EFEMexico City

Sixty-seven-year-old Guadalupe Conde has spent half her life sewing and the other half fighting for the labor rights of seamstresses, who died by the hundreds in the powerful 1985 Mexico City earthquake but also launched a struggle for better working conditions in its aftermath.

"We're not asking for the moon. We're simply (seeking our rights under the law); we're not asking any boss for one peso more," Conde said during a protest 30 years ago outside Mexico's Labor Secretariat in an interview with documentary filmmaker Maricarmen de Lara.

Now, three decades later, she views the sacrifices made in those days of struggle as lending some meaning to the loss of so many lives (at least 600 seamstresses died after being trapped in factories).

"They opened our eyes. We had to see all that blood to be able to defend ourselves," Conde told EFE in an interview at the headquarters of the September 19th Association of Sewers and Seamstresses, located near the San Antonio Abad metro station.

Most of the garment workshops that provided employment to thousands of people, mostly women, in the 1980s were located in that area of the Mexican capital's Colonia Obrera neighborhood, Cuauhtemoc borough.

The Sept. 19, 1985, earthquake destroyed more than 800 garment workshops, most of them clandestine facilities where thousands of women worked without any social protections. More than 40,000 seamstresses were left unemployed and had no right to severance pay.

Conde recalled some details of her former working conditions, noting that the bathroom at the factory had no mirror, toilet paper or water and only three toilets for 70 people and that the seamstresses worked 10-hour shifts and were only given a half-hour break to eat.

Many seamstresses died during the earthquake because the bosses had locked the doors as a theft-prevention measure and they were unable to escape. Many buildings that housed workshops collapsed because they could not support the weight of the sewing machines and, particularly, the enormous rolls of fabric.

"It was a lot of weight for the buildings," said Conde, who at that time worked at a garment factory on Fray Servando street whose first floor caved in. Her life was spared because her shift started at 8:00 a.m. and the earthquake struck at 7:19 a.m.

In the aftermath of the quake, many seamstresses observed the callousness of their bosses, who took away rolls of garment and the sewing machines before they removed women's bodies or even tried to rescue survivors.

"The survivors were inside shouting that they wanted water, and the bosses were removing fabric. I didn't hear that (she was told by others), but I did see dead bodies being taken out without a scratch, as many as 10 or 11 days later," Conde said.

Dozens of women "died of thirst and hunger and because they lacked (air) to breathe ... they called them the 'suffocated,'" she said.

Seeing that their employers were removing the sewing machinery - the only assets that could guarantee them some form of compensation - the workers set up a protest camp and did not leave the area for several months.

They formed two labor organizations - the Union of Seamstresses in Struggle and the Coordinator of Seamstresses of the Center - to prevent the factory owners from carrying away the machines and resist attempts by the authorities to remove them.

They marched to the Los Pinos presidential palace, where they were received by then-President Miguel de la Madrid, and managed to achieve many of their objectives.

Concepcion Guerrero, a 68-year-old seamstress, told EFE that the workers received what they were owed by their employer, but only because he was pressured into doing so by the protests.

The union of Mexican sewing machine operators - led by Evangelina Corona, who later became a federal lawmaker in the 1990s - was born out of this labor struggle.

Guerrero also sat on that union's committee, a position that marked the end of her work as a seamstress because "all of us who were on the union committee" appeared in the newspapers and "when I got to work they told me I couldn't come in," she recalled.

Today in the San Antonio Abad area, a bank is located on the site of a former 12-story sewing factory that collapsed due to the quake. The erstwhile Topeka workshop, where the largest number of seamstresses perished, is now a vacant lot.

But some of the former factories are still in operation and feature working conditions that are still far below the level her union has been fighting for over the past three decades, Conde said.