Maquiladoras And The Exploitation Of Migrants On The Border

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the views of Latino USA.

By Nina Ebner and Mateo Crossa

This article was originally published in NACLA. Read the original article here.

On August 5, 2019, the Mexican federal government and INDEX, the maquiladora business association, inaugurated the “Leona Vicario” migrant center in Ciudad Juárez. Housed in a former maquiladora —often foreign-run, export-led manufacturing plants— the center is the first of several that will be opened along the northern Mexican border to serve individuals and families that the United States has sent back to Mexico to pursue their asylum claims under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program. Policies like this one have turned Mexican border cities into a “waiting room” for thousands of migrants arriving to cross into the United States. According to government press releases, the new center will more efficiently connect these migrants, mainly from Central American countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, with some of the almost 50,000 vacancies in the maquiladora manufacturing sector along Mexico’s northern border.

Federal programs like this one, designed to integrate a migrant workforce into the industrial labor markets of northern Mexican border cities, must be understood alongside the current anti-migrant policies supported by both the Trump and López Obrador administrations, as well as the new trade agenda under the terms of the renegotiated NAFTA —the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA)— which is poised to restructure economic relationships in North American. In lieu of efforts to pursue significant wage increases and better working conditions, we are instead witnessing a joint effort between the U.S. and Mexican governments to deepen labor precarity along the border.

Currently, anti-migrant policies and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border are integral to maintaining a low-wage labor force in northern Mexican border cities. Yet the low wages of maquiladora assembly-line workers have long been key to the competitiveness of Ciudad Juárez in a restructuring global economy. So if we turn to two moments in the U.S.-Mexico border’s history of economic development, we can clearly visualize the long-term relationship between the border’s economic competitiveness —rooted in the employment of vulnerable migrants in industrial jobs— and the concurrent criminalization of these very same migrants.

“Mexico Exports Goods, Not People”

The industrial development of northern Mexico in the 1960s turned cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana into centers for the labor-intensive, manual assembly of goods for export. In its early days, the maquiladora was framed as a way to employ the millions of out-of-work former braceros who were returned to Mexico after the agricultural guest worker Bracero Program was canceled in 1964. In reality, low-wage industrial jobs were filled by thousands of young women, migrating en masse from rural communities in northern Mexican border states. Yet, even as the early industrial development of Mexico’s northern border depended on the labor of rural Mexican migrants, it was also accompanied by U.S. policies that resulted in the simultaneous restriction, increased control over, and criminalization of migratory flows from Mexico and Latin America to the United States. For example, Operation Interception in 1969, which increased law enforcement staffing along the U.S.-Mexico border and therefore made it harder to cross, was an early example of border militarization. These policies and initiatives did not stop Mexican migrants from crossing into the U.S. in search of work, but rather served to increase their vulnerability, and to lower the value of their labor on both sides of the border. Starting in the 1960s, these kinds of policies —in support of export production and border militarization— would tie Mexico’s economic “competitiveness” to a low-wage export strategy: one which was deeply entangled with, and even dependent on, the United States.

The signing of NAFTA in 1994 expanded the viability of the maquiladora industry. By 2000, the sector would generate 48 percent of Mexico’s exports. More importantly, it served to deepen uneven economic and political relationships between Mexico and the United States. According to Dancing on Quicksand: A Retrospective on NAFTA on the Eve of its Replacement by James Cypher and Mateo Crossa, NAFTA was an investment project for the United States rather than a “free trade” deal, increasing U.S. foreign direct investment in Mexico, growing the number of U.S.-owned plants, and facilitating the export of goods, mainly to U.S. markets. While these reforms accelerated the flows of goods and capital, they were accompanied by policies and practices that would reduce the mobility of ordinary people. Then-Mexican president Carlos Salinas famously opined that the goal of implementing NAFTA was to “export goods and not people.”

Like in its early days, the competitiveness of the maquiladora continued to be rooted in low-cost migrant labor. NAFTA, in concert with economic reforms pursued by the neoliberal regime of President Salinas, killed agricultural production and increased economic hardship. As a result, workers left rural communities of southern states such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, and Veracruz to find work in the maquiladoras of northern cities, or to try and make it to the U.S. The U.S. government responded to the increased migratory pressures wrought by trade deals and economic restructuring in Mexico by developing restrictive immigration reforms —the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act— which further criminalized migrants. It also militarized the border —beginning border wall construction between Tijuana and San Diego— and implemented initiatives like Operation Gatekeeper, which increased technological surveillance and the number of border patrol agents deployed on the ground, in order to deter migrants from crossing.

Like in earlier decades, these policies had little effect in reducing migration to the United States, but instead only increased the vulnerability of migrants.

Deepening the Vulnerability of Migrant Labor

Since its inception, the Trump administration has implemented new policies and practices that further criminalize migrants —both those arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and those living in the United States— and that continue to militarize border communities. Simultaneously, it has spearheaded an effort to revitalize NAFTA in the form of the USCMA, a trade agreement that mainly seems designed to protect the United States from global competition. The deal’s impact on Mexico’s industrial development is unclear, but the maquiladora industry will likely continue to grow as it becomes increasingly valuable to companies looking to reduce production costs, especially as costs go up elsewhere in the supply chain. Despite narratives of industrial upgrading, after almost 60 years of economic development along the border, the economic competitiveness of the maquiladora continues to be tied to low-wage labor. For example, even with the recent doubling of the minimum wage, wages for assembly-line workers in Ciudad Juárez are some of the lowest in Mexico.

