An Interview With Miriam Ching Louie and Cathi Tactaquin


Cathi Tactaquin is a
founder and director of the Oakland-based National Network for Immigrant and
Refugee Rights, an alliance of grassroots, community, labor, and faith
organizations. Miriam Ching Louie, of the Berkeley-based Women of Color Resource
Center, is the author of Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on
the Global Factory,
published by South End Press. The WCRC networks women of
color organizers and scholar activists.

Cathi, what’s a good entry point in a discussion on immigration and racism?

One entry point is the exploration of what motivates migration today. Migration
continues to be a complex question. It’s made even more complex in this era by
the negative impacts of globalization, which are the key factors in motivating
upwards of 130 million people who are in migration around the world today. Only
a little over 1 million actually come to the U.S. But right-wing restrictionist
forces would have us think that at least 25 percent of the world’s migrants are
beating down the doors to come to the U.S. The truth is that most people are
migrating within the Global South. They are continuing to migrate for many of
the same reasons as they have historically: poverty, unemployment, civil strife,
and concern for the well-being of their families. Under globalization, many of
those conditions have worsened. It’s also under globalization that the ease of
migration is taking place. Transportation which is used to move goods across
oceans, rivers, and countries is also used in migration. That is also a
contributing factor. And it’s historic. Today we’re facing a world in which
people have been migrating for hundreds of years, and certainly to the U.S.,
where within this last century, people from Latin America and Asia who have
strong family ties here have been coming. That continues to be a motivating
factor for migration today.

LOUIE: There is a great slogan I saw on a picket sign from the antiracist
movement in England, We Are Here Because You Were There. It has to do with the
fact that people in large part come from countries where, in the U.S.’s case,
the U.S. has had a long history of military, economic, and political
intervention. That’s a place to start to understand the intersection between
race and migration. I agree with what Cathi is saying. There are some very
important new changes that are going on with globalization. Migration is really
an old process, and there has been that long link between economies in different
parts of the world. The race piece connects with both the U.S. relation to other
countries and what happens to working people in the States.

The U.S. has a
long history of colonization and occupation in the Philippines, where your
family is from, Cathi. How has that affected immigration patterns?

CT: Filipinos
have been coming to the U.S. for the last century. Since 1965, when immigration
laws were relaxed to include more diverse migration from Latin America and Asia,
immigration of Filipinos to the U.S. has accelerated. But it’s part of a broader
process of migration that is taking place from that country to the extent that
today over 10 percent of the Philippine population migrates abroad to work. In
that sense it’s the highest proportionate rate in the world. The majority of
those migrants are women, who often have to leave their families, their
children, for years at a time. Some go on the basis of temporary visas. Some
leave and become undocumented, not just in the U.S., but in the Middle East,
Europe, and other parts of Asia. It’s a pattern in which we see no relief. Many
Filipinos continue to come to the U.S. where they have relatives. It’s much more
difficult when people are going to other parts of the world where there’s not
the language familiarity and that historic connection. But they’re forced to go
there to work and frankly, to countries where, as critical as we are of civil
rights protections for immigrants in the U.S., those protections are much less.
It’s indicative of some of the tragic patterns of migration that we see today.
Miriam explores this in her book. We’re looking at a tremendous level of women
migrating under difficult circumstances and having to work under even worse
conditions and facing multiple levels of oppression.

MCL: There are
many in the women’s movement who have been noting this increasing women’s
migration over the last ten or fifteen years. In Sweatshop Warriors I
focus on three groups and a couple of different communities, Chinese, Mexican
and Korean women low-wage workers. Each case is interesting. First of all, there
are the push-and-pull factors, this relationship between that particular country
or region of the world and the U.S. There are also issues of when women become
part of what Cathi’s mentioning in the Philippines, the way that sending
governments get economic resources and raise foreign exchange. There’s a place
for women to work in this country in low-wage jobs, at the bottom of different
sweatshop industries. Then there are changes in terms of women’s struggle within
family strategies about coming. In Mexico, for example, historically it’s been
men who have migrated, but now the percentage of women is growing. Related to
globalization, a number of the women that I interviewed had actually worked in
sweatshop industries related to U.S.-based transnational corporations before
they even migrated to the States or had been involved in internal migration
streams within their own countries from rural to urban industrial areas. It’s
second-stage migration in a lot of ways when people come to the U.S. and fit
into communities that are expanding here.

