Farah’s 50 Years Later

A History of Class Struggle in the Borderlands

June 16, 2022

Like many cities in the U.S. Southwest, El Paso, Texas is a city brimming with monuments to its rich history of conquest and plunder.1This work is indebted to my conversations, interviews and time spent with Cecilia Rodríguez, Guillermo Glenn, Hilda Villegas and Lorena Andrade, and countless other comrades who have shared their knowledge of El Paso’s labor history with me, and even more importantly, invited me to join them in the pursuit of a better, radically different world. At the airport, visitors are greeted by a giant statue of Juan de Onate, the butcher of the Acoma Pueblo; downtown, tourists can take a stroll through San Jacinto Plaza, which commemorates the triumph of Anglo settlers in 1836; city leaders continually boost an arts institute that promotes the cowboy paintings produced by the son of the city’s most notorious eugenicist Klansman mayor; and even the city’s highest honor is still officially called “The Conquistador Award.” Yet if official commemoration has enshrined the conquistador and the cowboy as its most cherished symbols, it is likely because the local bourgeoisie prefers this distant history to its more recent conquest of labor and its constant collision with working-class movements at the U.S.-Mexico Border. In this manner, commemorative celebration of Spanish conquest and Anglo-American triumph aim to vanquish other pasts: the magonistas distributing copies of Regeneración, Teresita Urrea’s healing in the Segundo Barrio, the communists organizing in Smeltertown, the Chicano movement’s militancy in South El Paso, as well as the police reprisals, the factory relocations and the large-scale industrial poisoning of Mexican-American barrios.  By purging our recent past of labor insurgency and capital’s reprisals, political leaders and industrial barons are able to reimagine El Paso as a city of commerce, colonial splendor, pacified frontiers, and most importantly, a city of labor peace.

Yet this year marks the 50th anniversary of an event that disrupts any effort at sanitizing our history: the 1972-1974 Farah strike, an event that sparked decades of organizing in El Paso’s garment industry. In May of 1972, nearly 4000 garment workers, most of them Mexican-American women, walked off their jobs at Farah Manufacturing’s clothing factories in San Antonio, Las Cruces, and El Paso, and began a two-year strike and international boycott that resulted in a union contract and a shocking blow to the local elite. Following that victory, Farah’s workers encountered a string of setbacks, challenges, and betrayals, but the strike of 1972-1974 undoubtedly created a new opening for militant organizing at the border. Whereas El Paso had been known as the “Jeans Capital of the World” in the 1960s, by the middle of the 1970s, it had also become a magnet for radical organizers and a national symbol of Chicana militancy.

More importantly, the Farah strike marks the beginning of a new generation of militant women-led, working-class organizing at the border. Although the textile and clothing industry fled El Paso for cheaper shores, women garment workers organized aggressively from the late 1970s into the 1990s, ensuring that the term “la mujer obrera” (the woman worker) continued to emanate power. Through deindustrialization and into the present, organizations and communities affiliated with those movements continue to fight for the livelihood of people living in the working-class barrios of El Paso, and have even built bridges of solidarity with struggles for justice around the world. The 50th anniversary of the Farah strike offers us a chance to reflect on the radical openings created by women-led garment worker organizing, to highlight their successors’ work today, and to shatter the mythology of labor peace at the border, replacing it with the history of class struggle that no amount of cowboy murals could ever conceal.2In the spirit of celebrating our radical history, I feel it is necessary to be transparent about how this piece was researched. Aside from interviews and conversations with organizers in El Paso, I also benefited greatly from the scholarship of Vicki Ruiz, and especially of Emily Honig, Gail Hershatter and Laurie Coyle, who conducted countless interviews with strikers in the late 1970s. Aside from learning from pamphlets and academic articles, many of the cited materials in this text are drawn from the University of Texas at El Paso’s Special Collections and Oral History Institute, where people can still freely access materials on the Farah strike. I emphasize these sources not only with the spirit of citation, but also with the serious encouragement that others (especially other border people/fronterizxs) continue to study and analyze this pivotal event. Folks who want help finding items should feel free to email me at gabantoniosolis@gmail.com