The López Obrador administration is cooperating in support of the Trump administration’s hardline approach to both immigration and trade, despite campaigning on a pro-migrant platform. “What we want,” according to López Obrador in June 2019, “is to organize migratory flows and provide alternative employment options, while at the same time maintaining good relations with the U.S. government and avoiding a trade war.”

Critics decry that the Mexican government’s policies are not designed to protect migrants, and instead are continuing earlier approaches of treating migration as a national security problem that needs to be solved with border militarization. In the time since he took office, López Obrador’s administration has increased the amount of troops on the border and deployed a new national guard tasked with curbing migration. Despite these efforts, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner Mark Morgan recently said that although “meaningful and unprecedented steps” to stop migrants passing through Mexico have been taken, the Mexican government still “needs to do more.”

In the months since the United States instituted the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the government has sent more than 15,000 people to Ciudad Juárez. Migrants face violence and lack access to both shelter and legal council. According to a migrant from Honduras, “I would rather be detained, and put into prison in the United States, than stay in Mexico.” Recently, advocates in El Paso told us that the timeline for pursuing an asylum claim under “Remain in Mexico,” is deeply uncertain, but could take up to two years. Against this backdrop, the increasing impossibility of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border northwards means that asylum seekers from Central America may become the next vulnerable, semi-permanent migrant population that the maquiladora industry will use to fill vacancies as demand increases. López Obrador has also floated projects that would integrate migrants into planned mega-projects in southern Mexico.

Even with the new federal initiative to set up migrant shelters along the border, and pre-existing coordination with the maquiladora industry, connecting migrants with job opportunities has been slow. In response, the national president of INDEX, Luis Aguirre Lang, explained that in the coming months, efforts to promote vacancies for Central American migrants who have a work permit in Mexico will intensify, citing the benefits of putting migrants to work in maquiladoras. “We are working with the Ministry of Labor to create a precise strategy for all Central American migrants who are stranded in border municipalities. Remember, our industry has been strengthened by this type of phenomena.”

The coordination between the government and the private sector may also be part of an effort to increase control over maquiladora workers, a control which has been challenged by strong labor mobilizations in Ciudad Juárez and Matamoros in recent years. In any case, it is clear that the Leona Vicario Center, and others like it that will be opened along the border, is a small part of an ongoing effort to put migrants to work in northern Mexican border cities.

More than half a century has passed since the birth of the maquiladora put Ciudad Juárez on the map as a center of manufacturing in the global economy. In 2019, we are witnessing the inaugural stage of a new cycle in the long-standing relationship between this model of economic development—one predicated on the competitiveness of low-cost migrant labor and anti-migrant policies. Like NAFTA, the USMCA makes little reference to immigration reform or worker mobility. While not surprising, it offers little hope for future positive revisions. In concert with recent trade and labor policies, the current slew of anti-migrant initiatives —and efforts to further militarize border communities— only deepen the precarity and immobility of both migrants and border residents.

Mass Shooting In Puerto Rico Leaves 6 Dead, Governor Calls For Emergency Meeting

PUERTO RICO: Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez called an emergency meeting yesterday after a mass shooting in San Juan MondaySix people were killed: Alexis Antonio Padilla was 21, as was Ángel Henríquez Agosto; Jordan Junior Castillo Cordero and Ermes Omar Sanjurgo were 25; Kathia Matos Sandoval was 26, and Emmanuel Enrique Báez Padilla was 43. Sounds of what may be automatic weapon fire were widespread on social media. Police said the suspects had large guns, but have not confirmed whether or not they were automatic or semi-automatic weapons. The investigation is still ongoing.



BRAZIL: A seven-story building collapsed in the eastern city of Fortaleza yesterday. One person died and rescuers removed 10 survivors from the rubble. Authorities said that 10 people are missing and could still be trapped in the debris. Two of the trapped people called relatives on their cellphones as emergency personnel searched for them. The building was located in an upscale neighborhood. Locals said the building had maintenance and foundation problems.


VENEZUELA: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government raised the minimum wage of state workers to $15 a month on Monday. The hike will result in a 350% increase in the minimum wage, including state subsidies and bonuses. Opposition leaders immediately criticized the increase as an insult to working people.

ECUADOR: President Lenín Moreno returned to the Carondelet Presidential Palace yesterday after reaching an agreement to end massive Indigenous protests. Moreno took control of the presidential palace in a ceremony where he hung up the national flag, saying he had defended peace, democracy, justice and civilian rights. Moreno fled to the coastal city of Guayaquil last week due to riots caused by his decision to end fuel subsidies. The protests left six dead and 1,330 injured—a third of whom were police.


HAITI: President Jovenel Moïse said yesterday he will not resign, as protests calling for him to step down enter their fifth week. In a surprise news conference, Moïse said it would be irresponsible for him to resign and he would only step down if he were voted out through elections. A fuel shortage and inflation have escalated the near-daily protests in Haiti. Protesters are also denouncing rampant corruption. The demonstrations have shut down roads and schools, and at least 18 people have died in clashes with police.


