently underwent a long (and repeatedly delayed) makeover as part of the gentrification of downtown El Paso pushed by the local elite.
Here, countless events including the Sun City’s edition of Occupy Wall Street, have etched their legacies into the collective memory. Overlooking the plaza are the offices of Chase Bank, Bank of America and the El Paso Community Foundation, a visual symbolism not missed by activists.
A crowd of old and young alike included members of the Paso del Sur anti-gentrification organization, ironworkers, government and nurses unions, Young Democratic Socialists, and other groups. A sizeable contingent from the pro-immigrant Border Network for Human Rights showed up dressed in blue “Hugs Not Walls” t-shirts. The nurses won unionization of four El Paso hospitals recently, which “means you are going to be better taken care of,” a representative of the National Nurses Union told the demonstration.
Lorena Andrade, leader of El Paso’s La Mujer Obrera, tackled the North American Free Agreement (NAFTA) and gentrification. Andrade’s organization is rooted in the struggles of El Paso’s predominantly female, Latina garment workers for better working conditions. Once known as “The Jeans Capital of the United States” and the scene of the historic Farah strike in the 1970s, El Paso suffered thousands of layoffs in the garment sector when clothing manufacturing was steadily offshored in the early 1980s. NAFTA proved to be the nail in the coffin for a once thriving local industry.
“NAFTA was a death sentence for the original peoples of Mexico and here too,” Andrade summed up. She warned that gentrification is jeopardizing the survival of historic immigrant and Mexican American neighborhoods like Barrio Duranguito in south-central El Paso, where many of the city’s workers live and raise families in, traditionally affordable residences.
Protesting Wall Street on the Border
Job losses in the Paso del Norte borderland did not end with the garment workers. Former workers of El Paso’s Bruce Foods plant, for instance, are demanding just compensation for lay-offs they charge were based on age discrimination. A packer of chili peppers and manufacturer of Mexican foods and hot sauce, the Louisiana-based company announced last year it was selling off the old factory. Yet the plant remains open with fewer workers, according to ex-workers.
“They don’t want old people. They want young people,” contended former employee Jose Guzman. At 61 years of age, laid off worker Concepcion Aldame said she is too young to collect Social Security and struggles to meet health care expenses. “There’s no money to pay for medicine,” Aldame said.
Former Bruce Foods Workers have been staging protests and reaching out to community organizations. Inside the Border Agricultural Workers Center posters supporting the movement adorn walls.
In different ways, the story of El Paso’s Bruce Foods workers is the story of free trade, changing capitalism and the conditions confronting workers in the borderlands and beyond. In 1991 Bruce Foods sat on one of the U.S. negotiating committees that helped carve out NAFTA, an agreement that allowed the food company to import chili peppers from Mexico without paying tariffs.
Numerous analysts have since blamed NAFTA and other international trade agreements for the decline of southern New Mexico’s chili industry, the closest source of peppers to the El Paso plant.
From a peak harvest of 34,500 acres in 1992, New Mexico chili farms recorded annual harvests in the range of 7,000-9,000 acres in subsequent years. According to Carlos Marentes, founder of the Border Agricultural Workers Center and a veteran organizer of farmworkers and small farmers in the U.S. and Mexico, Bruce Foods also epitomizes the decline of old-style industrial in favor of finance capitalism in recent years.
“That’s the new tendency: reduce costs and sell the company,” Marentes said, adding that modern business strategies emphasizing quick profits prevail over the model of a family trying to maintain a productive business. “This is financial speculation. This is what finished off New Mexico chili, because on Wall Street it doesn’t matter if chilis are produced in New Mexico or China.”
By the same token, NAFTA has hurt Mexican agriculture, and small farmers still demand it be removed from the trade pact now nearly a quarter-century after it went into effect, Marentes said. The longtime cross-border activist urged renewed attention and activism around the trinational trade pact as talk of renegotiation continues in the governing circles of Washington, Wall Street, Ottawa and Mexico City.
“We have a permanent struggle against NAFTA. I think it’s time to reinvigorate the struggle against NAFTA. It never ended,” Marentes said. “Can you imagine what a renegotiation of NAFTA with Trump will look like? We lost the ejido (rural Mexican collective land) system under Salinas and Clinton. It will be a disaster, especially for workers.”
Immigrant rights fight intensifies
In a city and county with an undocumented population conservatively estimated at 25,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrant justice is a big concern of many El Pasoans on May Day and every day.
If immigrant rights organizations did not already have enough work cut out for them with the Trump administration, the pressure was ramped up this month when the Texas State Legislature passed new bills sharply rejected by immigrant advocates. Among them is a measure to license family detention centers as child care facilities. The other, known as SB4 and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott, puts local police in the immigration enforcement business and punishes law enforcement officers with fines, possible jail time and even removal from elected office for failing to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests.
Recalling Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 of 2010, the legislation prompted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to take the unusual step of issuing a “travel alert” for the state of Texas. Vicky Gaubeca, director of the ACLU’s New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights, warned potential visitors of Texas of the impact of the anti-immigrant measures, noting that many southern New Mexicans have family and other business to attend in the Lone Star state.
“We aim to warn them of the real possibility of racial profiling and illegal conduct by local police,” Gaubeca said in a press release. “We will stand with our colleagues in Texas to ensure the rights of New Mexicans and others who travel through Texas are protected.”
In a separate statement, the Border Network for Human Rights announced a new mobilization against SB 4, which already faces legal challenges. Every Monday through September 1, the day SB 4 is scheduled to become law, the group plans to conduct demonstrations dubbed “Justice Monday” against SB 4 outside state offices in El Paso.
“We will resist any attempt to separate families, we will denounce every abuse, we will fight back against any mistreatment, and we will make our law enforcement accountable and transparent to the communities it serves,” the Border Network vowed.
Paso del Norte Regional Popular Assembly (Spanish) https://www.facebook.com/asambleapopularregionalpasodelnorte/
La Mujer Obrera: http://www.mujerobrera.org/
Paso del Sur: https://www.facebook.com/PasoDelSurEP/
Border Network for Human Rights: https://www.facebook.com/BorderNetworkForHumanRights/
ACLU New Mexico Regional Center for Border Rights: https://www.aclu-nm.org/en/border-rights/regional-center-border-rights