For International Women’s Day: Maquilapolis – city of factories

It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow, so we’ve picked out a documentary that’s soon to be featured on our site: Maquilapolis – city of factories. This is a preview of its page in our Electrical Department. It’s unique in the ‘follow the things’ genre because its both about, and made with and by, factory working women.

Maquilapolis – city of factories


Year: 2006

Type: Documentary film (68 mins, in Spanish with Spanish or English subtitles)

Directors: Vicky Funari and Sergio de la Torre, in collaboration with the factory workers.

Production Company: Independent Television Service (ITVS).

Availability: DVD (California newsreel $24.99 for home use), transcript (English & Spanish, free), online (sections & whole film, search).




Push, assemble, remove, push, assemble, remove. A line of women are dressed alike in blue smocks that indicate their respective positions in one of Tijuana, Mexico’s 4,000 factories. They are the manufacturing “machines” corporations so desire in the global economy. Silently, they push, assemble, remove, push, assemble, remove (Source: Treick O’Neill nd np link).

Women from all over Mexico flock north to the city of Tijuana to find work in the maquiladoras, or factories, along the Mexico-United States border. They come for the promise of a steady income and a better future. More often, what they find is a toxic workplace and a life of desperate poverty. Women are recruited by the maquiladoras to staff the assembly lines because they are thought to be cheap, docile labor, but the women featured in the documentary film Maquilapolis (City of Factories) are proving just the opposite (Source: Anon ndd np link).

After making television components all night, Carmen comes home to a shack she built out of recycled garage doors, in a neighborhood with no sewage lines or electricity.  She suffers from kidney damage and lead poisoning from her years of exposure to toxic chemicals. She earns six dollars a day.  But Carmen is not a victim.  She is a dynamic young woman, busy making a life for herself and her children. As Carmen and a million other maquiladora workers produce televisions, electrical cables, toys, clothes, batteries and IV tubes, they weave the very fabric of life for consumer nations.  They also confront labor violations, environmental devastation and urban chaos – life on the frontier of the global economy. In MAQUILAPOLIS, Carmen and her colleague Lourdes reach beyond the daily struggle for survival to organize for change (Source: Anon nde np link).

Carmen becomes an activist and rallies her co-workers, in a David-and-Goliath struggle, to challenge Sanyo by filing a claim with the labor board. … Lourdes, as also documented by her video diary, can’t just sit by. She helps organize a community group, the Chilpancingo Collective for Environmental Justice, to fight for an cleanup of a toxic waste dump left behind by a departing battery-recycling factory (Source: Anon 2006a np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

The factory workers who appear in the film have been involved in every stage of production, from planning to shooting, from scripting to outreach… One thing all the women in Maquilapolis have in common is a sense of agency: They are promotoras, workers who sought out training in human and labor rights from local NGOs and who then committed to pass that knowledge on to their communities. In constructing a collaboration with the promotoras, we had two goals: to create a documentary that is powerful and useful to the people who most need to see and show it, including the promotoras themselves; and to further their own work by providing them with the equipment and skills to create their own activist videos in the future. … We see globalization as a direct continuation of colonialism. The way that NAFTA (and other transnational and global projects) has affected the lives of millions of Mexicans is not unique. We are all workers, and we need an adequate workplace, clear hours, a just salary, medical services, a decent home and a basic education. These are things that the maquiladora industry does not offer its workers. NAFTA is not what it promised to be, and neither are the majority of projects designed in first-world nations and imposed upon third-world nations (Source: Funari & De La Torre 2006 p.2 link).

These workers were part of a nonprofit in Tijuana called Factor X, which is an organization that recruited factory workers who had the potential to become activists. Factor X brought 14 factory workers a year to their office, which had a cafeteria, a child care center, a classroom and also provided therapy for some of the workers. Every weekend for a whole year, the organization would train these workers on issues like human rights, labor rights and domestic violence. When Vicky and I found out about Factor X and their process with the factory workers, we wanted to borrow and mimic what they were doing. So we worked with Factor X, using some of their already-established resources to develop the film, which not only included the stories, but also the structure of collaborating with the workers (Source: Anon 2006b np link).

In terms of audience on the other side of the border, we had in mind factory workers, communities of people that are on the production side. I hope seeing the film can make them understand what their role was, how important it is for them to understand what they’re doing and how they do participate in the world economy, and that they do have rights not only as workers but as humans. I hope the film makes them understand that they have rights to a decent house, a decent job and a decent living (Source: De La Torre in Anon 2006b np link).


My first assumption was to presume some recourse for the individual: a sympathetic ear in the government, a union or other infrastructure for factory workers to rally behind, anything. Maquiapolis showed that there was none. If you complain you get fired; if you unionize the entire factory moves to a land cheaper and more forgiving of mistreatment. Near the middle of the movie the sheer inevitability of one population (Western consumers) dictating the lives and collective health of another (workers in developing nations) seemed crushing. And yet, counterintuitively, there was hope. Workers formed guerilla groups, whispering and planning in secret to escape notice from supervisors. They slowly built a grassroots movement with outside support that eventually attracted the attention of officials on both sides of the border and resulting in a historical bilateral agreement to clean up Tijuana. Despite the earlier sense of inevitability, those in the maquilas refused to relinquish their dignity, providing all of us with a sense of hope (Source: alien9542 2008 np link).

One of the most thought-provoking moments in the film is when a Tijuana labor leader thinks aloud about the relationship between corporations and the government. With both the government and the companies shirking their responsibility to the communities, Jaime Cota asks, “Who is worse: The one who pays for sin or the one who sins for pay?” For a moment, the viewer thinks about the possible trade-offs before realizing that this rhetorical question digs deep into the assumptions underlying the marriage of democracy and capitalism (Source: Stewart 2007 np link).

The whole thing seemed like a moving picture response to … [the question] What is Globalization? (Source: barba de chiva 2007 np link).


Alien9542 (2008) Comment on Anon (2008) Documentary: Maquilapolis. 18 April ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Anon (ndd) Maquilapolis: City of factories. International Museum of Women: Women, Power and Politics Online Exhibition. ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Anon (nde) MAQUILAPOLIS [city of factories]. ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Anon (2006a) Maquilapolis: City of Factories. 28 September (updated 22 January 2009) ( last accessed 31 October 2011)

Anon (2006b) Maquilapolis: City of Factories, Interview. 28 September (updated 29 December 2010) ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

barba de chiva (2007) Maquilapolis. Phronesisaical: politics, philosophy, fruit  24 July ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Funari, V. & De La Torre, S. (2006) Letter from the Filmmakers. P.O.V. Season 19 Discussion Guide: Maquilapolis: city of factories. New York: American Documentary Inc. ( last accessed 27 June 2012)

Stewart, D.T. (2007) Maquilapolis: City of Factories, Film Review. Policy Innovations Online 23 December ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Treick O’Neill, J. (nd) Preview of Article: Review: Our Dignity Can Defeat Anyone. Rethinking Schools Archives and Website. ( last accessed 1 November 2011)

Teaching resources

Download the film’s ‘Discussion Guide’ here.

Page compiled by Rosie Buller, Melanie Bonner, Rebecca Lyons, Georgie Little and Tilman Schulzklinger, edited by Eeva Kemppainen and Ian Cook. Page created for as part of the ‘Geographies of material culture’ module, Exeter University. TV photo reproduced under creative commons license from Wikimedia.


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