GUATEMALA: Guatemala’s newly created “truth commission” to hear testimonies against the recently shuttered UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, began public hearings yesterday. Congress formed the commission on Monday to hear from people who claim they were victims of CICIG. Last month, Guatemala’s congress attempted to create a similar truth commission to investigate CICIG, but the supreme court suspended it. CICIG ended its operations in Guatemala in early September after investigating corruption for 12 years. The group investigated several high-ranking officials including former President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned after CICIG uncovered a criminal network operating within their administration.

PANAMA: Arquesio Arias, deputy of Panama’s Democratic Revolutionary Party, insisted Monday he is innocent of charges that he sexually abused two sisters, one of whom was a minor, in 2018. According to the complaint, Arias was working as a doctor in the town of Ustupo when the abuse occurred. He admits the two women were his patients. President Laurentino Cortizo, of the same party, said yesterday if he were Arias he would separate from the party.


MEXICO: The family members of the 13 police officers killed in a cartel ambush grieved outside a funeral home in  the southwestern Mexico state of Michoacán. Mourners were angry at the government and police chiefs for sending their loved ones to “certain death,” according to the Associated Press. There were only eight coffins at the memorial service, as the remaining five families refused to participate. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called the attack “regrettable” but stood by his security approach.

MEXICO: Under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, asylum seekers are forced to stay as they continue to await court hearings in the United States. The growing number of migrants has led the Mexico’s government to ship them south, making it near impossible for migrants to return to the U.S. border to further their asylum claims. In July, Mexico’s immgration agency started a bus system, calling the 40-hour trips a “free, voluntary and secure” alternative for migrants who do not want to wait in northern border towns. Critics say the offer is a thinly-veiled ploy to encourage migrants to abandon their U.S. asylum claims and go back to Central America.

MEXICO: Mexican authorities stopped a caravan of 2,000 migrants as they made their way to the United States. Authorities halted the caravan 24 miles north of the southern Mexican city of Tapachula. Officials rounded up the migrants and placed them in vans, but refused to say where they were transporting them. Almost half of the caravan members surrendered to immigration authorities, while others escaped.

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Experts Say Rate Of HIV Infections Among US Latinos Is An ‘Invisible Crisis’

While overall HIV infection rates have reportedly decreased in recent years, a new report and infographic by New York University’s Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health and the Latino Commission on AIDS shows that rates have increased for Latinos in the U.S. Released on National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day, experts behind the research project called the issue an “invisible crisis.”

“Persistent HIV disparities among U.S. Hispanics/Latinos represent a significant challenge to national goals for ending the HIV epidemic by 2030,” the report states.

According to the report, Latino MSM (men who have sex with men) had the largest increase in estimated annual infections of all racial/ethnic and transmission groups, and one in four transgender Latinas are estimated to live with HIV.

National Latinx AIDS Awareness Day was created to fight stigma and to raise the alarm on the impact the disease has on the Hispanic community. Several organizations, advocates and political representatives have shared tweets with information on HIV/AIDS.

Along with the report, an infographic with more information was released. Watch it here:


Argentine Presidential Candidates Duel At First Public Debate

ARGENTINA: Argentina’s six presidential candidates participated in their first public debate broadcast from the city of Santa Fe yesterday. Front-runner Alberto Fernández and current President Mauricio Macri faced off over the state of the Argentine economy, past corruption scandals and a national debate over abortion legalization. Fernández took a more aggressive position during the debate, calling Macri a liar and constantly denouncing his history as president.

Fernández called for “getting Argentina back on its feet” and returning to a “productive economy,” a reference to the financial crisis Macri has been unable to resolve. He also took a clear stance in favor of legalizing abortion, an issue of heightened debate in the past year, while Macri remained neutral on the subject. However, Macri fired back by bringing up past corruption within Fernández’s running mate’s, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, administration. The second and final debate before the Oct. 27 presidential elections will be held in Buenos Aires on Sunday.



BRAZIL: The northeastern state of Bahia has declared a state of emergency as at least 20 of its beaches were contaminated by an oil spill over the weekend. Brazil’s environment minister has stated that the oil, which began to appear in Brazil in early September, is most likely coming from Venezuela. Caracas has denied any involvement and authorities are still trying to find the source of the spill.


ECUADOR: The United Nations reported yesterday that Ecuador’s government has agreed to a deal with Indigenous leaders that will put an end to the protests that took place in Quito over an end to fuel subsidies. The agreement was reached late Sunday after talks between both sides, which were brokered by the UN and the Catholic Church. A joint statement declares, “With this agreement, the mobilizations… across Ecuador are terminated and we commit ourselves to restoring peace in the country.” Yesterday, demonstrators, students and local residents started a clean-up of a park in Quito where the anti-austerity protests occurred.


CUBA: As the United States continues to punish Cuba with sanctions for supporting Venezuela, Cubans are finding ways around the resulting oil shortage, according to The Guardian.  President Miguel Díaz-Canel said the island is operating with 62 percent of its oil needs while workers have replaced tractors with oxen in the sugarcane fields and other businesses use firewood instead of relying on oil. The U.S. State Department says the sanctions are necessary to force Cuba to stop supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.