 

Man on a Bicycle

In 1972, Willie Farah had fashioned himself as the kindest capitalist on the U.S.-Mexico Border. Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico to Lebanese parents in 1919, William Frank Farah inherited his father’s burgeoning El Paso textile factories in the 1930s. Over the ensuing decades, alongside his brother Jimmy, William’s pursuit of government contracts and strategic expansions transformed his family’s company from a small cluster of factories on the border to one of the leading clothing manufacturers in the country, specializing in jeans and slacks. In the 1960s, the company established new factories throughout Texas, and even set up operations in Belgium and Hong Kong to reach overseas markets (although it always promised that its domestic wares were sewed by U.S. citizens).3Antone, Evan Haywood. William Farah, Industrialist. C. Hertzog, 1969. Still, El Paso, Texas, where the Farah family established its first sewing workshops in the 1920s, remained the company’s manufacturing flagship, employing around 10,000 people in the early 1970s, all of whom were predominantly Mexican-American women. These Mexican-American workers were the backbone of the clothing and textile industry, an economic sector that boomed in the U.S. Southwest in the middle of the 20th century, as manufacturing firms relocated their factories south to take advantage of cheaper labor costs and regions with sparser unionization. These firms relied heavily on the abundant availability of “cheap” Mexican labor and ultimately helped local economic boosters christen El Paso as the “Jeans Capital of the World.”

Whereas El Paso had been known as the “Jeans Capital of the World” in the 1960s, by the middle of the 1970s, it had also become a magnet for radical organizers and a national symbol of Chicana militancy.

Willie, as he liked to be called by his workers, likely imagined that he was the benevolent king of this manufacturing metropolis on the border. While the local elite showered praise on the company, Willie largely molded his identity on the reputation of his El Paso factories, which he structured around a tightly disciplined paternalism. Indeed, compared to other plants, his company was certainly not the worst. Unlike many smaller operations in the city, Farah Manufacturing offered workers emergency medical coverage, turkeys on Thanksgiving, free bus service, cafeteria food, and on-site clinics, and it even claimed to have A/C in the summer. Farah doubled down on this paternalism by maintaining an active presence at his factories. Alongside his army of mostly Anglo managers, who used bicycles to traverse the company’s largest assembly plants, Willie would ride a red Schwinn through the flagship “Gateway” factory. Riding around the factory floor, he’d try to get to know his workers’ names, micromanage their activities, inspect “output,” and tinker with the machines. He assumed that this “familiarity” with his workers made unionization an unspeakable impossibility.

Of course, Willie’s “amigo” attitude was superficial, and beneath the veneer of paternalism, workers were growing unhappy. Following the company’s rapid expansion after 1967, when it became publicly traded, conditions began to deteriorate as quotas continued to rise. Even many seasoned workers were unable to keep up with the rapidly increasing demands of managers, many of whom were Anglo-American men who frequently subjected workers to racial and sexual harassment. In 1969, these conditions prompted workers in the cutting rooms to reach out to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and begin the first serious effort to unionize the company.  Willie took the effort as a personal affront, and led a propaganda war against the union that ultimately backfired when workers in the cutting departments voted overwhelmingly to form a union in 1970. Willie proceeded to challenge this vote at the NLRB and actually won, with the court ruling that the cutting room didn’t constitute a legal bargaining unit.4See, Coyle, Laurie, Gail Hersbatter, and Emily Honig. “Women at Farah: An Unfinished Story.” In A Needle, a Bobbin, a Strike: Women Needleworkers in America, edited by Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson, 243. Temple University Press, 1984. This work, alongside their original pamphlet that was distributed in El Paso in the late 1970s, remains one of the best secondary accounts of the strike and its aftermath.

