It was 7:17 AM on September nineteenth 1985 in Mexico when all the sudden the ground began to shake and buildings began to fall. Soon it was learned that an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.0 had occurred on the pacific coast of Mexico. One could only imagine the fear and shock that the people in Mexico had experienced at the time when this was happening.
The damage that occurred because of the earthquake was devastating. According to the United States Geological (USGS) Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program at least 9,500 people were killed and about 30,000 were injured. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people were left homeless in addition to the numbers of death and injuries. Though it has been reported that only 9,500 people died as a result, others claim that the amount of deaths could be as high as 35,000.
The USGS claims that the earthquake severely affected an area of approximately 825,000 square kilometers. The cost of damage was extremely high, between 3 and 4 billion U.S. dollars. There were also landslides and rockslides that resulted from the earthquake. A tsunami occurred as well. About 412 buildings collapsed and another 3,124 were extremely damaged in Mexico City. Approximately 60 percent of the buildings were destroyed at Ciudad Guzman, Jalisco. Damage also occurred in other states of Mexico including Colima, Guerrero, Mexico, Michoacan, Morelos, parts of Veracruz and in other areas of Jalisco. Besides just the damage, about 20 million people claimed that they had felt it. (Ibid)
Damage done by the earthquake
According to one website, Global Politician, places that were destroyed by the earthquake included garment shops where several thousands of women worked. These seamstresses worked in the sweatshops of a downtown area called San Antonio Abad. When these sweatshops were destroyed, the owners used equipment to remove sewing machines and industrial goods. However, the owners refused to help the women who were buried in the ruins of the buildings and left them to die. To these owners, the machines were worth much more than their women workers.
Global Politician also claims that the survivors of this terrible event told horror stories of being locked in overcrowded rooms with no way to escape and weren’t given any directions of what to do as the buildings fell. After all of this, these women were left jobless and their bosses refused to pay wages that they owed these women. (Ibid)
Author of Human Rights of Minority and Women’s, Indrani Sen Gupta Angry tells the story of what these women did as a result. Angry by the actions of their co-workers and bosses, these women workers from garment factories visited a group of feminist lawyers to see what could be done about what had happened. The visits led to the establishment of unions such the National Union of Garment Workers and the Nineteenth of September Women’s Garment Union, that October. This union was the first independent union to be created and recognized since 1976. (Gupta, 199)
According to Victoria Elizabeth Rodríguez, author of Women in Contemporary Mexican Politics, the union was unique because of the fact that it combined labor demands with a feminist agenda. To raise money for the union they sewed and crafted dolls to sell on the streets and in markets. Even more, these women formed alliances with feminist groups who also helped the union to raise money. In her book, Rodríguez gives an example how a feminist magazine called Fem had an auction to sell jewelry that was donated by wealthier women. All the money made from this event went to the union to use. (Rodríguez, 78)
Although the union offered women empowerment, it was not always great. According to Global Politician, a number of negative events occurred as a result. Often times, seamstresses involved in the union were beaten up. In addition, union elections were sometimes bought off. Instead of working with the union and providing workers’ rights, owners would close down shops and opened shops other places. The owners didn’t care if the workers had union contracts. However, although this was happening Global Politician says that these women stood their ground.
A Bronze statue of a women sewing.
Today, there is a statue that stands where one factory stood before the earthquake according to one Mexican news article. The statue is bronze and is of a woman sowing which memorializes the women who lost their lives that day.
If you have ever experienced an earthquake then you would know it’s scary enough to have the floor shake below you. It has to be a million times worse being locked in a sweatshop and have the walls fall on you then have your bosses dig up machinery instead of you. It’s heartbreaking and sickening to know that there are people like this out there. It took a lot of power for these women to stand up against their bosses and demand rights after everything they had been through. Even if they haven’t gained much from forming a union I think what these women have done is very inspiring.
If you didn’t know, sweatshops are still in existence. It has been over twenty years since the earthquake in Mexico struck and these women formed the union. One would think that after what happened to the thousands of women stuck below rubble that these conditions would change but unfortunately they haven’t. Like we saw in the video shown by the Migration and Displacement group it is even happening on U.S. territory in Saipan. What needs to be done to change these horrible working conditions? If an earthquake hit Saipan and thousands of women working in those sweatshops died, do you think the owners would finally realize that change is needed? Or would the same that happened in Mexico where the employers refuse to recognize worker’s rights and simply move their companies?
For further reading:
Gupta, Indrani Sen. Human Rights of Minority and Women’s: Reinventing women’s right. Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2005. 198-199.
Rodríguez, Victoria Elizabeth. Women in Contemporary Mexican Politics. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 78.