PANAMA: The construction company FCC Construcción América S.A., owned by Mexican business tycoon Carlos Slim, is looking to strike a deal with the attorney general’s office in the coming weeks following its admission to paying bribes in Panama, according to an investigation by La Estrella de Panamá. Its parent company Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas S.A., headquartered in Madrid, is also under investigation in Spain, but will remain open until the case in Panama is closed. The attorney general’s office has proposed a fine of $20 million but La Estrella de Panamá noted that the office has struggled to enforce punishments with similarly high-profile cases.

GUATEMALA: The National Civil Police and the Armed Forces of Guatemala located and destroyed a narco-laboratory and cocaine plantations over the weekend in the region of Izabal, near the Honduran border, according to República GT. Law enforcement agents and government officials had to climb hills and and cross a river to reach the remote location.


UNITED STATES: The U.S. Census Bureau has requested drivers’ license records, which usually include citizenship data, from several states. Civil rights groups have voiced their alarm at the measure, specifically the possibility that this practice could discourage Latino participation in the next census. Census data could change congressional seating and reallocate federal funding, even if that data does not accurately represent a state’s population because minorities were dissuaded from participating. Demographers working with the bureau speculate that the request for driver’s license records is a response to President Donald Trump’s executive action ordering the bureau to obtain citizenship information through other means after the Supreme Court blocked a citizenship question from appearing on the 2020 Census.

MEXICO: Following the deaths of three soldiers in September, 3,000 community police officers in Guerrero are preparing to take action against the drug cartel, Cartel del Sur. The officers believe this cartel is responsible for the September attack in the town of Balzamar. Community police had been preparing to attack the cartel long before the September 26 attack, but they found their plans delayed in the aftermath. The police have prepared for an incursion into 24 cartel-controlled communities.

MEXICO: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador plans to write a letter to congressional Democrats in the United States, asking for a quick approval of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could bring the deal to a vote at any moment, but Democrats have raised concerns about how far the agreement would go to protect the environment and jobs for American workers. Taking note of these concerns over workers’ rights, AMLO has promised to implement a new labor law. AMLO is particularly concerned about settling the fate of the USMCA before it can be “contaminated” by the U.S. presidential election.

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The Movement For Indigenous Peoples’ Day

In the U.S., the second Monday in October is reserved for Columbus Day, in honor of the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus.

But not everyone is on board with celebrating Columbus. His colonization of the “new world” led to the bloodshed of Indigenous people and while he did arrive to the Americas, he never set foot in North America. So how did this federal holiday in the U.S. come to be?

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing local movement in cities and states throughout the country, to officially replace the federal holiday of Columbus Day with a day of recognition for Indigenous people. The movement started in 1990, when South Dakota celebrated Native American Day for the first time.

“Indigenous Peoples’ Day really opens up this opportunity for conversations and for visibility,” says Elizabeth Ellis, assistant professor of early American and Native American history at New York University.

Latino USA explores the history of the U.S. holiday, the battle for change, and pays a visit to one of the latest states to make Indigenous Peoples’ Day official: Maine.

Featured image by David McNew/Getty Images. 

At Least Five Dead As Tensions Escalate In Ecuador Amid Fuel Crisis Protests

ECUADOR: The crisis in Ecuador continues to escalate as the public defender’s office today said that five people —including one Indigenous woman— have died since the protests began on October 2. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has taken four policemen as hostages in Quito’s Cultural Center, according to EFE. Jaime Vargas, the leader of CONAIE, called on the Indigenous communities to “radicalize the actions” and confirmed that the group will not speak with a “murderous government.” The Indigenous communities arrived in Quito earlier this week and have been protesting all over Ecuador due to Moreno’s decision to end government fuel subsidies.



BRAZIL: Environment minister Ricardo Salles accused Venezuela of spilling the oil that has reached 132 beaches in nine northeastern states. Salles addressed the oil spill that has been expanding for a month in front of Congress last Thursday. While the exact amount of oil that’s been contaminating the beaches is still unknown, Petrobras’ chief executive Roberto Castello estimated that the number is near 500 barrels, and therefore ruled out a tanker cleaning operation as the possible cause.


COLOMBIA: The heads of the political party of the former guerrilla group FARC officially requested that the party’s ethics committee expel Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich, the two leaders that took back their arms in August, jeopardizing the peace agreement that the former guerrilla group signed in 2016 with the Colombian government. In a news release, the political party stated that the FARC is a place “to fight for democratic transformations … in which armed expressions have no place.” Even if the majority of former guerilla members are still transitioning into civilian life, according to official data, at least 3,200 men and women have rejoined the new dissident groups.


REGION: The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization launched an emergency project last week to try to save banana crops across Latin America and the Caribbean that are threatened by a fungus known as Fusarium wilt or TR4, according to a news release from the UN. It is the “world’s greatest threat to bananas,” according to the World Banana Forum, and it could potentially lead to critical food and income shortages if it is not contained.

JAMAICA: Former Education Minister Ruel Reid was arrested on Wednesday in connection to corruption and fraud. The police investigation focused on a multi-million dollar scheme involving the Ministry of Education, Caribbean Maritime University (CMU) and other government bodies overseen by Reid, which have been suspected of misappropriating government funds. Reid had previously resigned from his position as minister and gave up his seat in the senate in March, amid increasing accusations. Arrest warrants were also served to the residence of the university’s current president, Fritz Pinnock.


