Home to Las Playitas

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

In fact, there is no one anywhere. The only other guest on a recent stay seemed to be a rust-colored mastiff that enjoyed free run of the grounds. The Plaza's uniformed service staff watched a soccer match on TV in the dining room as 40 set tables sat empty.

As we pass the Plaza, Hector launches into his theories on the drug scene, concluding that Mexican drug cartel honcho Amando Carrillo-Fuentes, who reportedly died during plastic surgery last July, is actually still alive.

"The government says he's dead, but me? I don't believe it," Hector says. "I don't believe the government, ever."

Twenty-one kilometers south of the border, we hit the real Sonoran entry checkpoint. Getting into Nogales is a breeze. Mexican border guards lounge against metal rails, chatting, rarely stopping anyone.Getting through kilometer 21 is a shell game.

Show proof of Mexican insurance in one building, get a photocopy of your driver's license made in another, show proof of auto ownership in a third, collect and fill out forms at every stop, then deposit everything into the hands of a surly woman behind the typewriter in building four. She orders patrons to back away from her counter while she prepares the final paperwork.

Luckily, there are stacks of the Nogales turismo newspaper to pass the time. Like all promotional rags, Nogales' puts on its best face and brags about its offerings--plastic-surgery clinics, pharmacies dispensing every drug the narcos don't control, jewelry stores pawning gold and silver nuggets, a listing of hotels (the Plaza de Nogales notably missing) and an assortment of strip clubs, restaurants and betting parlors.

The Maquiladora Association of Sonora gets in a plug, praising its 32,000 Carla Sierras who earn the equivalent of $8 a day. "Daily, we bear witness to the talent and conscientious work ethic of the Nogales, Sonora workforce," the publication boasts.

Carla curls her lip and snorts at the propaganda.
In a letter to visitors penned by Wenceslao Cota Montoya, Nogales, Sonora's mayor, he concedes his city has little hope of providing basic services for those vaunted workers. The mayor admits that rampant growth has crippled his city, but adds, "For those factors under my direct control, such as maintaining a courteous and tourist friendly police force . . . I pledge to meet the most stringent expectations."

The paper also provides some advice for those driving into Mexico: "Don't be a sissy!"

So, after 45 minutes at Checkpoint Carlos, we floor it, "Sonora Only" tourist sticker in place.

A dozen kilometers down the road, we pass through Cibuta. You've heard of company towns? Cibuta is a company village. Its only employer is Micromex Inc., a maquila owned by Juan Garcin, a rich kid from Guadalajara whose dad is big in fiber glass.

Garcin founded Micromex in 1987, after a fishing trip to Puerto Penasco inspired him to design and produce fish scales balanced to remain accurate in a rocking boat. Garcin rented a 500-square-foot house in Cibuta, hired 20 townspeople and trained them to assemble scales.

Today, Garcin's factory is a 20,000-square-foot facility with a huge shipping yard, surrounded with barbed wire, set next to the town church. The company manufactures a variety of electrical equipment that goes into everything from telephones to microwaves to CD players.

Cibuta's few hundred inhabitants live on a hill above the plant. Garcin employs 70 of them. He buses them to work and also sends buses to pick up the kids, taking them to and from school.

"It's better to have a captive work force," Garcin told us during a maquila supplier's conference sponsored by the Tucson Office of Economic Development in May. "Right now, along the border, it is very difficult for a maquila to keep enough workers at a competitive price. Cibuta is only 30 minutes from the U.S. So, I basically offer the same geographic advantage of being at the border, but I am the only industry in town, so the people feel attached."

Leaving Cibuta, Mexican Federal Highway 15 turns treacherous as the landscape turns beautiful. Twenty-five kilometers of tight curves and precipitous shoulders cut through the foothills of the Sierra de San Antonio. The landscape alternates from steep canyons to open Sonoran Desert vistas. The scenery is an immediate relief from the polluted cacophony of Nogales.

Two roads lead away from Santa Ana--one free, one toll. We go toll, stopping every 100 kilometers or so at a booth to kick down the pesos. The price of each leg is 36 pesos ($4.24) for cars, more for trucks, of which there are many, most of them hauling industrial waste from Nogales to Hermosillo, the largest city in Sonora and site of the state's only official hazardous-waste treatment and disposal facility.

The sky turns a bloody orange at sunset, and between all the waste trucks and dozens of roadside brush fires, the four-lane highway develops a menacing aura.

Hermosillo. Thursday, 9 p.m.
Where Nogales is a jumble of half-baked development bisected by a traffic-clogging railroad, Sonora's capital has a semblance of order.

A bypass offers travelers a loop around Hermosillo's eastern flank. We head straight through the heart at night, passing a string of tidy hotels, the expansive University of Sonora and the impressive governmental center, a mix of modern and historical buildings.

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