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Fires on the Border

The Passionate Politics of Labor Organizing on the Mexican Frontera

Rosemary Hennessy

Publication Year: 2013

The history of the maquiladoras has been punctuated by workers’ organized resistance to abysmal working and living conditions. Over years of involvement in such movements, Rosemary Hennessy was struck by an elusive but significant feature of these struggles: the extent to which organizing is driven by attachments of affection and antagonism, belief, betrayal, and identification.

What precisely is the “affective” dimension of organizing for justice? Are affects and emotions the same? And how can their value be calculated? Fires on the Border takes up these questions of labor and community organizing—its “affect-culture”—on Mexico’s northern border from the early 1970s to the present day. Through these campaigns, Hennessy illuminates the attachments and identifications that motivate people to act on behalf of one another and that bind them to a common cause. The book’s unsettling, even jarring, narratives bring together empirical and ethnographic accounts—of specific campaigns, the untold stories of gay and lesbian organizers, love and utopian longing—in concert with materialist theories of affect and the critical good sense of Mexican organizers.

Teasing out the integration of affect-culture in economic relations and cultural processes, Hennessy provides evidence that sexuality and gender as strong affect attractors are incorporated in the harvesting of surplus labor. At the same time, workers’ testimonies confirm that the capacities for bonding and affective attachment, far from being entirely at the service of capital, are at the very heart of social movements devoted to sustaining life.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xxvi

Maquiladoras are Mexican factories where workers assemble products for export. Established in the mid-1960s as the Border Industrialization Program, the maquiladoras—or maquilas, as they are called— have assured companies a huge return on investment, but they have also offered Mexican workers a poisoned...

I. History, Affect, Representation

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1. Labor Organizing in Mexico’s Entangled Economies

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pp. 3-36

The history of organizing in the maquiladoras is rooted in the dawning of neoliberal capitalism and accompanies the restructuring of two economic sectors, one legal and the other extralegal, in the last half of the twentieth century. Manufacturing and the drug business are not usually thought together, nor is the return of free-market capitalism...

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2. The Materiality of Affect

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pp. 37-68

Over the past decade or so, scholarship on affect has proliferated to the point that the trend some call the “affective turn” is already being considered passé.1 Why all of this attention to affect? One answer is history. In the past fifty years, as capitalism has profoundly invaded the human organism and harnessed...

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3. Bearing Witness

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pp. 69-96

To be an organizer or an ally in an organizing campaign is to bear witness. Both the bearing and the witnessing open you to a new position in history as you assume responsibility to others and carry their message to the wider community. The “bearing” part of the phrase “bearing witness” suggests layers of meaning...

II. Sex, Labor, Movement

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4. Open Secrets

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pp. 99-123

The open secret is a familiar figure in gay culture and sexuality studies, conjuring an epistemology in which knowing becomes not knowing.1 For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, the open secret is a silence that permeates and gives shape to the requirement to speak about some things, a discretion that accompanies...

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5. The Value of a Second Skin

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pp. 125-150

This chapter discusses the problem of value or, more specifically, the ways surplus value depends upon cultural value. I consider what it means to think of the cultural value adhering to social identities as a second skin that gets folded into the labor power workers exchange for a wage and is reproduced at home...

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6. Feeling Bodies, Jeans, Justice

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pp. 151-176

Though “neoliberalism” may not be the name that springs to mind when most people characterize the social changes of the past four decades, those who have lived its losses know all too well what it means. This chapter considers neoliberalism’s impact on the regulation of life, including affects as biocultural...

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7. The North–South Encuentros

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pp. 177-202

In grupos de base (small grassroots communities) across Mexico’s north and south, women are taking leadership positions, and both men and women are recasting the culture of daily life.1 Out of struggles that vary in their short-term goals but share a long-term vision of alternative possibilities, new political subjects...

III. The Utopian Question

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8. Love in the Common

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pp. 205-226

What does love have to do with labor and community organizing in Mexico or elsewhere? The question seems preposterous, even untimely, yet we know that affective capacities are a part of the dynamic process by which political identities are formed and that they bind people to one another and, sometimes...

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pp. 227-230

This book was a long time in the making and would not have been possible without the generous support of many people and organizations. Principally, I thank the workers and organizers from grassroots groups along the northern Mexican border and in central and southern Mexico who welcomed...


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pp. 231-258


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pp. 259-280


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pp. 281-301

E-ISBN-13: 9781452940090
E-ISBN-10: 1452940096
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679621

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 866444998
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Fires on the Border

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Subject Headings

  • Women offshore assembly industry workers -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Labor unions -- Organizing -- Mexican-American Border Region.
  • Offshore assembly industry -- Employees -- Labor unions -- Mexican-American Border Region.
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