NICARAGUA: New estimates by the World Bank released yesterday show that Nicaragua’s GDP is expected to fall over the next three years, despite President Daniel Ortega’s promise to grow the country’s economy. The World Bank forecasts a 5 percent fall by the end of this year, which would represent the greatest decline among Latin American countries. Ovidio Reyes, president of the Central Bank of Nicaragua, had previously pledged a 1 percent increase this year. “What is coming is a kind of recovery, and that recovery is going to be faster or slower depending on our funding,” Reyes said. While the World Bank will not forecast economic growth for Nicaragua until 2021, Latin America as a region is expected to increase its wealth by 1.8 percent this year.


U.S.-MEXICO BORDER: Hundreds of migrants from Central America camped out on a Matamoros-Brownsville bridge yesterday, leading to its temporary closure. Yesterday’s camp-out on the Mexican side of Matamoros bridge appeared to be more of a protest than an attempt to cross as migrants told the media they were tired of waiting to make their initial claims for asylum in the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that, as of noon, the Gateway International Bridge remained closed and that traffic was interrupted for a few hours before dawn, but was later reopened.

MEXICO: Business and church leaders say they are being hit by a wave of extortion demands by criminal gangs in Mexico’s north-central state of Guanajuato, according to the Associated Press. The state, once wealthy and considered a success story for attracting high-tech manufacturing investment, is now being targeted by criminals after the federal government’s crackdown on pipeline fuel theft earlier this year. Guanajuato’s homicide rate has also spiked with 2,275 murders in the state in the first eight months of 2019, more than double than in the same period of 2017.

UNITED STATES: Alleged El Paso mass shooter Patrick W. Crusius pled not guilty to capital murder yesterday. Crusius, 21, is accused of murdering 22 people at an El Paso Walmart on August 3, the deadliest attack on Hispanics in recent U.S. history. The state’s indictment does not accuse Crusius of a hate crime, but federal prosecutors have said they are considering such charges.

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A Day In The Life Of Pitbull

Armando Christian Pérez —better known as Pitbull— is a rapper, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, brand ambassador and has a whole host of other job titles. As his nearly two-decade long career has diversified, his image and brand have solidified. He was a meme before memes were a thing thanks to his signature sunglasses, tailored suits and catchphrase “dale.” He rose to prominence off hit bilingual records like “Culo” and “Toma” in the early 2000’s and became a household name thanks to wedding and quinceañera classics like “Give Me Everything” and “Time of Our Lives.”

Pitbull often cites the growing Latino demographic as integral to his success. Today, the demographic that catapulted Pitbull to the top music charts is facing greater open discrimination than at any other point during Pitbull’s career.

Latino USA followed Pitbull over the course of a day when he was in New York City to speak at the AdWeek marketing conference and sat down for an interview with him at his hotel. The Cuban-American entertainer opens up about his thoughts on President Trump, the state of immigration, why he won’t stop making music with Chris Brown, and how country music is not just for white folk.

Featured image courtesy of Randall Slavin. 

Panama Celebrates Its Black Christ, Part Of Protest Against Colonialism And Slavery

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Latino USA

By S. Kyle Johnson, Boston College

Panama’s “Festival del Cristo Negro,” the festival of the “Black Christ,” is an important religious holiday for local Catholics. It honors a dark, life-sized wooden statue of Jesus, “Cristo Negro”—also known as “El Nazareno,” or “The Nazarene.”

Throughout the year, pilgrims come to pay homage to this statue of Christ carrying a cross, in its permanent home in Iglesia de San Felipe, a Roman Catholic parish church located in Portobelo, a city along the Caribbean coast of Panama.

But it is on October 21 each year that the major celebration takes place. As many as 60,000 pilgrims from Portobelo and beyond travel for the festival, in which 80 men with shaved heads carry the black Christ statue on a large float through the streets of the city.

The men use a common Spanish style for solemn parades —three steps forward and two steps backward— as they move through the city streets. The night continues with music, drinking and dancing.

In my research on the relationship between Christianity, colonialism and racism, I have discovered that such festivals play a crucial role for historically oppressed peoples.

About 9 percent of Panama’s population claims African descent, many of whom are concentrated in Portobelo’s surrounding province of Colón. Census data from 2010 shows that over 21 percent of Portobelo’s population claim African heritage or black identity.

To Portobelo’s inhabitants, especially those who claim African descent, the festival is more than a religious celebration. It is a form of protest against Spanish colonialism, which brought with it slavery and racism.

History Of The Statue

Portobelo’s black Christ statue is a fascinating artifact of Panama’s colonial history. While there is little certainty as to its origin, many scholars believe the statue arrived in Portobelo in the 17th century—a time when the Spanish dominated Central America and brought in enslaved people from Africa.

Cristo Negro. (Photo by Adam Jones/Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Various legends circulate in Panama as to how the black Christ got to Portobelo. Some maintain that the statue originated in Spain, others that it was locally made, or that it washed ashore miraculously.

One of the most common stories maintains that a storm forced a ship from Spain, which was delivering the statue to another city, to dock in Portobelo. Every time the ship attempted to leave, the storms would return.

Eventually, the story goes, the statue was thrown overboard. The ship was then able to depart with clear skies. Later, local fishermen recovered the statue from the sea.

The statue was placed in its current home, Iglesia de San Felipe, in the early 19th century.

