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Filmmaker and Human Rights Activist Barbara Martinez Jitner Speaks at GRCC Diversity Lecture Series

Skyline of Ciudad Juarez during a factory fire

Skyline of Ciudad Juarez during a factory fire /NeeDeeAhh! on Flickr (Creative Commons - BY, SA)

Underwriting support from:

GRCC Diversity Lecture Series:

Upcoming speakers (All lectures begin at 7 p.m. at Fountain Street Church):

  • February 16, 2011: Ta-Nahisi Coates: Journalist, Author, Editor
    A Deeper Black: The Meaning of Race in the Age of Obama
  • March 16, 2011: Lisa Shannon: Activist, Author, Sister
    A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to Be a Woman

For more information visit GRCC's Diversity Lecture Series Website.

Barbara Martinez Jitner drew a significant crowd to her lecture on Wednesday night, Oct 20. From the stage of the Fountain Street Church (24 Fountain NE), Jitner shed light on the situation of young female Mexican factory workers that have been raped and murdered in the bordertown of Juarez, Mexico, which mirrors other US-Mexico bordertowns.

Jitner began by giving details and an historical overview of the situation. Since 1993, the city of Juarez has been the scene of 475 rape-and-murders of young Mexican women, but the perpetrators have never been brought to justice.  It was in 1993 that former-President Carlos Salinas of Mexico amended the Mexican constitution to cause the land of Mexico’s indigenous peoples to be subject to taxation.

Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), began to allow companies to purchase low-cost, untarrifed labor from just across the US border. Electronic goods companies opened factories called maquiladoras that pay workers $5 per day, or 50 cents per hour. The indigenous Mexicans, Jitner explained, love their land like a mother and will do anything to keep it. To pay the taxes more easily, they moved to bordertowns such as Juarez only to find that living expenses were far beyond their reach. For instance, with a half gallon of milk being sold at the first-world price of $3, a worker would have to labor six hours. As a result, people live in cardboard boxes in shanty-towns with no running water, no electricity and no infrastructure.

Another surprise for these immigrants was that the workers hired are only to be young women between ages 14-30. The women are given no protection by these companies or by the Mexian government. According to Jitner, homicide and rape are not federal crimes in Mexico. Many of these young workers are abducted, raped and murdered without consequence. Because these young women have no identification, when they disappear and their bodies are found later by their families, police say that “these murders do not exist.” The audience listened in shock as Jitner suggested the reason these atrocities are allowed to continue; there is just too much money to be made by harvesting these girls’ organs.

The problem was given a personal aspect when Jitner's documentary was shown during the lecture. This short film followed Eva Conseco a maquilladora worker about to be released from employment because she has reached 30 (the age limit to prevent promotion). She had worked very hard so that her daughter could go to school instead of having to help the family by working in the factory. Faced with a daunting decision, she consults the Virgin Mary about the risky option of sneaking out of Mexico.

The solution Jitner gave for this sinister situation is to end the impunity of these women’s attackers. Referring the organization, May Our Daughters Return Home, Jitner urged her listeners to sign a petition to the US congress and the government of Mexico to demand that these cases be investigated, criminals convicted, and for the development of Juarez’ infrastructure to establish a safe environment for its citizens.

Jitner later noted that it is impossible for an individual consumer to effect change by boycotting all electronic goods. Contrariwise, Jitner’s efforts have been met with some success. One example she gave was in the case of a young murdered woman. Because the girl’s brother had been the one to find her dead body he was blamed in court for her murder. Yet because of Jitner’s efforts, the accusation was successfully reversed.    

Although difficult, her presence that night showed that her struggle has not been impossible. Indeed, Jitner’s presence brought in the largest audience yet for Grand Rapids Community College’s sixteenth annual diversity lecture series.

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