Mexicans fear they'll pay for Trump's wall 'one way or another'

Trump's NAFTA threats are already causing pain in Mexico's trade-dependent border communities, with a low peso and unstable factory jobs.

Trump's NAFTA threats already causing pain in Mexico's trade-dependent border communities

Some of the 200,000 who work in the region's approximately 600 export factories live in the dusty Tijuana neighbourhood of Nueva Esperanza, or New Hope. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In a small neighbourhood on the unfashionable outskirts of Tijuana, three kids are having a tea party in the dust.

The tea is imaginary. And so is the food, even at lunch time, when most other kids in this city are eating a real meal.

The relatively recent arrivals who built this community and named it Nueva Esperanza — New Hope — came from parts of Mexico that are even more bleak than this.

There's not much here: a dirt road, a field strewn with garbage and discarded metal, some barbed wire, and a seemingly never-ending row of wooden shacks.

Rosalba Roblero Morales moved to Tijuana from Chiapas to find work. She built a shack for her and her three children, but now fears she may have to move again if factory work dries up because of a trade war with the U.S. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Seven months ago, 32-year-old Rosalba Morales left her home in southern Mexico to find work here in Tijuana. She ended up in Nueva Esperanza.

"The people who live here work in the factories," she says. "They depend on that to live."

Morales works a 12-hour factory night shift. On her small salary equivalent to about $150 US a month, she built a shack for her and her three sons. She even planted a tree in the middle of the bathroom-size courtyard, the centrepiece of her home.

But then, "on the other side," Morales says, Donald Trump was elected. And at the factory, Morales started hearing things: rumours that her company could be facing tougher tariffs, and might have to cut production.

"Many people say they're not going to give us any more work," she says, "or they're going to pay us less. No one knows."

Residents of New Hope say they're already losing jobs and money because of Donald Trump. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

In Tijuana, more than 200,000 people work in so-called maquilas — factories that manufacture goods for tariff-free export to the U.S. After the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in the '90s, the number of maquilas exploded; there are now more than 600 in Tijuana alone.

But Trump promised to renegotiate NAFTA, impose tariffs, and punish American firms for sending manufacturing jobs outside the country. Trump isn't even in the White House yet, but already his protectionist threats seem to have some companies spooked.

Jorge Montero says he was hoping for a job from a U.S. factory that was set to open in Tijuana. He says that since the election, that factory is now on hold — along with his future (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Jorge Montero is biking to work at a nearby factory. For five years, he's dreamt of leaving Nueva Esperanza. He was counting on a better-paying job with a U.S. company that was going to build a factory here.

"And now, it won't come, so I'm back to looking for piecemeal factory work," he says. "The three countries will suffer because for a long time there's been lots of prosperity from NAFTA. It's not just benefited us. Now, we have to wait till January or February to see if we will still have work.

We don't want to live in these wooden shacks forever. We'd like to live with more dignity.- Jorge Montero, factory worker

"We hope that the Mexican president will develop good relations with President Trump. Even though lots of people aren't happy, we hope that everything will end up OK. We don't want to live in these wooden shacks forever. We'd like to live with more dignity."

Even the few in Nueva Esperanza who don't work in the maquilas are feeling the so-called Trump effect.

Seniors like Margarita Rodriguez say they're in danger of being wiped out financially because the peso has plummeted, impacting even their small used clothing stalls. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Margarita Rodriguez, 79, is arranging clothes on a small folding table set out in the road in front of her shack. Rodriguez is her family's only breadwinner. She buys clothes from the U.S. in American dollars and sells them here for pesos. But after Trump won, the peso plummeted.

"Trump's wall," she says, "our president won't pay for it. But one way or another, Mexicans will."

Mexico's economy already is paying a price, says Pamela Starr, a professor of diplomacy at the University of South California in Los Angeles.

USC professor Pamela Starr says Mexicans needn't panic. She says a trade war with Mexico is unlikely because it would deal a huge blow to U.S. companies, too. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Foreign direct investment and domestic investment in Mexico has fallen off, and growth estimates have fallen," she says. 

But Starr says she believes Mexicans needn't give up hope. Their country is America's second-largest export market, with 14 per cent of U.S. goods heading south of the border, she says. If the U.S. damages that trade relationship, American companies will suffer too.

Given that 29 states have Mexico either as their number one or number two market, "a lot of jobs will be lost if we can no longer export to Mexico. And Mexico will certainly close their market to us if we close our market to them," Starr says.

"So I just can't imagine him going against the interests of General Motors, and Ford, and dozens of other equally important companies to the U.S. economy, and important to the Trump voters in the upper Midwest."

The community of Nueva Esperanza, or New Hope. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's the hope in Nueva Esperanza — that Trump's tough talk is just that. 

"We're going to wait and see, and hope for the best," Morales says. 

Otherwise she'll have to abandon her shack and her tree and keep moving, she says.

"I'll search for where there is work. Where they'll pay us more."


  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Rosalba Morales's salary is equivalent to about $150 US a day. In fact, it's equivalent to $150 US a month.
    Dec 08, 2016 11:45 AM ET


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.