Stories of miracles added to its mystique. Among the legends in circulation is one about how prayers to the black Christ spared the city from a plague ravaging the region in the 18th century.

Catholicism And African identity

Since its exact origins are unknown, so are the artistic intention behind the Jesus statue. However the figure’s blackness has made it an object of particular devotion for locals of African descent.

At the time of the arrival of Cristo Negro, the majority of the Portobelo’s population was of African descent. This cultural heritage is significant to the city’s identity and traditions.

The veneration of the statue represents one of many ways that the black residents of Portobelo and the surrounding Colón region of Panama have engendered a sense of resistance to racism and slavery.

Each year around the time of Lent, local men and women across Colón —where slavery was particularly widespread— dramatize the story of self-liberated black slaves known as the Cimarrones. This reenactment is one of a series of celebrations, or “carnivals,” observed around the time of Lent by those who identify with the cultural tradition known colloquially as “Congo.” The term Congo was originally used by the Spanish colonists for anyone of African descent. It is now is used for traditions that can be traced back to the Cimarrones.

During the carnival celebration, some local people dress up as the devil, meant to represent Spanish slave masters or complicit priests. Others don the dress of the Cimarrones.

Many of the participants in both the black Christ and carnival celebrations of Panama are Catholics as well. Together they participate to bring to light the Catholic Church’s complex relationship with Spanish colonization and slavery. Many Catholic leaders in the 16th to 18th centuries justified the enslavement of Africans and the colonization of the Americas, or at least did not object to it.

A Revered Tradition

Many people from throughout Panama have donated robes to clothe the statue. The colors of the robes donned by the statue varies throughout the year. Purple is reserved for the October celebrations, which likely reflects the use of purple in Catholic worship to signify suffering.

The different colored robes that are put on the statue of Cristo Negro. (Photo by Ali Eminov/Flickr, CC BY-NC)

These robes draped on Panama’s black Christ are meant to represent those placed on Jesus when he was mockingly dressed in royal garb by the soldiers torturing him before his crucifixion.

Evoking this scene perhaps serves to remind the viewer of the deeper theological meaning of Jesus’s suffering as it is often understood in Christianity: Although Jesus is the Son of God prophesied to save God’s people from suffering and should thus be treated like royalty, he was tortured and executed as a common criminal. His suffering is understood to save people from their sins.
The Conversation

Some pilgrims specifically come during the October festival to seek forgiveness for any sinful actions. Some wear their own purple robes, the color indicating a sign of their suffering – and, of course, that of the black Christ.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Massive Indigenous March In Quito Demands Moreno’s Resignation

ECUADOR: Protests in Ecuador continue for the sixth day as President Lenín Moreno refuses to step down or overturn austerity measures. Indigenous leaders and protesters converged on Quito, the country’s capital, to protest austerity measures that Moreno has undertaken in order to receive a $4.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreno, who previously vowed he would never end fuel subsidies in the country, relocated his government to Guayaquil yesterday to avoid protests being held in Quito, an act that further angered protesters. Moreno has said that he is “open to dialogue.” Violence among protesters has increased, and Quito is under curfew, where 570 people have been detained as of Tuesday.



BRAZIL: The oil spill polluting beaches in northeastern Brazil has likely come from Venezuela, according to a report from Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the state-run oil company. Brazilian authorities have spent over a month investigating the source of more than 100 tons of crude oil that have spilled over nine Brazilian states, contaminating over 130 beaches. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles told the Brazilian congress yesterday that the spill is “enormously difficult to contain.” Petróleos de Venezuela, the state-run oil company of Venezuela, has not yet responded.

BRAZIL: Marielle Franco, the LGBTQ activist and former Rio de Janeiro councilwoman who was shot last year, has been nominated for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, a top human rights prize awarded by the European Union. Before Franco and her driver were killed in 2018, she had been a vocal critic of police brutality and extrajudicial killings in Brazil. Franco was also an advocate for women’s and LGBTQ rights. Past awardees of the Sakharov Prize include the Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai. The 2019 award winner will be announced on October 24.


ECUADOR: Anti-austerity protests in Ecuador have impacted the oil output of the country, as operations have been suspended by the state-run oil company Petroamazonas. The disruption has cost the country 232,000 barrels-per-day of production, according to Carlos Perez, the country’s energy minister. In a statement on Tuesday, the Ministry of Energy explained that the suspension is due to three oil fields being “taken by individuals not affiliated with the operations.” Protests have also complicated operations at the private oil company Petrobell.


EL SALVADOR: The Salvadoran government began a mass trial of 400 alleged gang members on Tuesday. Included among the 400 on trial are 17 supposed leaders of the MS-13 crime network. Court arguments are likely to last until November because of the trial’s immense size. Close to 100 defense lawyers are assigned to the case and only 16 suspects attended court on Tuesday while others joined the hearing by prison video conferences.

PANAMA: The Panama Canal concluded the 2019 fiscal year by reporting record high tonnage shipped through the canal. The canal received shipments of 469 million tons this fiscal year, a 6.2% increase from last year. Alternative energy sources were responsible for a large increase in the shipments: boats powered by liquid natural gas and liquid petroleum gas sailed the canal in higher rates than previous years, with natural gas-powered ships seeing a 37.6% increase.