Talk more
about that internal migration. Let’s say from southern states of Mexico like
Oaxaca or Chiapas up to maquilas on the border.

MCL: The
interesting thing with the maquila project that started in the mid-1960s
was that one of its purposes was supposedly to deal with unemployment problems
in Mexico with the end of the bracero program of agricultural workers.
What happened is, those male agricultural workers were not tapped in the
industry. It was principally women and teenage girls, that were
tapped. It’s a big transformation. Only more recently have men started to work
in industry in auto parts, manufacturing and like that, but women still form the
vast majority of immigrants to the maquila. A number of the women that I
interviewed had worked in border towns on the Mexico side and in some cases been
commuters to work across the border in Texas or in California and said, I’m
going to move with my family and they just made that move.

CT: Some of the
broad impact of NAFTA stimulates that kind of migration throughout Mexico. NAFTA
has allowed corn imports from the U.S. to flood the Mexican market and has
undermined Mexican corn growers. Rural areas have been devastated. Farmers are
forced to farm other kinds of crops. It’s displaced traditional families and
units who were working in the corn farm industry. That has also freed up workers
from rural areas that might go to Mexico City, not find employment there, to
head north to the maquiladoras. Again, instead of NAFTA stimulating the
economy in a way that provides employment, it’s done the opposite. In this case
it’s stimulated migration.

MCL: Some people
who organize workers on the border are talking about the “maquiladorization
of Mexico and Central America. It’s not only the border. I went on a study tour
with U.S. labor activists to Tehuacán in the Mexican state of Pueblo. They built
a huge jeans production center there. People, many of them indigenous, are
moving to that area and working under repressive and frightening conditions.
They’re producing for the top name brands in the U.S., like Guess and Levis.
That process is spreading throughout Mexico and Central America.

Kernaghan of the New York-based National Labor Committee has done a lot of work
exposing sweatshop conditions particularly in Central America. Often he hears
factory owners say, These people are poor. We’re providing them with jobs and
the opportunity to make a living and support their families.

MCL: That’s
really charitable. To have people working 14 and 16 hours a day, having young
girls take uppers so they can stay up all night, beating people at work, that’s
really despicable. But that’s the common argument that the corporations make,
that they’re providing jobs. What kind of jobs are they providing? What happens
to the workers in those jobs? During the study tour, I met many women workers
who were producing huge amounts of work and being treated essentially like
animals. You can’t be sick. You can’t be late. There’s a lot of racism towards
indigenous people within this process. I’ve done some support work for a number
of Texas workers who had worked for Levis. In 1990, Levis closed down and ran
away to Costa Rica. They paid the workers there in a day what the Mexican
American women had been making in half an hour. The corporations benefit quite a
bit from this whole situation.

The New York
Times’ multiple Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman, says those who oppose
globalization are a “Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates.”

CT: That’s a
whole rationale for globalization, that it’s going to provide economic stimulus,
employment for poor people and increase their standard of living. But
corporations are going to countries where labor standards don’t exist, where
children are working and where women are seriously abused in the workplace.
They’re also bringing a level of inequality to the economy where workers in
those factories can’t afford to buy what they produce. They also can’t afford to
buy the new goods that are flooding their countries that are also part of the
globalization package. It’s not just that corporations are going to these
countries and creating jobs. Throughout Latin America, the dollar-peso ratio has
become so exacerbated that you might be working at a factory and you can’t
afford to buy basic necessities.