Nonetheless, organizing continued at Farah’s plants in El Paso, and workers began making contacts between factories, not only in El Paso, but also in San Antonio. In the Spring of 1972, the company amplified retaliation, firing 26 workers trying to organize a walk-out in March and later firing more El Pasoans who had been visiting fellow organizers in San Antonio. In solidarity with their El Paso comrades, 500 workers in San Antonio walked off the factory floor in protest and initiated a strike at the plant. The San Antonio action lit a spark amongst El Paso organizers, who planned for a similar walk-out and strike in all of Farah’s factories beginning on May 9th. Over the ensuing weeks, up to 4000 workers walked out at Farah factories in Las Cruces (NM), San Antonio (TX), and El Paso, quickly winning support from the ACWA. Taking a cue from the United Farm Workers (UFW), who had organized a successful international grape boycott in Delano from 1965 to 1970, workers collaborated with the ACWA to launch their own boycott of Farah’s plants in July 1972.5Deborah De Witt Malley, “How the Union Beat Willie Farah,” Fortune, August 1974. That decision led to a two-year strike and an international boycott that earned the workers as many friends as enemies – and unleashed a new wave of militancy in El Paso.

 

Priests, Pickets, and Communists

Some older El Pasoans remember the Farah strike of 1972–74 as one of the most divisive historical events in the city’s recent history, but that divisiveness was the product of long-brewing tensions that are emblematic to most border cities. Despite economic boosters and contemporary neoliberals’ (perhaps well-meaning) emphasis on the strength and charms of binational communities, the structural shape of border urbanity remains firmly rooted in uneven development and a variety of deeply gendered and racialized labor regimes. Willie Farah imagined himself as the arbiter of a benevolent border capitalism, but his factories in El Paso functioned within this same logic of accumulation that aimed to reap tremendous profits on the backs of a racialized and politically marginalized workforce. Yet when workers went on strike in 1972, the political situation on the border had already moved in a direction that Farah likely hadn’t suspected.

The rise of the Chicano6In this article I use “Chicano” to describe the movement of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and Chicana/o to describe participants, because this is how participants historically referred to the movement and identified themselves. That said, I firmly believe in the efforts to make naming and identifications more inclusive, and use “x” for all contemporary movements and identifications (i.e. chicanx, fronterizx, etc.). movement was undoubtedly one of the most important factors that contributed to the explosiveness of the Farah Strike. Beginning in the late 1960s, young Mexican-Americans drifted away from activism rooted in respectability, and reclaimed the once pejorative term “Chicano” as a new moniker of political radicalism, self-determination, and opposition to assimilation. While many have rightly highlighted the Chicano movement’s emphasis on cultural politics, it is also important to note Chicana/o’s nuanced analyses of the Southwest’s political economy. A new emphasis on the history of the Southwest as a history rooted in conquest, and a high degree of attention to the embeddedness of race and class, elicited new analyses of the role of Mexicans as a reserve army of labor for Anglo capitalists. Leftist Chicano newspapers like El Mestizo, El Editorial, and El Grito del Norte offered readers analyses that were attentive to working-class movements and their position within an uneven economic landscape.7Many of these are held at the UTEP library’s special collection.  Drawing from their encuentros with Chicana/o youth and these newly circulating literatures, many workers at Farah quickly identified with the new Chicano movement.  As one worker put it in an interview with the New York Times, “It’s not just Farah we are fighting. There are a lot of Farahs in the Southwest – business men who think they can treat Chicano workers any way they want.”

This process of transformation was most marked in the women workers of Farah, who increasingly took on sizable responsibilities within the union and became the primary organizers of strike activities.

