Guadalupe., D.B.-- She moves the hoe with dexterity. Coquettishly, she tucks a rebellious lock of hair behind one ear, then she wipes the sweat from her face. It's Maria del Carmen Chavez Rodriguez, single mother who is working temporarily in the cotton fields of the Valle de Juarez.
Here, work is scarce, but women like Maria are not afraid to perform field work so they can take some money home where children or parents await. They also don't have any options.
"The violence left us a lot of single, widowed or abandoned women because their husbands fled," explains Raul Gonzalez, foreman of one of the ranches that produces cotton in Guadalupe municipality.
The farming communities in this area, located east of Ciudad Juarez, have been fought over by the Sinaloa and the Juarez cartels for drug and weapons smuggling. Its privileged geographical location, which includes hundreds of unguarded miles between Mexico and the United States, led to a battle for control of the corridor, and left dozens of women totally unprotected, among them mothers and wives.
Many opted for moving to Juarez, others took temporary refuge on the other side of the border because they had dual citizenship of had children born in the United States, but, little by little, they are returning to their homes where they are faced, mainly, with lack of jobs.
A report by the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) from 2011, says that Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman displaced the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes cartel in the Valle de Juarez. It was that dispute that triggered the violence, unusual for these communities who are facing, among other things, with the dismantling of their police forces, whose commanders and officers were killed by criminal groups. With a severely impacted economy, job offers are minimal and few persons are able to find good jobs. One of these is Maria.
Her boss speaks with pride about his employee. She's the best, he declares. "Women are good in all kinds of jobs, very reliable and they are not complainers," asserts the man who convinced the owner of the property to offer employment to women.
"They have families," says Raul, "and just like us, they are working to care for their children. You treat them well, you show them understanding, because they are women who have suffered a lot."
In front of him, Maria doesn't stop working. She's embarrassed to be the center of attention and while she chops the weeds with her hoe, she tries to avoid the camera.
"I just started to work on Monday," she explains, "The work is easy, I just have to clean the cotton plants." She means that she uses the hoe to "clean" the cotton by removing the grass, weeds, climbing vines, thorns, morning glory and "lechugilla" that grow close to the cotton plant. With the hoe she pulls the soil to one side without damaging the the growing plant. And, although the work looks easy, her calloused hands are evidence that it is not.
Maria says she is familiar with field work; this is not the first time she has worked in a field like this and, although the sun beats down mercilessly at the time of the interview, she likes the open air and the tranquillity that only the field can provide.
"I feel good here, free, it's much better than working in a maquila (assembly plant), but one needs a full time job because this is temporary, but it's real nice!" she says with a smile.
For one day's work, Maria will earn 120 pesos (about $9.00) which will go towards feeding her seven children and her parents. All of them depend on her pay, and it is because of them that cleaning the soil with a hoe is not heavy work.
"There are a lot of us women here who work in the fields, we're not afraid to do this work, we're familiar with it, we grew up here. Also, we don't have many employment options, and that's why we take advantage of the fact that the cotton planting season is going well," she explains.
Maria del Carmen shows more enthusiasm and says that after this work comes the cotton and pecan picking seasons, which women, men and children take advantage of to find work.
"It's normal now for this work to be done by men, women and even children and young people," she believes, "they come here to work and don't pick up bad habits, so for them, the younger ones, this is also very good."
This single mother works eight hours a day, Monday through Saturday. "We come to work at 7:00 in the morning and leave at 4:00 in the afternoon," she explains. In between, Maria and her fellow workers have a few minutes for breakfast and lunch. Sometimes they cook their own food on a metal disc that they heat with scraps of wood they themselves gather. They have time to rehydrate chat a little, joke and go back to work.
Raul Gonzalez says that the women are very competent field workers and, because they are neighbors who have known each other all their lives, a lot of them share the same tragic loss of a loved one to violence, so they provide support for each other.
"We treat each other as equals, with respect," he declares, "I would say that women don't think in a "macho" manner, that there are many jobs that only men can do, but we can learn, and we all need to make a living and we have the right to work with dignity, to raise our children, with decent employment in the fields, in a factory, wherever."
ReliefDespite the fact that recent rains caused serious damage to pavement and drainage in the city, in the farming communities the rain was seen as a great blessing.
"The drought has been affecting us a lot, but now that it has rained you can see the cotton plants are happier, more leafy, that's the benefit that rain brings us. It also brings jobs for the people because you have to clean out the weeds. For example, I hired ten workers, but I'm going to put in another ten on Monday, among them four single mothers, so they can come work here," says the ranch foreman.
After months without a single drop of rain, the farmers in the area were praying for a "good rain," which is what they got this past week. The foreman explains that cotton is irrigated with with water released from reservoirs in the United States. Very little comes from wells, he says, because it is too expensive, but rainwater is best and this will increase the quality of the crop which is still considered some of the highest quality (cotton) in the world.