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Maquilapolis and Inverting the Imperialist Gaze

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Emily Bock


English 293

Professor Anne Dalke


Maquilapolis and Inverting the Imperialist Gaze


The film, Maquilapolis: A City of Factories[i], (co-produced by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre) portrays a group of women factory workers in Tijuana, Mexico, pushing back against the globalizing forces of conglomerate business. These factories came to Tijuana in the late 1980’s for cheap labor and easy tax-breaks. By 1990, there were 4000 maquiladoras in Tijuana, and nearly one million maquiladora employees. While these factories are in Tijuana, they destroy the land they occupy, polluting rivers, and dumping by-products of their industry. They neglect their employees, failing to inform them the danger of the chemicals they work with; these chemicals and dangerous working conditions have lead to birth defects, damage to the skin, kidney problems, and these are only a few of the effects described by the women in the film.

Two women are featured in a more detailed manner in the film: Carmen and Lourdes. Carmen is a single mother of three; Lourdes is married with two children. They are promotoras: they have been trained and educated by Grupo X, a labor rights group. As a result of their education, they contribute their knowledge to teaching other women factory workers about their rights as employees and also as women. Carmen, in the film, is in the process of receiving severance compensation from a large corporation that she was formerly employed by. Lourdes works with the Chilpancingo Collective, an environmental rights group, and in the film they are focused on pressuring the government into cleaning up an abandoned factory, Metales y Derviados, where there were nearly 8000 tons of lead products left uncovered and untended to by the factory owner who fled to the United States.

These women are poor; many of them are single parents. According to Lourdes, they make $11 (US) a day; they have to work one hour to buy a jug of water, just about two hours to buy a gallon of milk. Their salaries do not cover basic needs. They live in a neighborhood, Lagunitas, where there is no electricity running to their houses or sewage. The people of the neighborhood pay their taxes for these services and never receive them. Live wires run through the streets, strung from electric lines that run over the neighborhood. Sewage runs into the streets where children play.

Carmen details her day to day routine in one part of the film: she leaves work at 7 am and goes straight to her ex-father-in-law’s house to pick up her three children. She takes them home, makes them breakfast and gets them ready for school. The takes them to school and while they are gone cooks a meal for their dinner; she picks them up at 4 pm and spends some time with them before she has to go back to work. She tells the camera that she usually sleeps for an hour or two a day; sometimes she doesn’t sleep at all.

These women have come from all over Mexico; some from Oaxaca, some from Guadalajara, some from right there in Tijuana. They have emigrated for jobs because there aren’t any jobs where they are from. They are largely uneducated, except for basic reading and writing skills. By 2001, 350,000 of them lost their jobs to outsourcing by the corporations; jobs were shipped to Asia where these corporations found a much cheaper labor market.

This film is remarkable in several ways. Vicky Funari, one of the co-producers, went into Tijuana not with the intention of filming these women (objectifying them) and continuing to exploit them by using their story. Funari went to Tijuana and asked these women to help her make the movie; these women decided what would be shown in the film. They wanted the film to be about their fight in the labor market, their fight with the government, and their rights as employees. There are almost no men in the film, and absolutely no overt reference to any “cultural” institutions or practices. These women were very deliberate in their purpose, and as a result of this, they portray an incredibly unique social location (an individual's unique position in society, affected by ethnicity, gender, culture, socio-economic status, etc.) in which economic class dominates their sense of the world around them with an incredible immediacy.

These women portray their true social location. Frequently, observers from the West (the First World, as it were), the hypothetical co-producers of the film or writers of a text, have the ability to produce a product that is exoticized or that represents a Third World location that is unfamiliar and “craved” by Western academics. Often, the social location can be distorted by the imperialist director or writer, etc. As Gayatri Spivak writes in her article, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” when speaking in reference to Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, the renaming of Antionette to Bertha by Rochester is so violent and Rhys seems to be suggesting that “personal and human identity might be determined by the politics of imperialism.”[ii]

The writer or producer of film frequently wields the power to rename, misrepresent, or even just fail to understand the the “subject’s” social location. Maquilapolis is produced and created by the women it portrays. They portray themselves and their social location in the way that best represents them. They do not present other issues like the problematic use of crystal meth that affects many families in Tijuana, which Funari mentioned in a question and answer session I attended after a screening of Maquilapolis (Funari, public screening, 11/5/08). They represent the predominant issue in their lives: what is currently and most accurately influencing their social location, labor rights, environmental and health issues, and economics.