MCL: Corporations
are fickle as well. When we participated as the Women of Color Resource Center
in the U.N. Conference for Women in Beijing, it was heartrending to hear the
stories of women from Hong Kong and South Korea who had been garment workers and
shoe workers. There’s a point in this country in which a lot of jobs ran away
and workers were devastated. This process continues to unfold. They went to
places like South Korea or Hong Kong. When workers in South Korea began to
organize for their rights, the corporations ran away to Indonesia and Vietnam.
Their charity is very short-term.

I did some
speaking back East in March. The part of New York I was in has been
deindustrialized. Having been born and raised in California, you get a different
sense of European ethnics on the East Coast. I was talking to a guy who was a
descendant of Irish and Italian. I’m third generation Chinese and Korean. It
struck me that this guy’s family has been in the States as long as mine has, but
I still don’t quite fit in because of the racism. My dad was born in San
Francisco Chinatown. I remember him talking about getting into scuffles all the
time with the Italians because Italians and Chinese came at the same time. So
there’s that proximity in San Francisco and in New York City in Little Italy and
Chinatown. It’s interesting what’s happened to different sets of immigrants who
get mainstreamed as white race people versus other groups that come from Asia or
Latin America. That process has not been the same. The 2000 census was
intriguing. California is now 32 percent Latino and 12 percent Asian. There was
an article in the Times about the changes in California where someone
talked about the state reverting to its original DNA, meaning California as part
of Mexico. It begins to make you think, What would the state look like if there
had not been the anti-Asian exclusion acts and the mass deportations of
Mexicans? It’s an interesting possibility, and I’m sure that’s why there’s been
all this hysteria and anti-immigrant backlash that’s been building up all these
years. There’s a very different standard and treatment of people who come from
certain parts of the world.

CT: Historical
context and recognition of earlier immigrants of European heritage who
assimilated and became integrated as one white community in the U.S. is at the
heart of some of the tensions and anxieties about the apparent lack of
integration and apparent difficulty of assimilation of the current wave of
immigrants, those that have come in the last 30 to 40 years, principally from
Asia, Latin America, Africa. 85 percent of the immigrants today would be
considered people of color. It’s part of the schizophrenia in the U.S. culture
about immigration. There’s this acknowledgment that we have a strong tradition
of immigration, yet there is a current that lies dormant most of the time which
is a distrust still of immigrants and flares up occasionally and can be
stimulated by opportunistic politicians. There is anxiety about this current
wave of immigrants. There is some denial of the racial factor. No one wants to
be called a racist, but the racial anxieties underlie the questions. Why can’t
these people learn English like we did? Why can’t they assimilate? Why are they
having a difficult time? Is this how our future is going to look in the U.S.,
where we have this dichotomy, this schism? A lot of it is an inability to
reconcile the racial factor historically in immigration and how it has changed.

One of the
organizers of this meeting reports that after posting announcements on various
listservs she received some hate-filled, vitriolic responses about the need to
close U.S. borders and end population growth. What about the endurance of white

MCL: I don’t know
exactly where to start. It’s hard to be in everybody’s country and everybody’s
business and be the world policeman and not expect the chickens to come home to
roost. They want to have cheap labor. They want to have goods from all over the
world, but not have to deal with the people and the consequences of all of that.
Part of the Bay Area situation is that the demographics have changed so much.
It’s trying to figure out what that looks like in different parts of the country
where people still think that white is what this country is about. It really
doesn’t seem to be like that to me any more. It’s what they’ve tried to keep
this country to be about, but that’s not reality. This just goes so far back in
U.S. history, back to stealing people’s land, to slavery, to contract labor. It
goes into sweatshop industries. It’s so much a part of the fiber and history of
this country.

