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.

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.

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.

Las Playitas. Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Las Playitas looks like this: a basketball court with no hoops, a church and a few dirt streets on a grid, lined with adobe bungalows on shaded, spacious lots, most fronted with rose bushes in full bloom.

"Aqui." Carla points to a two-story adobe house in the middle of the block.
We stop the truck.
Carla jumps out, speed-walks across the street, goes around the side of the house, and ducks inside. "I don't know what her problem is," Hector says. "She told me nothing."

We stay by the truck. Carla's neighbors come out of their house and give us the once-over. Carla reappears.

There's no one home, and she looks relieved. We surmise Carla was frightened of how her parents would react to her sudden reappearance from the big city, too early not to have spent the night on the way, in the company of two gringos and Hector, who's wearing a fresh pair of Nikes, a Scottie Pippen jersey, a gold chain, and a pager that's 600 kilometers out of range.

Our hypothesis is confirmed with prejudice when Carla picks up a hose, deliberately ignores us for a couple of minutes while she wets down the dust in her front yard, then asks if we could please leave, and come back--in seven hours.

Cantina. Bacobampo, Sonora. Friday, 12:58 p.m.
A few kilometers east of Las Playitas is the slightly larger village of Bacobampo. It looks a lot like Las Playitas, except there are more houses, a cemetery, a primary school and a cantina with a brown-and-white stallion hitched to a rail outside. We stop to admire the horse.

Men pour out of the cantina, looking buzzed but friendly. One identifies himself as the owner of the horse and asks if we want to buy it. We say we don't, but he insists on a sales demonstration. He loosens the steed's tether, mounts up and performs some impressive moves. The horse canters like it's carrying a prince. The horse sidesteps nimbly down a steep incline. The horse ripples with power.

A very drunken man on a very old Schwinn skitters in front of us, slides sideways, and stops, BMX style. Six teeth are missing from the top row and he hasn't shaved in days. Staggering and bowlegged, he walks the bike forward a few steps, and extends his right hand. We shake.

"Joseph," he says. "Joseph."
Joseph tells us about himself in a freewheeling mixture of English and Spanish, but he's nearly incoherent. We get this much: Joseph used to live in Phoenix, on South Central Avenue. Exactly when, he's not sure, but it was a few years ago.

"Phoenix," he keeps saying. "I live in Phoenix, too."
After a few minutes, we get back in the truck. Joseph sticks his head through the passenger window and slurs, in English, "Please. Money for one beer." We hand him a 10 peso coin and he waves goodbye.

We start to pull away, then hear and feel the impact of Joseph crashing his bicycle into the back of the truck. We look behind us. Joseph is down and tangled, but getting up.

He's all right, and we're out of here.

Huatabampo, Sonora. Friday, 1:47 p.m.
One old man in a group of old men relaxing in the town square points us toward a white stone municipal building. Ten minutes, one secretary, and one preppie assistant later, the elected leader of Huatabampo and its outlands--including Bacobampo and Las Playitas--agrees to meet us.

We walk in, and Dr. Francisco Garcia Cancino gets up from behind his polished wood desk to shake hands. He looks to be in his mid-40s. His assistant handles the introductions, drags three high-backed chairs from a long conference table, and sits on a couch behind us. Cancino picks up the phone and summons his financial minister, who assumes a post aside the desk. Next to him, sitting in front of the window, is an old, burly man in a hand-embroidered, short-sleeved shirt. The local heavy. He gazes outside but listens in.

Cancino tells us the economy of this region is 80 percent agriculture, 20 percent fishing, and has been for many years. Sadly, unemployment in both industries is quite high.

How high? The finance minister thumbs through two black tomes of official statistics, trying to come up with a number. He continues to riffle through the pages for the remainder of the interview, and never finds what he's looking for.

The mayor says the situation is straightforward. The move to foreign-owned, industrial farming combined with cuts in government subsidies to peasant farmers has been a double whammy on the local economy. A lengthy drought is also limiting farmers to one crop a year, rather than two.

He says local people "go to the border because they're sure to find a job."
Most are from outlying areas, which are poorer than Huatabampo, Cancino says.

