The Struggle is Real: My Examination of Working Conditions in Mexico

This subject has been something I wanted to provide commentary on for quite some time now.  I must first let you know, I have not done any concrete research so there will be no references coming from other sources outside of my own observations. I have currently been in Mexico for about a year and a half, and I must say I am not impressed with the working conditions. The pay provided for work is often terrible and disheartening.  When we first arrived, my husband found a company that was hiring.  From what I understood, it was an American auto parts factory.  He went to an interview for a machine operating position which would earn an individual at least ten dollars per hour in America.  Here; however, the job would pay the equivalent of about sixty-five USD per week.  The job was eight hours a day, six days a week.  What the hell?  That used to be half of what I spent on my weekly trek through Wal-Mart before my son even came along.  How can someone live on this pay? The famous line “That’s like a dollar an hour!” from Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind.  No, it’s not exactly a dollar an hour, but it’s pretty darn close.  Also, you must remember, this is considered a “skilled labor” job.  I was frightened to even know how much a regular assembly line worker brought home at the end of the week.  Needless to say, my husband politely turned the position down.  As I have mentioned before, he sells items at a local market one day a week, and even on a bad day, he makes more than he would make in a week at this job.

Many will say “Well, it’s a lot cheaper to live in Mexico.”  Yes, I must say certain things are much cheaper here.  The utility bills are very low, and food is relatively cheap.  However, San Miguel de Allende is not “that” cheap. Many natives of the area will tell you that living here is much more expensive than some of the other areas of Mexico.  San Miguel is considered a tourist town. There are tons of people from America, Canada and a few other countries who reside here at least part of the year, and there are always many people who vacation here from all over the world.  I can only assume that this is why some of the prices here are higher than other areas of Mexico while still being cheaper than what I was used to paying in the US.  The discovery of the fact of how much money a skilled worker typically takes home for a week’s work led me to curiously seek out other salaries and work conditions.

Our subdivision, at one time, had a full security force.  The security guards were paid by the residents of the community; however, as I have mentioned, extra money is not always readily available.  The fee was two hundred pesos per month, per household which comes to about twelve or thirteen USD.  This is nothing right?  Well, obviously, even this small amount of money was too much for some.  After a few months, the security guards were let go from our neighborhood because not all of the residents were paying.  Our current circuito elected to keep one guard just for our area.  Our security guard is awesome, and I am grateful we have him.  He works from 7 A.M. to 7 P.M Monday through Friday and 7 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Saturdays.  After sometimes walking from his home a few miles away, he walks around our small area for twelve straight hours making sure everything is safe and there are no unidentified persons present.  He is always happy to lend a helping hand to my husband with different things he has been working on.   I believe his salary is 1000 pesos per week which calculates to about sixty dollars.  Once again, sixty dollars for an entire week, and might I also add that this is not the typical work week some of us are used to in the US.  He does get a short break for lunch, but I know he probably still keeps an eye on things around the area.  He has provided his own plastic table and chair that he uses during his break time, and he always dresses very professionally.  From what I understand, he is actually a retired police officer.  Out of all of the security guards we used to have when there were several per day patrolling the entire neighborhood, I am thankful we landed him as ours.  I once witnessed him chase teenage boys on bicycles out of the neighborhood.  At first, I thought this was a little harsh, but I was later informed that one of the boys of the pack was seen trying to steal water hoses out of people’s yards.  This is another reason I am thankful for our dedicated security guard.  Some people here will steal anything they can get their hands on.  A few months ago, two men were doing concrete work in the back of our house.  I commented to my husband that one of the guys looked a little sketchy.  In my opinion, my husband is way too trusting while he thinks I am just mean. In my defense, this individual was one of those wannabe gangsta-looking young guys that you will often see in the crappy parts of the city. My husband, being the overly trusting guy he is, dismissed my comment, but lo and behold, one of his power tools came up missing after the first day the guys were here.  Of course, he had no concrete proof that the gangsta-gangsta stole his tool, but who else could have snatched it up? I brought up this point to prove that our security guard is important, and in my opinion, I believe his salary should reflect that which it does not.

One aspect of living here that I have had to get used to without rudely staring is the things people will do to make money.  They do not care what they look like to others nor do they have too much pride to do anything to make money so they can feed and clothe their families. There are many beggars on the busy streets, and there are people selling basically anything they can from a couple of pairs of old shoes to drains for your shower to trash bags and fly swatters.  People will go door to door selling food or offering extermination services for your home.  Also, the garbage collectors that work for the city have a different job description than what I am accustomed to.  Instead of having the big trucks with the automatic crushers on them,  the city uses open-top dump trucks to haul away trash.  One day while we were stuck behind one of these trucks, I began to wonder how they kept the trash from blowing over the sides of the truck into the road.  It was then that I saw a few heads pop up from inside the truck where the trash is thrown.  Yes, there are usually about three or four people sitting on top of the trash holding it down.  I know how nasty our trash can be with leftover food that my child has turned his nose up at and his horribly rank dirty diapers.  Multiply that by about 500, and this is what these people endure every day.  My husband recently talked to a guy who worked as a garbage collector, and he said he does not rely on his paycheck alone which I can only assume is horribly low.  He actually puts his entire paycheck into his bank account. He instead uses the money he gets from collecting plastic, cardboard, glass, etc. from the trash and then taking it to the recycling center for his every day expenses.  These guys not only handle trash and sit on top of it, they also dig through it.  I guess, one glass bottle may be what feeds their child that night or contributes to their water bill that month.  I tell myself that my liquor bottles and Coke cans make up for those poor guys having to dig through my toddler’s diapers.  One day, when I was feeling sorry for myself for missing my family and being without friends, I witnessed a few young girls digging though one of the trash receptacles in our neighborhood.  I immediately scolded myself for being so selfish as I did when I saw a young couple downtown with a little girl.  The man had a janitorial uniform on showing me he worked as one of the people who kept the downtown area clean and beautiful.  He must have met his family for dinner, and the dinner consisted of tortillas and a few pieces of lunch meat.  The man and the little girl were eating like they had not eaten all day.  The lady was not eating at all.  Something told me she was allowing her daughter to eat all she wanted, and then she would eat what was left, if any.  Since we have been here, we have had to cut back on some things and be a little more frugal about other things, but never have I had to worry if my child would go to bed hungry.  This is a feeling I hope to never be forced to experience.

