Leveen: Factory Girl


Leveen: Factory Girl
labor lois leveen
factory girl
Dora the Explorer and the dirty secrets of the global industrial economy
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elodeon series, is a bilingual problem solver who confidently traverses
unknown territory in every episode.
In "City of Lost Toys," a typical episode, Dora sets out to find her miss-
ing teddy bear, Osito, and other toys
her friends have lost. She's helped
along the way by her sidekick (a
monkey named Boots), her trusty
map, and a group of magical stars she
and Boots catch. The first landmark
Dora reaches on her journey is a
Mesoamerican-style pyramid where
she must complete basic counting
and arithmetic problems. She then
makes her way through a jungle,
eventually arriving at a neo-Mayan
Lost City hidden'behintl a curtain
that lifts only when Dora leads the
calling "Arribal"-the
Spanish word for "up." Once inside
the Lost City, Dora reclaims Osito and
her friends' missing toys. She and
Boots dance and sing "We Did
the jubilant song of self-
affrrmation that ends each episode.
Short, broad, brown-skinned, and
Spanish-speaking, Dora is phenotypically and culturally a mestiza (racially
mixed) revision of the Spanish conquistadors who invaded and pillaged
the Americas. Her name-a short,'=
ened form of exploradora-and her
cartographic skills tie her to the era of quistadors were.
exploration when indigenous people
Because Dora's gender and age
and their multiracial offspring were never deter her from taking on a chal-
pillaging, she's only returning toys
to their rightful owners. And if she
lenge, she might seem a far better role
model than my generation s Barbie.
Not so, according to Nicole Guidotti
captures a few estrella.s along the way,
at least they seem h"ppy to aid with
her adventure-happier, presumably,
than the natives captured by the con-
Hernindez, assistant professor of
and the Politics of Global Citizenship," she argues that the kids' show
creates a monoiithic Latino/a identity
that appeals to the dominant culture
(particularly white parents). Because
Dora is not identified as specificaliy
Mexican or Salvadoran, Puerto Rican
women's studies at the University of
Arizona. In an essay titled "Dora the
Explorer, Constructing'Latinidades'
torical and political realities-including the debates about undocumented
subject to foreign ru1e. But Dora isn't
or Peruvian, she exists outside of his-
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immigrants that have demonized Latino people in the
United States. Not only is Dora unthreatening to Anglo
audiences because she is a child, her cinnamon complexion and straight hair reflect European ancestry rather
than indigenous and African roots. Throughout her
adventures, Dora enjoys an unusual geographic mobiliry
crossing landscapes but never distinct borders, always
returning home rather than staying somewhere new. Her
animated domain is devoid of references to social class,
began production, an average ofr.5 new factories opening
every day. As a result of NAFTA, the number of Mexicans
employed in television manufacturing increased two and
labor, or a currency-based economy.
But in reality, Dora is less a global citizen than a global
factory-heavy border cities like luarez, with local authori-
commodity, a marketing dream
of multicultural
chandise that simultaneously appeals to Anglo
parents and children. Ultimately, Dora is the product of
a global television market and serves the transnational
capital interests of Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon,
and Mattel, whose subsidiary Fisher-Price makes Dora
toys that are sold worldwide. As the Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood documents, the Dora franchise has earned over $3.6 billion dollars in retail sales
since debuting in zooo.
Dora's starring role in the lucrative global television market stands in sharp contrast to the role real
Latinas have played in a more literal form of television
production, in which maquiladora trumps exploradora.
First created in the r96os, maquiladoras are foreignowned Mexican factories in which imported raw materials and components are assembled into products that are
exported for sale. Women constitute about 8o percent of
the maquiladora workforce; according ro Maquilapolis,
a documentary by Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre,
women are recruited because factory owners consider
them docile low-wage laborers.
The fi1m focuses on the maquiladoras of Tijuana, which
have produced so many electronics that the city is known
as "la Capital Mundial de la Televisi6n," or "World Capital
of the Television." Television assembly became a macluiladora industry in part because the cost of shipping finished
components made it advantageous to produce units in
close proximity to U.S. consumer markets. When NAFTA,
the North American Free Trade Agreement between the
United States, Canada, and Mexico, went into effect in
fanuary ry94, it initiated a new boom era for electronics maquiladoras. With tariffs lowered or eliminated and
new "rules of origin" requiring that certain parts be produced within the three-nation trade region, maquiladora
production became more lucrative than ever. In 1994,
Mexican President Ernest Zedillo devalued the peso, making Mexican iabor even cheaper for foreign companies
(and raising the cost of living for Mexican workers). In
one three-month period in 1996, r34 new maquiladoras
FEMrNrsr REspoNSE ro pop cuLTURE
a half times, to more than
9z,ooo workers-the majority
female, with an average age of 24.5.
As the number of maquiladoras exploded, so did health
problems among workers and their families. And an
equally sinster issue-the fact that hundreds of maquiladora workers have been abducted, raped, and murdered in
ties often unwilling to investigate such murders-has
led workers and onlookers to despair at the treatment of
female workers as literally disposable commodities.
But the women working in maquiladoras haven't proven
cluite as docile as owners once hoped. As the rate and
range of chronic illnesses have mounted, many female
workers have organized to focus government attention
on the health and environmental damage caused by the
maquiladoras-for instance, the huge releases of lead
waste and other toxins caused by electronics production.
Unforh.rnateiy, multinational owners can avoid the cost
of environmental cleanup by simply abandoning their
Mexican factories and relocating production to Asian
countries that have even less regulation or enforcement.
