MEXICAN WOMEN DEPEND ON BORDER ASSEMBLY PLANTS

MEXICAN WOMEN DEPEND ON BORDER ASSEMBLY PLANTS

Friday is the best, and worst, day of the week for Socorro Chavez, a maquiladora mother.

She is one of the thousands of Mexican women now able to earn their own livelihoods working in the foreign-owned assembly plants in northern Mexico known as maquiladoras.Maquiladoras have made life better for most of them, but for others it is still difficult to shake off all of the hard times.

It is that way for Socorro Chavez, just as Friday is her best day and her worst day.

When the whir of the plant's sewing machines stops at 5:30 p.m. on Fridays, Ms. Chavez catches a bus for downtown, then another that takes her to a children's home.

It's a two-hour journey across town for a weekly reunion with her two children, Marco Antonio, 14, and Guadalupe, 10, who stay at the home while she works.

That is the best part of Friday, taking the children to her own small apartment for the weekend.

The worst part is seeing how the children are outgrowing their clothes and dodging the landlady who is asking her to vacate the apartment.

Then, there's shopping for wholesome food.

The week I have to pay the rent, we don't buy food, the 34-year-old mother said.

Ms. Chavez's husband went to work temporarily as an illegal alien in the United States 10 years ago.

He wrote and sent money home the first year. The frequency of the letters dropped off and finally stopped.

He never returned.

Ms. Chavez, who has just a fifth-grade education, moved her family from the small Chihuahua state town of Namiquipa to the state capital, the city of Chihuahua, and worked five years there as a seamstress.

But, she said, I just couldn't make it on what I earned. Sometimes I would put the children to bed without dinner. We didn't have heat, so I would borrow the neighbor's iron, and iron the bed to get it warm.

In that way, life has improved for Ms. Chavez and her children since they stepped off the bus two years ago in Ciudad Juarez, a city of 1.1 million people just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

Ms. Chavez got a job the day after she arrived as a seamstress in a maquiladora, which makes goods for export, mostly across the border to the United States.

For maquiladora owners, the advantage is Mexico's low wages; for Mexico, it is jobs for its people and increased export income for its coffers.

Ms. Chavez makes about 80,000 pesos a week, nearly $35 at an average exchange rate of 2,300 pesos to the dollar.

Her job is stitching sections of leather work gloves at Wellmax, a subsidiary of the Chicago-based glove manufacturer Wells Lamont.

Her pay is double the minimum wage in Juarez and more than triple what she had earned for similar work in Chihuahua.

Instead of the one-room apartment she and her children had in Chihuahua, they now have two rooms, two beds and some used furniture she bought with money she saved from her earnings.

By staying at the home, the children don't have to spend their after- school hours in an employee cafeteria waiting for her to finish work as they did before.

My boss worked hard to help me find a place so the children could be together during the week, she said.

But, she added, Sometimes I get so lonely for them that I go there and sleep.

Wellmax is one of about 200 foreign-owned maquiladoras in Juarez. More than 330,000 people, the majority of them women, work in the maquiladora industry that now vies with tourism as the country's No. 2 source of foreign exchange for Mexico after petroleum.

Another maquiladora mother at Wellmax is Ana Maria Lemus, second-born in a family of 17 children.

Things now are much better for her and much less difficult than they are for Ms. Chavez.

In Ms. Lemus' past life is her father working 30 years as a cook in a Juarez restaurant while her mother stayed home to care for the children in a two-room adobe hut.

My mother would cry because we didn't have money for food, said Ms. Lemus, now 33.

At age 15 she dropped out of junior high school in El Paso to work at cleaning a curios shop. She earned $5 a week.

I had to stop studying to help my parents pay for the other kids, she said.

When Wellmax opened, she applied for a job.

She has worked her way up from seamstress to production manager.

With the education I have, if it weren't for the maquiladoras I'd be working as a maid in El Paso, she said.

Ms. Lemus met her husband at Wellmax and he is now a plant maintenance supervisor. The couple is rearing two children on a combined net income of nearly 300,000 pesos a week, about $130.

They own a car and a three-bedroom, middle-class home they got through the government's low-cost housing program, Infonavit.

Things are a lot easier now, Ms. Lemus said. I don't have to worry whether the kids have hot food. And they're getting an education. That's the most important thing.