Another largely important element of the film is the voice that these women have. As poor women in a Third World country, these women are on the margin; they are the dispossessed, the subaltern. They have been imperialized by their government, by the companies that exploit their labor, health, and livelihood. However, they take back their voice and their names that have been stifled by globalization. In the first sense, they stake a claim by organizing to defend their rights as employees and by organizing to defend the land that they once felt safe inhabiting but can no longer enjoy.

Their organization and power that they derive from one another intimidates the government; these women were once a nameless, faceless entity that they neglected and had nearly abandoned. But by claiming their rights and taking back the power they had been denied, the women reclaim not only these things, but also the resources that had been kept from them unjustly. Carmen collects the severance pay she was entitled to from her former employer and then some; Lourdes’s work with the Chilpancingo Collective earns them the clean-up needed from the government to keep their neighborhood safe from the unregulated storage of lead by Metales y Derivados.

The second dimension of these women’s voices is the dimension that the film brings. As I’ve mentioned earlier, these women have the creative license in the film and the social location that they portray. This is a powerful inversion of the dynamic between Third World women and their relationship with the First World: this wasn’t a film just ABOUT these women; it was BY them about something that affects their lives. They were not just filmed and manipulated by Funari and De La Torre, they had collaboration and a relationship with them, and Funari and De La Torre didn’t force upon them some objective they had for the film or some creative vision.

The second very important piece of this dimension is the medium that was used; these women did not project their voice through traditional routes. Paula Moya, who writes about the objectification of Cherrie Moraga’s experience by Judith Butler and Donna Haraway, a prominent post-modernist feminists, argues that the social location and experience of Moraga is used incorrectly by Butler. Butler cannot have ever experienced what Moraga had, and because of that, she can never understand it. Butler cannot represent Moraga, and for that matter, Moraga certainly cannot represent all Chicanas or Mexican women because of her unique social location[iii].

Moya makes an important point, but through her medium, academic text and the language of intellectuals, she goes through the channels of the West. She writes with their language and proves that she too can write in the same way that they do[iv]. The film makes use of a very different channel: that of film and image. The women of the maquiladoras have now not only reclaimed their voice by organizing and taking their rights back from the corporations and the government, they have projected their voice into the world in a means accessible to all those who are not able to understand or gain entry to the world of academia. The film communicates for the subaltern in a non-imperialist method. These dispossessed women push against the West; they are not exoticized, they tell their truth, and they do not consent to the hegemony. They represent themselves, and give access to the illiterate and the uneducated via imagery and spoken word.  In addition, the film is spoken in Spanish, with English subtitles, and the settings can be reversed to that it is played in English with Spanish subtitles.

So the question becomes, for us, the educated, academic: what do we do now? What do we do with this guilt of privilege? We oppressed these women with our consumption of goods produced in these factories. Do we quit reading Third World texts? Surely there are many ways in which we can question ourselves, our motives, privilege, etc. I think Funari sets a fine example as one of the co-producers of the film. Not only did she collaborate with the women of the maquiladoras, she built a relationship with them that continues today. In the film screening I attended, Funari described to us the years she spent commuting to Tijuana from California. When the film was finished, Carmen and Lourdes went with Funari (and sometimes went on their own) to film festivals and screenings across the world. The project is on-going; Funari keeps in touch with and supports the women. In addition, there is an outreach campaign that is described on the website as:

“…strategic binational campaign, designed and implemented collaboratively with stakeholder organizations in the U.S. and Mexico.  The campaign utilizes a high-profile public television broadcast, top tier film festivals and community screenings of the film to create meaningful social change around the issues of globalization, social and environmental justice and fair trade.  Our outreach team includes dedicated activists on both sides of the border, mediamakers commited to social change, and most importantly a group of women factory workers struggling to bring about positive change in their world.”[v]


Funari and De La Torre clearly set a great example as film-makers and activists. But what can we do? When I saw Maquilapolis for the first time, and after that when we were reading Spivak, Moya, and Moraga in class, I thought really hard about what I could do to have healthy connections with people from other social locations and not let all of the academic jargon and theory inhibit my ability to just have a relationship with someone.  I’ve been thinking about it in the words of Dr. Amanda Kemp, a wonderful, thoughtful woman I just met yesterday. She is a playwright, scholar, Quaker, African-American woman, and I would say, activist.

