- Fires on the Border: The Passionate Politics of Labor Organizing on the Mexican Frontera by Rosemary Hennessy
Much of our understanding of the successes, failures, and ongoing challenges of economic integration for North America is grounded in frameworks developed to explain the functions of the states and institutions involved in this project. Largely missing from the narratives and empirical studies of contemporary North American politics and economics have been the voices of the most marginalized people for whom the concept “comparative advantage in labor” misrepresents their daily struggles. In this work, Rosemary Hennessy seeks to understand how cultural practices and processes, and emotional and sexual attachments explain the bonds that develop among Mexico’s labor organizers as they work to protect the Mexican worker. In doing so, the author broadcasts the voices of the most marginalized workers far beyond the industrialized Mexico-U.S border.
The book draws on materialism, affect and feminist theory to offer an understanding of labor organizing through the lens of affect-culture—the transmission of sensation and cognitive emotion through cultural practices—in Mexico’s maquiladoras. Hennessy’s contributions to our understanding of the secondary effects of the Mexico-U.S. relationship are substantial in two important ways. First, the author’s integration of feminist theory, materialism and affect theory weaves a creative framework that links these traditions to questions of interest to a social science and area studies audience. Second, and closer to the larger geopolitical questions the author engages, she sheds light on the most marginalized and vulnerable actors in the drama of North American economic integration through the emotive lens of affect culture.
An introduction and eight chapters organized in three parts frame the book. A substantial introduction establishes the work as a cultural, materialist, and Marxist-feminist approach to “stag[ing] an encounter between that [body of] knowledge and the concepts and insights in the testimonies of workers and organizers on the border” (p. xxiii). The introduction also orients the reader to Mexico’s internal geopolitics, which sets the stage for the framework of affect-culture as a means of fostering cross-border, cross-region, and gender-transgressing support for the maquiladora organizers.
The first chapter frames labor organizing by the women organizadoras as a struggle against the gendered politics of labor sourcing in the North American maquiladoras. The chapter effectively establishes the value of affect-culture as a valuable framework for explaining the socio-cultural realities faced by the workers who live, work, and organize at the margins of North American economic integration.
Next, the author situates the affect-culture framework within the materialist and affect theory literature, and draws on emotion as a tool of analysis for understanding the capitalist life on the border (p. 39). The chapter effectively maps a complex blend of affect and material theory onto the culture of organizing and political resistance on the border.
The book elaborates on her methodological approach to expanding the discourses of labor organizers via affective ties in Chapter Three, “Bearing Witness.” Here, Hennessy’s own identities and her self-awareness as an outsider [End Page 243] come through by way of her interpretation of a Latin American testimonio to organizing. Social science scholars should resist the temptation to classify Hennessy’s scholarly approach as “participant observation,” lest they not appreciate the affective power of narrative—the testimonio—by which she tells the personal love stories embedded in the stories of affection that hold together the women-led labor organizing on the border.
Chapter Four, engages directly the sources of gendered division of labor and the hyper-exploitation of women in the maquiladoras and identifies sexuality as the medium of labor relations and intimidation that gender-transgressing organizers—women and men—encounter in society and in the workplace. Here, Hennessy articulates the sexualities of the organizers she observes as the “significant thread in this story of...