MEXICO CITY -- The sound of a surprising opportunity rose above the tumult of traffic. "Factory for electronic textiles offering work," came the message, shouted from a megaphone that sat in the basket of a white bicycle pedaled by Amor Muñoz, an artist in a black jumpsuit. "One hundred pesos an hour!"
Even on the streets of this busy capital, where sales pitches flow from speakers attached to anything with wheels, the offer stood out. Work? For about $7.50 an hour, a little above the American minimum wage?
The rush was on. By the time Ms. Muñoz parked in her usual spot outside a hospital in one of Mexico City's peripheral neighborhoods, a line had already formed. Women of all ages squeezed together -- one held a baby, another was nearly too old to walk -- as Ms. Muñoz opened up a white wooden box revealing thread, needles, cloth, timecards and employment contracts. The work involved creating interactive art pieces that combine the old craft of sewing with 20th-century electronics and 21st-century tags allowing smartphone users to look up who worked on a given piece.
"It's about community," Ms. Muñoz said. "I'm interested in sharing the experience of art."
If that were her only interest, it would be enough to make alpha geeks swoon; a local glossy magazine and the revered Austrian technology festival, Ars Electronica, recently honored Ms. Muñoz with their annual awards. But behind her vintage glasses and dimpled smile, Ms. Muñoz has a sharper message.
Her maquiladora, or factory, she said, is a "fantasy" meant to condemn the harsh reality of a global economy that uses and discards poor workers, especially women, to keep prices low.
In Mexico these days the project amounts to artistic subversion. At a time when the country's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is trying to recast Mexico as an economic marvel, with growth rates surpassing Brazil, Ms. Muñoz's factory is a countervailing force -- a mobile reality check highlighting Mexico's darker economic truths.
Take wages. The minimum wage in Mexico is about 60 cents an hour, and while the average pay in manufacturing has grown over the past decade, it is still only about $3.50 an hour, according to government statistics. Even according to higher estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, Mexico's hourly compensation costs are still only two-thirds of those found in Brazil, where the benefits of economic growth have helped a larger share of workers rise from poverty.
Economists recognize the problem. "We need to increase wages to become a true modern country," said Luis de la Calle, a former Mexican government official who helped negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. But as Mexico tries to improve its image and gloss over its violent drug war, government officials have mostly described Mexico's low wages in positive terms, as a way to compete with China. The market, it is generally assumed, will eventually drive up wages.
Ms. Muñoz is unwilling to wait. She described Mexican wages as an insult to human dignity, and every time her mobile factory appears, the power of work for reasonable pay goes on display. The crowds that gather are typically large. Sometimes people push and shove for two hours of work and $15, though once the day's employees are selected (first come first hired), a calm tends to follow.
Earlier this month, the team included nearly a dozen women and one young man, all that Ms. Muñoz could afford. Many, like Sara Peregrino, 50, were homemakers with sewing experience. Others, like David Quiróz, 18, a taxi dispatcher, struggled to thread a needle without drawing blood.
Nearly everyone said the money they earned would go to one of two things -- food or Christmas presents. "For women, it's very hard to find a good job," said Patricia Zamora, 33, a mother of two who arrived with Ms. Peregrino, one of her neighbors. "There is a lot of work for not much pay."
Many of the women seemed to appreciate a chance to be involved in an art project. María González, 75, smiled widely when handed a needle and adjusted her purple scarf, excited to be creating something rather than worrying about her husband in the hospital. "This," she said, sewing without looking down, "is a wonderful distraction."
Ms. Muñoz seemed to agree. She stood nearby, waiting for her favorite time of day -- when she paid the workers and took their photographs, which she would post online, linked to the artwork. It is an effort to make the workers more visible, she said, but also hints at her working-class past.
She grew up playing among the hammers and nails of the hardware store her parents owned in a marginal neighborhood like the one with her factory. She said she always appreciated manual labor and never felt comfortable in an office, even after receiving a law degree.
Textiles had once been a hobby -- she used to collect huipiles, the traditional woven tunics of Mexico and Central America -- but when she decided to become an artist in 2006, she returned to cloth and sewing. Her work now involves a mixture of textiles and technology. Many of her pieces involve sewn images with circuits that let users push buttons for sounds or displays of light.
Completed works from the mobile maquiladora project, for example, will create the whine of an ambulance siren.
Like many other young artists in the capital, she is trying to push Mexico forward by combining older traditions with the interactivity of social media and open-source software development. She dreams of finding financing for more mobile factories, and her lack of faith in government and industry is matched only by the optimism she expresses when discussing the power of networked youth.
"With technology, everything can be democratized," she said. "It's fabulous."
Still, the human interactions are what she values most, so when Ms. Peregrino suddenly appeared and presented her with a pink plastic bag after being paid, Ms. Muñoz was visibly touched. The two women hugged as Ms. Muñoz put the gift in into the bicycle basket with the megaphone. Only later did she look inside, finding a hand-sewn purple scarf that must have taken days to complete.
Correction: December 31, 2012, Monday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this story misstated an organization that gave an award to Amor Muñoz. It was Ars Electronica, not Ars Technica.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.