Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Alternate Universe


There's one world that participates in a globally connected economy. Then there's Virginia, which is making a name for itself as a hotbed of nativism.


Not long ago, I had a drink with a woman who recently moved to the Richmond as part of one of the Fortune 500 company relocations. She is a born and bred New Yorker with a sardonic and highly entertaining wit. Asked how she liked her new home, she said: “It’s like living in a parallel universe. There’s one reality here. And there’s another reality for the rest of the world.”


For a view of that separate reality consult the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the paper of record of the parallel universe. A front page story Oct. 25 touted a move among 20 counties and cities to prepare crackdowns on illegal immigrants, whether they really are here or not.


The TD quoted the sheriff of rural Northumberland County saying that there is apparently a local apartment building with fights and loud music. Hispanic men, “some of them suspected to be illegal immigrants” crowd into single bedroom units where they sleep in shifts.


The next day, the TD had another story about the new vigilante group of local governments. It quoted Culpeper County Administrator Frank Bossio admitting that he didn’t know how many illegal immigrants there were in his area, but “about 10 percent of the county’s schoolchildren are Hispanic.”


Let’s see if we can find the common equation here – Hispanic equals illegal equals bad. So, if you are a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking individual you must be here illegally living off the largesse of the great American heart. Never mind that the first European settlers in North America were Spanish, not English as the Jamestown marketeers would have you believe. The Hispanics are loud, messy, have big families and live chock-a-block in a single room.


Let’s turn now to the rest of the world and meet Diana Ramirez, a 23-year-old metallurgical engineering student from Mexico. She’s a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso and I interviewed here recently for a cover story I wrote for a national education magazine about the advantages of being bi or multi-lingual in the engineering and science fields. Being so is especially important given the increasingly global nature of world business whether Virginians like it or not or whether it may affect our cherished “Virginia values,” as House Speaker Bill Howell likes to say.


Last summer, Diana was working at an 11-week internship at a General Motors castings plant in Defiance, Ohio, that turns out parts for cars. An alert went out that a sister GM plant in Toluca Estado de Mexico was having a production problem that had afflicted the Ohio factory earlier. Company officials from Mexico they needed a Spanish speaker also fluent in engineering terms and knowledgeable about casting.


GM turned to Diana. “I was able to help,” she says. In short order, engine heads, blocks and crankshafts were being churned out again. Diana can’t give more details on the Ohio situation because they are proprietary corporate secrets.


Being bi-lingual “is very helpful,” says Diana who will graduate in December and hopes to be a U.S. citizen by then. She expects to find full-time work in Mexico. Her college town is in a particularly good location to be bilingual and engaged in cross cultural work. It is right on the border with the large Mexican city of Cuidad Juarez. For decades, workers have crossed the border daily to work on one side or the other, although post-9/11 security checks and the anti-Hispanic craze has made border checks a two-hour process.


Thanks to free-trade pacts, the El Paso-Juarez region has emerged as the third largest manufacturing center in North America after Los Angeles and Chicago. On the Mexican side, “maquiladoras” or special tax-free production zones got a big boost in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement has passed. NAFTA was a landmark bill that dumped many tariffs and boosted trade among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Many marquee-name U.S. firms, including Delphi auto parts, modem-maker Scientific Atlanta and peripheral-manufacturer Lexmark, have cross-border plants that take advantage of cheaper labor costs and low-to-nil export fees. In fact, Delphi is so drawn the region’s dynamism that it has located major technology center on the Mexican side, employing about 3,000 people. Some 30 UTEP graduates work there.


Spoken are as many as 20 languages besides Spanish, including German, Japanese, Chinese and Russian. Work starts at 5 a.m. so the Juarez specialists can be in touch with other Delphi team mates across the globe, from Asia to Europe, to the U.S., says Michael Hissam, Delphi’s regional director for communications in Mexico.


The Juarez tech center works in a “virtual” environment that uses the Internet and high speed connections to exchange information on the design of new car parts and other products. Doing so extends each team’s work day so they can accomplish more. Since opening in 1995, the Juarez center has come up with 200 U.S. patents, Hissam says.


Let’s slip back to the parallel universe, this time to my home of Chesterfield County. My local officials are part of the vigilante squad. If they have their way, business owners, including small ones like me, may soon have to verify that we don’t have any employees who are illegal immigrants.


If I were Diana Ramirez, I’d think twice about looking for a job in Chesterfield or Culpeper or Dinwiddie or one of the other vigilante hotbeds. Diana, forget the parallel universe and go for the real world.


-- October 29, 2007

















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)