Many of those migrants return with upbeat reports.
"People come back well-dressed, and spread the word to others," he says.
Despite their appearance of prosperity, Navajoa and Ciudad Obregon don't have enough jobs to absorb the local demand. So the people, most of them young, head farther north.

"Sometimes, the maquiladora phenomenon is good, because young people are able to send their families money," he explains. "But sometimes, maquilas are bad because the young people forget their families."

The solution, the mayor concludes, is simple.
Bring the maquilas to Huatabampo.
"We want them to come here."

A bar on the beach. Huatabampito, Sonora. Friday, 4:35 p.m.
Two plump bellies ease toward one another, jiggling in time with the live music. Gently, they make contact, then begin to rub back and forth with increasing friction. The sea breeze carries approving hoots and applause from a group of Sinaloan middle-school teachers, egging on two of their more rotund colleagues.

The couple concludes the tummy kiss, backs off a few steps in opposite directions and starts over again, as the five-piece norteno band ups the tempo.

The teachers are on holiday in a charted school bus, parked on the beach nearby. Huatabampito is a fishing village and micro tourist spot 15 kilometers west of Huatabampo. Between dances, the teachers down cold, 40-ounce Tecate bombas and munch fresh grilled shrimp topped with garlic.

Lady fortuna delivered us Huatabampito as a gift. Before we left Cancino's office, the mayor's assistant took pictures of us taking pictures of the mayor. For the local paper, he said. Then, as he ushered us out, he gave directions to the sea. And now, what we're enjoying far more than cerveza and sunshine is a chance encounter with middle-class Mexicans, having a blast.

The teachers--there are about 50 of them ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s--can't be rich, but they obviously make enough to occasionally pool resources, rent a bus, hire a band, and drink, dance, eat and laugh together for a day.

Quietly, sitting in the back, we take solace from their revelry, exorcising the wicked memories of Nogales.

Nine days in Nogales is fatiguing, a swirl of wrenching images. A pack of children thrusting boxes of gum toward you from below, chanting AChicle, chicle! Two of their faces are horribly deformed, as if made of wax and melting. You wonder whether their pregnant mothers drank toxic water stored in steel drums cast off from maquilas. So you buy 10 packs of gum, as if that will make them less grotesque.

During nine days in Nogales--the real Nogales, not the tourist shopping district--you can walk past a ditch and see the stinking corpse of a big, gold dog. Black birds feast on its viscera. You cover your nose from the stench, and stop to think: On one side of the ditch is a squatter's hill--garbage and shacks and raw sewage--and on the other is a high-tech maquiladora, separated from the squalor by razor wire.

Nine days in Nogales sickens your spirit. Ninety minutes in Huatabampito revives it.

Hector's feeling the energy. A pair of bombas are singing to him, and he suggests we camp on the beach. We sympathize, but peel Hector and ourselves away and trudge through the sand.

Carla's seven hours are up.

The Sierra residence. Las Playitas. Friday, 7:03 p.m.
Carla's mom, Rosalda, is waiting for us outside with two Carlas, both wearing tight, acid-washed jeans, halter tops, and off-brand sneakers. We drive by and agree that Carla's in the white top. The one in green is her twin sister, Brenda. Brenda wears her hair longer and pulled back. Still, it's a close call.

Mom is a pear-figured middle-aged woman wearing violet stretch pants and a Power Rangers sweat shirt. She waves to us from across the street, smiling. This is good. Evidently, the circumstances have been explained to her satisfaction.

Rosalda has seven children. Four--one boy and three girls--have left home to work in the maquilas. Brenda's the only one who came back.

"I didn't like Nogales," Brenda says. "It has a bad heart. I decided to get out of there, because even though I made more money, it wasn't worth living in a place with a bad heart. Also, I missed my family."

Nogales turns some people to the dark side, Brenda says, pointing to indicate homes where at least one young member of the family has gone north. A lot of times, she says, they come back to visit with a new take on life: materialism.

"They show up, thinking they're bigger than everyone," she says. "They get off the bus, looking different, wearing Nikes, bragging. They say, 'Look, I buy like an American now.'"

Brenda has different aspirations. She listens regularly to a Navajoa radio station that broadcasts in the Yaqui Indian language. Brenda hopes someday to become fluent in the tongue and do social work with the Yaquis. For now, she does paperwork on a pig farm for 28 pesos ($3.30) a day.