HAITI: Leaders of the Haitian opposition announced that they will continue to protest on the streets until President Jovenel Moïse resigns. Some leaders said a demonstration within the president’s current residence is planned for tomorrow. For the past month, Haitians have taken to the streets to protest a number of economic and political problems, including fuel shortages and misappropriation of government aid. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said the United States will not be playing a role during the political unrest and that “who they choose as leaders are up to the processes that they run internally.” So far, at least 18 protesters have died while participating in anti-government riots.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Police discovered dozens of prisoners at a rehabilitation center in the town of Arouca yesterday. The officers reported that the 65 men and 4 women had been kept in chains and cages in conditions resembling “modern-day slavery” at the Transformed Life Ministry Rehabilitation Centre. Police Commissioner Gary Griffith called the operation “human trafficking,” noting that some prisoners had been kept at the facility for years. Police arrested six individuals at the center.


MEXICO: On Wednesday, thousands of people gathered in Mexico City to pay their respects to singer José José. The iconic Latin American artist was memorialized in a tribute at the Palace of Fine Arts and a Mass at one of Mexico’s most important Roman Catholic shrines. Close relatives, famous Mexican artists, and Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum —as well as other Mexican officials— were present. The Department of Culture estimates that around 15,000 came to say goodbye to one of the most famous Mexican singers of all time.

MEXICO: Eleven people were arrested in Las Margaritas, a municipality in the state of Chiapas, after allegedly chaining and dragging their mayor through town. Dozens of police officers intervened to free Mayor Jorge Luis Escandón Hernández after he was kidnapped, leaving his mayoral office and tied to a pickup truck. Footage of the incident shows Hernández tied with rope around his hands to the back of a truck being dragged through street roads. Hernández reportedly suffered no significant injuries and plans on pressing charges for the abduction and attempted murder. This is the second time locals have attacked Hernández due to anger over unfulfilled campaign promises.

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‘Green Tide’ Reaches Mexico As Oaxaca Decriminalizes Abortion

This article was originally published in Latin America News Dispatch. View the original story here.

By Cecilia Nowell

The chambers of the state legislature in Oaxaca, Mexico, exploded with shouts of joy and rage September 25 as the region voted to decriminalize first-trimester abortions in a 24-10 vote. In the gallery, Catholic protesters chanted, “Assassins! Assassins!” while awaiting the vote. But when the decision was announced, feminist activists, clad in the green bandanas that have become the symbol of the Latin American pro-abortion movement, broke out in shouts of “Latin America will be entirely feminist.”

The vote exemplified the division between Mexico’s deep Catholic, traditionally anti-abortion roots and its growing feminist movements. This tension was on full display in the chambers. Feminist activist Patricia Matus was one of the women celebrating in the legislature when the vote was announced.

“The environment was horrible,” she said, describing pro-life demonstrators holding mass outside the state building, a verbal argument between male and female representatives that nearly delayed the vote and shouting in the gallery.

“We, who are not accustomed to silencing ourselves, kept silent,” Matus said. But, “when we counted the votes in favor, our silence burst into shouts of joy.”

Latin America has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, with only Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico City and now Oaxaca guaranteeing the procedure in the first trimester for any reason. Abortion is legal in cases of rape across all of Mexico, but each of the country’s states makes its own laws beyond that. In 2007, Mexico City decriminalized abortion before 12 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of a woman’s reason for requesting the procedure. Elsewhere, such as in Chile, Argentina and Colombia, abortion is available in specific circumstances, including rape, incest, fetal deformity or risk to the mother’s health. In El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua abortion is completely banned.

But a growing pro-abortion movement across Latin America has seen countries revisiting their abortion laws this past year. That feminist activism, combined with the support of Mexico’s MORENA party representatives, may see changes to abortion laws beyond Oaxaca.

A Wave In Oaxaca

Abortion activists across Mexico were as shocked as the women at the state house when the news broke on social media.

“It was only in the last two weeks that we started to see this possibility, but honestly we did not think it was possible,” said Veronica Cruz, a member of Las Libres, a feminist organization working on issues of reproductive rights in the state of Guanajato, Mexico. “We understand that local feminists and representatives strategized to keep a low profile so as not to draw the attention of the anti-rights groups when they saw that they would have the votes to legalize.”

Matus explained that a network of feminists had organized an abortion rights movement in Oaxaca. Some of the activists approached MORENA representatives, members of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s social-democratic party, to bring the abortion debate to the state legislature.

Although the president has not explicitly prioritized women’s rights or abortion access, his government did tweet its congratulations to the state of Oaxaca: “Our democracy is strengthened by the extension of rights and the recognition of women’s autonomy to decide about their own bodies.”

A Larger Tide

To maintain the force of the pro-choice movement in Mexico, activists will have to adapt strategies that worked in Oaxaca to each of Mexico’s 32 states. Specifically, gaining the support of friendly state representatives, like the members of the MORENA party who supported the bill in Oaxaca.

“The abortion movement in Mexico is very focused on local and regional battles” because abortion laws can be approved by state or federal governments, said Daniela Tejas, co-coordinator of the Mexico City-based abortion fund Fondo MARIA. Now that Oaxaca has decriminalized abortion, “we have to see what the reaction is going to be and encourage other states,” Tejas said. “In addition, and more importantly, we have to be able to replicate the support that was given by the MORENA party in other states.”

