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From flamingos to factories — understanding capitalism in Mexico’s export industry


What do waterholes, Mayan pyramids, and flamingos have in common? They have all been used to attract foreign investment in maquiladoras — Mexican factories with special tax breaks. A Malmö University researcher investigates how this global industry affects factory workers’ everyday lives. 

Since the 80s, many corporations have benefited from assembling or producing their products at maquiladora factories. As a foreign investor, this means cheaper labour and a lot less tax. These factories are the focus of Claudia Fonseca Alfaro’s research, which explores their impact in the Yucatán region of Mexico. 

“As well as conducting interviews with factory workers, I looked at government brochures that promoted Yucatán as an exotic paradise and thereby an attractive destination for investors,” says Alfaro.

The results of the research are published in her thesis, The Land of the Magical Maya: Colonial Legacies, Urbanization, and the Unfolding of Global Capitalism.

Satellite photo of Yucatán. Image by NASA Earth Observatory.

The myth of magical Maya

One of Alfaro’s main research findings is that in Yucatán, a region heavily populated by the indigenous Maya population, certain prejudices and racism towards indigenous people are rife.

“This was also evident in government material, like brochures made for foreign investors. They promoted an idea which I call the myth of magical Maya — the idea that Mayan factory workers are good with their hands, for example. Or built for manual labour. There is also the stereotype that Maya are always willing to work for cheap. These racialised prejudices have existed for centuries in Mexico, and are legacies of Spanish colonisation,” she explains.

Capitalist mirages

Most of us don’t give much thought to the hours of labour or the origin of the parts that went into making, say, our smartphones. This is what Alfaro calls the “magic of capitalism”.

“I play around with the idea of magic a lot in my research. When I talk about the magic of capitalism, I don’t mean magic in a positive way. Rather, I use it as an analogy for the things that capitalism hides from us, like the human and environmental costs that go into making jeans, phones, or car parts,” she says.

Her work aims to bridge the divide between research that focuses on capitalism in abstract terms and research addressing its effects on the ground.

“Many of the items we consume come from factories like the ones I studied, so for me it’s about remembering that these products are connected to real people, even if they are beyond our range of view.”

Alfaro would like us to rethink what it means to be part of a global capitalist system that traverses national borders.

“There’s this idea that some countries don’t pollute or produce as much, but just because a factory is not polluting in Sweden doesn’t mean it’s not polluting elsewhere. Countries in the Global North need to take on more accountability, both for the impact of international corporations and the lasting effects of colonialism.”

Text: Maya Acharya

Last updated by Maya Acharya