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Revolution in Palomas?

Government programs may be more effective at meeting needs

There is, I think, a quiet little revolution going on in Palomas to eliminate hunger, but it definitely has its limitations and flaws.

palomas
Norma Casilla, and her baby, Angel, started getting help from the SinHambre food program almost a year ago Casilla, a single mother of two, said she no longer has to comfort her children when they cry from hunger because of the program’s provisions.
(Photo by Marjorie Lilly)

In a town of 4,000 there are 240 families being fed with a food- stamp program who weren’t eating enough a year ago. And roughly 250 people have been working a few weeks at a Foxconn plant at San Jeronimo (west of Juarez) who didn’t have steady work before.

But a fairly typical reaction was that of a young man named Juan who was sitting in Pancho Villa Park with his wife and year-old son on a Sunday evening. He’d been working at the Foxconn factory for a month.

I asked him how it felt to be able to eat enough, and he said, “It’s a relief.” That’s all.

I wondered if he was planning ahead to buy some things, imagining they might want to make a repair on their house or buy a junk car. He said they were getting “diapers and milk” for their son. He and his wife looked tired.

“Andamos batallando (we’re struggling),” he said. “I don’t have water in the house,” he said. “A neighbor gives me some.” They also don’t use electricity.

But people are grateful that their kids are not crying for food.


SinHambre

In regard to the SinHambre program (food stamps on a computerized plastic card), there are without doubt a substantial number of people in Palomas who fall through the cracks in the system. Most people I talked to knew one other person, or a few others, who weren’t getting the card and needed it.

The SinHambre program was inaugurated at a big meeting in Palomas in July last year, where low-income residents could sign up. The lunch kitchen manager Brenda Rodriguez said there hadn’t been another meeting until April this year. The SinHambre people in Juarez had planned an-ther Palomas meeting for June, but the regional elections got in the way.

Those involved in the program in Palomas say a meeting’s planned for August, but not one person knows on what date that will be yet. Their meetings are advertised by flyers in store windows and notices on Juarez TV channels. Amazingly, there’s no one to go to in Palomas and no phone number to call if you need a SinHambre card.


Criticism


There’s some pretty fierce criticism of the SinHambre program by the Left in Mexico. The arguments circle around the fact that the program isn’t addressing the root causes of Mexican poverty and inequality. They say the poor have been getting poorer because of the neo-liberal policies that are still promoting exports in agriculture and draining away subsidies for small-farm producers.

Comandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which warred against neo-liberalism, hates SinHambre. He made a statement about it in April 2013 when SinHambre was introduced, before he disappeared as a political entity in 2014.

What makes it all worse is that SinHambre is partly sponsored by Nestle and PepsiCo, inventors and marketers of junk food that draws people away from locally produced food and causes the extreme obesity rate that’s grown in Mexico since the 1980s. That’s when processed food, often made by these companies, was introduced into the market. Nestle is of course famous for their low-nutrition infant formula marketing in third world countries. They’ve developed milk formulas for Mexico that are sold at the DICONSA store in Palomas, where SinHambre clients buy their food.

While all these points may be valid, and probably some if not a lot of refugees from these rural policies have arrived in Palomas, these arguments would seem like abstractions to most of the mothers who have actual food to give to their kids now when they get cranky and want to eat.


Foxconn

Palomenses are obviously glad to get work assembling computers at Foxconn, or

they wouldn’t be flocking there to work. There are four buses that take people to San Jeronimo in the early morning and three buses in the afternoon for the night shift. Maybe even more important to the people in Palomas than the pay they get is the benefits offered by Foxconn, from what I hear.

Ramon Tovar had just started working at Foxconn two weeks earlier. He’d worked as a stone mason before, making enough for just one meal a day sometimes. He sat in his yard with his wife in front of their house on the far west side of town.

Ramon said the benefits to employees Foxconn gives are really important to him, especially medical care and retirement benefits. He said he’d never gotten seguros (these benefits) before in his life. “The government here doesn’t do anything for us,” he claimed.

The $57 to $63 he brings home “only allows us to buy tortillas, potatos, pasta, soups, flour, and coffee” — the basic foods. “Fruit is a luxury,” his wife says with a little wry smile.

The medical benefits seem to be very appreciated in Palomas, but Ramon qualifies that by saying “the medical services are muy chafas – of low quality.” Other people say that you often have to buy the medicines in the prescriptions yourself.

Being so close to the border and the much higher salaries in the United States, it’s not surprising people in Palomas are not over-enthused about the pay.

I was talking to one man I know who had started work at Foxconn. I congratulated him on his job, but he just stood there with a slight smile on his face. I wondered how to encourage a man who’s getting about $57 there (the pay varies depending on hours worked). He was used to earning that much sometimes in a day in the fields of Deming, before he was deported. He has five young kids and a wife to feed. I don’t know what to say to him.

A couple of women workers said they needed daycare centers for their children. Mayor Talaco Sanchez says, a little defensively, that no one has come to his office to ask for that.


Feeding the children

The system as it is has real drawbacks. But it’s unbelievable how much more effective the stroke of a president’s pen or the forces of pure, heartless capitalism have been to fill chidren’s mouths than the hundreds of well-meaning church people and others who have raised donations and brought sacks of beans and flour to poor people in Palomas for decades (including myself).

The only consolation is that the bureaucrats and businessmen would never have known how hungry people were if the activists, guerrilleros, intellectuals, and church people hadn’t told them about it, written about it, marched about it, and died over it.

I think things have taken a turn for the better.

 



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