CT: It’s also a
lot of work that we have to do in speaking as part of a progressive movement to
raise a different kind of consciousness among people. Reliance on that tradition
is reliance on nationalism, nativism, an America that when you say “American” it
means a white person and everyone else is some hyphenated American. It’s work to
raise a different kind of class consciousness, where people begin to acknowledge
and recognize that what they have in common with a person of color is much more
than they have with someone in a dominant or ruling class. There’s still a
resistance to that. It’s part of American culture to appear that you have a
different standard of living, that you’re better and superior. What begins to
challenge that is the demographic change. But the U.S. is still overwhelmingly
white. That is beginning to change in different parts of the country. We’re
getting calls from immigrants in the South and the Midwest looking for help.
They’re facing racism in the South. There’s a new racism that, interestingly, is
affecting large populations of Guatemalans, Mexican and African immigrants who
now live in Georgia and Mississippi. They’re coming into contact with the old
racism of the South. It’s also challenging the African American community,
looking at these new immigrant populations coming in. It’s putting people
through a lot of changes. Progressives who are organizing are recognizing that
if we’re going to make changes in the South, we have to take into consideration
that demographic change. A challenge to white supremacy also means organizing
not just the African American community but in these new immigrant communities
and building a new base of an antiracist movement.

MCL: That’s a lot
of what’s confronted people of color in organizing work. At one point maybe
there was the illusion that if there were more people of color there would be a
better climate for antiracism, but that’s not necessarily been the case. There’s
a rise in tensions. Some groups have been doing interesting work around these
issues. I’ve interviewed workers with the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates in
Los Angeles. They’ve taken responsibility for organizing principally Korean
waitresses, Latino men, back-of-the-house restaurant workers in the Koreatown
area. David, what you said earlier about ethnic solidarity that gets to be
stifling, that’s something the people are fighting around in this group. There
have been attacks on workers organizing, saying, Who’s a good Korean? Why are
you hooking up with these Latinos? If you’re a good Korean you don’t do that.
You don’t bring out problems in the community. This is a shame and an
embarrassment. In fact, the owners are exploiting the workers of the different
races. So it’s important to take up some of those cross-racial issues within the
community and talk about some of the economic injustice perpetrated by people of
color groups as well.

What are some
tools for combating racism?

CT: We can’t win
greater protections and rights for immigrants alone. We need to build alliances.
I don’t believe in diversity trainings. I don’t believe in having a conversation
about race. I believe in working and engaging on issues that confront and
challenge those issues and which build common ground. We’re working with the
labor movement now. We think organizing workers across the board is very
important in advancing the rights of immigrants regardless of their status,
whether they’re documented or undocumented. That’s the platform that helps to
bring about fair wages and good working conditions for all, where wedges can’t
be driven between American and foreign workers. It’s at the workplace where
we’re finding workers of different races working together. It’s a natural site
for that kind of alliance-building. We’re also challenging other movements to
work in immigrant communities and to address those issues. For example, the
environmental movement. Years ago we thought the environmental movement should
be a natural ally because internationally they’re dealing with a lot of the same
conditions that are of concern to all of us. Environmental degradation globally
is a factor in displacing populations and moving people into migration streams.

Lo and behold, in
the U.S. environmental movement, a lot of environmentalists weren’t quite ready
to take up environmental justice work in communities of color. The immigration
question became a lightning rod because population control advocates targeted
the environmental movement to argue that increased immigration was leading to
increased population in the U.S. and that is the main source of environmental
degradation. They’re wrong, but some environmentalists bought into it. I think
there’s a change taking place in the environmental movement, a resistance to
that kind of thinking, an acknowledgment that a lot of that is racially
motivated, that it misdirects what we all need to do to make our environment
safe and healthy for everyone. It’s still an important intersectional point for
us to do work. Immigrants are extremely vulnerable to environmental problems. If
they’re undocumented, even more so. They’re not going to report lead paint
poisoning. They’re going to be in a much more difficult place to fight location
of toxic waste incinerators. And this is already happening. They need to be part
and parcel of that movement. In building those intersections we challenge
questions of race. We challenge some of the vestiges, and that helps to create
positive change.