The purple sky fades quickly to black, and a squadron of mosquitoes descends. "We must go," Rosalda declares. "They're waiting for us at the party."

Brenda charges off, and we follow to a celebration of some kind under way in the yard of a small adobe home with a bamboo roof.

The setting is magical. White and pink balloons form an arch over the entryway. Matching geometic patterns cut from construction paper and white lights hang from pendants overhead. More lights drape from the limbs of surrounding algodón trees.

Most of Las Playitas, kids to senior citizens, sit around tables or stand in clusters, the bubbling noise of their conversation mingling with Mexican pop played on a stereo. Local police stand outside the fence, munching, drinking and conversing. A table near the house is laden with brightly wrapped presents and a white, three-tiered cake.

Seconds after we arrive, a gorgeous young woman in a magnificent white gown and pearl tiara, carrying a bouquet of roses--obviously the maiden of honor--comes up, embraces each of us in turn, with mutual kisses on both cheeks, then says, with impressive grace, "Thank you for coming to my quinceanera."

Her name is Isaura Lopez Torres. She has lived in Las Playitas all her life, and turned 15 two months ago.

Isaura goes to greet another guest. A woman hands us paper cups of beer and plates of barbacoa--spiced meat and vegetables that had been buried in the ground over charcoal for 24 hours. We take over an empty table in a corner beneath a tree. A photographer with a 35mm camera and flash shoots two rolls of Isaura standing behind the cake, receiving a line of guests, who each pose with her for a picture. A portly cop in uniform comes by our table with a bucket of warm cerveza and refills our cups with two quick scoops.

The celebration before us is a ritual as old as the oldest bones in the Bacobampo graveyard. A rite of passage marking the transition from child to young woman. But watching Isaura, in her elegant dress, on her night of honor, it's not difficult to envision her in a blue maquila smock, braiding wires with a vacant stare.

Rosalda leaves the quinceanera first, and 15 minutes later, the rest of us follow, so Carla and Brenda can get ready for the post-quinceanera dance on the basketball court.

As we near their house, a hulking figure in the yard begins to shuffle toward us in the dark, one bad leg scuffing the earth behind one good. Carla fires a quick warning to Hector.

"Oh shit, dude," he says. "She tell me that's her father, and he gets real mad sometimes."

Dad steps into the porch light. He's barefoot, wearing glasses, dusty jeans and a red, weathered work shirt.

"Gustavo," he says, slapping his chest. We introduce ourselves, then explain how we met Carla in the industrial park, and why we asked her to bring us to Las Playitas.

"It's good that you're here," Gustavo says when we're finished. "Please, come inside."

Carla sits on the arm of a long couch in the living room, and we fill the seats beside her. Gustavo goes to a fridge adorned with little NFL helmet stickers.

Gustavo cracks a can of Tecate and sits down in a chair. In the adjacent large communal bedroom, Brenda primps in front of a bureau mirror. The walls of the living room are decorated with a Disney Lion King poster in a wood frame, and two tapestries: one of Jesus, one of Mary. Screwed into a wall are shelves that contain a tiny, black-and-white television, a box radio, pink paper roses in a swan-shaped vase, a vintage Packard scale model and a menagerie of stuffed animals--five bears, one raccoon, and a rabbit, most of them wearing plastic sunglasses.

Gustavo is no stranger to the opportunities afforded by the border. When shrimp are in season, he buys 400 kilograms of big, blue prawns for 90 pesos a kilo if they're from the open sea, 30 pesos if they're from a shrimp bed. He usually buys half and half, then drives to Nogales and sells them for double the money.

Shrimp aren't in season. Wheat, watermelons, tomatoes and chiles are. And so, Gustavo says, he drives a John Deere combine in the wheat fields. That's what he did today for 12 hours, and that's what he'll do tomorrow, Saturday. The truck comes to pick him up at 6 a.m.

Gustavo reaches under a table and drags out a five-gallon plastic bucket of cleaned wheat, which Rosalda will use to bake bread. He paws a giant handful of the grain, then lets it slowly run through his fingers.

"The machine I drive holds four tons, and it only takes 35 minutes to fill it," he says. "Before the machines, 20 years ago, I worked in the fields, picking by hand. I used to work on one acre the whole day. Now, driving a thresher, I do 18."

