- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

JUAREZ, Mexico

Just a year ago, this was wild, open desert, featuring nothing more than scattered shrubs and occasional funnel clouds that kick up blinding dust storms.

Now, a $100 million factory rises from black asphalt, a young tree planted near its entrance. The Electrolux plant has done many things: It has taken away jobs from Greenville, Mich., where Electrolux closed a plant before moving here. The plant and other factories have transformed Juarez and the Chihuahua desert into a bustling crucible of capitalism, and changed the lives of many Mexicans.

Andres Lozano, 27, was hired at Electrolux in December as employee No. 2319. The plant employs slightly more than the Michigan operation and promises to be twice as large.

Based on an exchange rate of about 11.5 pesos to the dollar, workers in Juarez earn in a day what workers in Greenville made in an hour or less. For corporate numbers crunchers, the math was easy.

Mr. Lozano supports his wife, Alma, who does not work outside the home, and two children, Iban, 4, and Evelyn, 6 months. His pay, which has risen quickly to 100 pesos a day, is enough to support the entire family.

In his old job as a meat wholesaler, he made about the same amount of money but worked twice as long, usually 12 hours a day, seven days a week. He sold and delivered processed meats, mostly to large grocery chains, working on commission.

Because he works less now, he has fewer problems at home. He has time to shop, see friends, go to the movies and to flea markets, make repairs around the house. He is a man more at ease, his posture relaxed, with a smile that comes more easily.

With his salary, and with help from a government loan program, he was able to buy a two-bedroom home for about $20,000.

“My kids will have what I didn’t have,” he said. “They’ll have more of everything. They’ll go out more. They’ll have more things.

“I had the chance to go to college, but I had to work. I want my kids to go to college. I don’t want them to be [machine] operators.”

Industrial boom

Electrolux and the other factories, known as maquiladoras, are a magnet for workers. Since 1990, the population of Juarez has grown from about 800,000 to 1.3 million, and about a third of its residents came from outside Chihuahua state, where it is located.

With a growth rate that is almost three times the Mexican average, Juarez is now Mexico’s fourth-largest city, growing much faster than El Paso across the bridge in Texas.

There is no sign the growth will end soon. Juarez is bounded to the north and east by the U.S. border, and blocked to the west by mountains. But the south, where Electrolux built its plant, presents no barriers and land is plentiful. It is expected that Electrolux suppliers of foam, plastic and electrical parts will build plants nearby.

Juarez was once a small farming town. The growth of industry began in the 1960s and increased steadily until the turn of the century, when competition from China cost the city tens of thousands of jobs.

Items such as clothing and luggage are less costly to make in China. But certain goods, refrigerators among them, are cheaper for buyers in the United States if manufactured in Mexico.

Construction of the Electrolux plant — the company is building a second factory nearby to assemble washers and dryers — was an economic boon for Juarez, the return of good times and plentiful jobs.

Changes abound

With earnings from his new job working in the repair department at Electrolux, Leonel Soto, 26, bought a new refrigerator and a used, big-screen television, first used during a family viewing of Mexico’s World Cup match against Angola.

His home has just one bedroom, which he and his wife, Yasmin, share with their two young children. A bed in the living room doubles as a sofa and guest bed and takes up nearly the entire room, which Mr. Soto painted light pink.

The floor is still bare concrete, but he would like to tile it soon. Within five years, he hopes to have a second floor added to their town house in the newest neighborhood in Juarez. He is ambitious and always volunteers to work overtime.

“I want to give my kids the best, and I think I’ll get it here,” Mr. Soto said.

The boulevards that these workers traverse on their way to work — Paseo de la Victoria, Avenida de Las Torres — are lined with the signs of development, commerce and chaos.

Former fields of cotton and tomatoes are now Los Angeles-style blocks of giant supermarkets and shopping malls. The Misiones mall houses a multiplex equipped with a VIP room, where customers can order sushi while watching the latest, subtitled Hollywood blockbuster.

On one side of the boulevard is a gated neighborhood of domed, stucco homes painted soft desert hues of saffron and tan. On the other side is a graffiti-covered, cinderblock slum of two-room shacks.

U.S. brands like Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, Costco and KFC are so commonplace that stretches of Juarez look more like the United States than Mexico. One of the city’s oldest landmarks is the Plaza de Toros, an old arena still used for bullfights as well as concerts and wedding banquets. It will soon be torn down to make way for a Wal-Mart.

Rise of crime

Gloria Lopez, 55, came of age during the rise of the maquiladoras — manufacturing plants that import raw materials and machinery tax-free, and re-export finished products to the country of origin, also tax-free.

Mrs. Lopez taught English in the factories. Her husband, an engineer, also worked in them all his life. “We have more money and there is more of what you’d call progress, and I’m not against it,” she said. “It’s good for all the people who come for the jobs.”

But Mrs. Lopez also longs for the Juarez of her childhood, a place of smaller streets, shorter walks. Chinese immigrants grew fruits, vegetables and cotton on rented land. Juarez was a city of trees back then.

As the city grew, wealth and literacy grew, too. Juarez now has one of Mexico’s best colleges. At the same time, though, it became a center of the illegal-drug trade. Drug-related shootings are common, and the city became notorious for the unsolved murders of hundreds of female factory workers, their bodies left by roadsides.

Among her friends, Mrs. Lopez said, only one or two of every 10 people are from Juarez, and she wonders whether they can care about the city as much as she does.

Mr. Lozano wonders, too.

His father used to pull leaves off the eucalyptus tree in the park, the same one young Andres loved to climb, and brew them into a tea as a cough remedy. It always seemed to work.

The tree is still there, although Mr. Lozano hardly recognizes it. The rims on the basketball court are bent. The grounds are marked by litter and graffiti.

“Kids don’t care about the park anymore,” he said. “Parents have to teach their kids, ‘This is yours; don’t destroy it.’”

Mr. Lozano suggested it’s because “a lot of people are not from here and this is not their city anymore. They just come here to see what they can get; they don’t care. I’d like to go back to my old times. I’ve thought about trying to move to El Paso. But I prefer to visit. Juarez is my city.”

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