Scholar: Women in border towns risk lives for pay

Latina women living on the border between the U.S. and Mexico are facing tough conditions that put their lives in danger, a visiting scholar said Tuesday.

About 95 people gathered at the Kelly Alumni Center to hear Milagros Pena, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida, speak at the lecture titled, “A Question of Justice: the U.S.-Mexico Border, Migration, and Women’s Mobilization.” The lecture was put on by the Brite Center for Latino/a Church Studies.

Pena said violence against Latina women is extremely prevalent and about 400 border women have been murdered in the Juarez desert. She said violence against women reveals a deep interplay between economic exploitation, racism and sexism.

She said in order to understand the political discourse that is going on at the borders, it is also important to consider the living conditions of the population.

“One-fourth of the population living in the U.S. counties bordering Mexico live in poverty,” Pena said. “And a lot of them live in squatter towns.”

She said the issues of housing and unemployment are the main challenges that face Latina women and the faith-based or local service organizations that try to help them.

Women come to the border to find jobs in factories and when they can’t find jobs, some of them turn to criminality, including prostitution and drug dealing. She said most of the women become homeless, which is overwhelming local social service organizations.

Pena said some Latina women are organizing and shaping the feminist future by recovering their “Latina voice.” She said they do this by using their local churches as a stepping stone in creating their political voice.

Building self-esteem is also a part of building women’s empowerment and helping them discover their own potential, Pena said.

“Women can be empowered first as community organizers, and then they will develop more of a gender consciousness,” Pena said.

Toward the end of her speech, Pena read a letter from a garment factory worker on the border to the audience. The worker wrote that she felt as if she was a “modern slave” because of the conditions she had to endure.

Low pay, not enough time to eat meals, health hazards from the chemicals in the factory and little time to spend with her family were factors that affected the garment worker, according to the letter.