Guadalupe Rivemar Valle is a pragmatist. As director of Tijuana’s Sala Anguiano for the last three-and-a-half years, she’s seen how few people find time to stop by the downtown gallery to see the drawings, paintings and etchings of artist Raúl Anguiano. For Rivemar, it posed a problem, one that could easily be solved by taking the art directly to the people instead.
“Anguiano was part of the Mexican muralist movement,” Rivemar said as she navigated her way through the busy streets of Tijuana in her small, shiny red car. “Muralists have this tradition of taking the art to the people and to the streets. They believe that art doesn’t have to be seen in a gallery; it needs to be seen in the city.”
“I would die just sitting in the gallery,” Rivemar confessed. “I would die if I stayed inside of my gallery waiting for the people to come.”
Last year, Rivemar packed up some of the 62 pieces in the gallery’s collection and hit the road. She toured Anguiano’s work through Tijuana’s universities and even staged one exhibition in the lobby of Agua Caliente Racetrack. More people were seeing the art, but not enough. She was missing one huge and critical sector of the city’s population—Tijuana’s thousands of factory workers.
The idea to tour a fine-art exhibition through the maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, across Tijuana came to Rivemar during last year’s Tijuana Innovadora conference. The event, which set out to introduce a quickly changing city to the rest of the world, brought bigwigs like Al Gore, the founders of Twitter and Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón together with leaders from the Asociación de Industria Maquiladora (AIM) and other movers and shakers in Tijuana.
“A lot of the program really centered on technological development and that sort of image that these aren’t the maquiladoras of old or of folklore. These aren’t dirty sweatshops—this is high-technology industry,” said David Carruthers, a San Diego State University professor in political science who, along with fellow SDSU political science associate professor Kristen Hill Maher, recently authored Image Crisis and the Politics of Visioning the Future in Tijuana, an academic article currently under review. For the paper, Carruthers and Maher interviewed dozens of people interested in changing the image of Tijuana, including the organizers of Tijuana Innovadora.
“A lot of the materials we’re seeing them put out are about how Tijuana has one of the most educated work forces any place in Mexico,” Maher said.
At the conference last year, Rivemar met Alejandro Bustamante, the president of Plantronics, a factory in Tijuana’s Otay neighborhood that manufactures headsets and other audio devices. Rivemar gave her pitch and, by March of this year, she was celebrating the opening of her Arte en la Industria series of Anguiano art exhibitions set up directly on factory floors. Plantronics has four factories in Tijuana, and the art show has traveled to all of them.
“We thought it would be a different environment from the routine of what the production lines cause in people,” said Marisol Oliva, a Plantronics manager. “We want to make them cozy with the art and to narrow a gap that we currently have among artists and the community.”
Anguiano’s work, said Luis Alfaro, assistant director of human resources at Plantronics, reflects the indigenous culture and people of Mexico, and since many of the factory employees are from places like Chiapas and Oaxaca, they seemed to easily relate and connect to the work, Alfaro said.
César López Ramos, director of government relations at the factory, said he’s heard of other maquiladoras following Plantronics’ lead.
“I know that another company already put on a similar exhibition with another painter,” Ramos said. “I talked to a manager of a factory [that manufactures] motor parts and he said, ‘Well, César, we already copied you.’”
The press Plantronics and Rivemar have received for the exhibition has been positive so far, but not everyone thinks shining a positive light on the city’s maquiladora industry is a good idea. The city’s factories have long been thought of as places where a mostly female workforce is paid too little to do too much work. There have been reports of workers at some maquilas handling toxic chemicals, and many factories are thought to have generally poor working conditions.
In Tijuana’s Pasaje Rodriquez, an alleyway of deserted storefronts that were transformed into artist galleries and artisan booths after the drug wars killed the tourism industry and locals began reclaiming downtown retail space, two women—both members of the maquiladora workers-rights group Ollin Calli—sat in front of a table filled with earrings, bracelets and other handmade goods. One of the women, who gave her name only as Margarita, said that, in general, the maquiladora industry continues to pay extremely low wages and require workers to maintain an inordinately high level of productivity.
“Generally, the employees work according to production standards,” said the former maquiladora worker as she threaded beads for a bracelet. “Right now, I don’t know the number for the maximum standard, but, for example, they tell us, You’re going to produce so many units in an hour or by the day. And so you do that, but the workers are stressed, because they’re working at a really accelerated rate to be able to reach that goal.
“If they don’t make their goal,” Margarita said, “they’re fired or they lower their salary or change their post. There are punishments for not reaching that goal.”
Rivemar said she’s aware of the negative image of Tijuana’s maquiladoras, but she said things have changed. Plus, she added, she’s not looking to set up an art exhibition in just any factory. She’s only approaching those she knows treat their workers well.
Her pitch, though, hasn’t been as easy a sell as she’d hoped. Rivemar has yet to get another maquiladora in Tijuana to say yes to an art exhibition on their factory floors. But that doesn’t mean she’s giving up.
“Art is not meant to be a privilege for the elite. It’s a constitutional right for all the people,” Rivemar said, driving her car up the hill to Zona Industria, where most of the city’s factories are located. “I lot of people know who Raúl Anguiano is now, but we have a lot of work to do.”