When Farah workers launched their boycott, picketing factories and department stores, new political relationships began to take root. Farmworkers from the UFW (including Cesar Chavez himself),8“Chavez Raps Farah on Strike,” El Paso Herald Post, February 10, 1973. Chicana/o organizers, and students from the local MEChA chapter9First established at a Chicano conference in Santa Barbara, California in 1969, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) was inititally created to promote Chicano studies on college campuses and provide resources to students of Mexican descent, but evolved into a major national organization that promoted Chicano identity, self-determination and often provided critical support to local political struggles for labor and racial justice.  The organization’s use of the term Aztlán, which suggested that the U.S. Southwest was a natural homeland for Chicanxs, has since come under significant critique within the organization itself for its erasure of indigenous nations within the “homeland.” became frequent visitors to the picket lines, deepening identification with a larger Chicano movement. The struggle at Farah was no longer just a labor struggle: it was also the struggle of Chicana/o workers against the racial tyranny of an Anglo-American capitalist class. The impact of Chicano radicalism was rivaled only by the active presence of the local Catholic diocese, where Bishop Sidney M. Metzger took a bold position in favor of the striking workers at Farah. In a predominantly Catholic region, the local church’s endorsement provided a powerful boon to striking workers and was likely influenced by the Church’s pivot to supporting social justice causes in the Southwest. Yet as others have pointed out, the church’s efforts to court workers may have had something to do with the growing influence of more radical political tendencies on the border.

And, indeed, in the 1970s the U.S.-Mexico Border was teeming with aspiring revolutionaries. In Northern Mexico, following the state’s annihilation of rural insurgencies and the mass slaughter of student movements from 1965 to 1971, many students became convinced of the necessity of socialist revolution. Some turned to armed groups like el Movimiento de Acción Revolucionaria or la Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre, which aimed to incite an armed socialist uprising throughout the country (but were instead viciously eliminated by the Mexican government with U.S. support). Yet in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez, most funneled their energy into militant campus organizing or supporting leftist organizations in the colonias10Loosely incorporated neighborhoods on the city’s outskirts that are often disconnected from basic urban infrastructure, and sometimes created through land invasions or squatting by urban migrants.surrounding major cities. In Juarez, El Paso’s neighboring city, one of the largest of these formations was the Comité de Defensa Popular (est.1972 in Chihuahua), which organized dozens of radical colonias and remained one of the leading leftist mass organizations in the city until the late 1980s. These ideas and militant tendencies tended to cross the border, and binational exchanges between young radicals were extremely frequent, creating an ideological dynamic that prompted the FBI to heighten surveillance of border cities.11Roberto Aviles Candia, “Vigila el FBI la Frontera,” El Fronterizo, January 19, 1972.

On the El Paso side, the Farah strike acted as a magnet for domestic communist parties. Cadres from the Socialist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Union (later the Revolutionary Communist Party), and the August Twenty-Ninth Movement (ATM) buzzed about El Paso trying to support – and hopefully recruit – striking workers.  The impact of these organizations was very mixed.  Although the Revolutionary Union created an impressive national network of solidarity committees for Farah workers, they and the SWP were largely rejected by workers and activists for their dogmatism and heavy-handed attitude. Of these formations, groups like the ATM were sometimes better received, thanks to their more nuanced understanding of Chicano issues.  Yet even without formal membership or engagement with these groups, new ideas about class, identity, and gender began to circulate throughout the city.  Farah’s pickets became new sites of ideological exchange and consciousness-building, transforming the lives of striking workers, as well as those who stood in solidarity with them.

This process of transformation was most marked in the women workers of Farah, who increasingly took on sizable responsibilities within the union and became the primary organizers of strike activities. The most militant of these women eventually formed the rank-and-file group Unidad Para Siempre (“Unity Forever”), which was one of the most radical formations within the union.12Many of the group’s pamphlets are still available at UTEP’s Special Collections.  For a description of their impact and fate after the strike, see, Laurie Coyle, Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, “Setbacks for Farah workers union” In These Times, April 19-25, 1978.  These workers emphasized the role of women’s leadership in the Farah strike—offering incisive analyses of women workers’ position within the factory and the family—and also raised early critiques of union bureaucracy and its reticence about organizing more workers into the strike.  As we will see, these fears concerning the union’s organizing style would be confirmed in the years to come.

Farah workers’ 1974 victory shocked El Paso’s elite and brought new power to garment workers, but it did not fundamentally improve labor conditions at the border.

