Fashion as activism: Juárez cooperative Ni En More combats the maquiladora model
Fashion can be a potent and visible form of political resistance. Coded with meaning, our clothing communicates social status, cultural belonging, and is deeply tied to personal identity.
For Juárez fashion cooperative Ni En More, activism is fundamental to their organizational structure and threaded through every garment they make.
“We started this project to create a different model that’s better for women,” said Janette Terrazas, a textile artist and one of the founders of Ni En More. She explained that the business model of Ni En More exists in direct response to the operational structure of maquiladoras, the largest job source in Ciudad Juárez.
Commonly referred to as maquilas, these export manufacturing plants have long been critiqued for poor labor conditions. Some scholars have drawn connections between maquiladora employment and femicides, arguing that the factories treat their (predominantly women) workers as disposable.
According to Candelaria Gutierrez, a member of the Rarámuri tribal community and worker at Ni En More, the experience at the cooperative is totally different from her previous job in a maquila.
“(At the maquiladora) the work was very mechanized, doing just one thing all day. Here I can experiment, explore,” said Gutierrez, who is 25 and has three kids. She notes how much more time she has to spend with her family, working at Ni En More, because the hours aren’t as long as they were at the maquiladora.
Gutierrez has also been living at the Ni En More studio lately, in order to escape a domestic violence situation. This element of the cooperative is all the more unique when considered within a national context.
Funding cuts to women’s shelters throughout Mexico have been implemented by Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador, even as femicide and violence against women have surged during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vulnerability, femicide and resistance
Mónica Ortiz Uribe, host of the podcast “Forgotten: The Women of Juárez,” said there is an undeniable connection between maquiladoras and the femicide phenomenon.
“Many of the victims of femicide were factory workers. And a lot of the women who went missing and later turned up murdered, their disappearance happened between work and home, between traveling from one of the factories to their homes which were on the outskirts of town typically, in colonias with little infrastructure,” Ortiz Uribe said.
Ortiz Uribe said the numbers of femicides have grown throughout Latin America, and have elicited diverse forms of public resistance: “Particularly in Mexico, femicide has spread since the phenomenon first began in Juárez. And so now you have a new generation of activists who are speaking out against it and making demands for protection by the Mexican government in a much larger movement,” she said.
The name of Ni En More is in part inspired by the protest phrase Ni Una Más (not one more), which has been a rallying cry in protests against femicides. Terrazas says that the structure of Ni En More is intended to address and combat the vulnerability of women that is perpetuated in a maquiladora model, vulnerability which is linked to systemic violence against women.
“We want to create happy spaces where people can manage their time. Production is important, but for us knowledge is more important, and that (workers) are treated as human beings,” she said. “I think that’s the difference. So they can make decisions throughout the process, that’s something you never see in the maquiladoras.”
The process of creating a dress
Each Ni En More dress takes more than 60 hours to produce. Terrazas said that this element of production is key, creating a smaller number of garments (30-40 per week), while prioritizing higher quality materials, workmanship, and the empowerment of workers through a broadened skill-set.
“It’s a slow process,” said Terrazas, contrasting the approach with that of fast fashion, a method of garment manufacture that relies on cheap materials and cheap labor in creating low-quality and highly disposable clothing items. Among other things, fast fashion has been criticized for its significant environmental impacts.
Kathleen Staudt, a professor emeritus at UTEP who has studied issues of gender, labor, violence, and activism along the border for the past several decades, noted the contrast between the approach of the Ni En More cooperative to that of maquiladoras, while also questioning whether this alternate model could be viable on a larger scale.
“It’s a very rigid workplace in the maquilas. It’s also a very male-dominated workplace. It’s not like working in a cooperative where you can work on a garment from start to finish and look at your final product and feel some pride in it,” Staudt said.
The cooperative structure
The way that ownership and financial distribution operates in the cooperative is also a significant difference.
“A cooperative is less hierarchical, compared to an extremely hierarchical system in the maquilas. Which is hierarchical not only by gender but also by nationality and language, and the highly specialized processes in the manufacturing process,” Staudt said.
Hilda Ortega, a cooperative member at Ni En More, is 48 and has two children. She said the fact the organization is a cooperative is important for many reasons.
“More than anything, it provides an opportunity. In a maquiladora, you just have your task; here, we have decision-making power,” Ortega said.
Gutierrez agreed, emphasizing that the process of sharing knowledge sets the group apart as well. “In a cooperative, you give other people the chance to learn what you are learning. It’s happening now in the Rarámuri community,” she said.
“There is no (single) owner, so everyone is the owner of the project,” said Terrazas, who said the aims of the cooperative are fundamentally anti-capitalist. “The people that are here are also the owners of the means of production,” she said.
The true cost of a dress
Keeping the project afloat has not been without its financial challenges, and the hefty price tags for garments is a reflection of the high cost of operating in this way (a Ni En More dress retails for $370). The Ni En More website describes the natural dye process for their garments, which incorporates materials from nearby flower shops and restaurants; the website expresses the goal that a garment from Ni En More will be “something our buyers never will throw away, and wear knowing their purchase has made a difference.”
When I asked Terrazas about the cost of their garments, she noted how distorted perceptions have become about the true cost of labor, because of maquiladora and fast fashion production models.
“We are not educated to appreciate the labor behind garments. For many many years, since industrialization, we lost this connection that there are people behind (the clothes). I know the hard work that women do in this process is the same hard work that people in the maquiladoras are doing. But we don’t see it, because it’s cheaper. The real cost is paid by the people exploited,” Terrazas said.
Fundraising to support the mission of the cooperative has been a challenge. Terrazas said that at the beginning of the pandemic they had serious concerns, but that dress sales linked to a recent write-up in Vogue Magazine helped the cooperative survive.
Staudt said operations like Ni En More have both benefits and limitations.
“Factory discipline is a severe hardship for women who are raising children, children with fathers or spouses (who are) not always that reliable or bringing in money. So to be able to do this kind of work and earn a decent wage is a benefit. But will it ever develop to the volume of the maquila workers?”
Staudt suggested that a strategy for improving labor conditions in Juárez would involve stronger labor standards, allowing for the establishment of independent unions, protective practices for supply-chain manufacturing employees during COVID-19, and increased wages at all maquiladoras.
But projects like Ni En More do offer a glimpse into a radically different modality for garment manufacturing on the border, a place where the maquiladora structure has been dominant and growing for decades.
“We are working, and we want to grow in the years to come,” said Terrazas, who compares maquiladora labor conditions to a bad romance.
“Say you are in a relationship with someone that doesn’t treat you well, and it’s the only relationship you’ve ever had. You think this is the right thing, you think this is normal. You work for many years in the maquiladoras and you think that things have to be like that. But when you find something different where you can feel loved and embraced, in a relationship that really cares about you, I think that can be a process of healing.”
Cover photo: Janette Terrazas, right, and Hilda Ortega, both collaborators with the Ni En More sewing collective, laugh as they describe the process of printing a garment with crushed roses. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: Kathy Staudt is a member and financial supporter of El Paso Matters.