Tijuana/San Diego Learning Cluster, Soka University of America


Last November, news programs around the globe commemorated the fall of the Berlin Wall. They cheered for the final integration of two apparent contending regions of the world–the Capitalist West vs. the Communist East. The West had won, declared CNN, and with it democratic institutions and the rights of people all over the world. For someone who lives in Southern California those celebrations were dashed with hypocrisy since there is another wall just a few miles from Soka University of America that also attempts to divide two seemingly incompatible regions– the First and the Third World. Despite the U.S. government’s efforts to militarize the border, millions of people continue to cross, illegally and legally, developing migrant communities, family networks, and innovative cultural traditions. Many migrants perish in the mountains as they attempt to enter the U.S., killed at times by their coyotes, or organized crime. Women are often raped, and children are lost. The Tijuana/San Diego wall represents a humanitarian crisis, one often not covered by the news.

The controversial phenomenon of Globalization has created new commercial institutions. Maquiladoras are assembly plants run by foreign corporations along the US-Mexico border where employees are forced to work overtime for extremely low wages. They were first established in the mid 1960s by the Mexican government to attract American entrepreneurs. This type of private enterprise received a boost when in 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified. More maquiladoras were built as the demand for cheap-labor increased, and as a consequence, labor violations and environmental wreckage increased. Opposition by labor unions could not stop the corporations from paying meager salaries, exposing their employees to long hours and hazardous working conditions. The turning point for maquiladoras began a few years ago when the economic recession hit the US, and Asian products flooded international markets. About 298,000 jobs (22.1% of all the jobs available) disappeared from four “maquiladora” cities in 17 months. Female workers were particularly affected by the crisis since women have to struggle with the double duty of working in the factory and at home.

The complexity of this issue concerning maquiladoras lies in the multifaceted influence of globalization. Even though some argue “maquiladoras exploit workers and threaten their human rights,” it is highly likely that those people enjoy cheap consumer goods produced in maquiladoras. Without this type of labor, people in developed countries would not be able to enjoy the standard of life they do today. Moreover, the fact that jobs at maquiladoras have given workers employment opportunities cannot be ignored. For these reasons, abolishing all the maquiladoras does not seem to be a perfect solution for this complex issue.

Such complex labor and social relations take place not only in Tijuana but also in Asian developing countries and other parts of the world as well. The concurrent problems will grow unless governments, businesses, workers, and consumers become aware of them and take countermeasures.

Primary objectives of the Learning Cluster

The primary objective of this learning cluster is for students to gain a comprehensive understanding of the economic policies and social conflicts that have shaped the economy of the San Diego/Tijuana Border region. They will examine both the positive and negative aspects of economic development along the Border and suggest ways of improving working conditions. Students will consider a relatively new concept of development often referred to as “sustainable business.” Sustainable business is commonly defined as a more ethical way of trading. The driving force behind a company’s production is not solely profit and grand salaries for their CEOS, but the well-being of the community.

We believe that this is a crucial economic model to investigate, as a growing number of companies are becoming more sensitive to the demands of their employees and committed to environmentally friendly forms of production. This class will investigate this socially conscious approach, analyzing the strategies used by organizations in the regions that lobby for labor and economic reform. Students will interview members of NGOs that monitored business practices and suggest reforms, and subsequently develop practical applications for a model of sustainability.

The importance of the topic of this Learning Cluster cannot be overlook. Now that health reform has been debated in Congress for almost a year, immigration reform is slated to be President Obama’s next undertaking. Academics should be contributing to the investigation of this complex issue, suggesting innovative forms of doing business in Border regions without trampling over the basic rights of workers, especially women. Labor and migration are two of the most debated topics in academia today, as proven by the dozens of books presented by major academic presses at the Latin American Studies Association conference in Toronto this month. Our Learning Cluster will examine this new literature, focusing on women’s labor conditions on both sides of the border. We will also spend a few classes exploring cultural representations of Border life- Norteña music, artist’s organizations in Tijuana, and documentary film collectives.

Approach and methodology

The approach to this course will be multidisciplinary. Students will read articles, watch films, and visit businesses and NGOs on both sides of the Border.

For instance, on January 21st, students will have the opportunity of attending a presentation by Pedro Rios, San Diego representative of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Mr. Rios will give a two-hour presentation in the AFSC office in downtown San Diego about monitoring abuses and human rights violations. He will also explain how the AFSC responds to community needs, the methodology caseworkers employ and current political and social issues that impact labor organizations. He will then take students on a three-hour field trip of the Border area on the U.S. side. A day later, students will take part of a maquiladora tour led by Enrique Dávalos from the San Diego Maquiladora Workers’ Solidarity Network.

Last November, sponsored by a grant from the American Embassy in Mexico, Professor Crowder-Taraborrelli visited Tijuana to lead a three-day film workshop at BORDOCS [bordocs.org]. BORDOCS is an international documentary film festival, which features cutting edge films about life in the border. During the Learning Cluster students will have the opportunity of watching films featured in the festival and will be able to collaborate with a member of the BORDOCS team. Students will also have the opportunity to interview via Skype Annelise Wunderlich, Co-Producer of the award-wining Maquilapolis (2006), a documentary film that features testimonies from a number of female employees of factories in Tijuana.

Course objectives and organization

Students will spend a few classes researching theories of globalization and the history maquiladoras. As a class, we will determine how international economic agreements such as NAFTA, military programs as the one created to fight the “War on Drugs” can hamper the efforts of socially-conscious businesses to provide better living conditions to their workers. Students will write weekly responses on Angel (blog) based on the readings and class discussions. They will also work in groups investigating the model of sustainable business practices in preparation for the final project. The core group of students who have organized this Learning cluster have decided to organize the course in three stages:

1) Research stage (1st week): This course begins with the study of history behind the emergence of maquiladoras considering the results of globalization. Students will explore the labor and social issues that have emerged since the 1960s.

2) Investigation stage (2nd week): Students will visit San Diego and Tijuana in order to examine the current situation concerning labor and social issues in maquiladoras. Students will interview members of NGO, like the American Friends Service Committee and female workers in Tijuana. They will also participate in a workshop about documentation (interviewing for documentary films) with members of BorDocs, a documentary film collective in Tijuana.

3) Final project stage (3rd week): Students will discuss and address the situation and issues that have been brought up in the course and come up with a proposed resolution to improve working conditions in maquiladoras based on the sustainable business model. For more information about learning clusters see http://www.soka.edu/academics/2010-Learning-Clusters-Offer-Opportunities-for-SUA-Students-to-Make-a-Difference.aspx

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