Pedaling to Mexico on Trash Bicycles
By Michael P. Melanson, Jr.
Walking into the Rhizome Collective, a large converted warehouse in East Austin, I saw a tall, thin man in his twenties. He had long, neat dreadlocks tied back, and thin, gold-rimmed glasses. He was leading three small girls in a bicycle slalom, weaving through a series of chairs on the warehouse floor. “Is Bikes Across Borders happening tonight?” I asked him. (SEE PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP HERE)
“This is it — we are biking across borders!” said Ignacio Cruz, the slalom leader. “Hold on, I’ll show you.” He led me into a second warehouse, where the Bikes Across Borders shop occupied a corner space. The makeshift shop where the group built bicycles to donate to Mexico every winter showed years of use. The leaning shelves were full of assorted bicycle parts, rims, tires. Bicycle frames dangled from the ceiling. Bikes in various levels of disrepair were strewn about the shop floor. Hand-drawn diagrams of headsets, brake assemblies and derailleurs covered the walls, and murals and posters called for an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
I explained to Ignacio that I would like to join their trek to Mexico, and he quickly set out to get a tape measure to find me a suitably sized frame to fix up for the ride. As an avid cyclist who had sold his car two years before, I was excited at the idea of building a bicycle and riding it down to Mexico.
Left alone to begin working on what would soon become my loyal steed for the more than 300-mile bicycle journey on back roads to the Rio Grande, I found a CD player covered in greasy fingerprints and put on a scratched copy of a Townes Van Zandt album lying next to it.
My bicycle consisted of a frame, a seat, front forks and some pedals. Some of the parts on it would need to be pulled off, cleaned and greased, but it looked like a good fit. It was in better shape than some, worse than others.
After spending several hours trying to find two rims that weren’t bent completely out of shape, I tore off a small piece of masking tape, wrote “Mike is working on this one” on it and stuck it on the slightly scratched, purple Raleigh frame.
I had taken the first step of a journey to Mexico on a bicycle built out of trash.
Bikes Across Borders
Bikes Across Borders, a project based in Austin, started in 2000 as a community bike shop. People can come in and fix their bicycles for free, work community service hours, learn how to work on bikes or even teach others. Located in East Austin, it helps provide cheap, alternative transportation to area residents. Soon after its founding, a workers’ rights organization in Mexico contacted members of the group. According to the Comite Fronterizo de Obreras, or the Border Committee of Workers, assembly plant workers along the U.S.–Mexico border spend more than 15 percent of their earnings on transportation. They saw bicycles as a way to ease that cost.
The plants, or maquiladoras, are foreign-owned; they operate in Mexico to take advantage of cheap labor and, some assert, lax anti-pollution enforcement. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the companies operating maquiladoras pay no taxes on the import of materials and pay a value-added tax on the final exported product. The maquiladora program was put in place by the Mexican government in 1965, but NAFTA has increased its scope dramatically. The trade agreement was enacted in 1994 to remove barriers to trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It has been controversial since its inception, as the removal of trade barriers caused job loss and, some worker advocates said, favored corporate endeavors over small and independent businesses. Readdressing NAFTA was a key campaign promise of President Obama’s, but he hasn’t taken action.
Bikes Across Borders and the CFO began working together early on, and in the spring of 2001, 20 members rode on what would become a yearly caravan to Mexico to bring bicycles to these maquiladora workers. It was during this first trip that the group found its name and discovered part of its purpose. When they arrived at the border with a trailer full of nearly 100 bikes, the border guards told them they would have to pay nearly $700 to bring the bikes into Mexico. Instead of paying the fee, they pulled the trailer aside and rode the bikes across the border one at a time.
Jared Wiley, one of the group’s founding members, said that after an hour or so of riding bikes across the border and talking to the border guard, they learned that the guard also had no means of transportation. The group gave him a bicycle, and he then refused to take any more fees as they crossed the border. Ever since that first trip, the group has focused on promoting bicycles and working against what they see as the negative effects of NAFTA.
Until the spring of 2009, Bikes Across Borders was housed at the Rhizome Collective, a group of converted warehouses that housed a dozen or so people and served as a hub of community activism. The warehouse also provided space for the Inside Books Project, a program that sends books to Texas prisoners; Food Not Bombs, a national organization that advocates peace by feeding the homeless and needy; KPWR, an online radio station; and other programs and events that needed a space to operate. But building code violations forced the collective to close; now Bikes Across Borders shares space with Austin’s Yellow Bike Project on East 12th Street.
Since the first ride, the group has brought more than 500 bicycles to Mexico, Cuba and Central America, often by riding some of them to the border and meeting a truck pulling a trailer full of bicycles, parts and tools. In the past, Bikes Across Borders teamed with Pastors for Peace, a national group that runs occasional caravans of supplies all the way to Cancun, where they’re shipped further east and south. For 2009, though, the group decided that they didn’t want to use motor vehicles at all and wanted to bring only what they could ride.