MCL: There are a
couple of examples where people have made some good progress on struggling
against racism. One particular group will start to fight for their rights and
that opens up the door for others. For example, there’s the Committee Against
Anti-Asian Violence in New York. They have an Asian Women Workers’ Project. They
started out organizing domestic workers who were South Asian and Filipina. Once
the word got out, they have been inundated with calls for help from immigrant
women from the Caribbean. Some interesting ties are getting off the ground
similarly among sweatshop workers in the garment industry. There’s a case around
Donna Karan of New York, DKNY. A Chinese worker who was in one of their
contracted shops was fired because she received a call at work that her daughter
was sick in school. The daughter told the school authorities, Don’t call Mom’s
job because the boss is really mean. They called because the girl was sick, and
the mother got fired for that. It brought out all these violations of the rights
of the workers in that factory. There was a continuous struggle around her case.
By her speaking out, a number of the other Chinese and Latino workers have come
forward and filed a joint lawsuit last year. More interestingly, immigrants from
Eastern Europe have come out to try to get support for some of the issues that
they have been facing around their labor cases. When people get in trouble and
start to stand up for their rights, they see who their friends are.

Finally, the
people of color groups are generally poor and unrecognized. All power to
Making Contact
, which is out there covering our stories. But generally our
stories are flying way below the radar screen. It’s important that we come
together and bolster each other in our work and share our limited resources. On
occasion, the people of color groups, as we build these ties, also have to fight
for accountability from white-run organizations that are part of the growing
anticorporate movement. There have been frictions and struggles around that. A
lot of times the people of color groups are completely overworked. You’re
supposed to be doing work around anticorporate, antiglobalization struggle. But
then you’re doing things within your own community. Middle-class white activists
get off being able to focus on a particular area but not have to worry about
white grassroots people in the community. I often wonder, Who’s organizing white
working-class people? Among people of color, you’d better be doing something
about what’s happening to grassroots people in the community, or what’s your
credibility to be talking if you aren’t taking responsibility for what’s going
on in the community

Talk about
getting on the media radar screen. How do you tell the story that you want told,
not the story about the oversexed immigrant women who have too many children and
flood the welfare rolls and the men who steal jobs from real Americans?

CT: We try to use
every organizing opportunity and every campaign as a media activity. It’s two
things. One is getting our story and the immigrants’ story on the radar. There
are many of them. We’ve done a lot of work, especially over the last few years,
to get that kind of visibility into not just our own community-based media but
into the broader national media. We’re doing media trainings. We’re bringing
people in who can help, not change our message, but help us to articulate our
message in a way that it can resonate more widely. That’s very important.
Utilizing friends in the media who understand what we are trying to do and are
also sensitive to how we need to communicate it from the diverse communities
that we represent. It’s also challenging what comes out in the media. We end up
doing a lot of that, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s not the best way to get our
message out. It’s hard to constantly battle the right within the media. A few
days ago we got an email from someone in the Midwest. There’s a series of ads
running in the newspapers which shows some Mexican immigrant workers and flashes
the White House phone number and alerts people to call and report suspected
undocumented Mexican workers. Apparently the newspapers were getting calls that
people didn’t like these ads. They found out that this is part of yet another
new campaign from a group called the Coalition for America’s Future Workers.
It’s run by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, the main
anti-immigrant national lobby. They have a lot of resources. They have a
sophisticated website. It’s already a response to the growing movement that we
have now that’s been growing in the last year towards legalization of
undocumented immigrants and also a movement, which we don’t entirely support,
towards creating new temporary worker programs. Bush and Fox have been talking
about a new bracero-like guest worker program. Congress approved more
visas for highly skilled, technical workers from other countries.

fine-tuning its messages as well. They regularly send out articles to a battery
of journalists who utilize their material. We inform our own constituency on how
to respond to that type of misinformation. It is incredible what can pass for

I received a call
from a Congressional aide who said, There’s a Congressperson on the floor right
now who said there are a quarter of a million pregnant undocumented Mexican
women in Los Angeles. Is that true? I said, It can only be true if he personally
was responsible. He was reporting it in Congress in order to push legislation.
We have to constantly challenge misinformation.