While there are many things that are cheaper here when compared to prices in America, there are also some things that are more expensive.  Our ever-faithful stroller, that has logged more miles than some cars, took its last stroll a couple of weeks ago, and I went into a state of panic.  I MUST have a stroller.  My child is not the type who will walk nicely beside me nor will he hold my hand and casually walk down the sidewalk.  He takes off running wherever he goes and falls to the ground in a screaming fit if we do anything to stop him.  Not having a stroller was out of the question.  Our first stroller was a jogger with bicycle tires which is a necessity on a stroller here.  The terrain will tear up the wheels of those fifteen-dollar umbrella strollers in a matter of minutes.  We went to a store in town that can be compared to the American Dillard’s.  The stroller there that mostly resembled our old one came to about $350.  Umm…no that wasn’t going to work, and none of the other stores had strollers that would stand the test of the bumpy cobblestone streets.  Luckily, we found one to hold us over a while at the local flea market or as the locals call it, La Placita.  This market is a little different from the ones we’re used to in America.  There are not many quirky or artsy decorative wall hangings or antique pieces of furniture. Most of the things you will find here are daily essentials at cheaper prices than you will find in the big grocery stores. There are tons of booths bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and other snacks I haven’t yet figured out what they are exactly.  A lot of the booths sell clothes or shoes.  Of course, they’re mostly second-hand, but a lot of the time, if you have the energy to dig through the piles, you can find some clothes in good shape at a pretty good price.  I have purchased several pairs of high-dollar jeans for $8 that I would pay about $75 for second-hand in America. Most of the time, the seller has no idea these jeans are such a commodity because the only high-dollar (well, high-dollar to me) brand I have seen here is True Religion.  I have found that buying new clothes in department stores here is not a good idea.  The stores really never have good sales like they do in the U.S so while shopping and of course doing the gringa conversion of pesos to dollars, I have found that most, if not all of the new clothes and shoes are around the full price or sometimes more than what you would pay in America.  When I was in America I rarely paid full price for clothes because of the many sales that occurred often.  Another thing that I am forced to purchase in the U.S. while I’m there or purchase online and have them sent to us are toys for my child.  His birthday is right around Christmas so we usually have huge shipments coming in with stuff I have purchased or gifts our families send around this time.  They have the cutesy little souvenir toys at competitive prices here in San Miguel, but they often are constructed with nails or in a way that my destructive son would have obliterated in a matter of minutes.  Electronics are crazy expensive here as well.  I just happened to look at a TV yesterday while we were at the store.  It was a basic 42″ TV with no special features included, and the price was 20,000 pesos which is about $1200 USD.  When making purchases online for those things I cannot find at a low enough price here, I also have to factor in the cost of having it shipped to us, but the total usually comes to a lower cost.

Another thing that has blared its ugly head at me several times here is the lack of encouragement for young individuals to finish school.  I must provide a disclaimer: There are many highly educated people in Mexico.  I am in no way implying there are not.  The families I have been introduced to; however, do not seem to view education as an important aspect of life.  When I was growing up, there was definitely never a question whether I would finish high school, and the subject never came up where my parents would talk about my not going onto college or not pursuing some type of higher education that would hopefully aid in my success.  Here from what I’ve seen, so many families struggle to make ends meet because of the horrible wages that a young person that is enrolled in high school may be needed to help provide for the family’s well-being. This, of course, requires said young person to drop out of high school and go to work.  From my observations, I have come to the conclusion that many Mexican families depend on each other meaning that if one person does well with his or herself, it is his or her responsibility to ensure that the other members of the family are taken care of.  This not only includes his or her own spouse and children but also siblings and even further into his or her extended family like cousins or nieces and nephews.  Several people have made the comment that a lot of the family tendencies I have been introduced to while here closely resemble what America’s tendencies were about fifty or sixty years ago.

My goal in writing this piece is to show the way some people struggle in Mexico to survive.  I; however, do not wish to provide points to show how much better America is than Mexico, and I hope my writing has not implied that.  When people ask if I intend to return to America, my answer is always yes.  San Miguel de Allende is beautiful, the weather is amazing, and the people are kind, but as I’ve said before to my family and friends, if you do not already have money coming in from other sources outside of Mexico, or if you were not born into a wealthy family, building a life here can be difficult.  As in America, some people here have a “go get it” attitude while others seem like they have given up or most likely, they think there is no point in striving to make a better life for themselves because it is unachievable.  Also, from what I understand, Mexico does not offer the same amount of public assistance available to those struggling in America so actual poverty is something you see every day.  The money people make by working has to pay for food and living expenses while this is not often the case in America. One thing that this experience has taught me is that I really do not have it that bad.  Yes, I have my usual pity parties, but I always bring myself back to the point of realizing that my child is healthy, he has plenty of food to eat, he lives in a safe neighborhood, and he has a pretty good life compared to many others.  As a parent, I hold my child’s happiness and well-being higher than anything else in my life.  Observing the struggles the people I have mentioned above go through every day leads me to be thankful for what I do have to make sure my son is taken care of and happy.

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