Just as striking Farah workers committed their lives to the picket line, Willie Farah poured his energy into his war on the union. At his plant, Farah turned to hiring scabs en masse, even forcing non-striking workers to wear pins that read, “I’m Happy at Farah,” giving them the nickname “the Happies.” These workers were frequently forced to attend counter-protests or sign onto mass letters to the local press defending the company,13“Open Letter to Bishop S. M. Metzger,” El Paso Times, December 3, 1972 (letter written Nov. 9, 1972); “Workers at Farah Protest Metzger’s Union Support,” El Paso Times, November 4, 1973. and while some may have genuinely agreed, many others did so out of economic compulsion.  Alongside these theatrics, the Anglo-American political establishment stood firmly behind Farah, seeing the strike as a threat to investment and the city’s racial status quo.  The local press also largely supported Farah, frequently publishing editorials in favor of the company.14See the column run by William I. Lathum in the El Paso Times for some explicit examples.

These efforts led to a protracted conflict with unionizing workers, but a variety of factors led to the company’s eventual defeat. For one, Farah’s heavy-handedness at the beginning of the strike—which included threatening workers with German Shepherds and having the police arrest hundreds of picketing workers—sparked an early PR disaster for the company.15Deborah De Witt Malley, “How the Union Beat Willie Farah,” Fortune, August 1974.  Compounding these troubles, the recent victory of the UFW grape boycott contributed to a national political atmosphere that sympathized with striking Chicana/o workers.  Support from a wide array of unions, political parties, and liberal politicians boosted the force of the boycott as the months dragged on. By the end of 1973, the boycott began to make a serious dent in Farah’s revenues, prompting the company to shut down four plants and institute a four-day workweek in El Paso. The coup de grace came with a surprising NLRB ruling in early 1974, which ruled against the company and accused it of trampling on workers and existing labor laws.16Gene Goldenberg, “Farah Case Ruling by NLRB Judge Surprises Most Labor Observers,” El Paso Herald-Post, Wednesday, January 30, 1974.

In February 1974, Farah offered to negotiate with ACWA, and in one fell swoop, the union rushed in to accept negotiations and end the boycott and strike.17Emanuel Perlmutter, “Farah Strike Ends After 21 Months,” New York Times, Feb. 25, 1974  The victory was bittersweet for workers.  While most workers were suffering tremendous economic strain during the strike, living off $30 weekly strike benefits from ACWA, many resented the union’s approach to ending the strike.  Rather than consulting with the bargaining unit, ACWA concluded the strike on their own terms, rushing an informal contract vote during a mass assembly at the company cafeteria and leaving workers little time to reflect on the tentative contract’s stipulations, much less vote by secret ballot.  While the contract did offer some improvements—55 cents an hour raises over three years, company-provided insurance, seniority rights, and a grievance procedure—the union’s handling of the contract negotiations left many feeling worried about the future of organizing within the union.  The workers’ victory over Farah was tremendous, and for many it felt like toppling an empire; but the years to come were no easier than those that preceded them.18Much of this history is drawn from the accounts of Laurie Coyle, Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, who came to the border to study labor militancy in the 1970s.

 

La Mujer Obrera and the Twilight of the Barrio Sweatshops

Farah workers’ 1974 victory shocked El Paso’s elite and brought new power to garment workers, but it did not fundamentally improve labor conditions at the border. Instead, by the early 1980s, while labor regimes had changed, the conditions that prevailed in manufacturing on the border pivoted once more in the bosses’ favor.  Intensive international competition and the threat of unionization pushed major textile firms to relocate production to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. While El Paso’s abundant and supposedly docile labor had once attracted manufacturers, the peso devaluation of 1982 transformed Mexican border cities into some of the world’s cheapest locations to assemble goods.  Maquiladoras, the export-oriented assembly plants on the border, had existed in Mexican border cities since the late 1960s, but it was only alongside currency devaluations in the late 1970s and early 1980s that the program really took off. Like other cities around the country, factories in El Paso began to relocate across the border, and while the textile industry persisted, the companies providing stable employment were replaced by fly-by-night sweatshops where wage theft, precarity, and workplace harassment prevailed.  Although some were owned or managed by an ascendant group of Mexican-American entrepreneurs (who often identified as Hispanic rather than Chicano), the conditions were generally miserable, and the logic of racialized and gendered exploitation persisted.