MCL: There are so
many different angles to deal with the media. Some of the community groups
integrate media work into their ongoing work. I worked as the media person for
the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates campaign. We had the Garment Workers Justice
Campaign against Jessica McClintock in the Bay Area. I learned a lot through
that process. I did that part-time, but it was really a full-time job to keep
track of the media and put out the word about the stories of the women and
intervene with events. When things broke out around the Thai slave workers in El
Monte in Southern California, we had to figure out what our relationship was to
that story and what support we could do in our area for sister organizations in
LA. So there’s much work that needs to be done just to integrate media. I’m
speaking more from the perspective of somebody who’s worked in community
organizations. We found out our friends that would cover us is pretty much the
alternative media. They knew the importance of the story and would continue to
cover it. With the broader mainstream media we had to figure out how to shape
the story and also get out our message. It’s gotten to the point where the media
recognize there are problems with sweatshops, but they want to shape the story
so that it’s just these poor women victims, feel sorry for them, and chop the
women off when it comes to what their feelings and points of view are about how
things can be changed.     

I’ll give you an
example of that from 60 Minutes. They approached us about the Jessica
McClintock campaign. It was on and off, on and off. Finally there was a filming
to do the program. 60 Minutes reaches 30 million viewers. Women struggled
to make the decision if they were going to go on camera with their stories. To
go on camera means that you can be blacklisted in the industry. So not only did
you lose that job, in this case the sweatshop closed down, bankrupt, workers
were stiffed out of their back wages and the manufacturers said they had no
responsibility for this, so the campaign was about manufacturer retailer
accountability. They went through this very difficult process where they
decided, We want to tell our story. We want to get this out. People are telling
us 60 Minutes is a very important institution in the U.S. and it’s going
to get our story out. What happened is, people get on camera. As soon as they
start to talk, Morley Safer’s voice comes over and says, These women don’t speak
English. What happened is, blah, blah, blah. The women are watching it when it
airs and say, OK, they showed our face now, but they didn’t let us talk. The
so-called objective reporting in that story divides equal blame among the
manufacturer, the workers and the greedy consumers that want these cheap
clothes. People told us afterwards, Any coverage is good coverage. Don’t feel
completely ripped off.     

Folks who are
active in the media from the inside know that racially, the effects of
affirmative action have made some kind of change. I could see that in the
coverage around the census. There have been journalists who have been waiting to
file stories that reflect the changes that are going on in various communities
all over the country. On the media end, if you’re in a community group, or if
you’re in a mainstream media institution or an alternative media institution,
there are battles and struggles to be had at a lot of different levels. The more
people give support to each other and cooperate, the better it will be in terms
of the coverage that comes out.

CT: I think there
is a lot more awareness about the importance of the media. We’re organizing some
media strategies for the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia that
will be held in South Africa at the end of August. It’s a great opportunity to
try to get the spotlight on the conditions of migrant workers around the world.
Typically, at these conferences, one-third of the people are from NGOs,
one-third are government delegations, and one-third are media people from all
over the world. Some are stringers from a hometown newspaper. They’re looking
for stories. We’re trying to train people to be prepared and to set things up so
that the stringer from that hometown newspaper knows that so-and-so from that
immigrant rights organization is there. We’ll get some coverage. We’re working
with some of the other migrant rights groups in other countries to create some
media opportunities so that we can ensure that there is positive and good
coverage. We have to take advantage of events to get the best coverage possible.

For more
information: Mriam Ching Louie, Women of Color Resource Center, 2288 Fulton St.
#103, Berkeley CA 94704; 510-848-9272;; Cathi Tactaquin ,
National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 310 8th St. #307, Oakland CA
94607 ; 510-465-1984 ;