The Latin American pro-choice movement, or so-called “green tide,” started in Argentina in the summer of 2018, when feminists took to the streets outside the country’s congress as the nation’s house of representatives and senate debated a bill to legalize abortion. Though the bill narrowly failed in the senate, abortion became less taboo: Women now wear the green bandanas of the pro-abortion movement every day in Buenos Aires. One of the senators who did support the bill in 2018 was former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is now running for vice president. Although Kirchner did not support abortion during her presidency, she has cautiously supported it as a vice presidential candidate. As presidential elections approach this month, Argentine feminists are likely to favor the Fernández-Fernández ticket over the more conservative incumbent Mauricio Macri.

Mass demonstrations to legalize abortion in Argentina in 2018 became known as “the green wave,” referring to the growing support for the National Campaign. Here, an artist painted a green wave rolling over the Argentine congress. (Photo by Cecilia Nowell)

Argentine feminists continue the fight to legalize all abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the pro-choice movement that they sparked spread across the continent. In mid-September, pro-choice activists protested in Quito when the Ecuadorian national assembly voted against a bill that would have expanded abortion access to all women who have been raped.

But the green tide hasn’t reached all of Latin America. In El Salvador, Evelyn Hernández was a teenager when she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a miscarriage that prosecutors said she forced. Although she’s been released, the state is still pursuing a case against her. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, the case of 16-year-old Leukemia patient “Esperancita” sparked debate when doctors refused to treat her with chemotherapy at risk of ending her pregnancy. In 2017, Dominican lawmakers considered and then halted a bill which would have allowed women to legally access an abortion in cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment or risk to the mother’s health.

The opposition to abortion remains strong across Latin America, even in places like Oaxaca. Pro-life organizations have publicized the names of MORENA representatives who voted to legalize abortion in Oaxaca and are compiling the names of senators and representatives in other states who may support abortion. Thousands of pro-life, Catholic Mexicans gathered at the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral to pray on Sept. 28 while feminists demonstrated for International Safe Abortion Day.

The green bandanas that Mexican feminists wore in Oaxaca’s state congress Sept. 25 reflect the transnational bond of the green tide. In Argentina, the bandana reads “National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion: Sexual Education to Decide, Contraception to Not Abort, Legal Abortion to Not Die.” Chilean feminists wear green scarves that read “Liberated, Safe, and Free Abortion: The Three Causes Are Not Enough,” referring to the Chilean government’s decision to legalize abortion only under three circumstances—rape, fetal deformity or risk to the mother’s health.  In Ecuador, feminists wear green scarves that say “Liberate Abortion Ecuador.”

And, in Mexico, the green bandana depicts the intertwined hands of two women, one tattooed and the other wearing Argentina’s green bandana, alongside the popular pro-abortion slogans “Legal Abortion Now” and “Legal Abortion for All Mexico.”

Youth activists, from children accompanying their parents to crowds of high school students and recent graduates, turn out in mass to pro-abortion rallies in Latin America. Spray-painting slogans like “motherhood will be desired or it will not be” and chanting “legal abortion in the hospital,” young activists reinvigorated a pro-choice movement that has roots in the United Nations’ World Conferences on Women of the 1970s and 80s.

“From Argentina, a young and feminist movement called the green tide was revived,” said Cruz, acknowledging that Latin America’s feminist movement is not new, just newly popular. “The feminist movement in Mexico has fresh air and above all more energy with the entry of many young people.”

A Reinvigorated Movement

That fresh air reanimated the feminist movement in Mexico beyond solely pro-choice activism. In March, the #MeToo movement hit Mexico in full force when women began posting their stories of assault and harassment on social media. The movement came in waves, as women from different professions began denouncing men in each industry: first the writers, then professors, doctors, lawyers and more.

The #MeToo movement represented an important shift in Mexican feminism. Mexico has historically seen incredibly high rates of gender violence. In 2018 alone, the United Nations recorded 898 femicides, the second-highest number for a Latin American country. Sexual violence is its own beast: In a 2016 report, Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography, and Information reported that 4.4 million women were victims of childhood sexual abuse, 32.8 million had experienced mistreatment from obstetricians, and 41.3% of those surveyed were survivors of sexual violence.

Unsafe abortion is also the fourth leading cause of maternal death in the country, according to the Information Group on Reproductive Choice. The top five causes of maternal mortality worldwide are hemorrhage, sepsis, unsafe abortion, eclampsia and obstructed labor.

“There is definitely a positioning of feminist themes on the public agenda,” Tejas said. “However, there is also a rebound from the groups that oppose the feminist struggle and we have to fight with great attention to our security.”

This weekend, just days after Oaxaca decriminalized abortion, thousands of Mexican women took to the streets for demonstrations on International Safe Abortion Day. From Veracruz to Monterrey and Mexico City, women gathered together to hold their green bandanas aloft at symbolic pañuelazos. The hashtag #GritoGlobalPorAbortoLegal (A Global Shout for Legal Abortion) trended on Twitter alongside #AbortoLegalYa (Legal Abortion Now) and #AbortoLegalParaTodoMexico (Legal Abortion for All Mexico).

If this week is any indication, Oaxaca may be just the first ripple of the green tide’s arrival in Mexico. As Cruz said, “I think that on this same wave and the next we will see more states doing the same as Oaxaca.”

This piece was co-published with NACLA.