Most of the fields now are owned by companies, not people he knows, and the companies can afford machines, more chemicals and better irrigation.

"A part of land that gave one ton in 1988 now gives five tons," he says. "But there are half as many jobs, and less people in our town. The people who knew how to drive a machine, or fix a machine, or really knew something about planting crops, they stayed. The rest left, and a lot of them were good people."

Where did they go?
Gustavo crushes his empty can.
"They went to Nogales, or they went to the other side. They just went away."

A wheat field outside Bacobampo. Saturday, 8:15 a.m.
Hector was right. We should have camped on the beach. Instead, we got a room in Huatabampo at the Hotel Sonora, which is perhaps the foulest hotel within 1,000 kilometers. The price was right--120 pesos ($14) for a room with three beds--but a fixed stench from the bathroom gave us all evil dreams.

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.

"I had only heard of this place before Carla came, because lots of the girls I worked with liked to go there," Brenda says. "When we went, we didn't like it. The people inside were acting bad, using drugs, and there were gang members, and the guys were bothering us when we said we didn't want to dance. It was scary, so we left."

Carla says she gets bothered by guys a lot more in Nogales than Las Playitas, especially at work.

"It's the supervisors, mostly," she says, Brenda nodding in agreement beside her. "The older Mexican men, they see all these young girls from the south, and think we will be easy to do whatever they want with. They ask you all the time, 'Go with me after work,' and I don't, but a lot of girls do, because the men buy them things."

Neither Brenda nor Carla say they were ever threatened by a supervisor or promised special treatment in exchange for sexual favors. However, both say they were forced to take pregnancy tests before they started work--a violation of Mexican federal labor law and a routine practice in the maquiladora industry, to which enforcers turn a blind eye.

According to Brenda, a few months after she started working in the Optimize plant, a group of women complained to supervisors about the pregnancy testing and were immediately fired. Another group of about 10 line workers, men and women, were fired soon thereafter because they started talking about forming a union to protest the first firings.

"They were going around to people, saying we should have a union, and then one day, they were all gone," Brenda says.

The twins finish their colas, and we leave the mansion. Outside, the sun is right, and we spot a scrape in the truck's paint where Joseph, our drunken friend in Bacobampo, crashed his bike.

The Sierra residence. Las Playitas. Sunday, 9:28 a.m.
Rosalda Sierra has a squirming, hissing turtle in one hand, and a long kitchen knife in the other. She found the turtle by the side of a road the day before and took it prisoner. A drink of warm turtle blood, she explains, is good medicine, a cure-all for anyone but the turtle.

Carla woke up with the sniffles, and Rosalda is debating whether to bleed the hapless reptile. Usually she waits until someone in the family is seriously ill, because it's not right to waste turtles. However, she also doesn't want her daughter going back to Nogales in ill health.

Carla shoulders her day pack and assures her mother she's fine, until Rosalda puts the turtle down and the knife away, and gives her daughter a lingering hug.

"I was very happy to see her, but now I will be sad for a few days," Rosalda says. "Then I will get better."

We ask how often she worries about Carla working in Nogales.
"Todos dias," Rosalda says, with a heavy look. Every day.
"Here, she knows everyone. In Nogales, there are so many strangers, I worry about something happening to her. I worry now that I will never see her again."

A son of a friend went to work in the maquilas a year ago and his family hasn't heard from him since, Rosalda says. Another boy from Las Playitas moved to Nogales, wound up working for the narcos instead of the factories and got busted running drugs to Los Angeles. Now he's in prison.

At Brenda's request, Hector puts a Puff Daddy Combs disc on the truck's stereo and pumps up the volume on the producer's hip-hop remake of the Police's hit "Every Breath You Take (I'll Be Watching You)." Puff Daddy's version is called "I'll Be Missing You."

Brenda holds both of Carla's hands and sings along with the lyrics.
Every breath you take/Every move you make/Every single day, every single way/I'll be missing you.

When the song ends, Hector turns off the tunes, and Carla gets in the truck.
We pull away, waving goodbye.
In the rearview mirror, we see Brenda and Rosalda with their hands still in the air, and the turtle, plodding off, trying to slip the grasp of fate.

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