The Global Economy
Today, life on the Mexican side of the borderlands only rarely conjures up that of the 1920s. For those of us who knew the old, the dissimilarity is striking. Since the 1960s, the arrival of assembly plants, an adjunct of the global economy, has radically altered the contours of Mexican border society. Old tourist hotspots recede into memory as urbanization, increasingly the offspring of offshore plants, takes hold, transforming hamlets into big cities; both Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, plant kingpins, shelter hordes of inhabitants, hosting social ills typical of chaotic and unplanned growth. Migrants from all over the republic flock north, lured by dreams of jobs in industry. Yet globalization, what maquiladoras exemplify, merely shuffles the outlines of the asymmetrical relationship but hardly casts it to the winds. Mindful of their consequences, naysayers in Ciudad Juárez dubbed the society of maquiladoras Maquilamex, a metaphor that assents grudgingly to the weighty role that assembly plants play from Tijuana to Matamoros and captures the ambivalence of a people troubled by what they witness.
The term maquila, as one might suspect, has Spanish roots. In Spain in bygone years, millers who ground a client's corn called the portion they kept as payment a maquila; that is the genesis of the word maquiladora, the Mexican surrogate for assembly plant, often referred to, and rightly so, as la maquila. Today, its squat, drab buildings—faceless silhouettes shorn of the architect's creative genius—are a ubiquitous presence in Mexican cities of the border.
Workers in maquiladoras assemble articles of sundry nature from components of foreign manufacture, articles that range anywhere from television sets to doorknobs to windshield wipers; these articles are sold abroad, mainly in the United States, where the components originate.