Rather than seeing imperialism and colonial violence as all-powerful systems, many understood them as systemic signs of decay and capitalism’s unresolvable crises, analyzing unevenness not as an eternal condition, but one that revolutionary forces could manipulate and overcome.

The workers at Farah, despite their victory, suffered tremendously in the years that followed.  Still reeling from the impact of the boycott, the company implemented aggressive layoffs that continued for the next twenty years.  The company targeted seasoned organizers, taking care to weed out militants associated with the women-led rank-and-file Unidad Para Siempre.  Those that kept their jobs grappled with incredibly high quotas, harsh managers, and the end of the company’s paternalistic perks. In 1977, the company signed another contract with the ACWA, but with conditions that were worse than the 1974 contract, leading many militant workers to become permanently disillusioned with the union.  The company itself, despite some uptick in the early 1980s, would later implode, as Willie Farah launched a war to control the board of directors, pitting him against his own family members, and ending with the company’s transfer out of family hands, the termination of manufacturing in El Paso and the company’s collapse as a major clothing brand.19“Stockholders give William Farah the boot instead of control,” El Paso Times, Friday, August 17, 1990.

Despite the collapse of the Farah struggle, organizing in El Paso’s garment industry accelerated once more in early 1980s with the establishment of La Mujer Obrera, one of the cities’ longest-running working-class organizations.  Alongside women workers from the textile industry (including at least one former Farah employee), the long-time activist Cecilia Rodríguez established El Centro del Obrero Fronterizo in South El Paso in 1981, a worker center that sought to help women workers organize themselves in the cities’ most precarious workplaces.  In the early 1970s, Rodríguez had been active in El Paso’s Chicano organizing scene and became deeply involved in solidarity activities for Farah workers.  For her, the Farah strike was a transformative experience, and one that impacted the rest of her life’s trajectory.  In the early 1980s, as conditions for workers in South El Paso continued to deteriorate, Rodríguez and her comrades sought to create a new formation that could respond directly to the needs of working-class women, and which would avoid the monotonous debates on self-determination and political lines that had consumed other local Chicano organizations.

In La Mujer Obrera’s earliest incarnation, Cecilia Rodríguez and her comrades offered a variety of basic services to workers, which included translation, notary public services, legal clinics and a newsletter designed to inform workers of their rights and track abuses in the sweatshops.  Most importantly however, La Mujer Obrera was attempting to find a different mode of organizing that could transcend the pitfalls workers at Farah’s union had encountered. The worker center pivoted on Rodríguez’ insistence on political, economic and ideological development—an approach that aimed to build power, provide a means for workers to sustain themselves financially, and also build consciousness of one’s condition within a larger world capitalist system. As the years went on, La Mujer Obrera would move from basic services to building co-ops, leading study groups, holding binational protests, and organizing work stoppages throughout South El Paso’s sweatshops.  Likewise, unlike the unions (which were notorious for heavy beer-drinking, machismo, and slight-of-hand racism), La Mujer Obrera remained an organization led by Mexican and Mexican-American women, creating an internal culture that contrasted with nearly all national labor unions.

La Mujer Obrera’s importance to El Paso’s working-class communities grew larger in the 1990s, when factories began fleeing en masse to Mexico in the wake of NAFTA.  In those years, La Mujer Obrera developed a critique of neoliberalism that was rooted in workers’ everyday experiences, and often used testimonies to explain why agreements like NAFTA would further diminish worker power. Their analysis led them to build networks of solidarity with the 1994 Zapatista rebellion and the struggles of sweatshop workers around the world.  Most importantly, however, they shifted their activities to organizing workers laid-off during El Paso’s deindustrialization in the 1990s and began strategizing what South El Paso might look like after the disappearance of the sweatshop.

