Home to Las Playitas

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

Morning breaks and we drive to Las Playitas to pick up Carla. She guides us through a maze of dirt roads that etch the perimeter of countless plots stretching to the horizon in all directions. The patchwork of fields is identical to the giant irrigated farms that stretch across the deserts of Arizona and California.

And like the fields in America, there are few people to be seen. Industrial irrigated agriculture needs only a few hands to tend production most of the year. In the United States, poor Mexicans, mainly illegal aliens, live in destitution and do the backbreaking work on corporate farms. In Mexico, the most grueling farm labor is left to the Mayans.

After 30 minutes of jostling, we bear left down an incline and park near a small fleet of heavy farm equipment and a half-dozen men, tuning their machines.

Gustavo waves from the captain's chair atop a thresher, then climbs down a ladder to greet us. He's dressed the same as last night, plus a straw cowboy hat. After we shake hands, he clambers back up the ladder, fires up the combine, and motions for us to come up.

Gustavo is a well-provisioned thresher driver. Next to his seat is a 10-gallon plastic bucket full of ice and beer. A smaller bucket holds a coagulated yellow broth of shrimp, tomatoes and swordfish.

The machines are ready, but the weather is no good, Gustavo tells us. It's too cloudy and humid. They can only harvest when it's dry. And so, they wait.

Gustavo hands us beers, and points to a dump truck parked nearby, its driver asleep under the chassis. "That truck holds 20 tons," he says. "Usually, we fill it many times a day."

Gustavo kills the engine. We all get down, and stand around, drinking before noon and talking about the weather, until Gustavo's boss shows up in a shiny Chevy truck, wearing sunglasses and a feather-band hat.

Francisco Mendejas appears pleased to see the American press. Gustavo brings over another beer, then snags a cigarette from the pack in Francisco's front pocket.

Times are hard, Mendejas tells us. All the water for this land comes from the Yaqui reservoir, which is perilously low after three years of drought. Mendejas says he only grows grain, and manages 25,000 hectacres owned by an association based in Navajoa.

Mixing business with pleasure with nary a transition, he launches into a long, animated description of a recent trip to Las Vegas. He stayed with his sister, who lives in the hills outside the city. Mendejas joyously recounts watching deer in her yard.

Unfortunately, lady luck was a tease when it came to the quarter slots. First he won a lot, then he lost and lost and lost, then he won a little, but not enough.

"Like growing wheat," Mendejas says, then chortles.
Everyone joins in except Carla, who's bored.
Mendejas gets back in his truck, and we get back in ours and head to Brenda's workplace, the local pig farm.

On the way, we pass a group of Mayan men wearing bandanna masks, baking bricks in adobe ovens. We lumber for a few kilometers behind a bus full of farmworkers that bears three identical bumper stickers, which read, "George Steinbrenner is bad for working people."

Carla tells us we're going to have to take a shower before we're allowed on the pig farm where Brenda works, and another shower before we're allowed to leave, because the pigs get and give disease too easily. Warning signs guard the farm's gate, and we park well away.

Brenda comes running out of the office and tells us sorry, we can't have a tour. Farm policy. The owner says no exceptions. He's a nice boss, though, with family values. He's told Brenda to take the rest of the day off and spend time with her sister.

At this news, Carla's mood brightens. The twins want to go to Alamos, a Spanish colonial town 60 kilometers east of Navajoa that neither has ever seen.

Alamos was founded by the Jesuits in 1630 and became a crucial outpost for exploration of the New World. Explorers from Alamos settled San Francisco in 1776 and Los Angeles in 1781. Silver mines powered the town for centuries, but the lode ran dry by 1909. Alamos was abandoned, only to be rediscovered by Americans, several thousand of whom now keep winter homes there.

The city's narrow streets are lined with adobe houses and shops. Palm trees sway from the town square, where a gazebo marks the center, surrounded by flowers. A grand hotel on one side of the square, La Mansion, leads into a shaded courtyard.

Sipping a cola under the foliage canopy in the courtyard of the old mansion, Carla says if there was a maquila in Alamos, she would leave Nogales in a heartbeat.

"That place is no good for either of us," Brenda tells her. "You should come home."

Carla says maybe she will soon. She has no friends in Nogales, and she never goes out.

"Only the factory and my sister's house," she says. "That is my life."
Brenda says the first weekend Carla was in Nogales, they made their first and only foray into the night life--a short visit to Coco Loco, a downtown discotheque where hundreds of young maquila workers party every Friday night.

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