Her plays focus on reconciling historical account and social justice (the portrayal of Benjamin Franklin not only as the head of a prominent abolitionist society in Philadelphia, but also as a slave owner in “Show Me the Franklins”), and in the “Show Me the Franklins,” giving a voice to the nameless slave men and women of centuries past in the US.  Her work is similar to that of Funari’s in that she is telling the stories of men and women who had no voice, and she is telling their stories through a non-textual channel (performing arts).  The added dimension to her plays is encouraging spiritual reflection, and finding peace with ancestors (biological, artistic, spiritual, etc.).[vi] When I saw the play, I thought of Maquilapolis and the imperialist objectification of Third World texts we’ve been reading, and I thought, how can there be a way for me to live and connect with people from other social locations in a way that won’t marginalize them? Will it even make a difference?

So when Amanda came to visit my Quaker Social Witness class at Haverford, I asked her, how can people from different social locations have healthy connections? I thought of my own guilt and anger when I watched Maquilapolis the first time, and the guilt I often face from my place of institutional privilege as a middle-class, white female.  Amanda told me that I have to practice radical forgiveness; I have to forgive myself, others, and those that came before me. I have to respect difference in others, but more importantly, I can’t let the difference become distance.

She told me this with a very interesting and relevant example: she reflected on her experience when she first found out that Sarah Palin was the Republican Vice Presidential candidate.  She felt herself growing over time, after she learned more about Palin and her beliefs, very angry with Palin; she felt a growing distance. She caught herself and reminded herself that she didn’t have to agree with Palin, but she had to respect her, love her, and keep there from being a disconnect between them.

Academia helps us to understand our world deeply and thoroughly, through theory, conceptualization, literature, etc. We understand the affect of literature and art on the world around us through theory like Moya and Spivak, but it is work like Kemp’s and the women of the maquiladora’s that help us to make the translation to life. Those like Amanda Kemp and the women of the maquiladoras are the truest form of scholars in this world: representing themselves with integrity and purpose, and in a way that people from all walks of life can understand. Academia and the West can indeed be oppressive and manipulative to those of the Third World in ways that we can’t always understand, but works like Maquilapolis are so important because they invert that framework.  Not only does Maquilapolis contribute to significant social change (on different levels, for different people) and improvement of standard of living for the women who reclaimed their rights, it is an unspoken advocate for mindful work on the part of Western scholars.

[i] Maquilapolis: City of Factories, DVD, produced by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre (2006; California Newsreel).

[ii] Gayatri Chakroavorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” in The Feminist Reader: Essays on Gender and The Politics of Literary Criticism, ed. Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (New York: B. Blackwell, 1989), 154.

[iii] Paula M. L. Moya, “Postmodernism, ‘Realism,’ and the Politics of Identity: Cherrie Moraga and Chicana Feminism,” in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, ed. M. Jacque Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 128 & 133.

[iv] Anne Dalke, personal conversation, November 11, 2008.

[v] Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre, “Outreach,”Maquilapolis,

[vi] Amanda Kemp, Dr. Amanda Kemp: Cultivating Consciousness in a Hurting World,


Anne Dalke's picture

"The Truest Scholars in this World"

you'd already made a very strong pitch, in last week's forum, for our watching Maquilapolis as a way of seeing the dispossessed speaking: unlike Moya or Moraga, the women in the film speak not through the language of the literate (text) but via film.

What you add here is a much fuller account of your argument (and of the film itself)--plus a testimony to your own personal wrestling with these questions, and a contribution from Amanda Kemp in terms of how she answers them in her own work and life. You are a very convincing advocate for adding these dimensions to our so-far-only-textual explorations of varieties of cultural feminism.

I have two push backs. You explain very clearly how you see the women in the film portraying "themselves and their social location in the way that best represents them." But Spivak would have several cautionary responses to your claims about the possibility of "the subaltern" being represented. "The Subaltern" cannot speak; a single "voice" is essentialist, reductionist... and just not available (by definition: the subaltern is disposessed, does not know or understand her struggle). Once she speaks (as you show Moraga and Moya doing) she moves out of the category of being subaltern. How would you answer that challenge?

My other push back comes from our upcoming reading, by Peggy McIntosh, who is so incisive about systems of privilege. When you end by saying that "those like Amanda Kemp and the women of the maquiladoras are the truest form of scholars in this world" I found myself resisting the new hierarchy you'd just created; you inverted the system of values, but there is still a ranking. Can we redefine and reconstruct history "to include us all"--including conventional scholars? Or must they go to the bottom of the pyramid?