This process of organizing and reimagining South El Paso in the wake of deindustrialization continues today. In Barrio Chamizal, where most of the sweatshops had been, La Mujer Obrera and its allies continue to organize against environmental racism and the city’s negligence of the needs of working-class youth.  Confronted not only with far fewer employment options, residents of the Barrio Chamizal have also had to navigate the toxic landscape that capitalism has created on the border. Much of this work has been coordinated with the adjacent community organization, Familias Unidas del Barrio Chamizal, where organizers like Hilda Villegas have become critical advocates for the health of barrio youth and working-class communities.

While the demands, organizers and conditions have changed, women-led working-class organizing has arguably been the most important force for change in El Paso.  It has for decades projected the most radical vision for the future and done the most to produce long-term spaces that can incubate newer movements.  Alongside these movements, we also need to take stock of the critical contributions of queer, trans, and non-binary organizers, who have continued and heightened the political lineage of theorizing gender, sexuality, class, and race alongside one another.  In sum, although many of these movements have their own origin and trajectories, many of the organizing spaces that survive in El Paso today owe their political inheritance to the women garment workers of Farah, who in the 1970s walked off their jobs and turned the Jeans Capital of the World into a site of struggle and radical dreaming.

 

Afterword: Residues of a Dream World

Learning about the history of working-class movements at the border sometimes feels like an exercise in studying the rhythm of historical defeat. While one encounters an impressive sequence of insurgencies, strikes, and organizing efforts, the endurance of extraordinary state violence and labor exploitation can easily lead one to a sense of defeatism.  After all, if the U.S.-Mexico border is still an uneven landscape dominated by U.S. capital, systemic misogyny and transphobia, white supremacist violence, binational militarization, and shitty jobs, what good have these labor movements done? As far as I can see, the only way out of this bind is to reflect on older revolutionaries’ (especially Third World Marxists’) analyses of the world capitalist system as one whose unevenness was ultimately a sign of its own impending demise.  Rather than seeing imperialism and colonial violence as all-powerful systems, many understood them as systemic signs of decay and capitalism’s unresolvable crises, analyzing unevenness not as an eternal condition, but one that revolutionary forces could manipulate and overcome.

In border cities like El Paso, I’d also like to suggest that—following Walter Benjamin’s musing—we might also “begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled.”20Walter Benjamin; translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. The Arcades Project, Belknap, 2002, 13. One suitable place to begin this imaginative work might be the location of Farah’s flagship factory off I-10 West, which has now (perhaps to Benjamin’s delight) been transformed into a giant open-air mall called “The Fountains at Farah.” Built as a feverish monument to the fetish of the department store, it is also a perfect encapsulation of the urge to wash away histories of struggle at the border.  At the Fountains, one encounters no monuments to the strike or the work of Chicana workers; indeed, the only nearby historical monument is the memorial to the 22 victims of the 2019 white supremacist Walmart shooting, located 1.4 miles away. Yet even in the consumer paradise that Farah’s old factory has become, capital’s troubles never disappear.  As of April 2022, workers at the Starbucks at the Fountains began organizing a union, which would not only be the first unionized Starbucks here, but also the first major unionization effort in El Paso’s service sector, creating a powerful precedent for those working in grocery stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, etc. That organizing has since confronted serious obstacles, but nevertheless represents a new opening for labor organizing in the region.

The border’s monuments may pay tribute to the history of capital accumulation, Anglo-American settler colonialism, and Spanish conquest, but they are ultimately empty symbols of a dying world.  The Farah struggle of 50 years ago lives on outside of any official monuments, in fronterizx21A regional term for people whose lives intersect with, or have been intersected by, the border. Another potential translation might be Americo Paredes’ term “border people.” workers’ ongoing organizing here at the U.S.-Mexico border, which in turn builds upon an older revolutionary fronterizx tradition.  It is my hope that even without monuments, we might be able to see the power of our current movements, learn from the struggles of the past, and begin to see the ruins of the bourgeoisie and the unresolvable crisis of border imperialism all around us.

SHARE
SHARE

HELLO, COMRADE

While logged in, you may access all print issues.

If you’d like to log out, click here:

NEED TO UPDATE YOUR DETAILS?

Support our Work

Gift Subscriptions, Renewals, and More

Skip to content