Makina: Crafty, tough, intelligent, and on a deadly trek across the border to find her brother and bring him home.
Máquina: Spanish word meaning “machine.” Embedded in the term one finds positive and negative connotations. A machine is efficient and consistent, but also cold and inhuman.
This word association, this intentional or accidental cognate, popped into my head as Signs Preceding the End of the World reached its zenith. What emerged as the novel drew to a close, however, was an association between Makina and máquina that goes beyond the realm of characterization and basic traits.
Among the most deleterious and demonstrably denigrating features of our globalized capitalist society is the ravenous exploitation of working people in the “global south.” Through a combination of neoliberal reform instituted by groups like the IMF or The World Bank Group, and trade agreements like NAFTA, countries like Mexico are cast asunder to the economic periphery—forcing more and more people into grinding cycles of precarity and scarcity so that countries in the economic “center” can have cheap labor. The face of NAFTA in Mexico is the máquiladora, hundreds of factories sustained by the importation of tariff free goods which are then assembled by workers—laborers, it must be emphasized, who are paid starvation wages to toil in poor conditions.
Many of those that work in Mexico’s máquiladoras are young women tasked with feeding whole families while the threat of dire poverty looms.
Many of the women, and the families, who come to America do so because the máquiladora has chewed them up and spit them out, and the capitalist, imperialist power which benefits most from their exploitation south of the border offers an illusory vision of economic salvation to Mexico’s north.
Picture Makina, then, not just as a woman on a dangerous quest to find her brother, but as the embodiment of a world, a culture, and a people driven by terrible conditions into the realm of their oppressor. Makina reaches her destination by her own volition but her agency is undergirded by the invisible prodding of a wholistic system of transnational oppression—one which created her and her brother’s need to cross the border in the first place. She is both Makina, the human, and máquina, a product of the brutal world of global imperialism.
“They don’t understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn’t already made of lightning and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can’t see that for that to work they need to change color and number. But it’s already happening.” (Herrera 104).
There exists a predatory but symbiotic relationship between the United States and Mexico, one which depends upon a shocking degree of inequality and exploitation. For the U.S. to have “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s,” (Herrera 56), they need to maintain a predatory relationship with the very people they seek to make disappear. Makina’s presence may be threatening in the mind of American white supremacy for reasons racial, economic, or political, but at its root the presence of Mexico’s “Makinas” here in the “land of the free” offers a disquieting reminder of the moral disaster at the heart of our economic system. They’re displacement puts up a mirror to our monstrous features.