Border Women Call Washington Hunger Strike
As the marimba band rolled out its sounds and the marigolds honored the departed at a recent Day of the Dead annual celebration in El Paso, visitors to the lively festivity at Centro Mayapan were greeted by a petition and a flyer. In part, the flyer read:
Since 2005, armed vigilantes known as the Minutemen have perpetuated fear in the region
Tea Party members recently told two border Congressmen from Texas to “go back to Mexico.”
Excluding San Diego, the 2000 mile border is the poorest region in the United States
Border women have had enough!
The statement from El Paso’s La Mujer Obrera (LMO), the founding organization of Centro Mayapan, announced a hunger strike in front of the White House on Monday, November 8, to protest economic and security conditions in the US-Mexico border region.
Spearheaded by 12 women hunger strikers, the action seeks less emphasis on military and law enforcement solutions to the border’s problems and greater attention on addressing pressing social needs, especially for women residents. Concretely, LMO is demanding the formation of a border development commission.
“Women workers have a right to community development,” said Lorena Andrade, Centro Mayapan coordinator, in an interview with Frontera NorteSur. Despite President Obama’s past experience as a community organizer, Andrade said her group wasn’t sure border women were on the White House’s radar screen.
While the El Paso activist credited federal stimulus monies for helping community colleges and other institutions, she said many other layers of society were being ignored by the government rescue.
“We’re invisible. That’s why we have to go to Washington, because nobody’s turning around to look at our community,” Andrade added. “We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for investments in our ideas, in our communities.”
LMO’S upcoming hunger strike follows a recent wave of news reports on how El Paso has fared relatively well during the Great Recession. For instance, an October 31 story in the El Paso Times cited the ongoing expansion of Fort Bliss, the construction of the Texas Tech Medical Center and reinvigorated trade with Mexico as among the reasons for El Paso’s good economic performance.
Yet women workers, including many who were in the ranks of the Texas border city’s estimated 40,000 garment and other manufacturing workers displaced by the North American Free trade Agreement and other international trade pacts, have not generally benefited from the new capital infusions, according to Andrade.
“We have women that are older and who worked in the factories, but we also have young women who have been dropping out of high schools, or even they leave the high schools they can barely read and write,” Andrade said. “It’s been a struggle to find stable jobs ever since the factories left. Before, you could get a job and you could be there since you were 16 until you retired. Those kinds of jobs don’t exist anymore.”
Overall, El Paso’s unemployment rate of more than 10 percent is above the national average. Many of the workers impacted by global trade shifts are immigrant women from Mexico.
Representing displaced workers, LMO is attempting to create an alternative local and regional economy. In addition to the 18-month-old Mercado Mayapan, the ambitious initiative encompasses a daycare center and micro enterprise incubator among other projects.
Built in an old clothing factory, Centro Mayapan is an example of the vision LMO has for reviving border communities, Andrade said.
“We are able to pick up our heads from that machine and plan for the future…and that’s worth defending, because as women we’ve never that opportunity,” she added. “We were meant to be behind a machine in that building, not having a Day of the Dead celebration and learning about our culture and our history.”
In an October 21 letter announcing the Washington hunger strike, LMO Executive Director Irma Montoya said her group has additional plans for schools, housing, senior services and links to farms. “All for real security, jobs and community self-sufficiency,” Montoya wrote.
As part of its campaign, LMO is calling for a border economic summit where non-governmental organizations, private foundations and government agencies can sit down at the table to chart an investment path.
Meanwhile, the Washington hunger strike, which is expected to last at least a week, is planned to include daily programs, press conferences and other activities in the shadow of the White House.
The action has received the endorsement of several national and regional organizations and communities. According to LMO, the initial endorsers include the Piscataway Indian Nation, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Washington, D.C. branch of the Gray Panthers, Tierra del Sol Housing Development Corporation of New Mexico, and the Las Cruces-based Colonias Development Council.
“It’s not just about La Mujer Obrera in El Paso, Texas,” Andrade affirmed. “It’s about all women on the border, and our right to a better future for our community.”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.