Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA: Development, Politics and Participation on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Suzanne Simon has written a valuable and engaging study of the North America Free Trade Agreement and the efficacy of its side agreements to protect labor and the environment by fostering grassroots political participation. Her study’s other stated purpose is to, “provide an ethnographic portrait of life on the border through the eyes and experiences of two different Mexico border groups” (p. 4): maquiladora workers and residents of colonia neighborhoods in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. To accomplish both aims, Suzanne Simon deftly weaves together interviews, participant observation, and primary and secondary literature. Ultimately, she concludes, “The labor and environmental side accords of NAFTA promised a lot and they failed to deliver” (p. 192), an assessment unsurprising to those familiar with the literature about NAFTA and the maquila (export-processing) industry. However, this is not a trek over well-worn ground. The study offers a fresh and intriguing ethnographic assessment of macroeconomic policy from the perspective of grassroots advocates along Mexico’s border. Through textured descriptions and grounded analysis, the book movingly illustrates how those at the margins pay the highest costs of these policies and the entrenched obstacles they face in their struggles for environmental and labor justice.

A well organized text, the introduction presents Rosalia, a leader of colonia residents who, as Simon’s key consultant, ties together the six chapters which follow. Initial chapters set the stage, demonstrating how NAFTA’s proponents co-opted environmentalist and democratic discourses during its path to adoption and promised a Mexican transition to sustainability, transparency, and civic participation. Simon discusses how heightened expectations of civic activism are a hallmark of “the age of NAFTA” expressed in the book’s title, and thus contextualizes the advocacy by maquila workers and colonia residents examined in later chapters. A concise history of the border follows, emphasizing the establishment of the maquiladora industry and its record of environmental destruction, which was accelerated by the industry’s expansion under NAFTA. In subsequent chapters, she details the marginal conditions in which maquila workers and colonia residents live and work.  Readers will find evocative narratives of impoverished migrants subjected to the “wasting practices” (p. 61) of the maquila industry, including toxic runoff in the colonias, debilitating repetitive stress injuries, and most horrific, clusters of children born with anencephaly and other defects.

Remaining chapters present four case studies of maquila workers’ and colonia residents’ efforts to seek recourse and advocate for justice, a sharp contrast with the inflated rhetoric of NAFTA’s proponents.  Two of these cases studies directly involve organizations established by the NAFTA side agreements. The other two involve external organizations. The result is an assessment of the ethos of participation and building of alliances (especially transnational ones) that, as Simon argues, NAFTA’s proponents presupposed the side agreements would foster rather than a test of the side agreements as defined by the agencies NAFTA established, such as the CEC, BECC, and NADBank. While a more powerful thesis, Simon could have drawn this distinction more sharply. Nevertheless, the case studies are vivid testaments to the obstacles workers and residents encounter in their efforts to construct alliances, whether cross-border or within Matamoros, while maneuvering in a complex environment of powerful state agencies, other local actors, and macroeconomic policy.

One of the study’s greatest strengths is its ethnographic illustration of marginality through intersecting identities of class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality as these identity categories shape power differentials within the groups, exacerbate social tensions, and fracture the groups’ cohesion, even (and especially) when the groups garner external resources. In each case study, these intersecting stratifications fatally compromise the ability of maquila workers and colonia residents to capitalize on opportunities and fundamentally circumscribe their marginality. While acknowledging some gains grassroots advocates made, Simon convincingly states, “historically embedded… identity-based rivalries on both sides of the border ultimately trumped the NAFTA ideal of seamless ecological stewardship” (p. 13) and frustrated activists’ efforts at organization and collaboration. She concludes the side agreements promoted a, “vision of a truly participatory, sustainable and transparent democracy [but] failed to deliver because of the absence of appropriate enforcement and implementation mechanisms” (p. 192), leaving little hope for the ability of marginalized groups to sustain the borderlands under current policies.

Turning to policy in the concluding chapter, Simon focuses on the digital divide, showing how workers’ and residents’ relative social isolation and alienation from computer-dependent institutional processes made the divide a chasm and created a significant barrier to transparency and participation. She recommends ways of improving access for the “digitally disenfranchised” (p. 186) so they might participate meaningfully in processes set forth by the NAFTA side agreements and the organizations established to enforce them. It is reasonable to think such recommendations, if adopted, could enable more effective participation by labor and environmental advocates along the border.

However, Simon’s policy approach rests on “sidestepping the familiar criticism that the side accords were merely window dressing or intentionally toothless mechanisms” (pp. 5-6). She thus avoids a structural critique of power that is now well traversed by scholars of transnational capitalism and neoliberalism.  These scholars have pointed out that international economic accords, specifically NAFTA, are instruments of transnational corporations for enhancing their wealth and influence across a global stage. (David Harvey’s, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, is one of the standards in this vein.) Though Simon is familiar with structural analysis, such as how the “environmental and labor wasting practices” of maquilas create “profit and surplus value in capitalist production processes” (p. 12), she does not address the central problem of power in the construction of international economic accords like NAFTA, leaving unanswered the implications for highly oppressed groups and their advocates. Post-facto policy reforms of the kind Simon proposes could well improve work and environmental conditions at the margins and significantly benefit them. However, such reforms are insufficient for systematically creating safe jobs, living wages, and healthy environments for workers and communities. Others have noted transparency and broad participation must be constitutive of how international economic agreements are crafted (what Vandana Shiva calls “decentralized democracy”), rather than a promised outcome or an afterthought to negotiations, as the term “side agreement” discursively conveys. Though more than twenty years out from NAFTA’s passage, the Transpacific Partnership (aka TPP) and other corporate-dominated avatars currently under negotiation make such considerations increasingly relevant and Simon’s study timely and urgent.

Conceptually rich, methodologically solid, and well written, Sustaining the Borderlands is challenging yet accessible to undergraduates, graduate students, and an educated, general public. It will prompt them and professional academics to think and talk about core topics in studies of labor, globalization, political economy, the U.S.-Mexico border, environmentalism, community health (popular epidemiology), and ethnography. While a map of the border site and a glossary of initialisms would enhance it, the text will make an excellent addition to any college or university library, and I intend to adopt it for my own undergraduate course about globalization and the border.

Francisca James Hernández , Pima Community College 

Simon, Suzanne. Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA:  Development, Politics and Participation on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Vanderbilt University Press, 2014. Read more at Vanderbilt University Press

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