Home to Las Playitas

A maquila worker's 600-kilometer trek to the farming village where she was born

Shift change, San Ramon Industrial Park. Nogales, Sonora. Tuesday, 4:59 p.m.
She wants out, the short, pretty girl in the short, pretty sundress. Out of this factory, out of this city, out of this grind her life has become.

Right now, though, just out of this factory will do. Forty seconds until freedom. Carla Sierra, 18, pouts, twirling black hair around her index finger. Thirty seconds. Carla tucks her chin, looks down and just waits, one girl in a long line of impatient employees. Twenty seconds. Ten.

The freedom bell rings, and workers flee into the open air, squeezing two at a time through a rectangle in the wall marked Entrada De Personal. Their replacements, the night shift, have formed a second line to one side of the passageway, and when the first-shift exodus is complete, they shuffle inside, single file.

Carla's her own young woman now, until 7 a.m. tomorrow. Then she returns to her post on the production line, where she works nine hours a day, five days a week, for Optimize, a maquiladora owned by the Fortune 500 company Amphenol. Carla's job is to stick tiny metal pins into tiny plastic holes, one step in the assembly of computer cables. She makes about 95 cents an hour.

The main drag of Parque Industrial San Ramón, a multi-maquila compound located eight kilometers south of the border, bustles with the shift change.

Carla is unimpressed.
"Every day, it's the same."
Picking her way through a thousand workers who move in all directions, she passes a basketball court and a grizzled vendor selling candy, cigarettes and soft-porn comic books from the back of an orange station wagon.

A battered, primer-gray AMC Gremlin with Luna Promociones painted on the back wobbles on the pavement. A speaker strapped to its roof with bungee cords blares a distorted mix of mariachi music and advertisements for a used-furniture store. "Best selection! Best deals for workers!" The Gremlin turns down an alley to avoid a fleet of white Ford buses with maroon stripes, parked two abreast, engines rumbling. Workers board the buses like pirates.

Carla walks, cutting through a hole in the chain-link fence surrounding the industrial park.

Joined by a score of other maquila workers, she heads for a set of railroad tracks where two freight trains are parked. No problem. Five-foot-three and maybe 100 pounds, Carla scrambles over the couplers between boxcars and hops down on the other side.

She negotiates a precarious incline, deep into the Nogales Wash, a sinkhole of human and industrial waste that flows north into Arizona. The wash is dry today, except for a puddle of green liquid. Carla scrambles up the other side along a narrow dirt path that finally reaches pavement.

Treading on a sidewalk now, she ascends another steep hill toward a 1,000-unit, public housing project for maquila workers. Sculpted planters skirt the four flights of stairs leading up to the concrete-block cottages, but they're filled with weeds, not flowers.

Ten minutes and one kilometer later, Carla greets her sister, Roberta, 22, who awaits her in the doorway of a unit near the stairs.

Carla's glad to have family to come home to in Nogales, but she misses her mother.

"This was the first year I wasn't with her on Mother's Day," she says.
An offer is made--a four-day trip to Las Playitas, the farming village 500 kilometers south where she was raised. A free trip home.

Carla confers with Roberta. They deliberate.
Carla nods.
San Ramón Industrial Park. Thursday, 5:03 p.m.
We're three minutes late.
Carla's waiting for us outside the maquila.

She's traveling light--just a stuffed, fuchsia day pack over one shoulder--and settles easily into the pickup's back seat, next to Hector, a 19-year-old Nogales street hustler, and, as of late, freelance translator.

Carla is excited to be going home, away from Nogales.
Away from the desperate children begging for change, as their mothers sit silently on the sidewalks, rattling tin cups.

Away from broken men, young and old, washing windows of cars backed up at the border crossing.

Away from the hard-core party scene preferred by many of her co-workers.
Away from bosses who ask her out.
Carla wants to save enough money to go to college. But she's not sure how long she can stand the job--or Nogales.

"Living in Nogales, working in the maquilas, it's pretty bad, you know? This city looks really ugly, and the work is boring. I try to dream about good things when I'm working, or at least sing to myself. But a lot of the time, I think of nothing, and I forget to sing. I'm afraid it's making me stupid."

Leaving the industrial park, we pull onto Avenida Obregon, heading south, out of town, and quickly get stuck behind a hazardous-waste truck in cross-town, rush-hour traffic. Three slow kilometers later, we pass the Plaza de Nogales, the most expensive hotel in Nogales, and the most surreal.

Double rooms in the Plaza run 450 pesos ($53), and the hotel is four-star appointed, but something is rotten. Jade tiles in the lobby are loose and cracked. Brass banister fixtures on a spiral stone staircase are loose. The railing on the balcony is a crumbling death trap. Nobody swims in the brackish pool.

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