In The Shadow Of The Maquiladoras

Hermilio Mata recalls picking up the lifeless body of his newborn daughter, Isabel, at the Matamoros Social Security Hospital in April, his mouth dry and his heart pounding. The small bundle was wrapped in a white sheet. "The doctor said she had no brain," he says, as his wife Faustina struggles to choke back her tears.

It was a wrenching setback for a family that had come a long way. Twelve years ago, the Matas were subsistence farmers. Since then they have shared in the prosperity that U.S. businesses have brought to Matamoros, a town of 500,000 just across the border from Brownsville, Tex. They own a small house, drive a 1975 Chevrolet pickup truck, and send their six surviving girls to school. Hermilio talks about health insurance and severance pay, things he didn't know existed a decade ago. But with the death of their baby, the region that brought prosperity to the Matas seems to have exacted a gruesome price.

Isabel died as a result of anencephaly, a rare and fatal defect that stops the formation of a fetal brain in the first months of pregnancy. Although no studies have been conducted in Matamoros, across the border, the Texas Department of Health, with help from the Centers for Disease Control, is investigating a high rate of anencephaly in Brownsville and the surrounding county. Between 1989 and 1991, there were 80 deaths attributed to the condition. That's 18 per 10,000--which is about five times the national rate. U.S. doctors are not sure what triggers the disease. Pollution, including toxic chemicals, is among the suspects. But the medical authorities are examining other causes, too, including diet and a possible genetic propensity among Hispanics. Geneticist Richard H. Finnell of Texas A&M University says that the origins could be both genetic and environmental.

To residents of Brownsville and Matamoros, the most obvious change in the environment has been the maquiladoras, factories that foreign companies operate on the Mexican side of the border. Among them are more than 90 U. S-owned operations and numerous Mexican-owned chemical plants. American corporations are drawn by the low wages and the relatively lax environmental controls. There are no water- or sewage-treatment plants in Matamoros. And many of the industrial effluents that in the U.S. would have to go through treatment facilities are allowed to flow freely into sewers and waterways here. "If they tested their water and air conscientiously, they would be surprised by the findings," says Dick Kamp, an environmentalist at the Border Ecology Project.

Publicity about the effect of pollution on U.S. cities has prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to begin a two-year study of the Rio Grande, which separates Brownsville from Matamoros. The border's sorry environmental record is also sure to figure heavily in the coming congressional debate over the just-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement. Presidents George Bush and Carlos Salinas de Gortari have pledged around $700 million in cleanup funds, but that may not be enough to satisfy Congress, which will begin discussing the treaty in the fall. Many environmentalists are concerned about encouraging further development along the border--even though new industry would give thousands more workers like Hermilio Mata a leg up.

TAINTED WATER? With just two years of schooling, Hermilio is not a sophisticated man. "We look to God for consolation," he says, as we sit around the table in the family's dirt-floor kitchen, where framed postcards of saints look on. But, with a glance toward his six healthy daughters, ages 2 to 13, he adds: "There is no history of birth defects in our families." Four of the girls were born in Matamoros. "I didn't do anything different during this pregnancy," says Faustina. And, she adds, "at the hospital, there were rumors that other babies with the same defect were being born."

Short and slightly built, Hermilio, 42, is not due at work for hours, but he's already wearing the identification tag from the General Motors Corp. plant where he has worked for 11 years. His $3.20 hourly wage puts him at the top of the pay scale, giving him $90 a week rather than the $50 that workers doing similar jobs get from other U.S. companies in border towns.

He insists on showing me around, pointing out the luxuriant grapevine and the fig and lemon trees he planted, which cool the house. The Matas live on an unpaved street in an otherwise shadeless, flat neighborhood--ironically called Bellavista. In the back, under a shed, is the lime-green Chevy pickup--Hermilio's prized possession, which he says he can afford to drive only on Sundays.

The urban sprawl surrounding the Matas' house is a city planner's nightmare. The infrastructure of Matamoros was built to serve 50,000 people, but it is used by 10 times that number. Drinking water comes from open canals running near plants that manufacture pesticides and hydrofluoric acid or that use toxic solvents. Occasionally, there are fires and leaks at the chemical plants, which produce pungent clouds.

`A LOT TO LOSE.' Rimir, where Hermilio works, makes bumpers for Camaros and Firebirds and is one of two GM companies operating in Matamoros. Environmentalists, such as the labor-supported Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, accuse Rimir of dumping untreated water containing high levels of solvents. But Charles Almquist, general manager of Rimir, denies the charges. "We're a responsible company. We have a lot to lose," he says. "We're not in the same bag with others." Indeed, Almquist points out that Rimir is currently building a $2 million wastewater-treatment plant, which another GM executive said will discharge only "clean water" into the Matamoros sewage. Nobody is forcing GM to make that investment, Almquist adds.

It's Sunday. The family members walk out with me to the street, where torrential rains earlier have turned the roads into a muddy mess. They're off to church, and then they plan to go for a drive around the city to enjoy the sunny day. Hermilio closes the gate of the blue-and-red picket fence around his house and joins the family gathered at the truck. "I will just focus my attention on my six girls. . . . We don't plan to have any more children," he says.

Driving to the international bridge that will take me back to Texas, I pass a field, spectacularly blanketed with sunflowers, the yellow brilliant against the sky. I open my windows and turn off the air conditioning. Then, a whiff of something rancid enters the car. Behind the field, smokestacks are spewing billowing clouds into the air.

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