Maquila Managers


This article from TIME Magazine discusses the booming growth in the Rio Grande Valley area and the new profession, bicultural maquila managers. These managers live in the United States and cross the border to Mexico freely to work with Mexicans who do not enjoy the same freedom. Thomas writes on the daily lives of the NAFTA manager and how he functions in the Southwestern United States. The author also discusses how NAFTA has helped the region develop and compares this example of globalization to a gold rush.


The Rise of the NAFTA Manager
The border economy has bred a dynamic new strain of bicultural bosses


If you want to understand the gold rush, you've got to know the prospectors. The reason that Laredo and nearby McAllen, Texas, are two of the top 10 fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S. is mainly owing to NAFTA and its progeny: NAFTA Man.
NAFTA Man is not only bilingual, he's also bicultural. He speaks Spanish on the factory floor in Mexico but yells in English at his kids' T-ball games. He knows when to offer a bribe in Mexico (to a traffic cop) and when not to (during an environmental inspection). He prefers chile rellenos to pot roast, gets his allergy medicine in Mexico but his MRI in the U.S. He has a two-sided wallet for pesos and dollars and would practically kill for a cell phone that works in both countries. "We don't know who we are," laughs John Castany, president of the Reynosa Maquiladora Association, which has 110 mostly gringo members. "We're schizo. Border culture is just, well, different."
These NAFTA Men — and a few women — are genetically engineered by the new border economy. Managers are taught to take a different route to work every day to foil potential kidnappers. They grow accustomed to training — and losing — an entire factory floor of workers every year. And they have discovered that "casual Friday" in McAllen is often a dress-up workday on the other side. Around here, the most valuable asset is their flexibility. " You have to switch gears in Mexico — and not just languages. You have a behavior shift too," says Charles Taliaferro, 49, who runs maquila operations for Am-Mex Products, which makes everything from Siemens electric motors to Smead file folders. Workers cause less trouble, but their bosses have to be more considerate. "In Mexico, you're more polite, more formal," he says. The man most responsible for NAFTA Man's ascendance in McAllen is a former Catholic priest turned economic hustler named, coincidentally, Mike Allen. As president of the local economic-development office, the 63-year-old executive uses local tax funds to attract business to McAllen — as well as to its Mexican sister city, Reynosa, across the vein-thin river. "I remember back in '88 meeting the mayor of Reynosa. He had an AK-47 in his back seat. We did a handshake deal to bring manufacturers to Mexico," says Allen. Back then, Reynosa had fewer than 20 factories, with 16,000 employees; today there are 209 plants, with 64,000 workers.
Critics point out that the Mexican maquilas have drained jobs from the U.S. side. Allen says those jobs were leaving anyway. And even though the Rio Grande Valley remains one of the nation's poorest regions, a lucrative new companion industry — logistics and technical support — has helped boost job growth 7% last year in the McAllen area, the best in Texas. The 2,000 mostly American maquila professionals who cross the bridge daily into Reynosa bring in $1 million a year in tolls alone for the city of McAllen. "If Reynosa is not doing well," says city manager Mike Perez, "we're not doing well."

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Photo of maquila manager Charles Taliaferro

The Average Maquila Worker