September 20, 2002

Empowerment Brings Change

The community of Ejido Chilpancingo work to clean up their neighborhood

By Mariana Martinez

Between heat and dust

TIJUANA, B.C. — Between heat and dust, I drive towards the Ejido Chilpancingo neighborhood. A foul smell I name “Acrylic nail parlor”, envelopes you, and then, it goes away, and then comes this “crazy glue” like smell that dissolves into a soft and bitter, vinegar smell.

My head begins to pound in pain: keep driving, I say.

Looking back on it, I did what the residents of Ejido Chilpancingo tried to do for years: ignore the source of malaise and keep on.

But day-by-day the quality of life had diminished so much, it is no longer an option to turn one’s head, or take an aspirin.

Lourdes Lujan y Magdelena Cerda Baes.

Tijuana is one of the Mexican cities with highest foreign investment in the maquiladora industry. It is a great location, sharing the border with the rich state of California, with a migration rate that constantly brings new people looking for jobs -and the number of low paying jobs this industry requires- and considering the low cost of building and operating in this country, Tijuana is the perfect city to have a maquiladora.

But with these new industries comes the use of harmful chemicals and most of this industries, have failed to dispose properly of these chemicals.

Due to the number of complaints, the bad smells, skin rashes, blisters and ulcers, the breathing problems reported in the area, the Environmental Health Coalition decided it was time to do something and establish a program in the area.

Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) located in San Diego, is a multi-issue organization that educates the community and works as an advocate to better the quality of life. One of their programs is “pro- environmental justice”, which was established in Tijuana that works as a community advisor in order to assess problems and work to fix them.

For two years now, Magdalena Cerda, has headed the pro-environmental justice program as its coordinator and recalls that there were people who where all ready organizing, looking for information and had started to establish what was wrong. By talking with those who worked at the maquila-dora they heard from employees who ‘always have a cold’ or of ‘having a runny nose all year long’. These workers had come to terms with their illness, considering it the price they had to pay to have a job. They didn’t know better. They didn’t know that they had rights.

By talking to the people, the Pro-Justice in Ejido Chilpancingo Colective started assessing priorities, like the education and job security measures of the people that worked in the maquiladora.

Another priority was the cleaning of the Lamar stream that ends up in the Tijuana River. For long time residents they remember when the stream was clear, but years of chemical abuse and litter have turned it into a health hazard.

“When the stream would start to flow, and it wasn’t even the rainy season, the kids would play in the puddles. You know how kids are. They would play in the water, and got blisters all over their feet,” tells Lourdes Lujan. Lujan is one of the promoters of the Collective, and it is stories like this that drives her to give her time and effort to this cause. The defense of her space and community has become a priority, a real battle.

She and her partner, Olga, have been working as community promoters since it began. Together they have managed to establish two working teams, along different parts of the neighborhood, to discuss the worries and problems they all face as a community .

Their main role is to consolidate and guide the groups and put them in contact with other organizations that can help.

The problems go beyond toxic waste.

According to the Mexican statistics institute (INEGI) 20% of Tijuana’s homes are mainly supported by women, women who work in the maquiladoras.

The problems of health and worker’s rights are discussed with the Collective, which in turn works in conjunction with Factor X, a group that provides education, and works as a consultant in gender rights and worker’s rights.

So the objective is to make the community a stronger one, giving them the tools and advice, in order to do what they need to do. They know that they are not alone, and that there are choices and resources. It is the promoter’s job to get people involved and develop their own solutions.

These gatherings take on a festive mood, every two weeks they move the chairs, they set out food, and laughter and gossip fills the air, and then, the laughs and whispers stop, so that the leader’s voice can be heard.

Little by little people are learning to speak out, and become an agent of change.

An example of the people taking charge was the case against Metales y Derivados a company owned by New Frontier Company in San Diego.

A view of Metales y Derivades and the disregard of the cleanup of the area.

After many complaints from the community, to the Mexican environmental authorities, after gathering over 500 signatures, and organizing protests, the case was finally brought to the attention of the Environmental Cooperation Committee, which was established as part of the Free Trade Treaty, who in February of this year, established that, the chemicals that this company manages are of “grave danger to human health” and that “Mexican authorities had failed to enforce there own environmental laws”.

Unfortunately the Environmental Cooperation Committee had no power to enforce the findings and have the area cleaned up.

It wasn’t until after numerous protests that, Metales y Derivados was closed and PROFEPA (a federal environmental protection agency) put up the proper warning signs in the area.

Not everyone is happy by the Collective’s work, one of the neighbors stated: “I don’t know what these people had against Metales y Derivados. It gave jobs to a lot of us. There are a lot of companies in this area, all of them contribute to pollution, why aren’t they against those maquiladoras? I don’t understand.”

It must be hard to look at the greater good while facing poverty.

A brand new day.

After the difficult triumph over Metales y Derivados, Lourdes, Olga and Magdalena now face a group of people who know that they can make a difference, trust there own judgment and feel the power of being a joined voice.

The next step was taken two months ago, by renting a little house that has been set up as a meeting place and office. Painted bright green with lilac curtains and a huge fan, the place still looks more like a warehouse. Until we get rid of the mice-says Lourdes, laughing, we don’t want to bring the donated furniture in.

The working duo of Olga and Lourdes, have organized and collected donated cups, pottery, plants, chairs and tables for the Collective, that soon brightened up the little green and lilac rooms.

The inauguration was like having a huge family over with ‘carne asada’, children running and petting dogs (they love that), ranchero music and a family that was proud.

Now the idea is to establish a tiny ecology library, so school children can do their science projects and other homework. And one of the most ambitious of Magdalena’s plans: adapting a program called SALTA, Salud Ambiental Latinas Tomando Accion (environmental health, Latinas taking action) that includes a series of workshops and training on how to detect toxic waste, and how to manage toxics in their home.

The Collective started of as a place to integrate the community and help them in there defense against environmental hazards, but now it is a lot more than that. The community has shaped it into a forum, a place to share their concerns about their workplace, reproductive health and gender and education issues. They are becoming a community, and making a home; most were not born here but now feel they own it. And they do.

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