Home to Las Playitas

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

Hermosillo has a solid industrial core buttressed by a giant Ford assembly plant, one of the automaker's best facilities; its maquila workers build Mercury Tracers. The plant has spawned a core of small businesses to support operations.

We stop for a late dinner at a steak house on the southern edge of the city. Like Plaza de Nogales, the place is faux opulent and practically empty. We take our choice of tables, order carne asada and Bohemias--a Coke for Carla, who's tired and quiet but tolerates a few questions.

Carla explains her plan: to work at the maquila until she has enough money saved to attend college for a semester in Navajoa, the closet major city to Las Playitas. She wants to study social work. She needs 1,000 pesos ($118) for basic tuition, plus 300 pesos per class, plus books. She figures she can finish college in seven years, on her maquila finance plan, combined with a government scholarship she earned for graduating with honors from high school.

Her parents would like to help, Carla says, but they have no money, and there are no jobs for women her age close to her village that pay as well as the maquilas.

She took the 10-hour bus ride to Nogales last fall. Unlike many workers, Carla had somewhere to go, and moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law.

Carla's twin sister, Brenda, was already in Nogales. The two shared a bedroom at Roberta's house. But a few months ago, Brenda moved back home to work for lower wages at a pig farm.

Carla's worn out as dinner wraps up. A tinge of sadness adds to the fatigue in her eyes.

If she had the money, would she be in college now?
Her face turns incredulous and she shrugs.
"Con dinero, bailan perros," she says.
With money, even dogs dance.
Downtown Guaymas. Friday, 9:28 a.m.

The TV mounted in a corner of the diner is playing Frank Sinatra concert footage. The radio in the kitchen is blaring his version of "New York, New York."

When the song is over, we ask Hector what the deejay's saying.
Hector cocks an ear, then announces: "Frank Sinatra has passed out."
Frank's dead?

"Well, that's what they're saying," says Hector, ever skeptical. "I don't know. He's probably still alive."

The kitchen radio keeps playing Frank, but on screen he's usurped by a video of Yuri, a platinum-blond Mexican pop starlet, performing her current saccharine platter, "Quiero Volver a Empezar." Carla sings along, under her breath.

Quiero volver a empezar. Libre de todo recuerdo. Quiero volver a empezar amanecer de nuevo y volar sin parar.

Which means: I want to start again. Free of all memories. I want to start again, in a new dawn, and fly forever.

Leaving Guaymas, we stop to check out the southernmost maquiladora park in Sonora--the Offshore Group's multifactory development located on the beaches of Empalme, a small city of 90,000, directly across the bay.

Based in Tucson, Offshore provides the complete package for multinational firms seeking cheap Mexican labor. Offshore's 6,000 employees work in a cluster of warehouses where 18 companies manufacture products ranging from Chrylser automobile parts to Ping golf bags. (See accompanying stories on page 28.)

Curiously, the Offshore park is adjacent to a littered, open field marked "National Defense Property." The industrial park is fenced off, its entry guarded by two Mexican transit cops armed with Chinese assault rifles.

Like many maquila towns, the employee housing next to the industrial park is a bunch of shacks that have been slapped together from whatever materials are handy.

Between Empalme and Navajoa lies a long stretch of bleak desert that finally breaks near the agricultural center of Ciudad Obregón, whose main street is fringed with retail stores--some American chains, some homegrown.

The gritty, desperate edge that defines Nogales is long gone. Wandering bands of homeless children are nowhere to be seen.

Just south of Obregon, as we pass a Purina Dog Chow plant, the truck is enveloped with the reek of ammonia. Eyes tearing, nostrils aflame, we accelerate until it's gone.

We continue south to Navajoa, which is yet another leap in time, distance and lifestyle from Nogales. Navajoa boasts many fine houses with expansive gardens, a large baseball stadium and a vibrant business district spread across several thoroughfares. Local hotels are jammed with race teams assembling for a Plymouth Duster, 1970s vintage, stock-car race.

We pull into a gas station across the street from a stand selling sandias (watermelons), three for 10 pesos. Carla bums a TelMex card from Hector and calls home. She hasn't been able to reach her family to let them know she's on her way, and once again, there's no answer. Carla gets back in the truck. She looks stressed out.

A few kilometers southwest of Navajoa, bumping down the road to Las Playitas, we pass our first horse-drawn cart, rumbling parallel to a giant sandia field populated by a troupe of scythe-wielding men in straw hats.

Carla directs us to a ramshackle produce packing plant where her mom occasionally works. No luck. The place is locked up, and Carla is freaking out. She points us back the way we came, then says, curtly, quickly, "AAqui! AIzquierda aqui!" as we approach a mud-baked side road. We crank the turn.

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