Since China joined the World Trade Organization in
zoor, factory production there has increased dramatically, and the country now leads the world in television
manufacturing. As in Mexico, young women dominate
the electronics factory workforce. They are paid less than
their male counterparts and routinely forced to labor in
unsafe conditions and to work unpaid overtime. The horrors of factory labor have led to the coining of a new word
in Mandarin Chinese-guolaosi-to describe the growing
phenomenon of being literally worked to death.
The animated adventures of Dora the Explorer rr,ay
seem very distant from the harsh realities of factory
labor, but the connection between the multibillion-doIlar
television franchise and imperiled workers in a global
industrial economy is both distinct and dish:rbing. Like
Osito in "City of Lost Toys," Dora herself has appeared
on the list of toys gone missing'. ln zoo7, numerous Dora
the Explorer playsets were recalled because they contained
lead paint.
In 1928, Walter Benjamin decried the effect industri-
alization had on toy production, arguing that children
are inculcated into national and class interests both
through the toys themselves and through the oflen hidden processes by which toys are produced. His criticlue
rings true today: The massive toy recalls laid bare the
relationship between children's entertainment and toxic
factories that churn out
(Continued on page 45)
factory girl
(Continuedfronx page
goods.Although U.S. consumers
have usually paid less attention to where goods are made
than to how much they cost, as the number of toys recalled
in zooT climbed to more than z5 million, unsafe imports
became the focus of scrutiny by watchdog groups, mainstream media, and the public. The specter oflead poisoning
suddenly seemed the clear result of both globalization and
of a failure by the U.S. to monitor its own borders.
From a U.S. vantage point, the problem might initiaily
seem to stem from deregulation in the face of giobalization. In the early '7os, $427 million worth of games,
toys, and sporting goods were imported into the U.S. By
r98o, imports had more than quadrupled, to $r.8 billion. By zoo5, the level topped a staggering $25 billion in
imports, with China producing 75 percent of the total toys
purchased worldwide. Even as the levels of imports have
risen, the regulation of goods sold in the United
has piummeted.
Staffing and appropriations for the Consumer product
Safety Commission today stand at about half of what they
were when Ronald Reagan took office in r98r-so low that
even some manufacturers have called for better regulation,
if only to improve their own standing with consumers. But
pressing the federal government to increase consumer
protection is only the first step. Independent American
watchdog agencies like the National Labor Committee
and China Labor Watch have long challenged unsafe and
illegal conditions in foreign factories. Yet their efforts have
received only limited attention from the media and the
public, even as anxiety about the safety ofproducts being
used by Americans has mounted.
With its emphasis on porous borders and foreign threats
to the home and homeland, the dialogue surrounding the
toy scare has pronounced parallels to anti-immigrant
debates. In her incarnation as a lead-contaminated toy,
Dora shares something with Latina factory workers after
all-albeit not with the women of the maquiladoras so
much as with the women (and men) who have been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids
on factories in the United States. And, just like unsafe
toys, undocumented immigrants have entered our homes,
,with many U.S. households relying on both foreign-born
domestic laborers and foreign-made plastic playthings as
inexpensive conveniences. The concurrent toy scare and
immigration backlash together imply that there's a T?ojan
My Liitle Pony headed your family's way, and whether it
manifests as their toy or their caretaker, your kids may not
be safe.
If it seems far-fetched to connect immigrant domestic
laborers with recalled Dorq the Explorer toys, consider a
page from Audre Lorde's now-classic critique of the rac-
ism and classism within second-wave feminism, ,,The
Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master,s House.,,
Originally delivered in ry79, "The Master's Tools,, challenged middle-class white feminists to broaden their
analysis ofgender oppression by addressing "the fact that
the women who clean your houses and tend your children
while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for
the most part, poor women and women of Color.,,
Lorde's own experience made her acutely aware of how
race and gender shape employment. In the early r95os,
she operated an X-ray machine in a Stamford, Connecti-
cut, electronics factory-the sort of factory that might be
found in China or in post-NAFTA Mexico today. The factory processed quartz crystals for radio and radar machinery crystals that were washed on-site in vats of carbon
tetrachloride. As Lorde recalled in Zarni: A New Speiling
of My Name, "Nobody mentioned that carbon tet destroys
the liver and causes cancer of the kidneys. Nobody mentioned that the X-ray machines, when used unshielded,
delivered doses of constant low radiation far in excess of
what was considered safe even in those days. Keystone
Electronics hired Black women and didn't fire them after
three weeks. V/e even got to join the union." Aside from
the plant supervisors, every worker was African-American
or Puerto Rican.
Lorde worked at the factory for a few months when she
was 18. She was 44 when she was diagnosed with cancer,
58 when she died from it. It seems an appropriate tribute
to Lorde that we remind ourselves that the master's toys are
contaminating a lot more than the master's house. They
are contaminating the health of the factory workers who are
exposed to iead and other harmfi-rl substances, as weil as the
health of workers' families. And they are contaminating cities and villages all over the globe.
It's understandable that Americans want to protect our
hds from lead and other contaminants. But if we really
want to live--and teach-multicultural, multiracial feminist
values, we can't focus only on removing suspect goods from
our own homes. We need to turn our colledive attention to
the process by which those goods are produced, the corporations that profit from their creation, and, most important, the
workers and families who suffer most from toxic exposure.
Because at the end of this missing-toy episode, it would
be nice if the refrain, "We Did It!/1Lo hicimos!" referred
to a collective effort to improve environmental and heaith
protections worldwide, rather than to our culpability as
consumers in a global economy that exacts ever-greater
tolls on workers from Tijuana to Guangdong. o
Lois Leveen is a recovering academic who lives, writes, and rants in
suMMER.os l'rssuE
bright green house in Portland, 0re. She writes a semiweekly humor blog at
No.4o bitChlas