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Lupe Hernandez, a five-foot tall dynamo who learned survival skills at an early age, has been working in Los Angeles garment factories for more than 15 years, since she left Mexico City at age 17. Maura Colorado left her three children in the care of relatives in El Salvador 18 years ago while she sought work in L.A. to support them. She found that the low-paid work came with a high price — wretched conditions in the factories and an “undocumented” status that deprived her of seeing her children. María Pineda came to Southern California from Mexico in hopes of a better life when she was 18, with an equally young husband. After 23 years, the substandard working conditions, a meager salary and domestic abuse have left her struggling for her children’s future and for her own human dignity.
These three women, along with other immigrant workers, came together in 2001 at L.A.’s Garment Worker Center, an advocacy group run, in many instances, by children of Asian immigrants, to take a stand for their rights. Against all odds, these seemingly defenseless workers launched a very public challenge to one of the city’s flagship clothiers, calling attention to the dark side of low-wage labor north of the border. The worker-led boycott of fashionable Forever 21 not only hearkened to an earlier era of struggle for immigrant rights, but also revealed the social fault lines of the new globalization. For Lupe, Maura and María, the long campaign to get the company to pay fair wages and accept responsibility for working conditions in the company’s own backyard became a turning point in each of the women’s move from victimization to empowerment.
Welcome to Los Angeles — a modern port of entry for immigrants, many of whom come to the United States desperately looking for work, to either send money home, bring other family members here or try to build better lives for themselves and their children. Lacking English skills and frequently lacking legal immigration status, they find temporary or seasonal work in such industries as agriculture, restaurant, construction and janitorial services. But in addition to these more recognizable jobs, many end up working in L.A.’s garment factories. In a throwback to another century, some of these factories are actually modern-day sweatshops, where garment workers — principally female and Latino or Asian — work 10- to 14-hour days, often denied eating and bathroom breaks, in poorly ventilated, locked facilities at wages well below California’s minimum. They must also contend with unpaid wages and overtime.
Even as U.S. manufacturing jobs are shipped to lower-wage countries (Mexico, China and Indonesia), poor workers still risk life and limb to come to this country. And because the chic stores are only a bus ride away, they can see the garments they sew for pennies being sold at retail prices.
Like many other low-wage industries employing immigrant workers, the multinational garment industry in Los Angeles uses a network of contractors and sub-contractors to manufacture its apparel while insulating itself from the workers’ low wages and poor working conditions. The Emmy award-winning Made in L.A. lays out a system that makes labor laws nearly impossible to enforce and keeps workers trapped between contractor and law enforcement while trendy stores and their customers are unaware of the human costs. But more, Made in L.A. is an account of the remarkable protest mounted by the Garment Worker Center’s workers and the revealing stories of three women who join the struggle.
How are poor, illegal immigrants, vulnerable to job loss and deportation, to challenge the status quo? María must support her children with little help from her alcoholic husband. Her resignation is increasingly challenged by her desperate circumstances. Maura suffers from 18 years of being unable to visit her children or to bring them safely to the United States, and must fear even more the deportation that would leave them all without an economic lifeline. Lupe wasn’t able to finish high school in Mexico before she came North; now she laments she knows “only garment work.” But she is spirited and ready for change, and quickly learns a good deal more as she helps other workers learn their rights.
Thousands of immigrant women work in garment factories in Los Angeles.
Under the aegis of the Garment Worker Center, the three women and other workers decide first to make a forthright approach to the clothing company. There is some hope that the company, with its particular dependence on the L.A. immigrant workforce and vulnerability to local publicity — not to mention its ownership by immigrants — will negotiate with the workers and their attorneys from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. When this approach is rebuffed, the workers launch a two-pronged attack, seeking to sue for unpaid wages and overtime owed by the company’s contractors while organizing protests and boycotts of the chain’s outlets. Their rallies are conducted outside stores and outside the home of Forever 21’s president, Do Won Chang.
As seen through the eyes of María, Maura and Lupe, the workers’ struggle for basic economic justice and personal dignity not only is fraught with disappointments and dangers, but also represents hope and growth. The company buys time as the lawsuit works its way through the courts. As the campaign drags on through three long years, it looks as if the company is trying to wear down the workers and, in fact, that it might be succeeding. Meetings at the Garment Worker Center become more contentious, and a number of workers drop out of the campaign. María stops coming to the center; Lupe becomes disillusioned.
Months later, the story takes a turn when the workers’ lawsuit finally moves forward. The boycott campaign is an odyssey for everyone involved, and the three women find the strength and resources to continue their struggle. Each woman is transformed by the journey. The shy María makes life-changing decisions that she never could have envisioned three years ago, and Maura, who can see her children only on a worn 1987 videotape, struggles for her rights and tries to reunite with her kids, now grown.
Lupe can hardly believe it as she gradually becomes a spokeswoman for the Garment Worker Center and is eventually hired as an organizer, traveling to such far-flung places as New York and Hong Kong. The United States has been here before, she sees when she visits New York’s Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and learns of the struggles of Jewish and other European immigrant garment workers of another era, tragically galvanized by the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. “It’s just like today!” she exclaims.
Compelling, humorous and deeply human, Made in L.A. is a story about immigration, the power of unity and the courage it takes to find one’s voice. It has won the 2008 Emmy Award for Outstanding Continous Coverage of a News Story — Long Form, the 2009 Hillman Award in Broadcast Journalism, the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film and Digital Media and other prizes.
“Like many recent immigrants, I came to this country from my native Spain thinking I’d just be here ‘for a while’,” says director Almudena Carracedo. “Like many recent immigrants, I ended up staying.”
“When we started this film, we did not anticipate that the garment workers’ campaign would take three years and that the story would take a deeper turn,” she continues. “Struggles cause people to change, and we were amazed to observe each woman’s growing sense of self-confidence and self-worth. It became clear to us that this was the story that needed to be told and that the women’s struggle mattered not just for its own sake, but because it served as a catalyst for each of them, in her own way, to stand up, to say, ‘I exist. And I have rights.'”