THE incongruous presence of Japanese assembly plants here is like an elegant piece of sushi on top of a corn tortilla. The plants are high-tech marvels in a low-tech milieu, creating first-world products from third-world labor. But Mexican researchers are beginning to wonder just how much the confluence of cultures has benefited their country.
The Japanese plants have created about 14,000 desperately needed jobs. They pay higher wages than other maquiladoras, more than double the $3.20-per-day minimum wage. And they have helped bring professional qualities to the labor force.
But like most maquiladoras, these plants have few links to the Mexican economy - and little impact on the living standards of most Mexicans here.
Only 2.1 percent of maquiladora supplies come from Mexican companies. And because the capital-intensive Japanese firms are extremely efficient, very few dollars trickle down into the Mexican economy.
``We do have higher incomes than the rest of the country,'' says Tijuana economist Rocio Barajas. ``But we also have a modernization of poverty.''
Beyond the favorable fa,cade of Tijuana's 7 percent growth rate and population boom - now increasing at 8 percent a year - are intense shortages of housing and public services, and a rising cost of living. Says Ms. Barajas: ``The industry is growing but living standards are not.''
One Japanese plant director says they have tried to ease the burden by setting up nurseries, playgrounds, transportation, insurance policies, even savings accounts. The housing problem persists, he say, partly because the housing tax his company sends to the federal government disappears in the Mexican bureaucracy.
But some Mexicans complain that the Japanese are trying to impose a rigid, work-oriented environment on a family-oriented culture. While labor conflicts are few and productivity is high, turnover is so high that the Japanese plants replace the equivalent of their entire workforce more than once each year.